Bayern revitalized under Heynckes
Bayern is almost unrecognizable from a disastrous 2010/11 season
Veteran coach Jupp Heynckes has provided a more balanced defensive philosophy
New defenders such as Jerome Boateng and Rafinha have been impressive
Bayern Munich's 2-0 win over Manchester City in the Champions League wasn't quite as comfortable as the result suggested. Talk of "the invincibles" or of the team being an Bavarian answer to Barcelona is clearly premature. However, the quality of the performance against a top Premier League side did show that a run of 10 wins without conceding a goal (in all competitions) wasn't merely a result of a particularly kind fixture list. Bayern, as a team, is functioning better than almost any European heavyweight at the moment -- the turnaround from last season has been truly spectacular. Seven reasons explain the radical improvement:
If there was any more proof needed that managers can make an enormous difference, then this is surely it. In 20010/11, Louis van Gaal's Bayern was so committed to attack that "the defense collapsed" (in the words of Philipp Lahm) on a regular basis. There were huge gaps between midfield and the back four in particular, since all the emphasis was put on having the maximum amount of attacking options in the opposing half. Jupp Heynckes didn't change the basic 4-2-3-1 setup but spent most of preseason minimizing the space between the three sections of a team. "Compactness" is the watchword, and it translates into opponents having far less time on the ball to play vertical passes through or over the relatively high line. The knock-on effect is a better protection of the back four, who are forced into far fewer one-versus-one situations. It's worth noting that even the best center backs in the world only win about 70 percent of direct challenges, so the key to their well-being is always to avoid these situations altogether.
There is no doubt that Heynckes' changes have worked out. One stat is particularly telling in that respect: new goalkeeper Manuel Neuer has yet to make a point-blank save in the league.
The 66-year-old coach has also introduced finely-dosed passages of pressing that interrupt opponents' rhythm and win back possession quickly. Bayern, as a consequence, appears more aggressive and proactive; it no longer runs the risk of switching off as much as it did when the whole game was dependent on having the ball.
Offensively, the attacking midfielders benefit from the end of Van Gaal's strict "Positionsfußball" (positional football) doctrine: they are no longer forced to slavishly keep their positions. Whereas that rigidity made it relatively easy for other teams to negate the impact of key players -- they would double up on Arjen Robben, for example -- Thomas Müller, Franck Ribéry and Toni Kroos are now at liberty to start and finish attacking moves anywhere in the opposing half. Having refound a strong sense of order at the back, the team can now afford a degree of (creative) chaos going forward.
Former Bayern coach Ottmar Hitzfeld once compared his team to a Ferrari race car. "It's a finely tuned machine that needs every single part working perfectly," he said. Hitzfeld used to spend a considerable amount of energy and time to keep everyone happy. He made sure fringe players felt important and devised complex strategies to nurture psychological togetherness. Heynckes is slightly more authoritarian but experienced enough to value a contented dressing room. Unlike Van Gaal, who very rarely changed his first XI, the Bayern manager has been careful to rotate his lineup in order to keep squad players like Anatoliy Tymoshuk, Daniel van Buyten or Nils Petersen on board. The result is a much more harmonious team. Heynckes now needs to negotiate the reintroduction of the self-centered Robben into a winning side. But that doesn't look like too arduous a task in the light of his exemplary handling of the players so far.
The wisdom of spending approximately €17 million ($22.8M) on a center back with little experience in that position wasn't immediately apparent before the season but both the board and Heynckes, internally one of the biggest supporters of that move, have been vindicated. Boateng has brought calmness and physical presence to the role; his partner Holger Badstuber has clearly benefitted from his assurance, too. Apart from the odd rash tackle and a costly misunderstanding that led to only goal Bayern has conceded this season -- Igor de Camargo's winner for Gladbach in the opening Bundesliga game -- the Germany international has hardly put a foot wrong. It's been a long time since a new central defender has managed to slot into the side this comfortably. Plenty of costly, high-profile additions in recent years certainly didn't.
The return of captain Lahm to the left-back position enabled Bayern to find a solution for another long-term problem: it has been missing a second top-class fullback since Willy Sagnol retired in February 2009. Heynckes first-choice would have been his former protégé Arturo Vidal, but the Chilean moved from Leverkusen to Juventus instead, where he continues playing in a midfield role. Rafinha, 26, was in truth only the third or fourth option. There were some serious doubts about the former Schalke player's quality -- and about his professionalism, too. The Brazilian right back, however, has been excellent since his €6M ($8M) move from Genoa. Rafinha has brought plenty of defensive know-how and attacking flair to bear on the pitch. His crossing can still improve but the understanding with Müller, who's been deputizing on the right in Robben's absence, looks very promising. Rafinha has exceeded expectations already.
Standing ovations greeted Franck Ribéry's departure five minuted from time on Tuesday night. The day after, local papers were hailing the Frenchman as "the best player on the pitch" against City and wondered if they had seen the best-ever Ribéry in a Bayern shirt. Truth be told, the 28-year-old winger is still short of his stellar 2007/08 form, when he really was within touching distance of fellow attacking midfielders/wingers Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. He's nevertheless experiencing a purple patch. Physically and mentally, Ribéry has not looked this good since the ankle injury he sustained in the 2008 Euros. Both his joie de vivre and his pace seem to have come back; "I haven't felt this good in a long time," he admitted. It's a testament to his huge impact that Robben's enforced absence has hardly mattered this season -- unlike the year before, when the Dutchman was sorely missed in the first half of the campaign. With his private problems seemingly behind him, Ribéry can concentrate on his anarchic qualities on the pitch. The change of manager has also worked in his favor: relations with Van Gaal were strained, to say the very least. Under Heynckes' more sensitive leadership, however, Ribéry has even started tracking back to help out in his own half. "I don't like doing it but I know that I have to," he laughed in front of the Munich press corps on Thursday.
The 27-year-old was probably the one player most gravely affected by Bayern's car-crash 2010/11 season, as a bout of post-World Cup fatigue was exacerbated by Van Gaal's insistence to play him out of position, behind sole striker Mario Gomez. Schweinsteiger looked a shadow of his former self last year but against City, he showed that he's once again the heart and soul of Bayern's team, shining in his preferred central berth. "He's in a league with Xavi, [Andres] Iniesta and [Sergio] Busquets," said Heynckes after Tuesday's impressive showing, when the midfielder had intelligently covered every inch of the pitch and according to Süddeutsche Zeitung "introduced structure into Bayern's game." Schweinsteiger is approaching his World Cup form. If he can keep it up, a big season for both Bayern and Germany is on the cards.
The Dutchman might have had some unpleasant personality traits and a disregard for defensive needs. But it would be uncharitable to ignore some positive influences that continue being felt today. Just as a whole generation of Bayern players (Mehmet Scholl, Markus Babbel, Didi Hamann, Christian Ziege) benefitted from the obsessive tactical approach of Giovanni Trapattoni long after the Italian's departure, the current crop are able to utilize some important lessons from the recent past. The value of precise passing and possession, drilled into the players in countless exercises under Van Gaal, became especially apparent in the second half against City for example, when Bayern simply kept the ball in imperious fashion to unnerve their opponents. Heynckes, in principle, favors a riskier, faster approach going forward but even he will have cherished the confidence of Bayern's passing. Without the technical expertise that Van Gaal has left behind, Heynckes wouldn't have been able to devote most of his time to strengthening the back.