Over two months since a home win. Nine points off the lead in the Bundesliga. A two-goal advantage thrown away in a blur of chaos and error-strewn defending. While we may not be reaching peak FC Hollywood state quite yet, this was just one more painfully slapstick display from FC Bayern München.
After six years of unparalleled success, it is slowly starting to feel like the early 1990s in Munich. Still missing their mojo and stripped of their super powers, Niko Kovač’s side are looking very ordinary indeed.
Small tweaks, a blistering start
After a week out for the final international break of the year, it was the perfect opportunity for the FC Bayern coach to press the reset button. The previous match against Borussia Dortmund had seen an uptick in commitment, but for no reward; more of the same against relegation-threatened Fortuna Düsseldorf was sure to guarantee a much-needed three points.
Winless at home in the Bundesliga since the middle of September, it was the right moment for the Bavarians to get the motor running again and give us all something to cheer about.
Kovač would make just two changes to eleven that had started against Dortmund. Niklas Süle came in for Mats Hummels in the centre of the defence, while the withdrawal of Serge Gnabry gave Renato Sanches a start. With the additional midfielder, there was a less expansive look about the team.
Before the match, there was a little presentation. Having both reached the 100-cap mark for their national teams last week, Thomas Müller and Robert Lewandowski were given a warm reception from the crowd. Then it was time for the serious stuff.
The visitors started brightly and fashioned a couple of shots on goal, but it was not long before Bayern started to put the squeeze on. The payoff came after 17 minutes. Just days after his first international goal for Germany, Niklas Süle took advantage of a poor clearance from Dodi Lukébakio to give the home side the lead with a smart left-footed finish.
It took just three minutes for Bayern to double the their advantage. A lovely long pass from Jérôme Boateng set up Thomas Müller, who collected the ball brilliantly before nudging it past former Red Michael Rensing with typically Mülleresque awkwardness.
— FC Bayern English (@FCBayernEN) November 24, 2018
At that point, it looked like the old Bayern were back.
Slack play, and a soft goal
With their opponents reeling, the home fans were expecting the floodgates to open. So many times, we have seen Bayern put switch on the afterburners and roll out with a five goals or more as this sort of opposition. Only last month, Friedhelm Funkel’s side had been thrashed 7:1 by Eintracht Frankfurt. Surely, this was going to turn into a feast of finishing and a glut of goals.
On 34 minutes, Robert Lewandowski had a great chance to score his first goal against the Flingeraner, but fluffed his lines. With the target at his mercy, the Polish striker met Leon Goretzka’s well-placed cross, but scuffed his shot wide.
Rather than keep pressing for the third goal, Kovač’s men started to wind things down a bit. It was if they wanted to spare themselves for a second half onslaught. Not that long ago, a team like Fortuna would have been content to play along, happy to make it to the break just two down. Not this time.
Sensing the slackness in Bayern’s play, the visitors upped the ante. A minute before the break, they were rewarded. Or rather, gifted. Matthias Zimmermann’s pass to Jean Zimmer had a whiff of offside about it, and caught Jérôme Boateng completely off guard. Zimmer’s attempted overhead kick bounced off the Bayern defender, who did his best impression of Stan Laurel before the ball arrived at the feet of Lukébakio. Süle was just as much to blame, allowing the striker to get in front of him. Manuel Neuer had no chance as Belgian gleefully slammed the ball into the net.
When the teams walked off the pitch for half time, Bayern should have been away and clear. Instead, things were back in the balance after yet another cheap, soft goal.
Magical Müller, Bayern start to wobble
The Munich side were quickly into their stride in the second half. They continued to pass the ball around nicely, and just before the hour they looked to have put things beyond all doubt.
It was a wonderful team goal. After some classic sweeper-keeper action from Neuer, the ball was moved up and across the pitch with genuine purpose. A lovely diagonal ball from Goretzka found Joshua Kimmich out on the right, whose pass inside was collected by Lewandowski.
Lewy did well to hold off his marker, before providing a cute back-heel into the path of Müller. Seemingly back to his best, der Reumdeuter never looked like missing as he calmly side-footed the ball past Rensing and into the bottom left-hand corner from the edge of the box.
At other end, however, there were increasingly worrying signs. Niko Gießelmann almost made a fool out of Kimmich, and the Bavarian defence were again at sixes and sevens when Oliver Fink was given far too much time and space before sending a diving header just wide of the target.
Funkel’s side should have been out of the contest, but somehow they were still smelling Bavarian blood. With the Bayern defence looking increasingly wobbly, the visitors continued to send the ball into the box. There was another let-off after 68 minutes, when centre-back Robin Bormuth muscled ahead of a static red back line, but was narrowly short of meeting a smartly-delivered free-kick from Kevin Stöger.
After 74 minutes, the T-Com jingle sounded, followed by a cheer from the home crowd. Mainz had equalised against Dortmund, meaning that as things stood Bayern were looking good to close the gap with the league leaders.
It just took just three minutes for that enthusiasm to be dampened. Lewandowski was dispossessed just outside the Düsseldorf penalty area. He remained on the ground, his protests waved away by the referee. Then, Javi Martínez ended up on his backside after missing a challenge as the visitors worked the ball up the pitch. Süle and Boateng were then both caught flat-footed by Lukébakio, who charged towards the Bayern goal before beating Neuer at his near post.
It would take a second look from the video assistant to confirm the goal, but there was little doubt about it. Truth be told, it was not even close. Through yet another comedy of errors, Düsseldorf were right back in the contest again.
