Underwhelming, lucky Bayern avoid a scouring by youthful Ajax

The plan was to take Ajax to the cleaners, but instead it was Bayern that would come close to getting a thorough scouring. After an encouraging start, Niko Kovač’s men slipped into a stupor. Ajax claimed a surprise but well-deserved point, putting the Bayern coach under massive scrutiny.

When FC Augsburg scored their late equaliser at the Allianz a week ago, we all saw it as a nudge. A gentle wake-up call. When Hertha Berlin eased to a 2:0 over Die Roten to hand coach Niko Kovač his first defeat as coach, that wake up call was replaced by the low throb of distant alarm bells.

Journalistic Ouija boards

After last night’s sloppy show against Ajax, some commentators and fans have already switched to crisis mode.

The yellow press are having a field day, spreading all sorts of gossip about discontented players and Kovač’s policy of squad rotation. The ghosts of FC Hollywood are being disturbed, conjured by scribblers playing with journalistic Ouija boards.

Bayern were poor. Very poor. But it is not the time to start looking for Jupp Heynckes’ telephone number. Bayern have not won a game in three. Two draws, and the one defeat in Berlin. For some, a situation that requires the sacking of the coach, the tarring and feathering of Franck Ribéry, and awarding Thomas Müller with the dunce’s cap.

Sit back. Relax. Take a long, deep breath. It was awful to watch. It could have been a lot worse. But it was not a disaster, a catastrophe, or a tragedy.

False dawn

Bayern started with a strong starting eleven. For many, the strongest starting eleven at the coach’s disposal right now. There were three changes from the Berlin game. Mats Hummels was back in for Niklas Süle, James Rodríguez made way for Thomas Müller, and Javi Martínez replaced Renato Sanches.

One could argue that the lineup was conservative. That the coach was being ultra cautious. Perhaps. Even so, it was a team that should have been expected to beat an opponent like Ajax.

When the home side took the lead after just four minutes, it was so easy to forget last Friday’s no-show in Berlin. The Südkurve were jumping again. The team were all in red, too. No blue shorts. Bonus.

The opening quarter of an hour was electric. Arjen Robben looked in the mood, and warmed Ajax ‘keeper André Onana’s gloves after just three minutes with a left-foot special. A minute later, the bald Dutch master teed up Mats Hummels for a brutally efficient opening goal.

This was the Bayern we all wanted to see. We all looked at the script. Bayern score an early goal, and proceed to overrun an inexperienced Ajax team. They find their misplaced mojo, hammer in a couple or more goals, and send the Dutch side packing back to Amsterdam.

It was a false dawn.

Tearing up the script

With an average age in the low twenties and a skipper who is barely nineteen, not much was expected from Ajax. But what they lacked in experience they made up with a heady mix of vim and invention. Rather than roll over, the Dutch side swung back hard.

After 22 minutes, completely against the run of play, the Bayern defence was cracked open. Dušan Tadić provided the buildup, and Moroccan Under-20 left-back Noussair Mazraoui danced into the box. His left-footed shot fizzed low into the bottom left-hand corner, leaving Manuel Neuer with no chance.

After that, it was if we were watching two different teams. While Ajax were running about like march hares, the Bavarians were sluggish, error-prone and bereft of ideas.

Erik ten Hag’s team were the perfect definition of a team punching above their weight. In simple terms, there was no respect for experience, status or reputation. Bayern, meanwhile, were simply going through the motions, struggling to shift out of first gear.

There were occasional half-chances, but it was the visitors that came closest to scoring as half-time approached. A minute before the break, Neuer had to be on his guard to keep out Hakim Ziyech’s powerful shot.

Lucky, lucky Bayern

The home fans would have been hoping for something more positive in the second, but the sorry truth was that there was only one team in it. While Die Roten continued their slow slide into the mire of flaccid, turgid, sloppy ordinariness, their opponents had plenty of opportunities to deliver the crucial knockout punch.

Tadić had two excellent chances to put his team in front, and one could even be described as gilt-edged. Nicolas Tagliafico went close, and Donny van de Beek was guilty of panicking when he had the goal at his mercy. On another evening, Bayern would have knocked out cold inside 75 minutes.

The Bavarians did come close when James, on for the disappointing Thomas Müller, forced Onana in to a fantastic reflex save. But that was about it.

