Niklas Sule is set to make a long-awaited return to the Bayern Munich squad.
On October 19, 2019, in the 10th minute of the game against Augsburg, Bayern Munich central defender Niklas Sule went down with what looked like a serious knee injury and had to be taken off the field. Later in the week, the club confirmed that Sule had torn his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee (via si.com). This was a big blow for the Bavarians, who were struggling at the time in the Bundesliga and did not look like a title-contending team.
Sule was Bayern’s best center back in the 2018-2019 title-winning campaign. Even with the additions of Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez, he was an undisputed starter before his injury. His dominating physical stature combined with astute technical skills on the ball makes him a perfect modern-day center-back. He was certainly a defender for the future and was going to be a leader for Bayern for years to come. However, this injury puts those ideas into a different light.
It’s not that Sule won’t recover and won’t find his old form again. However, he may find it difficult to find a straightforward way back in the lineup. Bayern has found a very formidable duo at the center back position this season, a season where the team is in a very good position to win the treble. That duo includes Jerome Boateng and David Alaba.
Injuries to both Sule and Hernandez forced Alaba to move in central defense, while Boateng got more opportunities in the starting lineup. It was just last season where Boateng looked out of favor and was on his way out of Munich. However, after his recent commitment to fitness and appointment of a new head coach, who understands and utilizes his strengths, he has enjoyed a resurgence in the past six months.
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Alaba has always been an elite left-back. He had nailed down that position over the past seven seasons, but injuries forced him to slot in central defense. Alphonso Davies got the opportunity to play in the left-back due to the reshuffle in back four. Both players have been incredible in their roles and solidified those spots. Along with Benjamin Pavard at right-back, the backline has been playing very well.
With Sule coming back into team training this month, where does he fit into the team? The obvious answer is that he would take over Boateng’s spot as the veteran moves to a backup role or moves to a new club in summer. However, it will be too harsh on Boateng to be dropped after such a long period of good form.
Then there’s Hernandez, who hopefully has put his injuries behind and can commit to finding his top form at Bayern. Flick has put Hernandez beside David Alaba a couple of times in the center back role. If he can continue developing, could make the case to replace Boateng or Alaba himself. And given the amount of money Bayern paid for Hernandez, he will be given every chance to prove himself.
Bayern also has another center back on their roster, who is currently playing out of position, and that is Benjamin Pavard. Pavard came from Stuttgart as a center back, only having played right-back for the French national team. That was enough for Bayern to excessively use him in that position. However, the recent reports suggest that Die Roten is keen on adding a new right-back. The French international had recently revealed that central defense is his preferred position. A new acquisition could potentially move Pavard to the center, creating more competition for those positions. Based on the current performances of Pavard and as long as he wishes to play there, the right-back position will be his for the future.
These are all hypotheticals, of course, but they are realistic questions that can be up for debate when the 2020/2021 season begins. Sule was such a pivotal player for the team last season, performing well this season as well before his injury. He wanted to become a leader in defense after the departure of Mats Hummels, and Jerome Boateng being assigned a reduced role in the squad. The German international will face a tough fight when he returns and may find himself way down the pecking order.
It is not going to be straightforward due to the performances of other center-backs. There’s no way Bayern will consider selling Sule as his peak years are ahead of him. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how he fits back into the squad. With Sule’s return, Flick is soon going to have a good selection headache in a position where his hands were tied throughout the season.