On another day, the ref could have given Bayern a free-kick for the foul on Lewandowski, but there could be no excuse whatsoever for the slack play that had followed. It was pretty typical of what we have been seeing this season, the sort of stuff that no coach can correct.
As the clock ticked towards the finish, there were further chances for Lewandowski. The first was tough, finishing in his screwing a shot wide past the far post. The second, again not the easiest, was a header that ballooned over the bar. The third chance, however, was one that the Pole would have expected to gobble up. When Rensing could only parry a Goretzka effort, Lewandowski spooned the ball over the top and into the crowd.
Careless, comical, catastrophic
It was if the fates had already decided what was going to happen next. With one of the three additional minutes remaining, Kovač subbed off Müller, replacing him with a third centre-back in Hummels. It was a change that should not have made any real difference to the outcome, but it was a major white flag moment. Rather than see out the remaining couple of minutes, the coach sought to protect the lead.
A defensive change, deep in additional time. Not against Real Madrid, Barcelona or Manchester City, but Fortuna Düsseldorf. The mighty Fortuna Düsseldorf.
Seeing the white flag, the visitors were more than ready to swing a final punch before the bell. Bayern had won a free-kick in the opposition half, and all seemed well. Then, with his first touch, Hummels put fellow sub Arjen Robben in trouble. If Hummels had been sent on to shore up the defence, what was he even doing so far up the field? Swamped by white shirts, the Dutchman lost the ball, which found its way to Düsseldorf sub Rouwen Hennings.
Again, it was a complete defensive dogs’s dinner. Hennings thumped a hit-and-hope ball forward into space, and both Boateng and Süle were caught cold by the electric Lukébakio. Boateng’s little leap was almost comical, and the lumbering giant Süle simply lacked the pace to keep up with the Belgian, who slid the ball through Neuer’s legs to complete a stunning hat-trick.
— OptaFranz (@OptaFranz) November 24, 2018
All around the ground, you could hear the sound of jaws dropping and eyes rolling. Meanwhile, Dortmund had retaken the lead in Mainz. It was careless, comical and catastrophic.
Nobody had expected such a comeback, especially from a side that scored just two goals in their previous five away matches. But the score was right there on the board for all to see.
FC Bayern München 3, Fortuna Düsseldorf 3.
The aftermath had a ring of familiarity about it. There was more criticism of the coach, who in turn felt aggrieved at his team’s defensive display. The bitter truth was that no coach could have changed anything. Uli Hoeneß also piped up, describing the team’s defending as “slapstick”.
There was support from the club president for the beleaguered coach, but one sensed there were was an unmentioned caveat.
The introduction of Hummels was bizarre, and smacked of excess caution. But Niko Kovač could not in any rational sense be blamed for the defensive meltdown. Even a committee of the world’s best ever coaches could not have prevented the harebrained errors that allowed Düsseldorf to giggle their way out of Munich with a point.
One can sense now that if things do not go Kovač’s way in the upcoming Champions League match against Benfica, we could be back where we were this time last season. Without a clue, and without a coach.
Good old-fashioned humility
To sack one coach before the Winterpause was bad enough. To make it two sackings in two years would be the perfect trigger for those who are revelling in Bayern’s troubles right now.
Niko Kovač has been left to fend for himself with a depleted squad, with players dropping like flies. He cannot be held responsible for this, and cannot be made to foot the blame for boneheaded defending. This is not to say that there may be coaching issues, but this is how an inexperienced coach becomes an experienced one.
As a Bayern supporter who cares about the club, I am continuing to back Niko. It is hard, but it is perhaps time to realise that this squad has reached the end of its shelf life. Three Bundesliga titles in three seasons was a big deal. Six in six is beyond superlative, and may never be matched again. I truly believe that some Bayern fans need to take a spoonful of good old-fashioned humility. Especially those who have become accustomed to taking everything for granted.
Back in the 1990s Bayern were being trounced by Freiburg and overturned by SG Wattenscheid 09. “Who are they?”, I hear some plastic millennial fans ask. Well, you have Google. Go and look them up.
So long as the club, the players and the fans stick together, we can see through this. Before long, a number of the currently sidelined players will be back. Highly-rated Canadian Alphonso Davies will also be available. The January transfer window is just around the corner. We just have to remain patient.
If the coach is allowed to do things his way and he has the support of the players and the fans, the team can and will extricate itself from this sticky situation. It may not bring us a seventh title on the bounce, but it will make the team competitive again.
FC Bayern München – Fortuna Düsseldorf 3:3 (2:1)
Süle 17., Müller 20., 58. / Lukébakio 44., 77., 90.+2.
FC Bayern: Neuer (c) – Kimmich, Süle, Boateng, Alaba – Martínez – Renato Sanches (80. Rafinha), Goretzka – Müller (90.+2. Hummels), Ribéry (70. Robben) – Lewandowski
Düsseldorf: Rensing – Zimmermann, Bormuth, Kaminski, Gießelmann – Zimmer, Fink (c) (76. Karaman), Bodzek (85. Hennings für Bodzek), Stöger, Usami (70. Raman) – Lukébakio
Referee: Sven Jablonski (Bremen)
Yellow Cards: – / Fink 69.
Red Cards: – / –
Shots: 17 / 9
Passes: 882 / 238
Completed Passes: 790 / 159
Pass Success: 90% / 67%
Possession: 78% / 22%
Fouls: 5 / 7
Offsides: 2 / 1
Corners: 9 / 2