Is rotation the enemy of perfection for Bayern Munich after Besiktas rout?
MUNICH, Germany -- For a team that had effectively sealed progress to the Champions League quarterfinals at the halfway stage, Bayern Munich's list of complaints after the 5-0 win over Besiktas was impressively long.
"We didn't exude the necessary calmness on the ball and our passing was off," Joshua Kimmich said. "It looked careless, we were not quite at it. The sharpness and aggression (in the final third) were missing," Arjen Robben noted. Manager Jupp Heynckes, too, bemoaned "a lack of rhythm and pace" with a stern face at the news conference.
Thomas Muller, the home side's best performer on an ultimately comfortable night that ended with a huge win over the 10-man Turkish side, told ESPN FC that it was "always easy" to adopt such a self-critical approach after a victory. But that wasn't to say introspection wasn't warranted.
The scorer of Bayern's first and third goal added: "One has to be careful not to get carried away after a good result. In the first half especially, things weren't as we wanted them to be. We have to address some of these things in order, if we want to be ready for when there'll be a much tighter game, without us being one man up."
After Domagoj Vida's 16th minute dismissal for a professional foul on Robert Lewandowski, the game had stopped being an even contest. At first, Bayern seemed just as adversely affected by the decision of Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategan as the Black Eagles were, surrendering all urgency in the process. "We felt: 'Cool, a red card. It's a question of time before we score a goal,'" Kimmich explained. "It's very dangerous when that happens."
Only once Muller broke the deadlock two minutes before the break, and Heynckes administered some harsh words in the dressing room, did the German champions start to play with determination and structure. Besiktas, a squad made up of talented but somewhat indisciplined players, soon fell apart.
According to the Bayern players and their coach the "turning of a switch, mentally" that Muller spoke about was the main reason for their domination in the second half. But there had also been an important tactical tweak: The introduction of Robben for the injured James Rodriguez just before the break, which allowed the irrepressible Muller to move further inside and closer towards goal.
With this chance, Bayern had two functioning flanks: a key component for effective attacking play against deep-lying opposition. Four out of the five goals at the Allianz Arena came from wide areas, as Robben and Kingsley Coman wreaked havoc on the wings.
As much as Bayern took pride in their much-improved second half performance -- "We were much forceful going forward, exerting real pressure," Kimmich admitted -- the ease with which they eventually despatched the depleted visitors left observers wondering just how good they really were in relation to the Europe's elite.
Since Heynckes returned back in October 2017, Bayern have been winning game after game when not quite at their best. Tuesday night's demolition job was the latest example of the team getting a good result without being all that convincing. They have won 14 in a row in all competitions -- the club's best run since 1980 -- but does this serial mismatch between effort and reward breed supreme confidence or perilous complacency?
"We will only know at the end of the season," Muller said. "What I would say is that we don't just win by sheer coincidence but due to our extremely high tactical, technical and mental qualities."
The Germany international went on to mention one further quality: the club's incredible squad depth. At the business end of the campaign, Bayern have a full set of outfield players available; a wonderful position to be in and yet a bit of double-edged sword at the same time.
"We have to rotate because everybody works hard and deserves to play," Muller added. "Wholesale changes [from game to game] are essential but it's not always easy [to find your best form] when there eight or ten new players on the pitch."
Having no fixed starting XI led to Bayern "not playing with perfection; not with all the pieces fitting perfectly together," he ventured. This was not a criticism of Heynckes. According to Muller, the 72-year-old has "no choice" but to keep everybody happy by equitably dividing game time, like a shift manager in a factory. Even so, ambitious big-time players such as Robben still take demotion to the bench for key games very badly.
"I was surprised to be left out, it was painful to me. That's all I want to say," the Dutchman said afterwards. "Otherwise I have to go the bosses' office [and pay a fine.]"
Assuming everything goes as planned in the return leg, Heynckes' task will be to keep everybody on the straight and narrow before the next crucial tie when the quarterfinals come around in early in March. "He will continue to kick us up the backside," Muller predicted cheerily.
Bayern's seemingly unassailable 19-point lead in the Bundesliga table, as well as in the Besiktas tie, helpfully increases the manager's scope for chopping and changing. But worryingly for their chances in the Champions League, it won't do much for the emergence of a settled first-choice team.
Unless Heynckes changes tack in the coming months, his focus on dressing room harmony will continue to come at the price of a more cohesive game. And that may have repercussions against tougher teams than Besiktas.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert. Follow: @honigstein