As the 2021/22 Champions League returns with the last 16, the one question in everyone’s lips is: how do you beat Bayern Munich?
The German juggernauts are in such imperious form so far this season, especially in the Champions League, that a legitimate question must be asked as to how you beat them? Bayern thundered their way to a (second-ever) Treble in 2019/20, winning every game. Then last season looked to be on a similar route until an injury to Robert Lewandowski derailed them.
This season their form is equally brutal, so we have to ask, how does one actually go about beating them?
How have Bayern done so far this season?
Despite losing Hansi Flick in the summer, Bayern haven’t missed a beat getting coaching prodigy Julian Nagelsmann in as a replacement. At 34 years old, Nagelsmann is younger than his captain Manuel Neuer but has had no issues with discipline as he has guided Bayern to the top of the Bundesliga and into the Champions League round of 16.
Bayern are six points clear atop the Bundesliga. They have won 17, drawn one and lost four of their 22 games. They’ve scored the most goals (70) and conceded the joint-fewest (25, alongside Freiburg). They’re cruising and many expect them to win their 10th straight title and 32nd overall.
In the Champions League things are equally absurd. Bayern finished top of their group having won all six games. They were top scorers in the group stages with 22 goals and in conceding just three goals had the joint-best defence too. Bayern even obliterated and eliminated Barcelona in the final game of the group despite already having qualified because, what difference does it make? Why leave a living rival?
Red Bull Salzburg vs Bayern Munich Champions League odds from Sky Bet
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How do you beat Bayern Munich?
With their dominance laid bare, the question becomes: how do you beat them? They have lost just five times this season, once in the DFB-Pokal and the aforementioned four times in the Bundesliga.
And it seems the short answer is to simply be Borussia Monchengladbach, who have beaten them twice including a stunning 5-0 win in the DFB-Pokal. But obviously that kind of advice is no good to the other Bundesliga sides or Red Bull Salzburg who face them in the Champions League, so here’s some actual advice, a three-step plan to beating Bayern Munich in 2022!
1. Hope for key absences
Bayern Munich have an incredible squad, it’s genuinely exceptional. However, their first XI has a few individuals in it that are uniquely brilliant, and as such present a problem in terms of having a backup.
Chief among those is goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, whose absurd combination of shot-stopping mentality monster, fearless sweeper keeper and also precision long-passing playmaker is unmatched basically across the world game. Marc-André Ter Stegen and Ederson can perhaps come close on their best days, but neither is as inhumanly consistent as the giant German.
There’s also flying wing-back Alphonso Davies who, in terms of being a converted winger, plays with such a terrifying combination of speed and skill and attacking intelligence that he’s allowed to own the entire left flank, which opens up so many positional options for Nagelsmann to deploy with his fabulous forwards.
These two are explicitly worth mentioning because neither is going to be available for the Red Bull Salzburg tie and crucially they both missed the recent defeats to Gladbach and Bochum.
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Without Davies, Nagelsmann tried to use Marcel Sabitzer and Lucas Hernandez as his left-back. But Hernandez flattens the back four into a more symmetrical shape and robs Bayern of that ridiculous thrust, while Sabitzer is an attacking midfielder and has no idea how to defend as a full-back, much less one charged with a huge attacking role.
Leon Goretzka is also likely to miss the Salzburg tie, but in this instance Bayern have a capable back-up in Corentin Tolisso. Looking back to last season, however, it becomes clear that Robert Lewandowski is in a similar position to Neuer and Davies.
There’s just no one quite like Lewandowski, obviously as he’s one of the very best No. 9’s in the world if not the best. Without his goal power last season, despite everyone else being available, Bayern were undone by PSG in the Champions League quarter-finals.
2. Press them high
What can you do, proactively? Well you can press them high. Bayern are a side that build from the back, and as with any side who do this regularly there will always be instances where opponents can squeeze them high and force errors.
A classic example would be Gladbach’s sensational 5-0 win in the DFB-Pokal, where three of their goals came directly from them pressing Bayern as they tried to play out from the back, either directly recapturing the ball or forcing sloppy passes and then getting possession back that way.
This is where Sven Ulreich starting for Manuel Neuer could be such a huge factor. Neuer is basically a goalkeeping god while Ulreich is… alright. He’s much more vulnerable in possession than Neuer is, and if Bayern try to play the same way then one can only suspect there will be chances galore to unsettle Ulreich and force turnovers.
Of course once you have the ball, whether after pressing high or on the break, you can’t hang about. The best way to beat Bayern is to play the ball fast and sharp with plenty of movement, again as Gladbach showed in their other two goals from the 5-0 win which were both very direct in different ways (one a fast-passing counter, the other a long ball that provoked defensive indecision).
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This should all be music to Karim Adeyemi’s ears. The RB Salzburg forward is a dynamo and has been in superb form this season in the Champions League. He’s played six games, scored three goals made one assist, attempted 19 take-ons and, incredibly, won 15 fouls.
In fact Adeyemi has won the joint-most penalties in a single Champions League campaign already with four. With a rickety Bayern defence in his sights could he make it five and set a new record? Given his speed, pressing power and danger on the break, he is almost perfectly placed to do the kind of damage that could hurt Bayern even at full-strength, never mind when they’re missing Neuer.
Here’s the thing: Bayern Munich are amazing.
So even if they have absences, and you have a superb gameplan, it still might not be enough. Bayern might just mow you down anyway. So while Step 1 is to hope for absences and Step 2 is definitely to press them high and also hit them on the break, Step 3 is simply to pray.
Bayern are such a juggernaut you need luck on your side. Luck like Nagelsmann picking an absolutely crackpot single-pivot formation as he did against Bochum, where he deployed Joshua Kimmich essentially alone in midfield and was 4-1 down at half-time. A tactical switch back to 4-2-3-1 allowed Bayern to win the second-half 1-0, but the damage was done.
Or you could get the more traditional kind of luck, where Bayern’s sharpshooters just can’t… well, shoot. In Gladbach’s 2-1 win at the start of 2022, Bayern rifled off a massive 18 shots, seven of which were on target. They bombarded the Gladbach goal and just could not get it in, missing chances they would usually convert.
An even more extreme example is the aforementioned Champions League exit to PSG last season. Bayern were cutting a swathe through Europe last year and looked likely to retain their title until injury forced Lewandowski to miss the quarter-final against PSG.
Even without their Polish phenomenon, however, Bayern unleashed hell on PSG with 31 shots, 12 hitting the target. Yet they only scored twice and the Parisians hit them with three perfect counter-attacks. PSG had all the advantages, but still needed a luck to get past Bayern.
So even if Salzburg, or a Bundesliga side, or any future Champions League opponent, come into a game against an injury-hit Bayern Munich while possessing their own perfect tactical gameplan, they will still need outrageous fortune to go their way to pick up a shocking upset and victory, because Bayern Munich are just that good.