Bayern Munich coach Hansi Flick says he is happy with his side's extra defensive options heading into a busy second half of the season, hinting that 16-year-old Bright Arrey-Mbi may have a part to play alongside new loan signing Alvaro Odriozola and the returning Lucas Hernandez.
Arrey-Mbi, the youngest member of Bayern's squad during their mid-season training camp in Qatar, drew praise from senior teammates Joshua Kimmich and David Alaba, with the former describing him as "a beast". Flick himself also had warm words for the centre-back, who joined the club's U19s from Chelsea last summer.
"I was really impressed with Bright," the Bayern boss said in a press conference on Friday, ahead of Bayern's Matchday 19 clash with Schalke on Saturday. "He did an excellent job, both in terms of his tackling and how he controlled the ball under pressure. I don't think you necessarily have to wait until a player turns 17 [for them to make their Bundesliga debut]."
Flick has certainly shown a willingness to give youngsters their shot, with 19-year-old Alphonso Davies seizing his opportunity with both hands to become a first-team regular at left-back. Striker Joshua Zirkzee, 18, made headlines with two goals in two Bundesliga cameos against Freiburg and Wolfsburg, while reserve prospects Leon Dajaku and Sarpreet Singh also made their top-flight debuts before Christmas.
Defensive injuries have been a source of concern for Bayern this season, even if they have limited the damage rather admirably with the unorthodox centre-back pairing of left-back Alaba and defensive midfielder Javi Martinez. The record champions have kept six clean sheets and shipped 22 goals in 18 Bundesliga outings - only two more than Borussia Mönchengladbach, who boast the division's meanest backline.
There is light at the end of the tunnel for one of the squad's long-term defensive absentees. While Niklas Süle will remain unavailable for several more months as he recovers from a cruciate ligament injury, 2018 FIFA World Cup winner Hernandez is approaching a comeback after being sidelined for three months with ankle ligament damage.
"Lucas is making good progress and has taken part in training," Flick explained. "Now we have to see how his ankle reacts to the full load. I'm very satisfied with how he's doing. It looked a bit different at the training camp, but now I have real [defensive] options. And as long as the transfer window is open, a lot of things can still happen."
Indeed, this week Bayern secured the services of Spanish right-back Odriozola on loan from Real Madrid. In a similar vein to Davies, the 24-year-old should provide pace and attacking threat from the full-back position. His acquisition will potentially free up Benjamin Pavard to play more centrally, and enable Kimmich to continue his development as an increasingly influential defensive midfielder.
"With Alvaro's signature, we have even more options," Flick acknowledged. "We wanted to bring in a full-back to have another option for the centre. He's an attack-minded defender who boasts speed and fine crossing ability. I'll give myself until the last minute to decide [who will play]."
However he lines up against the Royal Blues, one area where Flick should have fewer headaches is in attack. Bayern struck four times away at Hertha Berlin last time out, with Robert Lewandowski converting a penalty to take his season tally to 20 goals, and Thomas Müller, Thiago and Ivan Perisic joining the prolific Pole on the scoresheet. Philippe Coutinho is expected to join them in the starting XI on Saturday, with Serge Gnabry another high-spec option and Kingsley Coman, like his compatriot Hernandez, nearing a return after injury.
"I was impressed by how Schalke played against Gladbach, with a lot of intensity and high attacking pressure," Flick warned. "They deserved to win. We have to be prepared for the fact that they will try to squeeze us and put us under pressure."
Bayern know what to expect, then - but it's perhaps Schalke who should beware of the weekend's daunting trip to the Allianz Arena, where they'll face a side they haven't beaten in any competition since 2011. Throw in the champions' new-look defence and fine-tuned attack, and it could be a very long evening indeed for David Wagner's side.