Debate: Is Bayern’s Dominance Detrimental to the Bundesliga?

As Bayern cruises to another Bundesliga title and, god knows, what other spoils seasons this (a repeat treble?), it’s timely to discuss and debate the stranglehold Bayern has on the league right now. So it’s worth pondering, is Bayern’s dominance detrimental to the Bundesliga? This question is another way of wondering what Bayern’s dominance could mean for the wider league, because it means something.

In this debate installment, Bundesliga Fanatic editor, Travis Timmons, and Editor-in-Chief, Niklas Wildhagen, have it out over the question of Bayern’s dominance.

Travis Timmons

YES

Travis Timmons

 

Before I start, I need some old school pathos from you all. After all, I got the raw end of this resolution; I have the larger burden of proof. While Nik can argue that Bayern’s dominance is positive for the Bundesliga or merely neutral for the league, I can’t appeal to a neutral conclusion, given the debate resolution. So here we go. I’ll tell you why Bayern’s crushing dominance sucks for the Bundesliga.

First, Bayern’s Bundesliga dominance has the indirect effect of causing Euro-wide and global viewers to stop watching the wider Bundesliga. Consider the excitement that English Premier League fans must have right now as Arsenal, Man City, Chelsea, and arguably a side like Liverpool or even Everton duke it out for the title in what will surely prove to be a thrilling end. Parity defines the Premier League table this season, as most clubs are clustered around the top or bottom. Thrilling, really. As the Men In Blazers keep repeating on their podcast, each Premier League match is its own gripping narrative right now.  Every match matters. Arguably, this same meaning is currently lacking in the Bundesliga, except for secondary and tertiary narratives, like “who will qualify for  the 4th UCL spot?” or “who will qualify for the Europa League?” or “will HSV get relegated?” I mean, yawn.

I don’t wish to disparage the Bundesliga this season (I still watch every Matchday), it’s just that the league lacks the narrative power that the Premier League predictably churns out most seasons. Think about it: the battle for the top of the Bundesliga table has pretty much been a foregone conclusion each season since Dortmund won their first of back-to-back titles in 2010-11. In the Bundesliga, we don’t have 3-4 sides battling it out for the title. Just one. Hell, the old two-club (Barcelona and Real Madrid) domination of La Liga looks appetizing now, as we endure another year of Bayern’s tyranny.  So imagine that your average football fan from England, Spain, the U.S., Nigeria, whatever, might think when peeking at the Bundesliga table or deciding on what illegally-streamed match to watch this weekend. How likely is it that our imaginary viewer will settle on a Bundesliga match? Should we care? Perhaps. My guess is that our imaginary viewer will think something like: “The Bundesliga? Oh, that league is Bayern’s farm league to get them lathered up for the Champions League.”

Second, Bayern’s dominance could adversely affect talent development in the Bundesliga. I’ll admit, this argument is a bit of stretch, but I think the impact is real enough that it needs addressing. Because of their perennial success and world-beating financials, Bayern have the power to buy whoever they want, whenever they want. (Yes, you can accuse me of being a disgruntled BVB supporter – we’ve lost our two best players to Bayern buyouts. Nonetheless, my broader point still stands.) Can you blame the best young players? They want to play for the most dominant club; they all funnel upwards toward Bayern eventually, if they stay in Germany at all. Bayern’s dominance acts like a magnetic force on the league’s talent.

But is this magnetic force good for the Bundesliga starlets?

Consider Jan Kirchhoff, the very talented defender, who Bayern scooped up from Mainz (where Kirchhoff played an important role in defense), only to promptly dump him on the bench to add “depth”; Kirchhoff made the rare appearance, was loaned out to Schalke and got injured. When players like Kirchhoff move up to Bayern, only to languish on the bench, they’ll sometimes claim it’s all worth it because of what happens on the training ground. Who knows. I’ve always suspected that these “training ground benefits” are mystical at best – after all, the prodigal Nuri Sahin certainly didn’t return as a galactic force after his adventure on the training pitch of Real Madrid.

I get it. Elite clubs need deep rosters to compete in various competitions. And Bayern does an exceptional job of developing its own talent. I get it. However, in the zero-sum game of league football, weaker clubs are certainly instrumentalized as the feeding bags for the elite clubs (I know my Dortmund is no different!). I just fear that Bundesliga talent gets stunted by wasting away on Bayern’s pitches and training grounds, as “Bayern lust” inflicts the hearts of our starlets. Indeed, I am only partially tongue-in-cheek here – can we get a fun hashtag out of this, please?

Third, Bayern’s dominance thwarts Bundesliga followers’ sense of narrative. Unless you’re a Bayern supporter, watching Die Roten strangle the rest of the league is not enjoyable – especially if you were a VfB Stuttgart supporter a couple weeks ago! Sure, maybe is was cool to see human greatness (of which I am an ardent fan) unfold last season as Bayern rolled in style toward their treble, but it’s already getting stale – and we have no end in sight, as Pep settles in and the talent keeps coming in. How long will the stranglehold last? God knows. But it feels everlasting right now.

