1 FC Köln – Bayern Munich: There’s No Kidding These Seasoned Experts (0-4)
FC Köln and Bayern Munich have, in their separate ways, set the bar high this season to promise a spectacle in this fixture. Indeed, if their efforts were anything to go by on the pitch, Bundesliga football is a simple pleasure. Organized but possibly wild high pressing styles clash, transitions rule, and the Bavarians always win.
Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
Relentless excellence is the standard in Bavaria, where local boy Julian Nagelsmann has internalized the high demands of his new managerial post. Six points clear of the chasing pack at the top of the table, a frightening 57 goal haul threatens to break the record 100 goal tally of Hansi Flick’s treble winners. Adi Hütter’s kryptonite, inflicting a 2-1 loss last matchday, might have ruined hopes of Nagelsmann mimicking his predecessor, but he was keen to wrap up this trophy as soon as possible.
If Bayern’s exploits conform to the status quo, 1 FC Köln have been one of the overachievers of the German top flight. In a relegation dogfight last year, playoff triumph has prompted a swift turnaround. At the helm is Steffen Baumgart, a manager whose effervescent manner has rubbed off on his playing staff. The European places are now on the horizon: three points would send his men into fourth place.
Ahead of this fixture, Baumgart’s men sat in sixth place thanks to a 3-1 victory over Hertha Berlin to kick off the second half of their Bundesliga campaign. He felt no need to change the starting eleven. Therefore, top marksman Anthony Modeste formed a two pronged frontline with Mark Uth. Salih Özcan also continued to fill in for long term absentee Ellyes Skhiri at the base of the midfield.
Nagelsmann still faced the task of plugging several holes. A COVID-19 outbreak swept through the squad at the start of the new year, keeping out Dayot Upamecano and Lucas Hernández, while a mild heart inflammation forced Alphonso Davies to miss out. So, Joshua Kimmich and Marcel Sabitzer deputized as the fullbacks. On the other hand, Manuel Neuer and Corentin Tolisso were welcome additions to a lineup where Jamal Musiala could feature as a left winger in place of Malik Tillman.
Intensity, intensity, intensity
Opting against the 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 systems that he picked in his former post at Paderborn, Baumgart settled on a 4-4-2 diamond structure at Köln. Nonetheless, this outfit has the imprint of its leader. Indeed, the outlook of their defensive work rests on an inversion of a diamond’s nominal weakness.
The rhomboid staggering of the midfield vacates the flanks, giving opponents room to make headway down the outside of Köln’s block. Yet, if one can steer the buildup outward, the subsequent ability to control the center of the pitch can give way to compact pressing traps. Thus, Baumgart has drilled his men to operate at an extremely high intensity off the ball, turning a possible weakness into a strength.
Moreover, this intensity defines how structurally they interpret the diamond. If the aggression of their running power off the ball can close spaces more dynamically, Köln can take more ‘risk’ setting up the layout of the midfield. Thus, the central midfielders to either side of Ondrej Duda tended to stand very high in high pressing phases to form a tightly squished front block of five within a 4-1-3-2 structure.
1st minute: pressing sequence from FC Köln immediately after the kickoff. Uth and Modeste sweep across laterally, forcing Benjamin Pavard to pass outward to Kimmich. Notice the role of the two eights. On the ball near side, Louis Schaub sprints out diagonally to close down the right back, while the ball far central midfielder, Florian Kainz, stays high and wide, preparing access for a switch. The legwork of the midfield, as well as the vertical compactness of the front two lines, was often evident.
A calculated risk?
The Bavarians equally partook in their share of a pressing duel, sending Thomas Müller to the front next to Robert Lewandowski, while Tolisso guarded Özcan ahead of Marc Roca. The hosts were loyal to their diamond if they built up the play from the back. Its interpretation was again highly aggressive. Orienting themselves forward early on, the pair of central midfielders created a row of three with Duda. In this way, Özcan emerged as the sole point of reference for the central defenders.
