With success and stature comes expectations. In the case of Bayern Munich, expectations are so much more than that; they’re the bare minimum. The reality check of the 2018/19 campaign – both Bundesliga and in Europe – was a red flag of astronomical proportions. One that should not be ignored.
After being unceremoniously dispatched in the Champions League Round of 16 by eventual winners Liverpool, Nico Kovač’s first season in charge would have ended in unmitigated disaster if not for an insane run of domestic form.
Despite starting strong in the league (4-0-0), with credible wins against Hoffenheim, Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke, the reigning champions proceeded to drop points in six of their next eight Bundesliga fixtures. Such poor form was compounded by four-straight home matches in which Bayern failed to secure a three point haul, while surrendering eight goals in the process.
As the alarm bells began to chime, the Bavarian giants finally turned up. The result saw Kovač’s troops drop points in just four of the subsequent twenty-two league outings, which included a fourteen match unbeaten run. This, in conjunction with Dortmund’s struggles in the Rückrunde, saw Bayern edge out their closest title rivals by just two points; the smallest separation of points in the title race since the 2008/09 season that saw Wolfsburg crowned champions.
The loss of invaluable assets
Top-level players come and go at clubs like Bayern Munich. There is, however, a point where even a club of their stature could truly struggle to replace icon performers. The loss of both Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben this summer is massive to say the last.
With the pair of attacking dynamos, Bayern were another animal, particularly when both were in their prime. Added to the goal-scoring prowess of Robert Lewandowski, the Bavarian machine was unstoppable.
But their decline was always inevitable, and while the likes of Kingsley Coman and Serge Gnabry combined for 16 goals and 9 assists between them last term, you would be hardpressed to find anyone who would make the claim that the young attacking duo are – at current – good enough to fill the void left behind.
On top of the loss of two vital pieces to the Bayern set-up, Mats Hummels’ departure back to Borussia Dortmund, the desire to move away from Jérôme Boateng, and the perceived – and some say evident – decline of both Manuel Neuer and Thomas Müller, only makes matters worse.
Truly, Bayern may well find themselves at a genuine crossroads this summer. But it has not all been doom and gloom. Karl-Heinz Rummmenigge and Hasan Salihamidžić have done incredibly well to bring in France internationals Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard, as well as highly-touted Germany U19 starlet Jann-Fiete Arp, signalling a reload in younger talent to rebuild with moving forward. But it still may not be enough.
A marquee signing is required
Despite the business done thus far in the window, which surely cannot be ignored, Bayern need more. A club expected to dominate the league and who really should be properly challenging in Europe, needs something more up front than what they currently have on offer.
This is not to take anything away from Coman and Gnabry; two players who are talented in their own right. However, with recent links and rumoured interest in players of an even higher calibre – Gareth Bale by example – the fan base should and will, expect more.
As increasing news surrounding a move for Manchester City’s Leroy Sané pops up, to the point of Kovač himself publicly stating confidence in a deal being finalised, it is this level of business regarding Bayern’s attacking options that supporters want to see.
Regardless of why he may envisage a move away from the Etihad as the right decision (surely the pull of his home country is part of this), Sané would bring a dynamism to the team both for now and in the future that would satiate the need to replace Ribéry and Robben.
Lewandowski himself eluded to as much, stating “Without transfers, it will be difficult to compete for the big titles. To play and stay at a top level, you need a reinforced team.”
Such a statement is supported by Bayern’s depth chart at current, with the only wide options being the aforementioned Coman, Gnabry, and promising Canadian Alphonso Davies at current. Surely, this is not sufficient enough going into the coming campaign.
It may not end up being Sané’s signature that is captured in the end, but something of equivalent or greater stature is needed to not only calm the nerves, but put Bayern in a position to remain ahead of the growing powers around them.
Threats from behind
If last season was the warning shot across the bow, this summer is the second shot that narrowly missed Bayern’s rudder. Having come so close to putting a stop to Bavarian hegemony – at least for a brief spell – last term, Dortmund have once again handled themselves brilliantly in the market. The acquisitions of Julian Brandt, Thorgan Hazard, Nico Schulz, and Mats Hummels for a combined €96m has, on paper, immediately propelled Dortmund into the discussion as title favourites.
Certainly, Dortmund’s attacking options under Lucien Favre this term outstrips what Bayern have on offer overall; including three of the top five assist leaders in the league last season. And if Dortmund’s transfer dealings are a cause for concern, the Julian Nagelsmann regime getting under way at RB Leipzig presents another problem as well.
RBL’s financial resources are substantial, and a commitment to progression on the pitch while utilising highly-valued young players to produce an end-product of attractive and modern attacking football is laudable.
Combined with Nagelsmann’s budding genius and unquestionable managerial potential, Leipzig – even if they don’t directly challenge this term – will surely be heavily involved in the conversation during his first contract over the next four seasons.
Is the individual brilliance enough?
When in doubt, Bayern could always count on the ability level of its most vital pieces on the pitch. Lewandowski would always find the back of the net, Robben and Ribéry would always reek havoc on the flanks, while the intelligence of Müller, individual brilliance of Neuer, and superlative partnership of Boateng and Hummels would be leaned on when the going got tough.
But with the talent gap closing, and more clubs in the league finding themselves capable of acquiring talented players in their own right, it is difficult to look at this current Bayern side – at least in comparison with their closest title rivals – and see guaranteed results on the back of individual brilliance if team performances are not up to scratch.
It could well end in a season of harsh realities when the dust settles. Kovač may easily find himself unemployed if Bayern fail to retain the league. Even if they do, another early exit and unimpressive European campaign could spell his doom regardless.
As a club on the scale of which Bayern reside, this is a season that, unlike Dortmund’s brief period of winning the league in recent memory, may be signal the beginning of a dry-spell which could threaten to last longer than twenty-four months.
By Andrew Thompson.