Positive lessons from the Telekom Cup
The nonchalant manner in which Bayern Munich hoisted their second Telekom Cup trophy illustrates the relative importance of the mini preseason tournament, yet it did accomplish something good. For the fans, it's a treat to see new signings and the like, while the coaches have a chance to tinker with personnel and formations against top Bundesliga competition without losing points.
"Pep Guardiola will never be fired," Karl-Heinz Rummenigge told Welt am Sonntag before Sunday's final against Wolfsburg, "Today, I give you this in writing." With his job security apparently settled, Guardiola took the opportunity to trot out his preferred 3-4-3 formation in both matches -- relying heavily on Amatuere players and new signings Sebastian Rode, Juan Bernat and Robert Lewandowski.
Missing Arjen Robben, Dante and the World Cup-winning Germans meant the Catalan coach would have to scramble a bit for a competitive Startelf, but ultimately he'd succeed: Tom Starke in goal; Javi Martinez, Holger Badstuber and David Alaba as the back line; Rafinha, Gianluca Gaudino, Rode and Bernat across the middle with a front line of Franck Ribery, Lewandowski and Claudio Pizarro in the opening match against Borussia Moenchengladbach.
The three-man defense backfired a bit against Gladbach. The formation confusion for newly fit Badstuber in the center, the lack of pace from Martinez on the right and some misplaced passes from Alaba gave die Fohlen plenty to work with. Rafinha was no help defensively against his fellow countryman -- he concentrated instead on firing crosses into the box -- but a 2-2 draw after 60 minutes (the tournament runs two 30-minute halves) forced an automatic shootout, which Bayern edged 3-2.
That same 3-4-3 worked much more effectively in Sunday's final against Wolfsburg -- thanks to the inclusion of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg over Rafinha -- but the real stars of the tournament were two of Munich's new arrivals and a fit-again French winger.
After missing the World Cup with a dodgy back and having suffered a buttock hematoma that required surgery the past season, the Ribery of old is back -- so far, at least. He'd record a nifty chip over goalie Janis Blaswich against Moenchengladbach and an assist for Lewandowski's first against Wolfsburg. Coupled with his speed down the flank and usual dribbling flair, the Frenchman looks to be in fine fettle going into the season.
Many had pegged free transfer Rode as this season's Jan Kirchhoff -- comes over to Bayern on a free, can't crack the lineup, goes out on loan -- but these two matches might have changed some minds. Looking composed in the center of the pitch on both sides of the ball, he'd open his account for die Roten 15 minutes into the first half of the final after a cheeky back heel from Pizarro left him open.
Although the form of Ribery and Rode are definitely important, let's not kid ourselves -- the No. 1 reason everyone was watching was Robert Lewandowski, and he didn't disappoint. Although his chip over Blaswich was beautiful in its simplicity, it was his control leading up to it that is especially noteworthy.
Also, it is a goal that would not have been scored if it were Mario Mandzukic in his position. This is not a dig on Mandzukic, mind you -- he gave everything he had to the club over two seasons and racked up 33 league goals in the process -- but Lewandowski is just a different proposition. Technically brilliant with the ball at his feet and willing to track back defensively, the Polish striker might be the perfect nine for Guardiola.
In addition to the chip in the first match, he'd score a brace in the final. The first was a header over the defense from a high Ribery cross; the second, a bending effort around the Wolves' centre-backs from a Hojbjerg pass. His versatility, along with his nose for goal, makes Bayern Munich an even more threatening prospect than they've been over the past two years.
This tune-up Cup comes just before Bayern Munich's journey stateside and exhibitions against Chivas Guadalajara in New Jersey and the MLS All-Star match in Portland, Oregon. Bayern's core group of Germans won't be present in New Jersey, so fans will likely see a lineup similar to this past weekend's, but the whole team will be available for the All-Star match, and I, for one, am curious to see what the full squad can do.
Susie Schaaf is longtime blogger for ESPN. She co-hosts the only English-speaking Bayern Munich podcast @Rekord_Pod and talks Bundesliga on BBC World Service and SiriusXM FC. Follow her on Twitter @fussballsusie.