There has been plenty of discussion about Hansi Flick’s silver bullet, given that his Bayern Munich team submitted Barcelona to that most brutal of assassinations last week, opening up a route to Champions League glory in Lisbon where they face Lyon in a semi-final on Wednesday night.
The story of the Brazil set-pieces, from Germany’s golden summer of 2014, suggest that there really is no need to go looking for one.
Flick was assistant to Germany’s national team manager Joachim Low at the time — looking for a way to help in a World Cup quest which became substantially tougher once Marco Reus had broken his ankle and been left at home, robbing the side of pace.
To the initial scepticism of many in the squad, Low included, he pressed the idea of devoting 40 minutes of a pre-match training session to set-pieces, even creating two three-a-side teams, each of which would take three corners and three set-pieces each.
The German players had always been averse to this because set-piece training is notoriously tedious, leaving some with nothing to do but ‘scratch their balls’, as Per Mertesacker later put it.
But Flick, remembered by the players for the black tactical ‘logbook’ he carried with him during that campaign, made it his job to convince them.
Players such as Mertesacker and Philipp Lahm were also consulted on gameplans and team selections. ‘This was new,’ said Mertesacker. ‘They told us, “We want your input and your trust. Are we picking the right people?” It meant they could be sure that everything would make sense to the squad.’
A source close to the squad that summer insists this was Flick’s influence. ‘There was a collegiate way about it all that created huge spirit and belief,’ he says.
‘He was willing to ask what others thought, to look to others for the answer. There was not the usual hierarchy you expect in football.’
When Germany scored from their first corner in the 11th minute of the iconic semi-final which saw them annihilate Brazil 7-1 in 2014, Flick barely registered a reaction.
Set-piece goals had already seen the team equalise against Ghana in the group stage and beat France 1-0 in the quarter-final. The trophy, of course, was carried back to Germany.
As a New York Times profile of Flick put it after Bayern’s relentless pressing game saw them eviscerate Barcelona 8-2, his secret is that there is no secret.
Just an uncomplicated and highly analytical approach to how best to deal with the opposition, which players to pick, and a self-effacing way of managing them.
It perhaps helps that Flick has had a hinterland. He turned down an offer to join VfB Stuttgart to complete an apprenticeship as a bank clerk aged 18. When his career, which peaked as a midfield water-carrier for Bayern, ended early through injury, he opened a sports shop with his wife.
He’d spent only five years as a head coach before Bayern — self-imploding under Niko Kovac amid dressing-room strife and marooned in fourth in the table after a 5-1 hammering at Eintracht Frankfurt — promoted him from the assistant manager’s job on an interim basis back in November.
It felt like a stop-gap solution at the time; a pause before the squad was dismantled and a new one assembled from the wreckage. Iconic figures such as Manuel Neuer and Thomas Muller, out of the team, seemed relics of an old order.
Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the club’s chairman, did not provide much indication that Flick would be hanging around. The public debate coalesced around whether Bayern could afford Mauricio Pochettino’s wages.
In the circumstances, what happened next has been little less than miraculous: 31 wins from 34 games and more than 100 goals, taking Bayern to a domestic league and cup double with the personnel Flick inherited.
Muller and Jerome Boateng, whose shared history with him in the national side undoubtedly helps, are reborn. Alphonso Davies has reached another level.
Muller compares Flick’s approach to former Bayern manager Pep Guardiola — though where Europe is concerned, the 55-year-old stands on the brink of taking the club to a level which the Catalan could never reach.
Bayern reached the Champions League semi-finals in each of Guardiola’s three seasons at the club, yet when it came to the ultimate tactical test over 180 minutes against the continent’s elite, they failed.
Flick’s side blends defensive rigour with relentless pressing in a way Guardiola’s did not.
Bayern also seemed to have become utterly overwhelmed by the prospect of playing Real Madrid, who eliminated them three times in five years from 2014, twice in semi-finals.
The 2018 semi-final first leg, at the Allianz Arena, was perhaps the most depressing and brittle clash of all. Arjen Robben and Boateng limped off early and Jupp Heynckes’ side squandered multiple chances on a night when their defence fell apart.
Bayern, whose only triumph in Europe’s elite competition since 2001 came against Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund in 2013, meet the French side they defeated in the 2010 semi-finals — a year when Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan defeated them at the last hurdle.
Buoyed by a campaign which has seen them put 10 goals past Tottenham and seven past Chelsea before the dismembering of Barcelona, it is hard to see anyone impeding them now.
Rummenigge, of course, insists this was all part of a subtle plan. ‘Bayern’s future coach is Hansi Flick — and hopefully he will remain so for a very, very long time,’ he said ahead of Wednesday night’s match. ‘He has brought back important values to the team and the club.
‘We don’t just play successful football, but highly attractive football as well. This makes us happy. This was our goal.’