Hertha BSC – Bayern Munich: Bayern’s struggles in possession result in defeat at the Olympiastadion (2-0)
Hertha’s proactive attitude both when defending and attacking enabled them to get the better of a Niko Kovač-led side that never truly found its feet in the final third. Bayern’s positional issues in midfield never allowed them to get back into the match after Hertha made their early attacks count.
Having rotated in midweek and, coincidence or not, having also dropped their first points of the season in a 1-1 draw at home to Augsburg, Kovač resorted to a much stronger eleven for this clash. Franck Ribéry, Robert Lewandowski, James Rodríguez, Thiago Alcántara and David Alaba returned to the side, all of whom featured in last weekend’s 2-0 win over Schalke 04.
Despite an impressively strong start to the Bundesliga campaign, Hertha Berlin SC also came into this match off the back of a disappointing result, having lost 3-1 at the hands of SV Werder Bremen on Tuesday evening.
Hertha’s coach Pál Dárdai made three changes from the eleven that started that game, including the decision to put goalkeeper Thomas Kraft back into the side. Salomon Kalou and Maximilian Mittelstädt were the other two names added to the eleven.
Bayern Munich’s positioning and general movements in possession.
Hertha don’t allow Bayern to settle
Hertha were persistent on not letting Bayern rest in the opening stage of the match. They bravely pressed in a shape that could almost go toe-to-toe with every opposition player across the pitch. The home side’s main intentions seemed to be for them to stop the visitors from settling early on.
By being proactive in their defensive approach, they could uphold a good tempo that allowed them to be more positive in the periods that followed. It showed that they were unafraid of challenging Bayern and it served as a way of keeping the Hertha players on the front foot.
After this initial period of pressure, Hertha eventually settled into a more zonal 4-4-2 shape that allowed their opponents to take firm control of the ball. Still, the home side was quite aggressively positioned with players happily stretching themselves out across the pitch. This mobile shape proved successful in containing Bayern’s equally spaced out structure for large chunks of the game.
Confidence off the ball
As was on show for the opening goal, the home side remained calm against the aggressive pressure supplied by James and Renato Sanches. Ondrej Duda pulled across, wide into the open midfield channel and then turned away easily with the ball from Thiago’s challenge. He then picked out a delightful long ball that perfectly found the head of Vedad Ibišević.
Although his dangerous header was pushed away to safety by Manuel Neuer, Boateng’s reckless challenge one moment after gave the Bosnian a second go at the German number one. This time from the penalty spot. He wasn’t going to miss this time, giving Hertha a surprising, but well-deserved, lead just short of twenty-five minutes in.
Bayern’s positional struggles
Bayern’s nominal shape was a 4-3-3. A key element for them to enjoy success in possession was the positioning of their two wider, central midfielders that were instructed to push on, high between the lines of Hertha’s midfield and defense. The crucial element for this optimistic positioning to succeed is that you have to be able to reach these players with passing, either from the back or the flanks. And Bayern were not.
The resulting issue was that there was often too great a disconnect between the players recycling the ball (Jérôme Boateng, Niklas Süle and Thiago) and those that were meant to receive the ball (Renato Sanches and James).
Bayern’s passmap shows a lack of forward links from Thiago and James and a lack of passing involvement by Renato Sanches. As a result, Lewandowski and Ribéry depended on Boateng for supply.
Whilst this stretched positional structure did sometimes allow Bayern to find the widest players on each side more easily, it wasn’t altogether very effective as Hertha could comfortably shift across by the time the ball had reached the wide target.
What’s more, when the two attacking midfielders, or even Lewandowski, tried to drop deeper and receive, they had a tough time dealing with the oncoming pressure. The large distances between the passers and receivers meant that the passes were played with great power, making it hard for the receivers to control and move play on.
So, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that when their midfield trio loosened up positionally and hovered around the ball, Bayern began to find some more openings. In some cases when this worked, the far-sided central midfielder would come right across and move into a vacant position. This, of course, wasn’t the only method of playing around Hertha.
Another strategy was to have the attacking midfielder on the right side drop completely out of the Hertha shape to position themselves where the full-back might usually be. In these instances, Hertha remained true to their zonal structure and refused to be pulled apart by this. It did however allow for more frequent access into Arjen Robben and Joshua Kimmich.
