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May 17, 2014

Double glory for Bayern

Reaction to Bayern Munich's 2-0 win vs. Borussia Dortmund in the DFB-Pokal final.

1. Reversal of fortunes

You would think that the richest club in the land, with the deepest squad of all teams, who had just won the Bundesliga by a whopping 19 points and reached the semifinal of the Champions League, would have gone into the domestic cup final as the hands-on favourite, no matter the opposition.

But no. In midweek, no less than 75 per cent of the readers of "kicker", Gernmany's biggest football magazine, predicted that Borussia Dortmund would defeat Bayern Munich. The reason they did so is the form vs. class thing.

In England, they say "form is temporary, class is permanent" but, in Germany, it is said that "form beats class". And so what made Dortmund favourites, despite Bayern's undeniable class, was the two clubs' diverging recent form. Bayern haven't been themselves since late March, while Dortmund have been terrific during the same period.

But then something strange happened on Saturday in Berlin: the two teams switched roles.

Dortmund, haunted by injuries for the bulk of the season, could suddenly afford to bench captain Sebastian Kehl, expensive new singing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and recent Germany callup, Erik Durm. Bayern, meanwhile, had to make do (for various reasons) without Thiago Alcantara, Bastian Schweinsteiger, David Alaba, Mario Mandzukic and Franck Ribery.

Then, during the game, they lost Philipp Lahm, while Toni Kroos and Thomas Mueller suffered cramps and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer sustained a shoulder injury. Ribery came on despite being unfit and would later be substituted.

A kid called Pierre Emile Hojbjerg started on the right side of midfield before exhaustion forced him off, leading to the even more surreal sight of Bayern finishing the game with centre-back Jerome Boateng in that unlikely position and second-choice right-back Rafinha on the left.

Put differently, fate had suddenly decided to force Bayern into the role of the underdog and it was almost as if the team considered this a welcome change and accepted the new role with relish. They changed their lineup and their formation, largely because they had to, but they also changed their mindset and put in a great display of team spirit, willpower and fight. You could say they won the game with qualities rather expected of Dortmund.

2. Pressing Matters

It is often said that Dortmund's strength is the pressing game, but that's not quite correct. Their pressing game is good, yes, but what they really excel at is the transition game and the counter-pressing game.

The former is by and large what used to be called counter-attacking and means that the entire team switches from defence to attack (and vice-versa) very quickly. Dortmund are very good at this because they have so many players who are fast, both mentally and physically, and enjoy running.

What let Bayern down against Real Madrid in the Champions League semifinals was their own transition game from attack to defence and they knew that Dortmund would look to exploit this weakness just as ruthlessly, which is another reason why this Bayern looked so different from recent games.

All season, Bayern have attempted to keep the ball and play the game in the opposition's half. On Saturday, the possession was there and the ball circulation was there, but for the first hour of the game, until players on both side began to tire, this largely happened in Bayern's own territory. The team didn't carry the ball into the final third; they usually used a long pass.

This robbed Dortmund of the chance to play on the break, because if and when they won possession in their own half, most Bayern players were still behind the ball.

Further, it also defended against Dortmund's counter-pressing which means that, when the ball is lost near the opposition's penalty box, players move even further upfield in an attempt to win it back immediately.

In order to play this game, you have to attack first and Dortmund did this too rarely because Bayern smartly played around the back and, whenever Dortmund did have the ball for a longer period of time and could mount a proper attack, there were too many individual passing errors.

As Juergen Klopp said after the game, if three or four of your players aren't on top of their game, the normal approach won't work.

3. Vorsprung durch Technik

As you may know, I have long been strongly in favour of any technology than can help a referee make the right decision. And that includes instant video replay and whatever else you can think of.

In March, the majority of professional clubs playing in Germany's top two divisions voted against the introduction of a goal-decision system such as the Hawk-Eye computer setup used in England. Both Bayern and Dortmund were voted down.

So perhaps it just had to happen that the potentially deciding moment of the final game of the domestic season will rekindle the debate. On 65 minutes, Mats Hummels' header crossed the line only to be cleared by Bayern's Dante. It was fairly obvious to anyone watching the game on television, even before any replays but the referee, Florian Meyer, wasn't watching the game that way.

It's a moment that will rankle Dortmund's players and fans especially since there were also a few other decisions they can be unhappy about. There was, only seconds later, a scene where Rafinha played the man and not the ball (at which he wasn't even looking) and knocked down Lukasz Piszczek in Bayern's box. Toni Kroos was also very lucky to escape a second booking.

Yet Hummels' header was a crucial moment with a twist. In all likelihood, Hawk-Eye would have alerted the referee to the fact that the ball had crossed the line and he would have given a goal.

But what if we had had video replay? In that case, the referee (or the fourth official) would have had a look at the original TV coverage and then the slow-motion replay. And in all likelihood, he would have come to the conclusion that, yes, the header crossed the line but that Hummels was offside when the cross came in.

You wonder what Aston Villa fan Tom Hanks, in town to shoot "A Hologram for the King", made of this. Maybe he discussed the subject with the man sitting next to him, the Dortmund-supporting German director Tom Tykwer (of "Run Lola Run" fame). After all, both men know all about the power of the camera.