Kingsley Coman’s injury deals a considerable blow to Bayern’s end-of-season aspirations. However, there is no time for weeping. Bayern must find alternatives to minimise the impact and keep the results coming.
After losing some steam in Carlo Ancelotti’s tenure, Coman has regained the startling level of form that endeared him to Bayern fans in 2015-16. WhoScored rates him as Bayern’s 9th best player of the current campaign, with an average rating of 7.21. The young Frenchman has made 32 appearances this season, scoring seven goals and providing eight assists. Everyone at Bayern agrees that number 29 is an integral part of Bayern’s future, which made it logical to exercise the buying option in the loan terms with Juventus.
Make no mistake: losing Coman for what could be the rest of the season is one of the more sensitive blows Bayern could sustain. And they did.
No single answer
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Franck Ribéry’s observable and provable decline. In that piece, I argued that Ribéry’s predicament was made worse by the fact that Coman is stepping on his heels. Indeed, this remains true and Ribéry should be considered second to Coman. As a result, one could argue that the solution is simply to have Ribéry step up and deputise.
Doing that would be a mistake. In fact, I would argue that there is no single answer to the problem. Coman may be hugely important, but let’s not come up here and pretend he was perfect for every game. The premise, then, becomes that die Roten lost one of their options. It may well be the best all-around option, but it never was the only one. We have to take a more nuanced look at the problem and identify potential solutions for different kinds of circumstances.
The reasoning behind choosing a starter stems from two main factors. The first is the quality of the opposition. This can mean anything from table position to results, to individual players, to historic position. However, facing Barcelona is not the same as facing RB Leipzig, regardless of recent results. This is where tactics come in. There are many questions you can ask to acquire pointers in selecting a player. Where does a team set their focus? Are they strong in the midfield or at the back? Do they favour possession or do they like to absorb pressure and counter at the break? How experienced are their players? What are their weaknesses and how can they be exploited?
Franck Ribéry: the Ferrari for the track
Top opposition requires a player that knows exactly what is needed and how to deliver. Indeed, experience plays a crucial factor. This is one of Coman’s weak points, even though he usually compensates for his lack of intelligence with sheer speed and power. Sometimes, you don’t need to fight fire with fire. You need a cool head. Thus, Franck Ribéry could prove to be a viable option. Indeed, he could deliver the best of him under the right circumstances. Given rest, proper support and the right mindset, number 7 could be an important asset in difficult games.
Carlo Ancelotti pointed towards this sort of thinking when referring to Ribéry as a Ferrari. Much like you don’t use a Ferrari to do your weekly shop, you don’t misuse Ribéry against Paderborn. His age and decline mean that he is no longer suited for three-games-every-day use.
Thomas Müller: raumdeutering from the left
This is an admittedly more experimental approach. If and when Müller plays on the wing, there are two things to consider. First, he rarely actually sticks to the wing, instead preferring to roam around as he does. Secondly, he always plays on the right. I mean that literally. I looked at Müller’s profile on Transfermarkt. The website does not list a single game where Müller started from the left.
There are a few potential benefits to having Müller come in for Coman. For instance, number 25 is right-footed. If you want him to provide incisive passes for Robert Lewandowski or Sandro Wagner’s diagonal runs, this is a good place for him to be. Playing on the left means he needs to run deeper to be able to cross the ball in, which he likes doing. Also, expect Müller to roam inwards, regardless of which side of the field he is at.
The experimental nature of this approach means that Müller should probably not be used as a left winger against hard opposition. Unless there is a particular training focus on adapting him to that position, experimenting is not what you want in high-stakes games. Of course, this is not excessively far-fetched. I could be wrong and it could work.
James: he has done it before
When James Rodríguez signed for Real Madrid, questions abounded about where he fit in the squad. With Isco, Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos crowding the midfield, and a system that did not make use of a traditional number 10, the Colombian was a bit of a question mark. Carlo Ancelotti responded by lining him up on the left, just behind Cristiano Ronaldo. He did this on James’ first game, no less, at the 2014 UEFA SuperCup. Ancelotti hardly innovated with this move. Indeed, James played plenty of games on the left in his time at Porto. In fact, Transfermarkt lists a total of 51 games where James has been used as a left winger.
Here’s the bit you probably didn’t remember: four of those games were Bayern games. James scored a goal as a left winger against Leipzig back in October. He made additional appearances in that position against Anderlecht, PSG (the one we lost), and Borussia Mönchengladbach.
Of course, there are caveats. Placing a left-footed player on the left limits their shooting possibilities. It also means that James could be easier to defend against, since he would need to use his right to cut inside, or else stick to the byline. However, he remains a solid option, with a proven track record.
Other options and tactical issues
Both David Alaba and Juan Bernat have played as left midfielders. They wouldn’t necessarily be wingers, given their defensive nature. I would also not advise using them in midfield or attack against the higher-level opposition – many of us remember Bernat’s disastrous performance against Barcelona in the 2014-15 Champions League semifinals. Still, they are there. They could easily go into a potential rotation scheme.
More important, however, is the issue of the tactics. I said before that tactical considerations with regards to the opposition are important in choosing a startelf. This is also true of the team’s own scheme. It’s one thing to play as a winger in a 4-3-3, and a wholly different one to do so in a 4-2-3-1. It is this sort of issue that makes managers worth the money – and indeed, Heynckes is worth every penny.
The good news remains that Bayern are in no shortage of options. Yes, losing Coman is worrisome and will likely impact the team in observable ways. However, we can stop short of a collective panic. Heynckes and his staff have taken good care of the team’s injuries and there should be enough in the barrel to cope with the absence.