Bayern drew RB Leipzig for the top of the Bundesliga after a 3-2 win over Borussia Dortmund on Saturday that showed much of what makes them special. They absorb setbacks, adapt, and move on. And they can beat it in many different ways.
The pregame hype, naturally, was about the clash between Robert Lewandowski, whose silverware collection grew considerably in 2020, and his heir apparent, Erling Braut Haaland, the meditating hero, yoga lover, and shirtless tractor driver for the decade. 2020. So much so that the Bundesliga saw fit to exaggerate the contest with a tailored cartoon rap run.
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But forwards, even generational talents like these, generally depend on what happens to the other 10 guys on the field behind them. And the fundamental difference is that Lewandowski resides at the forefront of an efficient self-sustaining ecosystem, brimming with confidence and energy, sure, but continually adapting and correcting itself.
They can lose players to injuries (as happened to Joshua Kimmich at the end of the first half), they can concede goals and they can stop in their tracks, like a boxer hitting a left hook. But each misstep feels like a real-time learning moment, and your corrections, when they occur, are minimal. The basic frame (high line, raging press, flying wings) is modified, but rarely modified significantly.
As for Haaland, what sits behind him is defined not so much by patterns of play (save for the most basic), but by individual initiative. He also has very talented teammates and benefits from opportunities and opportunities, but all too often, these are untimely moments. Dortmund manager Lucien Favre has yet to make Dortmund greater than the sum of its parts. And with a contract expiring in June, and no plans for the club to negotiate an extension as of now, it may never do so.
With Benjamin Pavard injured, Bouna Sarr, a Marseille deadline acquisition, lined up at Bayern’s right back. Sarr turns 28 and prior to this season, he had played zero minutes of Champions League soccer and zero minutes of international soccer. He was hired for depth, to be an extra body in the never-ending job that is the COVID-altered 2020-21 season, and on Saturday he found himself replacing a World Cup winner on a 3-point winning team against his older opponents. fierce.
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Unsurprisingly, Dortmund took aim at him early and often with Gio Reyna, Raphael Guerreiro behind him and Marco Reus, hovering from his starting position behind Haaland. It was a good strategy, but the problem for this Bayern is how quickly it adapts.
The high pressure became a bit more intense, making it difficult for Dortmund to advance the ball accurately. Whenever Sarr got ahead, Bayern made sure he was well covered. And often the baseline leaned toward him, with Jerome Boateng coming to help, David Alaba slipping and Lucas Hernandez almost becoming an additional central defender. When Bayern were in possession, they weren’t opposed to keeping the ball a little longer.
And so Dortmund went to his bread and butter. When you have a forward as fast and strong as Haaland, why not? At one point, he was stopped by a fringe offside call after a brilliant run that left Thomas Mueller flat-footed. Soon after, he qualified Boateng. Haaland was called for a foul, but the message was clear, as evidenced by the dirty look the veteran Bayern central defender gave him.
Of course, two can play that game. Bayern’s response at the counter saw Gnabry’s quick outburst leave Meunier behind before Lewandowski headed home his point center. The VAR canceled it (correctly) for offside, but it was close. So close that it served as a reminder of what Bayern can do and how fast they do it.
Then came the bad part for Bayern. A bad pass from Sarr caused Kimmich to fumble the ball and then, while trying to recover, knocked Haaland down. It was an unusual mistake, both mental and physical, by Kimmich, and could have resulted in a red card. Instead, it resulted in Kimmich being injured. Corentin Tolisso replaced him, and for a minute you felt that without the Bayern metronome, Favre could find the advantage he needed.
Things got even better for Dortmund when Guerreiro (again on Sarr’s side) brought him in for Marco Reus to break the deadlock, and it looked like Dortmund would enjoy the luxury of a lead at halftime. But deep into injury time, Thomas Delaney slammed into Gnabry’s back and Bayern received a free kick from the edge of the area. Lewandowski, Gnabry and Alaba stood next to the ball at the conference, like Logan Roy’s sons wondering what to do next. It ended with Alaba hitting Roman Burki with the help of a big deflection from Meunier.
They say that conceding a goal just before half-time is one of the most daunting things in sport. Well, conceding a draw just before half-time is even worse. And give up another, right after the break, well that’s just the pits.
It was a standard Lucas Hernandez cross, made an attractive gift for Lewandowski’s brilliance and aerial prowess. He crossed paths with Mats Hummels (he’s not far behind himself) and leaned against him to get just enough torque to steer him to the far post.
Two goals in four minutes on each side of the break. Brutal.
Dortmund’s reaction was furious but messy, and again, Bayern could have increased their lead. Coman was denied first by the mail, then by Roman Burki. Dortmund turned the screws, camping in the Bayern half, but knowing that the counterattack could come at any moment. Flick responded with another fresh pair of roadrunner legs, while Leroy Sane replaced Coman. And sure enough, it was Sane who ended a classic Lewandowski counterattack to make it 3-1.
Haaland pulled one back with the kind of move that, when executed flawlessly, simply can’t be countered – the dink over the top with the great Norwegian running away from the last defender. It was the kind of two-man transition move that’s not really a game plan, but something you have to take when it comes to you.
On this day, I was going to need a smart game plan Y a lot of energy and young talent to revolutionize Bayern. Dortmund had the latter, usually, but the former was canceled early.
It might have been a different story without Alaba’s punch from the goal just before half-time, but that’s also the mark of the champions: getting slapped in the face and persevering like nothing. And Bayern, as he proved again, are the alpha club of the Bundesliga for a reason.