“We have a common goal,” barked a steely eyed Jupp Heynckes. “We need discipline,” he continued, “…and it has to begin with everyone at the club wearing the same socks.”
Heynckes was speaking after just fining two of his club’s star players, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos, for wearing the wrong colored socks during their mid-season fitness camp in Doha. The two midfielders had turned up for a training session in white socks instead of the black assigned for and worn by the rest of the team.
At another time, this minor, almost laughable transgression would probably have been overlooked. The heat of Doha is of course more conducive to the reflective white than the deeper black and the duo’s selective color-blindness could have been ignored. But it is just an illustration of the pressure being exerted, by the powers that be at Bayern, on the players this season. The message from the top is clear; it’s shape up time after two barren years of no silverware.
It is almost ironic since Bayern are playing possibly the most attractive football exhibited in their trophy-filled history. Heynckes’ lofty claims in this regard cannot readily be dismissed as rhetoric. After all, their possession dominating, high-backline, easy on the eye style has propelled them to two Champions League finals in three years and yet, at home, they find themselves constantly falling short to the youthful vigor of Borussia Dortmund. Uli Hoeness must be spending plenty on ulcer treatments.
Last season was the final straw, as Bayern’s ‘Neverkusen’ turn saw them lose in all three fronts, most heartbreakingly in the final of the Champions League at their own Allianz Arena.
Memory of Munich
But it is the memory of Munich that has driven on Bayern to even greater things so far this season. Out went Christian Nerlinger and in came Matthias Sammer with the well-stated mantra of squeezing out that extra few percent (and cents!) from the players.
On face value, it has worked very well. Bayern have recorded the best Hinrunde of all time and sit a comfortable 11 points off the rest of the league and a yawning 12 off Borussia Dortmund, the only team you realistically feel can pose a threat to their juggernaut march to a seemingly inevitable title in May.
But Bayern are still wary.
The story was much the same last season, but Dortmund’s incredible second half saw them sail past Bayern just as the Bavarians were losing steam. A repeat of last season’s Ruckrunde scenario is not something that Bayern club management can tolerate this season and it is perhaps why there is a ridiculous amount of ‘we have won nothing yet’ themed stories emanating from the Bayern press machine.
Predictably, much of Bayern’s success can be put down to the quality of players that they have on show. Indeed they added to the squad copiously over the summer and bought in quality additions like the Croatian striker Mario Mandžukić, the Swiss dynamo Xherdan Shaqiri, the smooth as silk Claudio Pizarro and the Spanish organizer Javi Martinez, whose name it seems is almost prefixed by his prize-tag. It seems no commentator is able to realistically believe that the former Athletic Bilbao midfielder actually cost Bayern that much.
Each have played well in their own way, with Mandžukić specially adding a lot of contributing play from the center forward position making Bayern more unpredictable than they were last season. Shaqiri has been the jack in the box solution for Heynckes while Pizarro has made most of his limited opportunities, most spectacularly in the Champions League against Lille. Martinez too seems to be settling into his role and vindicating Heynckes’ assertion that he is “exactly the player we needed.”
But if there is one player who has made a true difference to the way Bayern have played this season it would be Dante.
The ex-Gladbach defender was bought it with the intention of shoring up a leaky defence, which was the probable cause of Bayern’s spectacular demise last season. He was expected to rotate with Holger Badstuber and Jerome Boateng but has made most of the former’s injury problems to cement himself as the mainstay of the backline. Strong, with good anticipation and almost stereotypically good ball-control, the Brazilian is finally being noticed for more than his hair. He has been so good that a probable call-up to the national team has also been mooted. Dante though, has his sights set on wearing the famous yellow of the Seleção in their home World Cup in 2014 and based on these performances, Scolari will be looking keenly eastwards.
The new players and Sammer have bought renewed persistence and life at Bayern and the competition for places seems to have forced some big name players to stop resting on their laurels. Bastian Schweinsteiger in particular has looked excellent for the best part of the first four months and Toni Kroos has probably been Bayern’s standout player. Thomas Müller is back to his 2010 best and Franck Ribéry might have been the best player this Bundesliga season, bar none.
This has meant that Bayern this season have ended up winning a number of games they would have either drawn or lost last season. A good example is the game against Werder Bremen when Bayern looked lost for ideas for large parts but found their way out through a good goal from Luiz Gustavo and a late addition from Xerdan Shaqiri.
But even a season this good has had it’s hiccups. There have been inexplicable losses such as the ones to Leverkusen and Bate Borisov. Additionally, there have been matches in which Bayern’s old problems have resurfaced – they still struggle to come to terms with teams to press them high up the pitch, like Dortmund does,for instance. And they tend to lose their shape when things aren’t going their way. Their defensive transitions too often leave much to be desired and despite the fact that Bayern concede the least shots in the Bundesliga (7.9 per game) they also make the least interceptions and the least tackles, but still concede a relatively high amount of fouls. If citing these stats seem a bit like clutching at straws, then it probably is, but if there is one thing Bayern can improve upon it is their defensive organization and movement.
Expectedly in a half-season of such heightened quality, there have been some blips in form especially during a two-week period in October and towards December, Bayern seemed to be lacking their early season mojo after only managing to grind out two hard-fought wins against FC Augsburg following draws with Dortmund and Gladbach. But again these are nothing that the ‘best training camp of all time’ at Doha cannot solve. Indeed Bayern’s recent 5-0 annihilation of a decidedly shambolic Schalke in a friendly this week serves as a warning sign for things to come.
In truth, Bayern have already laid the foundation for what can be a truly special season. If they continue the level of play demonstrated in the first half of the season, it will take something almost-unimaginably special to overhaul them in the league. But it is that extra few percent that Sammer speaks of that might make the difference yet again. The truth, as they say, is in the details. And Bayern wants to leave no stone unturned to make sure that come May, their deep pockets are finally filled with silver.
Best player: Tie between Franck Ribéry and Thomas Müller. The duo on either wing has been unplayable at times. Ribery, given the license to roam, has been at his exhilarating best at times. Müller’s enigmatic star continues rising.
Biggest surprise: Dante’s seamless transition and leadership from the back. The Brazilian has been a metaphorical beast at the back. Perhaps the signing of the Bundesliga season.
Best goal: Toni Kroos has scored some stunning goals this season; the sensational volley against Hannover, the piledriver against Valencia, and the technically astute finish against Dortmund. But the gong should go to Javi Martinez for his left-footed bicycle kick in that Hannover game. Not a bad way to open your account.
Header courtesy of getty images
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