Bayern Munich’s hegemony may be ending, not with fight and fury, but farce. A clumsily organized side playing football vastly below their collective levels were given the sort of robust treatment that Bayer Leverkusen have meted out on all comers this season, a 3-0 hammering that reflected the dominance of the unbeaten league leaders. Xabi Alonso’s men blew away any talk of Neverkusen in style.
The gap is not yet unbridgeable for the 33-time champions. The finish line might bring jitters from Leverkusen, a team that seem to appreciate the scale of their possible achievement in a way Bayern don’t. Perhaps the holders didn’t believe another title was in doubt when they travelled to the BayArena in the knowledge that a win would give the Bundesliga table a familiar look. Now they must surely know there is no room for slip ups as they look to cut the five point lead of a side who have dropped just eight all season.
It was no great surprise that Thomas Tuchel, a man who relishes the tactical battle of these elite contests as much as anyone, rejigged his side to nullify the threats he expected to see from his hosts, against whom he matched up in a 3-4-2-1. He just failed to estimate where the problems would come. Sacha Boey’s first start since joining from Galatasaray would have offered Bayern the legs at left wing back to keep pace with Jeremie Frimpong. Unfortunately for the Rekordmeister, Frimpong was consigned to the bench and Leverkusen were more than happy to challenge the new guy to progress the ball on his wrong flank.
Please check the opt-in box to acknowledge that you would like to subscribe.
Thanks for signing up!
Keep an eye on your inbox.
There was an error processing your subscription.
Promising though Alexander Pavolvic is, he is hardly blessed with years of experience dictating the biggest contests like Joshua Kimmich, declared fit by his manager on Friday after a shoulder injury. Without his No.6 and with their best ball-playing center back Matthijs De Ligt confined to the bench for Eric Dier, Bayern had scarcely a handful of line-breaking players.
More even than personnel, the reshuffled system offered nothing to Bayern but meandering possession. It was as if Xabi Alonso, scarcely more than a year into his top level coaching career, had anticipated Tuchel’s gambit and reshuffled accordingly. It was not Nathan Tella who replaced Frimpong but instead Josip Stanisic, on loan from the opposition and tasked with forming a true back five when his parent club had the ball.
Park the authoritative Granit Xhaka and Robert Andrich in front of that and there was simply nowhere in central areas for the visitors to attack. That is quite the problem when your left wing back, right winger and left winger will all naturally invert onto their strong foot. It was as if Leverkusen had enabled all Bayern’s worst qualities. Let Harry Kane drift if he wants to, by halftime he would end up with more touches in his own penalty box than the opposition’s.
Alonso might have set the board in his favor, but Tuchel had the pieces to negate any systemic issues. The quality has been there all through the season for the champions, they’ve been putting up three expected goals per game after all. The problem is, it has mingled with a diffidence that might just be inevitable at a club with 11 straight titles to your name. When Borussia Dortmund and the like keep letting you get away with your wobbles, why would you not be complacent?
From the outset this was a performance of reliable sloppiness from the champions, Dayot Upamecano handing the first chance of the game to Amine Adli with a header to nowhere in particular. The Moroccan forward and Nathan Tella were relentless in hunting down the many errors made by their slapdash opponent. There were plenty to go around, none more critical than when a counter marshalled by the exceptional Florian Wirtz was scrabbled away for a corner. Bayern had seven players back in the box. Few were live to the danger coming their way, an Andrich cross flying all the way to the back post for Stanisic to turn in.
In the 72 minutes that followed, Bayern rarely, if ever, played like a team who sincerely fear their decade of dominance might end. They were too slow, too disorganized, and any time they gave the ball away they were liable to be ripped to bits. Tella should have scored off a brilliant ball over the top by Xhaka. Early in the second, Alejandro Grimaldo did, the latest in a string of gaudy finishes from this most xG-busting of wing backs.
This was the most unserious of performances from Bayern, its zenith of nonsense delivered in the last minute when Manuel Neuer concluded his presence was needed in the Leverkusen penalty area for a corner. Even if that had been scrambled into the net there almost certainly was not enough time to get another goal. Such baloney merits the firmest of punishments, Frimpong offered that as he charged up field before drilling the ball home from 45 yards out along the touchline.
Neuer, at least, ended up with about as much penalty box action as Kane, who surely fears the end of Bayern’s hegemony more than most. Imagine the memes if his pursuit of major silverware took him to Europe’s winningest domestic power over the last decade and he still Spursed it up?
Don’t take it as a given that that will happen yet. Five points is not a prohibitive advantage even when your unbeaten run stretches into the 30s, not when Bayern have the sort of underlying metrics that can presage an almighty winning streak. That will require Tuchel and his players to grasp the enormity of the task ahead of them however. Winning the league year in, year out might have grown passé to some of these players but who among them wants to be known as the ones who frittered the streak away?