Last season, as AZ Alkmaar swept to the Dutch championship, it seemed the old dog had learned new tricks.
Louis van Gaal, the inflexible master of Total Football Ã¢â‚¬â€ or at least of the slightly more rigid interpretation of total football used at Ajax in the early nineties Ã¢â‚¬â€ suddenly became a counter-attacking coach. He was ready, it was suggested Ã¢â‚¬â€ and he clearly felt Ã¢â‚¬â€ for a return to one of Europe’s giants.
Three months into the season, though, Bayern Munich Ã¢â‚¬â€ van Gaal’s new footballing outpost Ã¢â‚¬â€ lie a disappointing sixth in the Bundesliga, while their Champions League future hangs by a thread. Perhaps they might have got away with a defeat away to Bordeaux Ã¢â‚¬â€ particularly given the circumstances of a crazy game that featured two penalties and two red cards.
But the 2-0 home defeat to Laurent Blanc’s side on Tuesday means Bayern must win their remaining two games, one of which is away to Juventus, and hope that Juve don’t win their other game, away to Bordeaux.
A fluent performance in a 5-1 win away to Borussia Dortmund, the game that was supposed to signal Bayern clicking into form, now seems a distant and isolated memory. In that match, significantly, Arjen Robben was superb, and much of Bayern’s subsequent lack of fluency can be put down to his varying injury problems.
It is possible to have sympathy with Van Gaal on that score, but any plan that is predicated on the fitness of Robben is not a good plan.
Certain Van Gaal’s signings look questionable. Danijel Pranjic, the Croatia left-back or left-sided midfielder, has looked out of his depth, as has Edson Braafheid. Anatoliy Tymoshchuk is an outstanding holding midfielder, but his partnership with Mark van Bommel looks ill-conceived. Although Van Bommel is more aggressive, both are, primarily, defensive players.
Play them together, as against Bordeaux, and Bayern lack creative thrust through central midfield.
Both need a more imaginative player, a passer, to operate alongside them, which makes the offloading of Ze Roberto to Hamburg seem eve more puzzling in retrospect than it did at the time, a situation compounded by Bastian Schweinsteiger seeming loss of form.
Van Gaal has insisted his team have simply been unlucky – and, in fairness, they probably should have had a penalty for Michael Ciani’s handball on Tuesday. Equally, Van Gaal can argue it will take time to sort out the mess left by Jurgen Klinsmann.
This is a squad whose morale took a battering last season and whose new components must be given time to gel. The problem is that by the time that has happened – if it happens – Bayern may already be out of the Champions League.
But having said that, it is difficult at the moment to perceive a plan in Bayern’s play, something that is particularly worrying give how regimented Van Gaal’s sides traditionally are. It is not quite true to say that without a plan Van Gaal is nothing, but very nearly is.
The suspicion must increasingly be that he cannot deal with established stars. His success has always come either with youth – as at Ajax in the early nineties – or with the modest talents he inspired to win the title with AZ.
At Barcelona, players chafed against the restrictions he placed upon them, and the pattern seems to be repeating at Bayern, despite his supposedly more open-minded approach. All of which places additional pressure on Saturday’s Bundesliga fixture against Schalke 04 where Bayern are the 1.84 favourites to win.
Bayern’s recent league form is decent – they’ve taken 10 points from their last four games, albeit without threatening to scintillate – and they are only four points behind the leaders, Bayer Leverkusen (whom they face in a fortnight). Win, and they can start to apply pressure, perhaps even close the gap. Lose, and they could suddenly be seven points adrift and facing another season of frustration.
Last season they found themselves in a similar position, and plodded on, seemingly assuming that things would eventually fall into place and they would resume their habitual place at the top of the standings.
The mood around the Allianz Arena on Tuesday will already have made van Gaal aware that fans will not be so patient this time.
Reproduced with permission from betting.betfair.com. Ã‚Â© The Sporting Exchange Limited
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