The experiment to start the teenager was ditched before the hour, leaving Hansi Flick with a decision to make over the striker’s immediate future
For casual observers who missed Bayern Munich’s 4-1 defeat — yes, your eyesight is fine — by Hoffenheim on Sunday afternoon, there would have been a temptation to ask: “Did Bayern rest their first-team players for the game?”
In a sense, that question will likely be on the lips of anyone who couldn’t catch the match, given just how dominant the Bavarians have been since the turn of the year. FC Hollywood’s thrashing was their first loss since Borussia Monchengladbach beat them 2-1 in early December. Their last loss of any kind came in a 5-2 friendly defeat at the hands of Nurnberg on January 11.
After a goalless encounter at home to RB Leipzig on February 9, Han-Dieter Flick’s troops racked up 22 competitive wins on the trot — 23 if you include Thursday’s extra-time success over Sevilla in the Super Cup.
However, that amazing run came to a grinding halt at PreZero Arena as Sebastian Hoeness’s troops punished their sloppy visitors. Make no mistake, this was no smash and grab victory: Die Kraichgauer had one more shot than Flick’s troops (17 to 16) and created more big chances (3-2). For observers keen on Expected Goals, the hosts’ 2.52 to 1.17 established they fashioned out way more presentable opportunities as well.
Now back to the original question on everyone’s lips. This was a full-strength Bayern side, well except for the world class Robert Lewandowski, who was only introduced in the 57th minute. Trusted in place of the outrageously prolific Pole was the highly-rated Joshua Zirkzee, the towering 19-year-old of whom a lot is expected.
Given he netted one of his four Bundesliga goals in last season’s 6-0 hammering of the Baden-Wurttemberg side, Sunday’s selection made even more sense.
In fairness, the teenager wasn’t poor in those 57 minutes on the pitch and was quite unlucky to have a self-made left-footed effort from an acute angle come back off the bar seconds before his withdrawal (replays showed it was a good Oliver Baumann save from point-blank range). Putting the ball in the back of the net would have brought the away team level at 2-2 with 30 minutes to play, giving their top marksman time to wreak havoc in the game’s closing minutes.
Indeed, the youngster was far from the worst player on the pitch for the European champions in a game where defensive errors and Die Bayern’s high defensive line were finally punished. However, he remains far from an established member of the side and was unsurprisingly sacrificed as they tried to mount a comeback.
While it’s a situation that has received little attention so far, at some point a decision will have to be made over the striker. In a season where Flick’s team are chasing silverware on numerous fronts, Zirkzee ought to get minutes, theoretically. However, the sheer drop off in quality between last season’s top scorer and the green replacement is marked, making it harder to rest the 32-year-old.
Of course, one way to approach resting Bayern’s number nine while also getting the best out of the prolific frontman will be utilising him along with the side’s best players. However, critics will be quick to point out how this strategy was followed in Hoffenheim on Sunday but failed to work out.
Whether that defeat was down to a risky defensive plan to the naked eye finally collapsing, Zirkzee coming in for the visitors’ primary frontman — thus prompting the home side to be a lot less cautious — or a bit of both is anyone’s guess.
Without the fear factor of Lewandowski to deal with, Hoeneß’s team were sturdy defensively and aggressive out of possession to launch several threatening breaks. This proved difficult for the Bavarians to deal with and the final score may have been more if Hoffenheim took advantage of other promising breaks and had Manuel Neuer not made a horde of stops.
As for Zirkzee, for those who read a lot into squad numbers, the change from 35 to 14 (vacant after Ivan Perisic returned to Inter Milan) suggests he’ll play a greater role in the Flick’s plans this season. Until that materialises consistently, though, the jury will be out on how many minutes the young forward will get, especially with the presence of Lewandowski in the team.
The option of playing Thomas Muller instead of the Poland superstar remains, too, so there’s no guarantee the Dutch-Nigerian will necessarily be trusted from the off if the seasoned striker is rested or ruled out through injury.
At 19, some will argue that Zirkzee should be getting more game time to aid his development and will suggest a loan deal will be beneficial. Given Lewandowski will be 33 by the start of next season and Muller a year younger, a year-long spell away theoretically increases his chances of pushing for a starting role, especially if the youngster thrives outside the club.
Despite Bayern’s somewhat thin squad, this solution seems the reasonable one as Zirkzee could be a beneficiary of minutes on the road, as opposed to biding his time in Bavaria for minutes that might be too few and far between.