Bayern and Real Madrid boast the biggest continental-level rivalry in European football. Today, they are united by a similar disease, the causes of which are quite similar between cases.
Last year, Real Madrid threw Bayern out of the Champions League in a very tight tie. We have said multiple times that Bayern inflicted the elimination upon themselves. Multiple factors contributed to that: profligacy, individual errors and Keylor Navas in ridiculous form.
As we know, Madrid went on to win their third straight Champions League title. Bayern drowned on the shore once again, in the most painful of fashions. Barring the heartbreak of 2015-16, last season’s elimination was the most excruciating since the 2013 triumph.
This year, things have gone off for both sides.
A summer of changes
We knew back in October that Bayern would be in for a shaky summer. The club showed Carlo Ancelotti the door and nobody really harboured any serious hope that Jupp Heynckes would sign on for another year. In the end, despite whispers of Thomas Tuchel, Antonio Conte and even Zinedine Zidane, Bayern went for Niko Kovač.
Now, I have held that Kovač was hardly the club’s first choice. That’s not to say it was a bad one, but I cannot picture a meeting in which anyone said his name before the others. To me, it looks more like Kovač was a “Hey, there’s him!” moment.
For Real Madrid, their turbulent summer was slightly more unexpected. Not a week after the historic victory in Kiev, Zidane held a press conference to announce his departure. The club, the players and the fans were all blindsided. Why would Zidane want to leave? Spoilers: he knew.
Cristiano Ronaldo, who arguably carried the team for years by sheer force of 50+ goals every season, followed Zidane on the way out after the World Cup. The whole affair stunk of Florentino Pérez. Madrid let Ronaldo go for what looked like a ceremonial fee of €100m. To the Portuguese, this was an insult, a way of saying “you know what? Maybe you should leave. But since you’re, like, the team’s best player, you should get someone to pay something for you”.
Now, physics tells us that for every action, there is an equal an opposite reaction. Or is there?
Bayern pretty much sealed their transfer market activity before it even started. Leon Goretzka was announced in typical Bavarian fashion: as a free transfer with months to spare. Serge Gnabry had been long known to be incoming. That, coupled with the Kovač appointment, was deemed by the suits to be enough. They could trigger James Rodríguez’s buying clause in 2019 and hold out on major signings until then as well. In short, Bayern refused to use their wallet to kick-start the long-overdue revamp of the team. They were cautious.
As for Real Madrid, they stayed in the trend they had set in previous summers. Along came Álvaro Odriozola, the umpteenth Marcelo understudy. Behind him, Thibaut Courtois as an unnecessary competitor for Navas, the overly expensive-yet-promising Vinícius Júnior and, as a replacement for Ronaldo… Mariano Díaz? Pérez’s only high-profile move was poaching Spain manager Julen Lopetegui two days before the World Cup, in what proved to be a distasteful and fatal affair.
Reason for caution
Now, you could argue that both teams had enough quality to tackle on their problems. Surely, Kingsley Coman and Serge Gnabry could follow the lead of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry. Rafinha could deputise for either full-back. James Rodríguez can play in pretty much any midfield position. Indeed, this is not the space to set up an argument about this. To me, Bayern were simply too lukewarm. I base this assessment on this premise.
Real Madrid, on the back of three Champions League titles, have a team of stars. They retained their moral leader, Sergio Ramos. Luka Modrić started the season having blown the world away with his World Cup campaign. Raphaël Varane won the damn thing. Yes, they would take a hit, in the shape of fifty goals every season. But there was more to Real Madrid than simply number 7, right? Wrong.
Indeed, both teams started the season in a great way. Bayern obliterated Eintracht Frankfurt in the German Super Cup. Madrid, despite a stumble in UEFA’s counterpart, began in rampant fashion domestically. Both teams were boosted by the revival of significant players. Thomas Müller and Karim Benzema seemed to have regained their best forms.
Funnily enough, both teams started to veer into the wayside in consecutive days. Bayern kicked their slump off with a draw against Augsburg on 25 September. Real Madrid capitulated to Sevilla the next day. Both results opened the floodgates to a stream of poor results that left the teams in poor standing in their leagues. Bayern managed to prevent the crisis from spilling over to the Champions League too much. Madrid couldn’t, and lost to CSKA Moscow, a team that had not gotten a clean sheet in Europe in more than a decade.
After that, both teams compromised their standing domestically. Madrid even lost three games on the trot and failed to win at all in over a month. Bayern lost two in a row and compounded those with another two draws. As it stands, neither team looks at all poised to present a veritable candidacy for the league title. Barcelona already swept Madrid away at the Camp Nou with a 5:0 thrashing. Bayern visit Borussia Dortmund this weekend, and the prognosis is bleak.
Similar ways out?
In short, no. Real Madrid already took the nuclear route and sacked Julen Lopetegui. In a strange change in form, the Spanish press criticised the move, arguing that Lopetegui, while not free of blame, could not bear the burden for Madrid’s failure alone. To them, it was evident that the club failed to compensate for the loss of both Cristiano and Zidane. That, added to the departures that plagued the team in previous summers – James, Álvaro Morata, Pepe and the likes – simply meant that there is no depth and no B-plan.
Bayern have meanwhile rallied behind Kovač. The infamous press conference proved as much. Uli Hoeneß said yesterday that the team is transitioning from the remnants of the treble squad to a new generation. As such, Hoeneß argued, we must be patient. To me, this is oversimplifying. Yes, there is a transition going on, but the club has been as lukewarm about it as Kovač himself. Surely the Croatian’s plans were turned on their head with long-term injuries to Corentin Tolisso and Kingsley Coman, but I feel like a couple extra signings were in order.
Both teams will struggle to find their feet any time soon. Yes, Real Madrid have not conceded a goal since Lopetegui left, but they have played their games against minions. Bayern have a higher mountain to climb. But it looks like the crises of two of Europe’s biggest teams were all but separated at birth.