Nagelsmann’s grand plan faltered but Bayern showed fighting spirit to beat Barca

Followers of the Bundesliga will be familiar with the concept of “Bayern-Dusel”, Bayern Munich’s “lucky” habit of scoring late on in matches. On Tuesday night, it was similar at the Allianz Arena, but with a twist: the home side had pushed their mythical fortune to the limit by not conceding against a dominant Barcelona in the first half before finding their feet near the hour mark.

“Luck plays a part at this level,” Bayern midfielder Jamal Musiala rightly said. But deep down, the 19-year-old will have been concerned about the number of breaks Bayern needed just to stay in the game before half-time.

Though Manuel Neuer and Leon Goretzka were understandably focused on the positives of the 2-0 win, namely Bayern’s energy, fighting spirit and willpower in the second half, the team’s reliance on the game’s most basic elements only showed how unsatisfactory their football had been for large spells. Celebrations at the final whistle notwithstanding, the performance raised a lot of uncomfortable questions, starting with this one: what in the world has happened to Sadio Mane?

Not scoring for four games is one thing, but after his great start in early August, the Senegal forward has recently regressed so much that he’s become almost a non-factor in attack. Against Barcelona, ​​he looked devoid of power and impetus. His attempts to attack defenders and cut inside from his left-sided starting position also felt distinctly half-hearted.

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Asked about the 30-year-old’s puzzling slump in form, Julian Nagelsmann cautioned that the forward still needed to adjust to Bayern’s game and had not played much on the left for Liverpool last season. Both are true but did not explain Mane’s weirdly static game.

Worryingly, Nagelsmann seemed to imply that the problem is physical rather than tactical when he added that the player had “put in so much for Liverpool”. It could well be that an intense spell with Jurgen Klopp’s side and a victorious run to the final of AFCON are finally beginning to catch up with him. But we’re only in mid-September and Bayern’s new system desperately needs him to set an example in terms of movement. Of all the problems Nagelsmann has faced this season, Mane not performing is easily the most unexpected one.

The squad offers enough options to give the former Anfield hero a well-deserved breather over the coming weeks, but there’s something quite unsettling about your big star-buy playing that much off the pace. Sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic and Nagelsmann are both deeply invested in him after sanctioning Robert Lewandowski’s departure, as are the entire club.

One can only imagine the kind of headlines we would have seen if the Pole had taken one of his chances to help Barca win while his successor Mane, taken off on 70 minutes, had his poorest game yet in a red shirt.

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But there were plenty of other concerns, too, as much of Nagelsmann’s grand plan didn’t work. Playing inverted wide players but keeping the full-backs fairly deep made Bayern’s four-pronged attack even more narrow than usual, resulting in too many attempts to dribble and players getting in each other’s way in the box.

Bayern’s build-up, too, was pretty woeful in the face of the Catalans’ early pressing. Dayot Upamecano was preferred to Matthijs de Ligt due to his superior pace and being a better passer, but it didn’t work out. Too many long balls were launched in sheer desperation.

Defensively, a rather passive approach out of possession put huge pressure on the Joshua Kimmich/Marcel Sabitzer axis at the centre, with the Austrian buckling under the workload: he was suckered into receiving a caution early on in the game by Sergio Busquets, gave the ball away to allow Pedri a huge opportunity to open the scoring and was far too timid throughout. It was no coincidence that Bayern’s luck turned on the introduction of the much more gung-ho Goretzka, whose shot from distance forced the corner that brought Lucas Hernandez’s goal.

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It was a big win for Julian Nagelsmann against Barcelona last night (Photo: Alexander Hassenstein – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

A classic box-to-box player, Goretzka was a key component of Nagelsmann’s “second wave” doctrine last season, an overload of the center in and out of possession. It’s a lovely ploy when it all comes together but can look stodgy against deep opponents.

By pressing from deeper positions, Bayern attempted to create space for themselves vs the visiting X-men but one could sense that the team were far happier going in harder higher up the pitch.

The overall picture throughout the first half was one of Bavarian fragility. They had enough individual quality to hold their own against a refreshed Barca side, but there was a distinct lack of cohesion, and just one blow might have seen the whole shaky construct folding in on itself. Somehow, Bayern escaped into half-time unscathed and successfully regrouped.

The strong comeback couldn’t distract from the fact that Nagelsmann and his team are evidently still searching for their best setup. Strangely enough, it might help that his rotation policy will have to be curtailed momentarily in light of a new injury to Hernandez, as well as Benjamin Pavard and Upamecano both suffering light knocks.

Nagelsmann still needs to figure out a lot of things, and just like Napoleon’s proverbial general, he’s extremely lucky that he’ll be able to tackle these various issues after a big win rather than in defeat. The 2-0 over Barca was actually just as fortunate in timing as in substance, if not more so: it gives the whole club a healthy breather before the next big match, away to Borussia Dortmund on October 8.

In the Champions League, two wins against Viktoria Plzen should see them qualify prematurely for the knockout stages, which will hand the coach even more time to get things right.

Come spring, Bayern will need more than Bayern-Dusel to beat opponents of Barcelona’s class.

(Top photo: Markus Gilliar – GES Sportfoto/Getty Images)

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