The Guardian (USA)

Are Bayern Munich really progressin­g under Julian Nagelsmann?

- Andy Brassell

Julian Nagelsmann might have imagined this stage of the season in many different guises when he resumed work after the World Cup. He almost certainly did not envisage this. His team will begin April with more games to shape the remainder of their campaign than they normally would at this stage, a legacy of the aforementi­oned break for the tournament in Qatar, but they will also make their way onto that road in an unfamiliar position of second place. Bayern Munich did not lose everything in Leverkusen, but any misapprehe­nsion under which they might have laboured under that this is a regular Bayern season is gone.

There were many remarkable aspects to the way in which this all unfolded; that Leverkusen showed considerab­ly more nerve than their visitors in a 2-1 win and, also, that the home side’s Amine Adli was twice cautioned by Tobias Stieler for simulation before the referee twice re-examined his decision on the monitor, twice withdrew the card with a smile and a handshake and twice awarded a penalty, both converted by Exequiel Palacios (twice to Yann Sommer’s right, in case you wondered) to bring Die Werkself from behind and guide them home.

The main motivation for scrutiny, however, was Bayern themselves. They were unusually passive, flat and uninspired save a short burst just before the winner, during which Jamal Musiala came agonisingl­y close to giving his team the lead again with a typically lithe run down the flank and a shot which refused to creep into the corner. “That’s not what Bayern is about,” chided sporting director Hasan Salihamidž­ić after the game. “So little drive, mentality, assertiven­ess. I’ve seldom experience­d that.” That Musiala, their main source of the sublime this season, was reported on Monday morning to have withdrawn from the Germany squad with a tear in his thigh muscle is another unwelcome surprise before a post-internatio­nal window programme which immediatel­y includes a Klassiker with new leaders Borussia Dortmund and the Champions League quarter-final against Manchester City.

Bayern had led at the half here, a touch of fortune at play both in Odilon Kossounou deflectiin­g Joshua Kimmich’s shot to spiral it past Lukas Hradecky, and it coming against the prevailing wind of a period that had been largely Leverkusen’s. Squeezing maximum reward from minimum performanc­e will always be a hallmark of champions, of course, but their return from the interval brought no improvemen­t. Instead, Xabi Alonso’s men emerged reenergise­d and ready to engage. They wanted the win and they got it, deservedly, against a team that simply let the second half happen to them. The goals conceded may have been a curio in the wider world but they spoke of a team just not switched on. Even if both penalties required Stieler to take a second look, the challenges by Benjamin Pavard and Dayot Upamecano on Adli were – in both cases - so wild, so uncontroll­ed, so unnecessar­y, that they spoke loudly of a lack of poise, calm and applicatio­n.

It may have taken a double save from the unpredicta­ble Hradecky late on to deny Leroy Sané then Alphonso Davies, but Leverkusen had not stolen this. They were the better team and not just that, they had controlled the key moments of the game better. If some have cast Alonso in a similar role to Steven Gerrard at Aston Villa, forging an apprentice­ship before meeting destiny and taking the top job at his old club after reaching maturity (a perception not publicly discourage­d by the Bayern top brass), the way the story has decanted has been quite different.

If Alonso’s fledgling managerial career should be considered with more reserve, the initial results are extremely positive, especially when considerin­g he took over a side battling the drop that were (at least on paper) not particular­ly well equipped for that sort of challenge. The feeling within the club is that Alonso’s skill in communicat­ion has been the key, getting his ideas across to the players quickly and clearly.

He has also done well to swiftly identify his team’s major strengths. The main area that Leverkusen have lent on since the former Spain midfielder’s arrival is a simple one, using the lightning pace of Jeremie Frimpong and Moussa Diaby on the flanks, both of whom look renewed since Alonso took charge. Here, they underlined they are more than that, with their defence looking more composed than we habitually associate with them. The employment of hardy midfielder Robert Andrich, a key player for Alonso thus far, as almost a third centre-back, really gave Leverkusen control after a midweek in which they travelled to Hungary, reaching the Europa League quarter-finals.

This sort of clarity is something we expect from Nagelsmann. “If we combine maximum hunger and passion with the quality that we have, then we can achieve anything,” he said afterwards, yet for a man of such insight and intelligen­ce, the coach is in danger of stating the absolute obvious. This is clear and it would be surprising to few if Bayern came out all guns blazing to face Dortmund and if they found the fire to dismantle their opponents. But this cycle of action and reaction is not just familiar Bayern narrative; it is familiar Bayern narrative that predates Nagelsmann. And if we know the script so well from years past it must pose the question – how much are Bayern actually progressin­g under their widely admired coach?

The fluctuatio­ns in Bayern this season are so frequent and so wild that it cannot help but invite scrutiny. They may well provide a response against Dortmund, but it seems unlikely to be a definitive answer.

Talking points

• Dortmund had taken the leadership on Saturday with an impressive­ly efficient 6-1 rout of oKöln (“We were icecold in front of goal,” as Mo Dahoud put it). Two goals from Marco Reus took him past the 150-mark for the club and a brace from Sébastien Haller was also welcome. What’s more is that after a couple of taxing weeks they might get back some missing personnel for the visit to Munich, with Emre Can, Karim Adeyemi, Youssoufa Moukoko, Salih

Özcan and Julian Brandt all absent for this game.

• Leipzig’s week, meanwhile, went from bad to worse as they slipped to defeat at lowly Bochum, following their Champions League hiding in Manchester by dropping out of the top four. Marco Rose raged at Erhan Masović’s winner from Christophe­r Antwi-Adjei’s long throw. “We talked about it and we still can’t defend it,” he complained. Meanwhile, Union followed their European exit with a 2-0 win over freefallin­g Frankfurt which lifted them back up to third.

• It’s still all happening at the bottom, where a fourth successive scoring game for Marius Bülter rescued a point for Schalke at Augsburg, while a first win for Hoffenheim under Pellegrino Materazzo – over Hertha – saw them leapfrog their opponents, who fall into the playoff position. “We just handed out gifts,” bemoaned Sandro Schwarz, the defeated coach.

 ?? ?? Bayern's Leroy Sané reacts after their loss at Bayer Leverkusen. Photograph: Martin Meissner/AP
Bayern's Leroy Sané reacts after their loss at Bayer Leverkusen. Photograph: Martin Meissner/AP
 ?? ?? Julian Nagelsmann gestures during the defeat. Photograph: Joern Pollex/Bundesliga/Bundesliga Collection/Getty Images
Julian Nagelsmann gestures during the defeat. Photograph: Joern Pollex/Bundesliga/Bundesliga Collection/Getty Images

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