After four Bundesliga games without a win and criticism mounting over the absence of an out-and-out striker following Robert Lewandowski’s departure, Bayern Munich went back to basics this week.
Once Julian Nagelsmann’s players had returned from international duty on Wednesday, he immediately had them practicing their finishing at the club’s Säbener Strasse training ground.
For over half an hour in the pouring rain, reported Kicker magazine, balls flew into the penalty area from all angles as Bayern’s players worked on converting their chances.
One player in particular won’t have minded: Jamal Musiala who, according to Nagelsmann, “often stays behind to practice finishing after sessions.”
Nagelsmann was speaking to broadcaster ESPN after Musiala had inspired Bayern to a 4-0 victory over Bayer Leverkusen on Friday night, opening the scoring himself after just three minutes, setting up Thomas Müller for the second shortly after, and generally terrorizing the Werkself all evening with his unpredictable dribbles and shots.
“I’ve set my sights on getting in better positions and scoring more goals this season,” said Musiala afterwards. “It’s going very well so far.”
Indeed, after his man-of-the-match performance against Leverkusen, the 19-year-old is Bayern’s top scorer in the Bundesliga (five goals), joint-top assist provider (three), and the only Bayern player this season showing anything like the sort of consistency of performance of Lewandowski.
“He’s young, he’s talented, and he’s not 35, so there’s still lots of room for improvement,” said Nagelsmann. “His dribbling is so dangerous because he uses both feet – but most importantly, he works hard defensively as well, as we saw during the week as well against [Harry] Maguire.”
Nagelsmann was referring explicitly to how Musiala won the ball from the Manchester United and England defender at Wembley last Monday in the build-up to Germany’s second goal – and the teenager’s teammates in Munich appeared to have taken note, with Benjamin Pavard notably smothering one Leverkusen attempt to break out of their own half in the 42nd minute.
“Our counter-pressing was very good in the first half,” summarized Nagelsmann. “Good mentality, good passion, good energy.”
Coaching zone or catwalk? Julian Nagelsmann had faced some criticism
The 35-year-old coach had come in for some heavy criticism before the international break, with Kicker’s Karlheinz Wild writing:
“He’s a young coach and he’s allowed to make mistakes, but he must also be willing to learn. He is in danger of damaging his good reputation as a competent coach with some questionable decisions and inexplicable moves.”
The magazine’s veteran chief Bayern reporter was referring in particular to the decision to withdraw Musiala in the defeat away at Augsburg and the instruction to send Matthijs de Ligt up front during the draw at home to Borussia Mönchengladbach. But he also had more general warning for Nagelsmann:
“He should concentrate on his primary tasks as a football coach; the coaching zone is not a catwalk. It’s about time he defined his role as head coach of Bayern Munich.”
Nagelsmann will feel he answered those critics emphatically on Friday and, if it felt like a return to business as usual in Munich, that feeling was replicated across the Bundesliga this weekend as Borussia Dortmund lost in Cologne and surprise early league-leaders Union Berlin lost away at Eintracht Frankfurt.
Suddenly, Bayern are only two points off the top and level with Dortmund, who they face at the Westfalenstadion next week. Crisis? What crisis?
“It was the first step in the right direction, but we know not to get ahead of ourselves,” said Bayern chief executive Oliver Kahn. “We have to play like that in every game. If we do that, I’m optimistic.”
“Obviously recent results weren’t great, but today was a good game at an important juncture in our season,” added Joshua Kimmich. “Luckily, today was better and we hope it’s the start of a run.”
It was, as the Süddeutsche Zeitung headlined on Saturday morning, a “therapy session for all.” And, of course, crises are all relative.
Bayer Leverkusen have only won once in the league all season, with Kicker describing the performance in Munich as a “declaration of bankruptcy.” Head coach Gerardo Seoane’s job on the line. “I would also like to be stuck in a crisis like Bayern’s,” said Leverkusen midfielder Kerem Demirbay. “We’re very negative at the moment.”
They certainly had no answer to Musiala on Friday, when the best piece of advice on how to stop the teenager actually came from within the Bayern camp.
“Jamal is an amazing player and amazing human being. He plays with a freedom, he tries to make something happen every time he has the ball,” teammate Alphonso Davies told ESPN.
“But he can’t get past me in training; I body-check him!”
But even that won’t stop Musiala staying behind for extra shooting practice.