DUSSELDORF, Germany (AP)It turns out Bayern Munich might need a striker after all.
After Robert Lewandowski was sold to Barcelona, Bayern coach Julian Nagelsmann has struggled with how to balance his team without a traditional center forward.
But what if the solution has been under his nose the whole time?
Lewandowski’s former backup, the 33-year-old Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, has gone from strength to strength after being given a run in Nagelsmann’s first team, with five goals and two assists in Bayern’s last four games. Against Barcelona on Wednesday at the Camp Nou, he beat the offside trap to score in Bayern’s 3-0 win against Lewandowski’s new team in the Champions League.
”I’m really happy for myself and for the team,” Choupo-Moting told broadcaster DAZN. ”We’re doing well at the moment. I always try to be a target player up top and to hold up the ball,” he said, creating chances for himself or wide players.
When Lewandowski left after averaging nearly a goal a game for Bayern for eight years, Nagelsmann devised new striker-less tactics to include the range of attacking players at his disposal, with a focus on smart movement and teamwork to exploit gaps in the defense.
Sadio Mane, Serge Gnabry, Thomas Muller, Leroy Sane and Kingsley Coman often do their best work in wider roles, while Jamal Musiala prefers to operate deeper. With the exception of new signing Mane, they had grown used to having a physical center forward like Lewandowski to give the team focus in attack. Without him, the result was a lack of goals and a four-game winless run in the Bundesliga in September which saw Bayern drop down the standings.
”We have a huge number of chances. It’s hypothetical to say how many a classical No. 9 (striker) would take,” Nagelsmann said Oct. 11. ”We don’t have that classical No. 9. It’s my job to compensate for that. The squad is good enough.”
Five days later, Nagelsmann gave Choupo-Moting his first Bundesliga start of the season. He scored one goal and set up another in a 5-0 rout of Freiburg, starting off a remarkable scoring run – two goals against Augsburg, one against Hoffenheim, then the goal against Barcelona. Not bad for a forward who hadn’t played more than 45 minutes in any game since April.
”He’s the best target man in the world,” Gnabry enthused after Choupo-Moting had dismantled Augsburg. Midfielder Leon Goretzka praised how he was ”playing with freedom.”
Choupo-Moting isn’t a direct replacement for Lewandowski – not that anyone could match the man who scored a record 41 goals in a single Bundesliga season. Nagelsmann said last week he sees Choupo-Moting as more of a traditional No. 10, a strong forward who can drop deeper and bring other players into the game.
Choupo-Moting is a rare late-to-bloom success story at one of Europe’s elite clubs. Back in 2018, he was coming off a five-goal season for relegated Stoke in the Premier League. At the age of 29, journeyman status loomed.
Then came an offer from Paris Saint-Germain, which needed a dependable forward to round out its squad and back up Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Edinson Cavani. The Hamburg-born Cameroonian seized his chance and scored the game-winning goal for PSG against Atalanta in the 2019-20 Champions League quarterfinals, then played as a substitute as PSG lost to Bayern in the final. A move to Bayern as a free agent followed, but opportunities to impress were limited given Lewandowski’s extraordinary form and his fitness to play week in, week out.
Choupo-Moting’s contract is due to expire at the end of the season but his good form could earn him an extension. It’s not a long-term solution but may help bridge the gap while Bayern develops Mathys Tel, the 17-year-old French forward seen as a key part of the club’s future, or until a potential new signing arrives.
Next up for Bayern and Choupo-Moting is a game against Mainz on Saturday when they could retake top spot from surprise leader Union Berlin. Next month he’ll head to the World Cup with Cameroon to continue an already remarkable season.
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