Wilson: Bayern's achilles heel

ESPNSTAR.com columnist Jonathan Wilson puzzles over Bayern Munich's loss to BATE Borisov despite their imperious start to their domestic campaign.

Muller downcast after BATE storm ahead.

The stereotype of German football is that it is a remorseless, grinding machine, humourless, emotionless, too efficient ever to falter or countenance the psychological demons that sometimes affect other teams. Given that the finest moments in sport often stem from a player or a team grappling with their own fragility, that perhaps explains why German sides so rarely win the hearts of the wider world, why West Germany, to use Simon Kuper's phrase, were for such a long time the Darth Vader of international football.

At club level, that mantle belonged to Bayern Munich, who have often seemed the most German of the Germans: to their detractors, arrogant and strutting; to their fans, a hugely successful team combining technical and physical virtues.

The stereotype persists despite the fact that Germany has won just one major tournament and German clubs two Champions Leagues since reunification. At times even German fans seem to believe it: there is a poster who regularly comments on my pieces to remind me that in German there is no concept of under- or over-performing; there is just performing.

And yet, really, the remorseless stereotype makes no sense at all.

(West) Germany have lost in four World Cup finals and two European Championship finals. Bayern have lost in five Champions League or European Cup finals. Now, of course, the more finals you reach, the more you are likely to lose, and (West Germany) have won three World Cups and three European Championships and Bayern four European Cups but, still, faltering at the last is not the behaviour of the automated winning machines Germany and Bayern are often portrayed as. And this Bayern seems particularly prone to self-doubt.

Last season, after losing their opening game of the league campaign, Bayern went on a run of 10 straight victories. They seemed supreme, playing superb, high-tempo football. They ended up winning nothing, finishing second in the league, losing in the final of the German Cup and, most crushingly of all, being beaten by Chelsea in the Champions League final. In their own stadium. On penalties. Those who wanted to see German arrogance could point to a huge banner that read (in German) "Our City, Our Stadium, Our Cup", to the pitchside announcer's ludicrous whipping up of the crowd after Bayern had scored and to Thomas Muller's premature celebrations. Those who suspected insecurity behind the mask, though, could point to the odd sense of anxiety that fell over the stadium once Didier Drogba had equalised and that manifested in Arjen Robben's weak penalty, the listlessness of much of extra-time and ultimately the shoot-out defeat.

The scars of last season, you suspect, will take a long time to heal - although winning the Champions League final at Wembley could go a long way to doing so. And the evidence of fragility, of an odd lack of self-belief, was evident in Minsk on Tuesday.

Bayern have been imperious so far this season. They beat Borussia Dortmund to win the German Super Cup. They won their first six Bundesliga games, scoring 19 goals and conceding only two. They were comfortable 2-1 winners over Valencia in their first game in the Champions League. Mario Mandzukic has proved an excellent signing, scoring six goals in six league games and offering a more mobile alternative to Mario Gomes at centre-forward. Toni Kroos, operating centrally behind Mandzukic, has been superb, intelligent and hard-working. That has pushed Muller wide and with he and Xherdan Shaqiri, another new signing, impressing, there is less reliance on the injury-prone duo of Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. Back alongside a true holding midfielder in Luis Gustavo after his difficulties alongside Sami Khedira at the Euros, Bastian Schweinsteiger looks in top form once again.

They were even the better side in the first half against BATE, controlling the ball and hitting the post through Kroos who, having taken the ball round the goalkeeper, had only to roll the ball into an empty net, albeit with the angle diminishing as the went away from goal. They then went behind as a result of some dire defending. As Edgar Olekhnovich crossed from the left, four Bayern players were drawn towards the near post, despite there being only two BATE players in the box. That left the right-back Denis Polyakov in staggering amounts of room at the back of the box. He had time to control a ball that bounced awkwardly and pull a pass back to Aleksandr Volodkho. He mishit his shot but, despite there being seven Bayern outfielders in the box Aleksandr Pavlov had time to turn and tuck a finish past Manuel Neuer. It was appalling defending all round, begun by Ribery not picking up Polyakov as he surged forwards.

Counter-attacks seem to terrify this Bayern, perhaps understandably. After all, if your game-plan is to have as much of the ball as possible and to play the game as far as possible in the opponents' half, it must be extremely disconcerting to discover that your opponents' game-plan is to let you do exactly that. How then do you step things up? Doing it more so seems to play even more into your opponents' hands.

The result was a weirdly tentative second-half performance from Bayern and they lacked decisiveness in the challenge for BATE's second, scored by Vitaly Rodionov after a smart one-two with Olekhnovich.

Ribery hit the woodwork and then scored after a superb through-ball from Shaqiri but Renan Bressan finished the game off late on after a break initiated by Dmitri Mozolevski.

Not for the first time, the suggestion was that this is a Bayern who are excellent when things are going for them, but defensively suspect and so insecure that they are susceptible as soon as things begun to turn against them. That makes them a difficult team to assess: they've been imperious in the Bundesliga but was what happened on Tuesday a none-off freak on a bumpy pitch in Belarus or a sign that the old foibles still remain?



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