From Julian Nagelsmann’s scheming to Robert Lewandowski doing the business in front of goal, here’s a look back on the keys to the defending champions’ pace-setting Hinrunde.
Despite a proclivity to tinker and rotate during formative stints with Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig, Nagelsmann hasn’t strayed far at all from the winning blueprint he inherited from predecessor Hansi Flick. Some of the parts have changed, but the system that yielded a 2020 sextuple and the 2020/21 Bundesliga title remain largely the same.
Dayot Upamecano and Lucas Hernandez are the preferred pairing in the centre-back roles previously occupied by Jerome Boateng and David Alaba, while Leroy Sane has hit career-best form to edge ahead of Serge Gnabry in the attacking pecking order. He has also utilised the speed and strengths of Alphonso Davies to make the champions tactically versatile even within matches.
A nominal 4-2-3-1 line-up so often becomes a 3-2-4-1 with the Canadian playing high up the left, Sane tucking inside as an additional No.10, and the remaining three defenders shuffling across to form a back three. It works because he has the pace and energy to get up and down the flank all game.
And when needed, Phonzy simply drops back and that four-man defence is restored. Bayern still counter-press opponents to within an inch of their lives and dominate matches, albeit without playing quite so high a defensive line. The result is more goals scored (52 – a Bundesliga record) and fewer conceded (16) after 16 matches, compared to at the same juncture last season (48 and 25).
Some might say Nagelsmann’s Bayern are even better than Flick’s all-conquering ensemble. The 34-year-old is at the very least on course to match the now Germany coach by landing top domestic honours in his debut campaign at the helm.
It helps when you have the best striker in the world spearheading wave after wave of rapier-like attacks. Lewandowski’s hit 18 goals after 16 matches, averaging one every 76 minutes. He’s produced five multiple-goal showings and only failed to fire in four league games. The 33-year-old put away braces against Bayern’s closest pursuers – Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen – and could yet break Gerd Müller’s 42-goal record for most strikes in a calendar year, having now drawn level with a game to go against Wolfsburg – his favourite opponent in the Bundesliga. If he keeps it up – like that’s in any doubt – the recently anointed Striker of the Year will run his own record of 41 single-season Bundesliga goals very close indeed.
Lewandowski’s not the only one banging in the goals at Bayern. Gnabry’s scored nine times, despite only making 10 starts, while Sane, Kingsley Coman and Thomas Müller are all on four. Jamal Musiala, Joshua Kimmich and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting have three, with Leon Goretzka on two. There’s an even greater spread of providers. Sane (four) is second only to Müller (12), who’s set to top the Bundesliga assist charts for the third season in a row. Defenders Upamecano, Davies, Benjamin Pavard, Niklas Süle and Tanguy Nianzou are also among the 12-man list – evidence enough that Bayern can, and do, score and create from almost anywhere.
Lewandowski’s aforementioned double against ex-employers Dortmund landed a heavy blow in the context of the title race. Bayern came from 1-0 down to beat BVB in the first Klassiker of the Bundesliga campaign, giving them a numerical and psychological edge at the summit. The 3-2 win in Dortmund’s own backyard put four points between the top two after 14 rounds of fixtures and marked Bayern’s sixth successive league victory over BVB. The gap has since widened to nine points. It’s not an insurmountable deficit, but pegging back Bayern is a thankless task. On 21 of the 24 occasions, the record champions have topped the table at halfway, they have gone on to win the title. And never before have they spurned such a large lead this late in a season.
There was more than a suggestion Bayern would be at a huge disadvantage in Der Klassiker without the waylaid Kimmich. Yet Bayern prevailed, and have only lost one of the five games their midfield general has missed. Ex-Leipzig man Marcel Sabitzer partnered Goretzka in the surprise defeat to Augsburg, before picking up a knock. That opened the door for 2018 FIFA World Cup winner Corentin Tolisso, who got the nod against Dortmund, and set up Coman’s equalising goal in the come-from-behind win at home to Mainz.
Musiala – moonlighting as a No.8 in the absence of Goretzka – was the matchwinner with a magnificent solo goal. In the attacking wide areas, Nagelsmann has Sane, Coman, Gnabry and even Musiala to pick from. Defensively, Süle and Nianzou are enjoying regular minutes, as was young Josip Stanisic until injury cut short his breakout campaign. Needless to say, Bayern are decidedly well equipped to defend their crown.