Bayern Munich continue to rule Germany as Bundesliga's brain drain stifles progress
If Bayern Munich's 6-2 win at Bayer Leverkusen was "an advert for German football," as Thomas Muller put it, the second DFB Pokal semifinal between Schalke and Eintracht Frankfurt (0-1) was perhaps the opposite: an attritional game, low on skill, high on VAR controversy and off-the-pitch talking points.
Both matches couldn't have been more different. But in their totality, they were also neatly emblematic of the state of the play in Germany's top flight.
Bayer Leverkusen 2-6 Bayern Munich
There were times during Pep Guardiola's reign at the Allianz Arena when opposition coaches raised the white flag well before kick-off, sending out a weakened side to spare key players the futile effort and embarrassment.
Bundesliga teams haven't been quite as a defeatist since the Catalan's departure but few have seen fit to go toe-to-toe with Bayern to the extent that Heiko Herrlich's Leverkusen did on Tuesday night.
Despite the visitors' early 2-0 lead after nine minutes, the home side didn't stop committing as many men forward as possible at any given opportunity. Bayer's courageous -- and hugely exciting -- counter-attacking game made life uncomfortable for the Bayern defence and the evening a joy for neutrals. The German champions had Sven Ulreich to thank for going into the break with a 2-1 lead.
Unfortunately, Herrlich, one of the managers of the season in the Bundesliga, overreached at the restart. He changed his system to three at the back and slotted two wingers, Julian Brandt and Leon Bailey, into the wing-back positions. Bayern, whose game under Jupp Heynckes relies on attacks down the sidelines, soon exploited the space and carved Leverkusen open at will. The game was long decided before Bailey scored a fine three kick to make it 5-2 with 18 minutes to go and Muller completed his hat trick six minutes later.
No one knows what could have happened if Herrlich hadn't lost his nerve. Perhaps a Bayern side "utterly intent on making it to the final in Berlin," (Heynckes) was always going to prove unstoppable -- "unbeatable" even, as Herrlich insisted. This version of the red machine doesn't quite produce wins with the smooth, flawless regularity of the Guardiola years, but its vulnerability is counter-balanced by an extra dose of resilience and efficiency. There's a growing sense in the Bavarian capital that all the treble talk might well have some substance to it.
For third-placed Bayer, a huge top four clash with Borussia Dortmund (level on points in fourth) beckons. The fluid attacking football showcased by the Werkself should cause plenty of problems for Peter Stoger's stodgy side. It is they, not the much more expensively assembled Black and Yellows, who have served up the tastiest share from Bayern downwards.
A Champions League starring place would be just reward for one of the few teams unafraid to emphasise playing with the ball as opposed to against in the league. But how sustainable is their extensive game when Bayer will be forced to turn up a twice a week next season and attract even more unwanted attention for their star men, Brandt and Bailey?
For the sake of the league, one must hope that Leverkusen aren't just a temporary outlier, destined to shine brightly before reverting back to the transition-game slug fest that has infected much of the division like a drug-resistant super bug.
Talking of which ...
Schalke 0-1 Eintracht Frankfurt
Two blue chip clubs, a crackling atmosphere under the floodlights, two teams who've done well in the league this season and two young managers who are going places. Schalke vs. Frankfurt had everything -- apart from football.
While both sides didn't set out to be defensive, their appetite for destruction was much greater than for forcing the issue with the ball at their feet. The 90 minutes exemplified the biggest problem in the Bundesliga. It is packed with well-functioning, expertly drilled, highly committed teams that end up cancelling each other out so comprehensively the game becomes almost unwatchable in the process.
But tactics that concentrate on compactness, pressing and turn-overs are not the root of the problem, but a symptom of a deeper structural issue. Bundesliga clubs find it harder and harder to hold on to exciting, technically gifted individualists. They either congregate at Bayern -- and to a lesser extent, Dortmund -- or get poached by foreign clubs after a good season or two. Smart coaches react to this football brain drain by making their teams more collective and muscular, independent of genius and creativity. There's little reason to assume this general trend won't continue.
Wednesday's semifinal was eventually settled by a rare moment of invention when Eintracht forward Luka Jovic scored the only goal with a fine back-heel on 75 minutes.
But in light of such little action, refereeing controversies stole the headlines once more. Schalke's Franco di Santo was wrongly adjudged to have used his hand to control the ball before he volleyed in a last minute equaliser.
Since referee Robert Hartmann had already blown the whistle, the video assistant was not allowed to intervene. Cue the familiar complaints about a tool that was designed to prevent a select few, gross imperfections but has raised unrealistic expectations of perfection as a result.
"This is not my football anymore," said Eintracht sporting director Fredi Bobic, echoing the sentiments of traditionalists up and down the country.
Frankfurt's second consecutive run to the DFB Pokal final ("worthy of the Nobel prize," coach Niko Kovac quipped) sets up a meeting of Heynckes and his successor in Berlin. But Bayern's dominance is such that any intrigue might not linger too long after kick-off.
Anything but a routine win for the champions would be huge surprise. Bayern have been nearly unbeatable since Carlo Ancelotti's dismissal. And until more of the teams below them find a way to play good, balanced attacking football, their hegemony will remain unchallenged.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and author of "Bring the Noise: The Jurgen Klopp Story." Follow: @honigstein