Bayern stellt den 2-1-Aufbau der Kölner gut zu und schiebt dahinter auch entsprechend nach. Köln mit vielen einfachen Fehlern. Dass deren Pressing ballnah gut ist, aber ballfern gern mal löchrig, hat sich auch schon gezeigt. #KOEFCB— Justin Kraft (er / ihn) 🏳️🌈 (@JustinKraft_) January 15, 2022
The higher orientation of Kainz and Schaub contributed to the outcome of Köln’s spells on the ball. Since the fullbacks also moved higher and a lack of central options was present, the 2-1 base at the back gave the visitors the license to force sloppy mistakes and limit the length of sustained phases of pressure. However, Baumgart’s men relished the wildness of a game with frequent turnovers in play.
A strong point of the home team is their threat on the break. If they won the ball, white and red shirts looked to make evasive runs outward to make the most of the free space on the flanks. Indeed, Uth hit the back of the net in the 31st minute off the back of a high press, but VAR’s offside ruling chalked off his strike. Here, Pavard had been a little lax cleaning up the distances in the back four after giving Neuer a lateral option in buildup: one of several instances of negligence that might have been costly.
28th minute: transitional sequence from Köln. Uth fights aerially for the ball with Pavard, whose effort forces the ball into the path of Duda. He finds Benno Schmitz, whose through ball into Schaub down the line sets away a counterattack. Duda’s ball reception is possible thanks to Roca’s late, and rather untimely advance into the six yard box, vacating the exact room the second ball drops into.
Unfortunately for Baumgart’s men, the superior incision of their guests in this phase was what separated the two outfits at half time. In the 9th minute, Tolisso stole the ball from Duda, teeing up his teammates to break at pace. Müller drove inward from the left halfspace, the Frenchman overlapped him, and Lewandowski pulled to the right of Özcan, slotting a shot past Marvin Schwäbe.
The second goal was even more stunning. Sabitzer switched the play to Tolisso, who nodded the ball onto Müller. His teammate flicked the ball back into his path, prompting a sweet strike on the half volley to double the Bavarians’ lead. It was all uphill for Köln from here.
Sané settles the score
So, Bayern entered the second half with a lead to reflect their superiority. However, it was not the cut and dry case that a twelve to two shot count in their favor might have indicated. A shaky start after the break showed the resolve of Köln, whose ideas on the ball became more concrete. Rising engagement of the fullbacks let the home team construct several vertical, direct combination routines on the flanks.
Thus, Nagelsmann’s first substitution of the match saw the introduction of Leroy Sané in place of Musiala on the hour mark. The ploy paid off straight away. Roca spun away from markers in the center before threading a pass to Sané in the halfspace. The winger dribbled at the backline, drawing open enough room to slip in Lewandowski, whose cutely stabbed effort put Bayern 3-0 up.
Sané’s second assist was even better. A line-breaking pass from Kimmich to Müller teed up Sané as a third man. A deft pass between Luca Kilian and Schmitz followed another mazy ball carry to find Lewandowski. The rest was history. His hat-trick marked another milestone, 300 Bundesliga goals, worthy of the all-conquering prestige of his club. Sané’s central integration in the case of both strikes may be a new hallmark of the attack, but Bavarians are ruthless all the same. Köln had no response.
Dying on their sword, FC Köln fell victim to the bold manner of their philosophy: bagging goals in 15 of their 19 league games, they have kept a mere clean sheet in that same run of form. Yet, even in the case of a 4-0 loss, Baumgart’s men could have run their illustrious visitors closer were it not for some wayward execution on the break. An opportune moment to bounce back against VfL Bochum awaits.
Bayern Munich can be content with a return to winning ways, given the current state of their squad. An overarching question for Nagelsmann, both on and off the pitch, will be on the topic of control. Especially when Kimmich cannot manage affairs from the middle of the park, his men can err on the wrong side of the tightrope walk between aggression and stability. So, aspects of his ball possession approach have already made their mark, but it will be answers to problems the Rekordmeister have long faced that could make all the difference at the backend of the campaign.
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