Despite regaining some form, Bayern are still miles behind Borussia Dortmund. The Bumblebees’ resurgence proves to be both a threat and a blessing for a club in the midst of a crucial transition.
Bayern fans, and surely the club itself, have been pretty busy with the current state of the team. Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry are all but confirmed to leave. Other figureheads, like Mats Hummels or Thomas Müller, are seeing their place put into question. James Rodríguez, who was almost certain to sign permanently for the club six months ago, is knee-deep in speculation about his future. Never mind Niko Kovač, who has been at the centre of every single point of discussion.
Most of Bayern’s woes this season are internal. People from all levels of the football world have discussed them at length. However, there is one major factor that is external, and has been somewhat overlooked. Such is the breadth of the internal turmoil at Bayern.
Borussia Dortmund are once again a team to fear.
After trouncing Bayern in both the Bundesliga and the DFB-Pokal back in 2012, Dortmund has struggled to keep up with the Bavarians. After 2013, they have only won two titles: the 2016-17 DFB-Pokal and the 2014 Supercup. In 2014-15, they ended the Bundesliga in seventh place. Last year, they bowed out of the Champions League in the group stage, having failed to win a single game.
All the while, the higher-ups at the Westfalenstadion have been trying to rebuild the team. The road has been less than friendly. Dortmund has had a few unsuccessful signings here and there, like that of Adrián Ramos and Andriy Yarmolenko. They even had a bomb attack on their bus, the consequences of which forced Marc Bartra back to Spain.
In the managerial side of things, the departure of Jürgen Klopp also signalled a turning point. His successor, Thomas Tuchel, brought some hope to the fans with his similarities to Klopp and his desire to drive the team forward. However, his turbulent relationship with CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke and other important figures in the club led to his departure in 2017. BVB nicked Peter Bosz from Ajax, who had reached the Europa League final. Alas, Bosz failed to keep Tuchel’s momentum. As I said before, the team failed to win any of its Champions League games and went winless in the Bundesliga from September to mid-December.
On 10 December, Watzke and his entourage had enough.
Peter Stöger stepped in to help the team out of the ditch and did so to a reasonable extent. Still, the Bumblebees lacked consistency and Stöger stepped down in May.
Dortmund on steroids
Enter Lucien Favre. The man boasts extensive Bundesliga experience. This earns him credit with both the club and the players. Marco Reus knows him from his Borussia Mönchengladbach years, where he made the leap to elite player. He had been away from Germany for the past two years, having spent them in France managing Nice. Somebody in Dortmund said “hey, he’s a good choice”, which is something someone at Bayern should have said as well.
Dortmund also finalised the parsimonious transition from much of its older squad. Despite already being forced into the bench by Roman Bürki, Roman Weidenfeller finally retired. Nuri Şahin, Gonzalo Castro, Yarmolenko and Erik Durm were offloaded.
But no exile in football is complete with an incoming stream of players – except if you’re Bayern and you sell your backup left-back. Dortmund signed Axel Witsel, Thomas Delaney, Abdou Diallo, Paco Alcácer and Achraf Hakimi, all of whom are currently in Favre’s prototype XI. Marius Wolf, Marwin Hitz and Eric Oelschlägel joined to deputise.
Alcácer and Hakimi signed on loan, having struggled in past seasons to get playing time at Barcelona and Real Madrid, respectively. While Hakimi is presumably going to return to Madrid, Dortmund have already exercised their option on Alcácer, signing him permanently and until 2023. He has scored 11 goals in 13 games so far in the season.
All in all, Dortmund are playing asphyxiating, exciting football. They lead the league in terms of goals with 39, and trail only Leipzig in the defence department, having conceded 14 goals. By contrast, Bayern have scored 28 and conceded 18. In the Champions League, they topped the group with a remarkable 4:0 win over Atlético de Madrid, and a goal tally of 10:2.
Make no mistake. Dortmund are the team to beat this year. It took them all these years to get back to it, but now there are no signs of stopping them.
While Dortmund are all smiles, as I said, Bayern are filled with doubts. Not even a solid performance in the Champions League group stage is free from scrutiny. Die Roten‘s 3:3 draw with Ajax had as many negatives as it did positives. Many fans took issue with Kovač’s statement that it would not be the end of the world if Bayern ended up advancing in second place. The team’s lack of discipline invariably results in conceding goals. Were it not for Robert Lewandowski’s remarkable form, Bayern would be considerably worse off in all competitions.
It’s the first time that Bayern find themselves in such a position in six years. This is A Good Thing™.
For too long, the team’s underlying issues have been somewhat hidden under the rug of results. Just how drastic did the transformation of the squad have to be if they were still walking all over Germany and only narrowly missing out on European glory? The last couple of years have been a tale of performance bipolarity. Under Carlo Ancelotti, the team still remained too attached to 2013 to really make significant changes. Jupp Heynckes came in to put out a fire, not plant the seeds of change.
And if you ask me, Niko Kovač doesn’t have quite enough to go on to finalise the transition. That, on the bosses’ own account, will only come next summer. It’s late, but it’s coming. That said, Bayern hardly have a bad squad. They should be doing better. Their position in the league reflects that, but Dortmund’s excellence drives the point home.
Robert Lewandowski acknowledged this in an interview recently. He said that it is motivating to be on the backfoot. You can attribute that to anything you like: the itch of not being the best, the non-existent margin of error, or simply the fact that you know you could be doing better and having nothing to hide it with. In any case, it seems that Bayern are at least aware of it. They are no longer untouchable.
A concern for everyone
This situation might not just make the players jump into an extra gear. The suits may have to… well, follow suit. Take 2012 as an example again. After the triple disappointment of 2011-12, the club jumped into action and signed Javi Martínez for a record fee. Since then, Bayern have made high-profile signings but only in incremental steps from Martínez’s price. And while I agree that price is not necessarily an indicator of performance, the truth is that Bayern are behind the pack in the market as well. Their reluctance to splash big money on players of a higher calibre might be on death row.
The team needs a solid plan and it needs to work on it. The managerial staff need the club to nurture that plan, both from the academy and from the wallet. But all those things are less evident if you’re winning the league six years on the trot with comfortable margins over the trailing opposition. When it is you who is trying to catch up, you’re aware of it all the more.
I don’t expect Bayern to win the Bundesliga this season. Only once in the history of the league has a title contender overturned such a deficit at this stage of the season – Wolsfburg in 2008-09. The Wolves won 14 of their 17 Rückrunde games to complete the upset of a lifetime. Frankly, I can’t see Bayern winning 14 out of 17 games in their current bout of form. The Champions League is an even more far-fetched dream.
Dortmund lead the way
Bayern should take a page from Dortmund’s book. It doesn’t have to take as long as it took Watzke and his comrades to bring the team back to full steam. But it has to be done.
Trailing is good. It reminds you of your own faults and forces you to either fix them, or mask them. And as such, a part of me finds itself hoping that Dortmund win the league. For Bayern’s sake.