Willy Sagnol can play it two ways after succeeding Carlo Ancelotti as Bayern Munich boss on an interim basis: steady the ship, rejuvenate established yet disheartened players, and effectively keep the job warm for a full-time successor down the line; or perhaps he'll make a play to keep the job for the longer-term, stamping his own image on the team…
bundesliga.com trains the microscope on what those two possibilities might look like…
Bayern may only be three points from Borussia Dortmund's table-topping pace in the Bundesliga, but recent results have been uncharted territory for the German record champions. Five losses from six pre-season friendlies across the International Champions Cup and Audi Cup didn't augur well for the Bavarians, but it was the 2-0 defeat to Hoffenheim, the 2-2 draw with Wolfsburg and then Wednesday's 3-0 loss at Paris Saint-Germain that really put paid to the Ancelotti era.
The Italian tactician started the campaign playing a nominal 4-3-3 which accommodated the club's embarrassment of riches in defensive midfield positions, but while he wasn't helped by injuries to Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng and David Alaba, other established stars found themselves on the bench more often than they would have liked. Robbery - Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery - stole the show last season with a combined 21 goals and 26 assists in all competitions. But this term the duo had already started eight games from the bench between them. When Thomas Müller was given the same treatment in the 2-0 win over Werder Bremen on Matchday 2, he spoke out. "Obviously my qualities are not entirely wanted," he said. "I don't know what the coach expects of me."
Tried and trusted
Sagnol, the assistant manager throughout this time, might readily revert to the 4-2-3-1 that brought Bayern an unprecedented fifth consecutive Bundesliga title last season. At right-back his hand is - happily - forced by the emergence of Joshua Kimmich as a genuine successor to Philipp Lahm for club and country, but with Ribery, Robben, Thiago Alcantara and Boateng reinstated on a full-time basis, the Frenchman could field a team with over 2,000 Bundesliga appearances to their name, four of whom started Germany's triumphant FIFA World Cup final against Argentina three years ago.
Despite recent travails, much of this Bayern team picks itself: Robert Lewandowski remains one of the deadliest strikers in the business with seven goals in six Bundesliga games so far; Alaba and Kimmich are without equals as full-backs within the squad, and perhaps beyond. Neuer is widely regarded as the world's best goalkeeper. When he returns from foot surgery in the New Year, there's no question he'll reclaim his No1 position from Sven Ulreich.
But what if Sagnol decides to shake things up? It's perhaps not why Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge moved to appoint the Frenchman, but a look at Sagnol's recent Bordeaux teams can shed some light on his preferred formation, and also, perhaps, whom he might elect to play.
Bayern's Bordeaux vintage?
Sagnol, a five-time Bundesliga champion with Bayern between 2001 and 2008, was most recently a head coach with Bordeaux in France's Ligue 1 for two years from 2014, and he steered his charges to UEFA Europa League qualification in his maiden campaign. Could that season provide the blueprint for Sagnol's Plan B?
Sagnol played an unorthodox 4-3-1-2 with Bordeaux, with a midfield base of Gregory Sertic, Jaroslav Plasil and Nicolas Maurice-Belay giving the mercurial Wahbi Khazri the chance to shine at No10. Nine goals and five assists from the Tunisian were a fine return for a team that finished sixth in the French top fight. Up front, target man Cheick Diabate was partnered with withdrawn forward Diego Rolan, who top-scored with 15.
Further back, a defence with the overlapping Mariano and Diego Contento – a Bayern youth academy product – was underpinned by hulking centre-backs Nicolas Pallois and Lamine Sane, the latter of whom now plies his trade for Werder Bremen.
Sagnol’s preference for a front two could be the making of Müller’s season. The 28-year-old was imperious in the Supercup victory over Dortmund, functioning as a second striker beside Lewandowski much as Rolan once did for Diabate in French wine country. Lewandowski might not share Diabate’s hulking proportions, but he remains a brilliant hold-up player, quite aside from his goals. Müller might be expected to come closer to the 20-goal haul he managed two seasons ago than the five he mustered last.
Another who hasn’t quite clicked into top gear this season yet is James Rodriguez. The Colombian - signed on loan from Real Madrid - has shown glimpses of the class that saw him plunder six goals in five games at the 2014 World Cup, but he's so far had to share attacking midfield duties with Müller, as well as Robben, Ribery and Kingsley Coman. Sagnol’s Bordeaux formation frees him up, though. Müller aside, James is the only one of the aforementioned equally adept through the middle as out wide. James could prove to be the biggest winner from the latest developments in Bavaria, and there would be space in the side for him and Müller week upon week.
Ancelotti wasn’t helped this season by injury problems and an oversized squad full of serial winners used to playing every game, but the suspicion remains that he left still not knowing his preferred central-defensive partnership, with Hummels, Boateng, Niklas Süle and Javi Martinez appearing in various combinations so far this term.
Pallois and Sane both stood at 6ft 3in in that Bordeaux defence – height a prerequisite when the oppositions’ only recourse to a packed midfield and overlapping full-backs was to attack from wide and cross into the box. Süle may be the newest recruit, but pushing 6ft 4in, it could well be a question of who partners the former Hoffenheim man.
Whether he sticks or twists, the Sagnol story at Bayern figures to be a page-turner, regardless of how fleeting it may prove to be.