‘Bayern are Bayern.’ That, for many, is understandably enough. Despite years of underdeveloped recruitment and a transitional first season under Niko Kovac, Munich overhauled Dortmund to win back their title for a seventh consecutive time. The club’s imperious aura seemingly as much to thank as Kovac’s underappreciated management, and many suggest that may be decisive once again. However, an underwhelming and somewhat fortunate opening draw with the visiting Hertha Berlin and stuttering transfer dealings suggest things may be finally changing.
With Bayern still working hard to strengthen late in the window, Borussia Dortmund’s new additions have all been in situ since the start of the Summer. Nico Schulz, Julian Brandt and Thorgan Hazard were all announced well before the end of May while Mats Hummels’ return was the last to be agreed, official confirmation coming on June 19th. With Christian Pulisic’s move to Chelsea sorted in January, of their major departures only defender Abdou Diallo would have been disruptive – and even he left for Paris before Dortmund’s first pre-season friendly. BVB were exacting in the market, allowing their full first team squad to begin preparations as a complete group meaning Lucien Fvare’s side could hit the ground running – as their eventual demolition of Augsburg underlined. A tally of 5 might have been more.
Bayern’s draw with Hertha was, at least initially, tinged by misfortunate. They dominated for long periods and perhaps should have been further head by the time Dodi Lukebakio’s 36th minute shot ricocheted past Manuel Neuer to cancel out Robert Lewandowski’s opener. Nevertheless Bayern gave the appearance of a team still under construction. Despite 71% possession and 17 shots, 11 more than Hertha, cohesion was intermittent as was a cutting edge.
In the end, Bayern were happy with a point. A fluid move, which resulted in midfielder Marko Grujic skipping round Neuer, put Ante Covic’s men ahead just two minutes on from Lukebakio’s equaliser. Grujic nevertheless foolishly spoiled his good work with half an hour to play after a tangle with Lewandowski, that was off the ball but in the penalty area, and led to a VAR assisted penalty which the Polish forward professionally dispatched for 2-2.
Perhaps a little spooked by Friday’s blunt performance, Bayern’s council of elders have since accelerated their transfer plans. Inter winger Ivan Perisic joined on loan with an option to buy just before the opener at the Allianz and was followed by France Under 20 midfielder Mickael Cuisance from Borussia Mönchengladbach while a £7.8m loan fee was paid for Philippe Coutinho from Barcelona.
Cuisance in theory fits the main objective of Bayern’s Summer rebuild – to make the squad younger. Although graceful on the ball the talented barely 20-years-old, having spent the majority of Gladbach’s campaign on their bench, remains some way from Bayern’s first team. Perisic and Coutinho meanwhile are slated to fulfill the second main aim: replace Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery.
At and 35 and 36 respectively both had reached the end of their Bayern careers by the end of 18/19 and although they were still sporadically influential on the pitch in an injury affected final season, Serge Gnabry and Kingsley Coman has already begun to assume their roles full time. Replacing “Robbery” in an emotional sense was perhaps the real, and much more difficult, task. With the likes of Mario Mandzukic, Toni Kroos, Phillip Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger long departed, although admittedly Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Javi Martinez and co remain, without Robben and Ribery there is a sense that the era that encompassed Jupp Heynckes’ 2013 treble winning side and Pep Guardiola’s reign is now undeniably at an end.
While it’s hardly surprising in modern football that such a squad has changed dramatically in six years, there was a sense that their generation, crucial to Germany’s World Cup win in 2014, had come to define the modern Bayern Munich and that group of players, sportingly, emotionally and ideologically, had been relied upon for a long time. Too long, evolution has been glacial in terms of the player staff during that period.
While Bayern’s resources might not be on par with Manchester City or PSG, up to Lucas Hernandez’s record signing the only real marquee additions since Summer 2015 were Hummels and perhaps Corentin Tolisso. In that time Schweinsteiger, Mario Gotze, Douglas Costa, Lahm, Xabi Alonso, Arturo Vidal, Robben, Ribery and Hummels have all left. As a result, beyond strengthening their squad, this summer needed to see Bayern squash half a decades worth of change into one transfer window and replace their team’s heart, not just it’s best players.
Given this, movement has again been slow compared to Dortmund’s professional, business like window. Although Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez were acquired well in advance of the new campaign, recruitment then halted until last week despite continual links to further signings. As a result, Perisic and Coutinho’s additions seem a little desperate. Experienced big name international players, once of high quality (although that’s more true of Perisic than Coutinho) brought in on loan late in the window to fill gaps. Kicker described Perisic as “plan B” while Niko Kovac conceded that, having coached him previous with Croatia, “I brought him into the team because I know him.”
To be fair to Munich, although their strengthening only started to gather pace at a frustratingly late stage, they have been shopping around for some time. Kicker reported that as early as January a €250m budget was ring-fenced to finance a rebuild. Bayern’s high-profile January pursuit of Callum Hudson-Odoi being its earliest manifestation. The English winger’s Achilles injury (and a new contract offer from Chelsea) ended Munich’s pursuit. Long term injury also halted Summer advances for Manchester City’s Leroy Sane, an ACL rupture in the Community Shield to blame.
Monday’s Kicker insisted that money was still available at Säbener Strasse but also quoted Uli Hoeness who suggested that they may wait until Christmas to spend further. That however may prove a mistake. With both Dortmund and Leipzig emerging from the off-season stronger and re-energised, affording either club another nine point head start, the gap Munich trailed Dortmund at one point last season, would be ill-advised.
Bayern may be Bayern, reason enough for many to still label Kovac & Co. favourites, but this Bayern aren’t the Bayern that won the Champions League in 2013, they’re some way from the Bayern that gleefully ripped the Bundesliga apart under Guardiola and without Hummels, Robben, Ribery and James Rodriguez they aren’t even the Bayern who overturned that nine point gap to ambush Dortmund and win the Bundesliga on the last day of last season. This could be the season in which recent neglect finally starts to be measured in trophies.
Although three of the last four promoted sides have managed to survive in the Bundesliga, it was not a surprise that all three new teams lost on the opening weekend. Union Berlin, in their first Bundesliga season, emerged from the Summer light on top tier quality and it showed as a fluid RB Leipzig emphatically dispatched the newcomers 4-0 in Julian Naglesmann’s first game in charge. Koln, twice Bundesliga winners, were narrowly edged out by Wolfsburg 2-1 while Paderborn – who have either been relegated or promoted in five of the last six seasons and nearly dropping into the fourth tier in that time – gave Peter Bosz’s Leverkusen a scare but only managed a 3-2 defeat. All three would happily settle for a 15th place finish this season.
Of Dortmund’s four high profile additions only Julian Brandt failed to make the 11 at the Westfalenstadion for the visit of Martin Schmidt’s Augsburg side. Despite a strong looking BVB line up it was Augsburg who took a shock lead inside thirty seconds via Florian Niederlechner’s close range effort. Nevertheless order was quickly restored by Paco Alcacer 180 seconds later. Marco Reus, Jadon Sancho and Alcacer all added one more each before the hour before Brandt’s introduction. The former Leverkusen man sneaked in at the back post late on to cutely volley a fifth. Despite some exacting football at times, ominously Dortmund gave the impression that higher gears very much exist.
By Adam White.