Bayern Munich exposed by Ajax: Staleness and Niko Kovac's inexperience laid bare
After the final whistle had sounded in the 1-1 draw against Ajax, Bayern Munich manager Niko Kovac appeared no less stunned than the Allianz Arena crowd about his team's puzzlingly poor showing.
"I need to first let that sink in and gather my thoughts," Kovac pleaded with TV reporters, making no secret of his struggle to come to terms with the deeply disconcerting concoction of failure he had just witnessed.
Bar the determined, muscular opening 15 minutes of the game, his team had been so sloppy in possession, disorganised in transition and passive in defence that Ajax could count themselves unlucky to come away with only a draw.
"The bottom line is: this was a point won for us," Kovac stated with brutal honesty once he had collected himself. And his Bayern players were just as self-critical about their many shortcomings. Joshua Kimmich cited the "bad possession game;" Arjen Robben bemoaned his team "always being late" in comparison with their young opponents.
"We're making a lot of mistakes, don't keep the ball well enough and can't counter-press as a result," Thomas Muller added. "It was up and down; Ajax exuded fun on the ball. We want more control."
The symptoms of Bayern's malaise were easily identifiable. Finding an actual explanation for their dramatic loss of form over the course of seven days proves a much harder task, however.
While disappointments in the league -- a 1-1 draw with Augsburg; a 2-0 defeat at Hertha Berlin -- had been waved away, blamed on minor digressions such as too much rotation and a bit of carelessness in front of goal, nothing had prepared Bayern for the total breakdown of their game they suffered on Tuesday night.
"Nobody could expect that after our start with seven [victorious] games in row," Kovac said.
In those opening weeks of the season, player after player had come out to praise the new man in charge for his attention to detail and demanding regime, crediting him for a marked upswing in performances that were in parts reminiscent of the Pep Guardiola heyday.
Bayern's big preseason decisions -- the appointment of Kovac and holding off on overhauling the attacking section of squad for another year -- appeared thoroughly vindicated. Tuesday night, however, painfully reminded the grimacing club bosses in the VIP seats why there had been so much anxiety about their course of action in Munich ahead of this campaign.
The Ajax game showed their deepest fears come true. It exposed both the manager's inexperience and the staleness of a team packed with a few too many veterans.
Kovac's ill-conceived central set-up, with a miscast Muller and the strangely out-of-sorts Javi Martinez next to Thiago, enabled Ajax to channel the Germans' build-up play to the flanks. That was where the visitors were at their most dynamic and effective, and the hosts, conversely, cumbersome and blunt.
At times, Bayern's openness, lack of pace in the final third and constantly interrupted ball circulation echoed Germany's problems against Mexico at the World Cup; it took Kovac over an hour to introduce much-needed stability in possession with the introduction of James Rodriguez.
The Croatian manager remains convinced that a return "back to basics" in the shape of more focus and better application will bring about an immediate improvement against Borussia Monchengladbach at the weekend, but the fact that Muller admitted the team's psyche was affected by three games without a win suggests that anxiety might have infected the dressing room as well.
As much as the draw against Ajax doesn't really hurt Bayern's chances in the Champions League given Benfica and AEK Athens are in the same group, something more important than two taken-for-granted points was momentarily lost on Tuesday: the club's peace of mind.
Sabener Strasse, prone to restlessness at the best of times, is no longer certain that everything will be fine with the current set-up in place.