Example of a midfielder dropping deep to collect the ball, allowing for Robben and Kimmich to play higher up the pitch.
Additional ways were to have Thiago drop back to create a back-three or by having the full-backs come very deep, onto the same line as the centre-backs, practically. This afforded Boateng – a wonderful long-range passer – more time to pick a pass or even dribble out with the ball.
Franck Ribéry versus Valentino Lazaro
These two players were at the base of everything good that each side did offensively in this match, while being vulnerable on the defensive side of things.
Through Lazaro, Hertha bagged their second of the night. Late in the first half, after a long spell of dreary of Bayern possession, Kovač’s side displayed major lapses in concentration. From this, Hertha’s early tempo-setting pressure truly paid off. They hadn’t been lulled into a similar tempo to Bayern; they were active and aggressive with their opportunities on the ball.
Kalou casually slipped in Lazaro past the ball-watching Boateng. Lazaro then found a simple cutback to play in the man who had done so much for the first goal, Ondrej Duda. He had no trouble scoring 2-0 from point-blank range.
This halfspace passmap shows that Hertha’s main attacking route was down their right flank, with Lazaro’s assist for their second goal depicted in yellow.
As for the threat Ribéry posed, Bayern were beginning to use their improved possession spells to work it across to his side. Ribéry was outdoing Lazaro in one-versus-one situations, he was running in behind off the back of him and he was being easily overloaded by Alaba’s advancing runs.
This route was Bayern’s only really solid path into the box for the majority of the match. Whist Robben and Kimmich combined well at times, they weren’t managing to create cutback opportunities for their teammates like Ribéry and Alaba were.
Essential in Hertha’s vulnerability down the flank was Kalou. His defensive support was severely lacking. Even when he was positioned deep, near to Lazaro, he never covered Alaba’s runs and thus allowed the Austrian to get into countless, dangerous crossing positions.
Though not much came from this for Bayern, there was one chance of note. Alaba managed to fizz in a darting ball across the face of goal, which found the onrushing Robben. However, he couldn’t get his foot over the ball quickly enough to keep his shot down.
Second half changes stifle Bayern’s pre-existing attacking routes
With Kovač becoming increasingly desperate to salvage at least a point, he opted to replace Robben with Thomas Müller just five minutes into the second half. Now, instead of attracting numbers to the right and relieving it by playing into the dangerous left side, they were cramming everything into the left. And, as you might have guessed by now, it didn’t help them out.
The probable idea was that Müller could provide a much-needed, added box threat next to a quiet Lewandowski. The problem was that it involved constantly playing into the same source. Boateng and Süle were forcing long diagonals into Ribéry that Hertha were more than prepared for. Bayern were congesting the side they were looking to attack down. This now also meant that Bayern had no direct dribblers down the vacated side that could help balance their attacking streams.
Unsurprisingly, one of the away side’s best open play chances came when they attracted pressure to the left and quickly released it into Kimmich on the right.
What made matters worse for Bayern was that Dárdai then brought on Matthew Leckie for Kalou to fortify the vulnerabilities on Hertha’s flanks. Immediately, you could see the Australian’s defensive intensity was helping to block out the attempted in-roads from Bayern. The Bavarians could not get the 2-1 to fall and thus Hertha never got into serious trouble in the second half.
Dárdai can be proud of his team’s efforts in sustaining their impressive opening run of form. Hertha got the reward for a brave strategy that gave them the upper hand early on, then efficiently set out to defend their lead, including making the necessary defensive adaptations.
Meanwhilst Niko Kovač has questions to be asking of himself and of his players. Here, his team lacked the domineering threat we’ve all come to expect, or even take for granted, from Bayern sides of the recent past.
Bayern’s unbeaten run comes to a close at one of the Bundesliga’s toughest grounds. With such impressive form, Hertha’s Olympiastadion might yet be returning to its former fortress-like self that we saw the season before last. With this result, rather incredibly, Hertha have now drawn level with Bayern to top the Bundesliga.
The slider below contains Expected Goal plots, halfspace maps, passmaps and Zone 14 maps.