Why there's trouble brewing at Bayern Munich – and this is Arsenal's best chance to beat them yet
If dominance and determination defined Bayern Munich’s performances under Pep Guardiola, it’s dullness and displeasure that best describe them under Carlo Ancelotti.
This season, the Bavarians are a team who win without going the extra mile. The results are there – Bayern are through to the knockout stage of the Champions League and seven points clear at the top of the Bundesliga – but the performances have frequently been lacklustre. Displays like the one in December's 3-0 victory over RB Leipzig have been few and far between.
Even the German media has decribed several of their showings as 'glanzlose Siege', meaning dull and dreary. Recent performances against Werder Bremen and Freiburg serve as perfect examples, while Bayern were also far from their best in Saturday's 2-0 triumph over bottom-feeding Ingolstadt.
No longer invicible
Bayern may have beaten Arsenal in the last 16 in 2005, 2013 and 2014, but this time around they look very vulnerable indeed
"The team must be aware that we cannot perform the way we have these last three times in the weeks to come," said skipper Philipp Lahm after the draw against Schalke earlier this month, "or we will get eliminated very quickly in more tournaments all at once."
He had a point: many of his team's domestic displays wouldn't cut it in Europe. Bayern may have beaten Arsenal in the last 16 in 2005, 2013 and 2014 (and pipped them to top spot in last season's group by six points), but this time around they look very vulnerable indeed.
Manuel Neuer even went as far as crediting good fortune for some of the champions' recent wins in the Bundesliga. But a team who have become so used to controlling games surely can't be comfortable with leaving the result to chance.
"We won’t always get so lucky that we’ll still get the cow off the ice," the goalkeeper insisted somewhat cryptically, citing a German expression which refers to saving a difficult situation.
Calm and relaxed
It's not the tactics that are necessarily the problem, though; it's the lack of aggression and intensity in Bayern's performances
Ancelotti's favoured formation is a 4-3-3, but he has also employed a 4-2-3-1 – the same system that helped the German side win the Champions League in 2013 – at times this term.
It's not the tactics that are necessarily the problem, though; it's the lack of aggression and intensity in Bayern's performances. Jerome Boateng told FourFourTwo last December that things have loosened up under their current boss – and according to alternative reports, the players aren't too keen on it.
"Ancelotti is a bit older and calmer during matches than Guardiola," Boateng told FFT. "Maybe's he's a bit more relaxed too. Tactically I don't think we have to press as much in games. Sometimes we say 'OK, you can have the ball'. That means we can drop deeper, creating spaces we can counter-attack into. That's the big change to our old mentality."
Perhaps Bayern have forgotten to keep up their guard at all times. Even Ancelotti has declared that his team aren't playing to their potential – despite all the possession, he wants his charges to play with more directness and better exploit gaps left by the opposition.
"My game philosophy is ball possession and ball control," the former Real Madrid coach explained. "But we must be faster in attack when we have the spaces to do so."
Muller has scored only one goal this campaign, a far cry from the 20 he netted in 2015/16
That doesn't sound too different to Jupp Heynckes’ philosophy, which helped Bayern to the Treble four years ago. The problem now is that a number of key players have been guilty of underperforming this year, including Thomas Muller and Douglas Costa. The former has scored only one goal this campaign, a far cry from the 20 he netted in 2015/16; Bayern have therefore become even more reliant on Robert Lewandowski. Defender Joshua Kimmich is currently the club's third-highest scorer.
Elsewhere, Boateng's long-term injury ruined the dream of a consistent parternship with Mats Hummels at the back, while it's also concerning that Bayern run less, challenge less and complete fewer passes under Ancelotti than they did under Guardiola.
The Italian’s training sessions have duly come under intense scrutiny, with many believing they’re not vigorous enough. But Ancelotti has used a similar approach at Milan, PSG, Chelsea and Real Madrid, and it didn’t stop those teams winning titles.
"Most of the workouts are with a ball," Ancelotti insists. "I don’t like to have the players run a lot without one. Still my players run 6,000-7,000 metres in a normal training session. That is enough. I’m not a coach that kills his players during training."
For all the criticism the Italian has fielded, his record in Europe speaks for itself: no manager in the history of the game has won more Champions League titles than Ancelotti. Bayern brought him to the club with precisely that in mind, and it's unfair to judge him before the knockout rounds have even begun.
The irony about all this, of course, is that the 57-year-old once said he found Bayern boring to watch because they "win the Bundesliga without even taking their hands out of their pockets". He probably wishes he could take those words back now.
And yet for all their problems, Bayern are seven points clear in the table and still have plenty of gas in the tank. It's worth remembering, too, that Guardiola's side were regularly accused of peaking too early in the season.
"It’s good when you are permanently challenged in all three tournaments and thereby also in every training session," Ancelotti said ahead of Wednesday's meeting with Arsenal. "It keeps the motivation high. When I was coach of Real Madrid and we played against Bayern in the semi-finals, the Germans had already won the domestic league way before that and no longer had the ultimate tension."
That pressure is cranking up this season, with RB Leipzig still not out of the title race yet. Bayern's current form has raised eyebrows throughout Germany, but their fans are still hopeful that Ancelotti's European pedigree will bring them a sixth Champions League trophy later this year.
It's clear, though, that Arsenal don't have as much to fear as usual.