Bayern fans relish in what they call strategic pessimism. For every thing that could go right, there are two more that could go wrong. Here is how Bayern’s 2018-19 campaign could go off the tracks.
My good friend Michel published a piece in which he took a look at all the things that make Bayern fans hopeful this season. I will do the opposite. I will tell you why you should think this will be a disastrous year. Or at the very least, a mildly bad one.
So, without further ado, cue the scepticism and the pessimism.
The fall of possession football looms large
If you were still living under a rock after the World Cup, Joachim Löw lifted it from over your head. In his press conference to announce changes to the German national team and discuss its debacle at the World Cup, Löw was very clear. “Real Madrid won three straight Champions League titles without much of the ball”, he said. Indeed, it was a fatal error in judgement of his to keep relying on possession to win games.
He’s right. Ever since José Mourinho took over Madrid, los Blancos could not care less about the ball. Contrary to popular belief, this does not mean that they will give it away for the sake of it. Rather, it means that they are comfortable without it, and are happy to absorb some pressure if it means opening up spaces on the break. Their counterattacking prowess is something they exploit at the expense of teams like Bayern who try to bring down every single team they play with a chokehold inside their own box.
The question here is, how will Bayern address this paradigmatic change? Players like James Rodríguez and Thiago Alcântara use possession. Bayern’s defenders are quite used to playing high upfield and helping with choking the other team, not absorbing pressure. Sure, you can do that against Darmstadt, but a team like Atlético or Madrid themselves will not be as easy to grind down. I feel the team is yet to face opposition that will force it to change its mindset. And when they do, I fear they will not do it successfully.
The elephant in the room
Coman fell victim to yet another lengthy injury in the Bundesliga opener against Hoffenheim. This means two things: that Bayern are left without their best winger, and that the ensuing reshuffle will put Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry in the frontlines.
Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and the players themselves have insisted that there are no old players; just good ones and bad ones. I am certainly not part of the amnesic collective of Bayern that blames Robbéry for every little thing that goes wrong with Bayern. However, I am not blind to the fact that they cannot be expected to start every single game and perform like they did in 2013. Both are injury risks and neither is physically as competent as they were five years ago.
Serge Gnabry is the remaining natural winger. Suffice to say, he is untested and is yet to make an impression – good or bad. Given that Bayern have always relied on the wings for offensive play, this is worrying. Thomas Müller has said what we all knew: he prefers to play behind the striker. James is another option, but he is not a natural winger either.
Kovač has his work cut out for him in this department.
The domestic challenge
Michel referred to a glass ceiling in his piece. Indeed, one of the reasons Bayern steamrolled across Europe and Germany in 2013 was Borussia Dortmund’s short-lived reign of tyranny in the Bundesliga and the DFB-Pokal. Defeats like the 2:5 in the 2012 Pokalfinale and the disastrous end of the 2010-11 season put blood in Bayern’s eye.
After 2013, Bayern has dominated in Germany at will. Nobody has even come close to contesting the Bavarian hegemony in the league. Only sporadic meltdowns have prevented a similar rout in the Pokal.
The fact is simple: domestic competition keeps you on your toes in March, April and May. These are the months that matter for European glory. The nature of knockout competition means that you get two chances to advance, and anything less than top-level puts you in danger of elimination. Bayern’s heartbreaking exit to Real Madrid last season did have an element of refereeing to it, but the fact remains that, had the team capitalised on its chances, the referees’ mistakes would have been anecdotes rather than turning points.
It is too early to really assess whether the likes of Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig, Wolfsburg or perhaps Mönchengladbach are up for it. Most rational Bayern fans hope they are.
The giants have grown
In Europe, the picture presents itself as a stark contrast. With the notable exception of Real Madrid, most European contenders have indulged in strong reinforcements. Liverpool, who reached the Champions League final in Kiev, made moves for Naby Keïta, Alisson Becker, Fabinho and Xherdan Shaqiri. Manchester City brought in Riyadh Mahrez. Barcelona indulged in snatching Malcom from Roma, as well as signing Artur, Clement Lenglet and our own Arturo Vidal.
I agree with Michel that not signing players does not necessarily imply losing to teams that do. But I maintain my assessment that at least one position needed reinforcements. Yes, Bayern did sign players, but neither Leon Goretzka or Gnabry are the blockbuster signings that count as statements of intent. There was no Javi Martínez this summer.
As before, it remains to be seen whether this will be a good thing or a bad thing. But right now, I’m more inclined to bad than good.
A rocky ride
There is no real way to tell whether 2018-19 will be a good year or a bad year for Bayern. For the first time in ages, however, I feel more sceptical than hopeful. Perhaps Niko Kovač will do his part to shut me up. I’ll happily eat my words if he does.