It was left to Neuer to save Bayern’s bacon in injury time. Dane Lasse Schøne’s free-kick was fired like a rocket, and Neuer did brilliantly to turn it against the crossbar.

Had Ajax scored, they would have deserved to take all three points. In the end, Kovač’s men can consider themselves incredibly lucky to have escaped with a draw. If just to rub our noses in it, Hummels was withdrawn right at the end of the match with suspected concussion.

Kovač under the microscope

When Bayern lose a game, the chatter starts. Now that the team has gone three games without a win, Niko Kovač is firmly under the microscope. His selections have been analysed and scrutinised, his tactics have been called into question, and there already rumblings on social media that he is simply not up to the job.

The coach has been backed by the Bayern hierarchy. Even so, president Uli Hoeneß has suggested that Kovač is “putting his neck on the line” with his continued rotation of the squad.

It is really a matter of what one chooses to believe, but there has also been unrest among the players. Images were quickly circulated of James Rodríguez making his way out of the stadium. According to a recent article in Sport Bild, Mats Hummels has expressed annoyance at not getting suitable playing time.

Others, including Niklas Süle, Serge Gnabry and Sandro Wagner, have been tagged as “critics”.

The best eleven

Players will be unhappy. This is a given in this game. Bayern have three quality centre-backs, all current German internationals. The coach cannot field all three of them. One will always be on the bench. Who that is, of course, is part of the ongoing discussion.

Long-term injuries to Kingsley Coman and Corentin Tolisso have proved to be a major blow. With others also at risk of injury through overwork, rotating the squad makes complete sense. When Bayern were winning, nobody was questioning Kovač’s personnel management. However, as soon as things start going a little awry, it is suddenly all the Croatian’s fault.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between, and calls for a measured response. Uli Hoeneß is right. Everybody, from the players through to the supporters, need to give Kovač the time and space he needs to get things right. By the same token, the coach would be better served by building a stable core, and keeping the rotation to an essential minimum.

The coach’s dilemma

Naturally, fans will take sides based on how their favourite players are benefiting – or suffering – from the coach’s rotation. Fans of Niklas Süle will point to the poor form of Jérôme Boateng. Others will choose to look at Hummels’ lack of pace. Then there are those who will argue that the two more experienced men will always be the best pairing.

In the defensive midfield, there are similar arguments. On the one hand, Javi Martínez is solid and dependable. On the other, he is injury-prone and ponderous. Leon Goretzka is young, but is also injury-prone. Renato Sanches is dynamic, but is prone to errors. For some, Thiago is a talent that is still yet untapped. For others, he is overrated.

Supporters of Thomas Müller will argue that the player needs time to continue his return to form. Others will say that der Raumdeuter’s decline is terminal, and that James should not be spending so much time on the bench. Then there are those who believe that both players actually complement each other, contributing to the team’s creativity in their own very different ways.

Have Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben seen better days? Should Serge Gnabry be starting ahead of the veteran Frenchman? Should Sandro Wagner be getting more game time? Everybody will have an opinion.

I am merely scratching the surface here, and it is pretty clear that the coach has his work cut out. But right now at least, we are nowhere near any sort of crisis. No matter how much the yellow press want us to believe that FC Hollywood is back.

Statistical Summary

FC Bayern München – FC Ajax 1:1 (1:1)
Robben 4. / Mazraoui 22.

FC Bayern: Neuer (c) – Kimmich, Boateng, Hummels (90.+3. Süle), Alaba – Martínez – Müller, Thiago – Robben (62. James), Ribéry (74. Gnabry) – Lewandowski

Ajax: Onana – Mazraoui, de Ligt (c), Wöber, Tagliafico – Schøne, Blind – Ziyech, van de Beek (75. de Wit), Neres (85. Dolberg) – Tadić

Referee: Pavel Královec (Czech Republic)
Attendance: 70,000

Yellow Cards: Martínez 40., James 79., Gnabry 88. / van de Beek 21., Blind 51.
Red Cards: – / –

Shots: 15 / 15
Passes: 541 / 378
Completed Passes: 450 / 295
Pass Success: 83% / 78%
Possession: 60% / 40%
Fouls: 12 / 17
Offsides: 1 / 2
Corners: 9 / 2