Narrative needs conflict or tension to drive its engine forward. Simply put, narrative hinges on its success to address the audience’s question or “what happens next?” At least last season BVB performed somewhat as the narrative foil to Bayern, especially their romantic Champions League run to meet Bayern in the all-German final. Dortmund’s run provided enough narrative conflict to keep us guessing that maybe, just maybe, their could be a thrilling fight for the league this season – our appetites were whetted in BVB’s torching of Bayern in the (silly!) Super Cup. We all thought Pep’s Bayern would need some breaking in time. Ha. As  Dortmund struggles to win matches and stay healthy, we’re left with the tepid challenge that Leverkusen, sitting at 2nd place, pose to Bayern. But we all know who’s winning the Bundesliga this season. And the next, and the next, and the next. Rinse and repeat – so it seems.

Finally, Bayern’s utter domination of the Bundesliga (my god, will they even lose a match this season?) could – ironically enough – undercut our assessment of this side’s legacy. Honestly, I can’t imagine seeing another more dominant Bundesliga side in my lifetime than this 2013-14 Bayern side. But the truth is that, given Pep’s coaching and the killer roster Bayern have, this dominance is definitely repeatable. If so, then what? Bayern’s success will eventually look suspicious, dependent on a weaker Bundesliga, gutted or demoralized by Bayern. Sure, Bayern will have all the records, but deep down we’ll know that their stranglehold simply snuffed out any realistic challenges to their greatness. No fun.

 

 Niklas WildhagenNO

Niklas Wildhagen

It’s hard to argue that Bayern’s utter dominance doesn’t have an impact on the league’s entertainment value and I won’t deny this. The Bavarians are leisurely cruising from victory to victory, not having been beaten for more than 40 league matches. Arrigo Sacchi might have thought that his AC Milan’s side 58 matches unbeaten streak might have been a record for eternity in Europe’s top five leagues, but at the moment nobody would really put it past Bayern to beat AC Milan’s incredible run (which lasted from 1991 to 1993). Some Bundesliga fans may even have started to find solace in the fact that most dominant teams fall out or lose important players due to them retiring or wanting another challenge after 3-5 years time, causing the side to decline.

However, having re-watched last Sunday’s demolition of Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayern’s 3-1 away win against Manchester City whilst preparing for this article, I was struck by something: the fans of the Bundesliga may indeed witness history in the making! This Bayern side has been perfected through astute additions like Thiago and Götze, and it appears that Pep Guardiola is beginning to see the sort of football he wants them to play. This group of players is deeply professional and their coach is able to utilize all their abilities (as Raphael Honigstein pointed out in a recent Guardian column). Indeed, Bayern’s run might be the closest thing to perfection we’ve ever had in the Bundesliga’s 51 year long history (I have watched the league for 23 years now, and I certainly don’t remember any team being this good).

How could one possibly not want to be part of this? Think about it!

Hans-Joachim Watzke stated in an interview with a German newspaper that Bayern went ahead and bought Mario Götze and lured Robert Lewandowski away from BVB, because the Bavarians wanted to destroy the black and yellows. Comparisons to Bayern’s purchase of Karlsruhe’s best players in the 90s and Bayer Leverkusen’s players in the early 2000s have already been made by several German football pundits and those on social media networks. However, one should be mindful of the fact that Bayern have cast a wider net in acquiring talent, purchasing players from outside the Bundesliga (like Javi Martinez and Thiago) to improve their squad. Given the amount of sheer talent coming through the youth academies at the moment, Bayern’s new found approach to buying some of their stars from abroad might give other Bundesliga clubs the opportunity to keep more of Germany’s finest youth prospects and hold onto them longer than in the past (players who in the past would have inevitably ended up at Bayern).

Although Bayern’s success might seem discouraging at the moment to other Bundesliga sides, there are a number of league clubs taking steps to close the gap. Dortmund boss Watzke has already stated that his club’s goal is to establish themselves as the second biggest team in the Bundesliga for the long haul. As die Schwarzgelben have solidified their finances over the last few years, the club will again be able to strengthen their squad over the next summer. Being in this healthy position will allow BVB to challenge for the championship in the future. Other clubs like Wolfsburg and Schalke also have a good foundations to build upon – even HSV have massive potential financial, which hasn’t been utilized since Ernst Happel left the club back in the 80s). And don’t forget Wolfsburg’s sporting director, Klaus Allofs, who has a proven track record for finding the right players for his team, coupled with ample stores of cash, in contrast to his days at Werder Bremen.

I wrote in an article three years ago that the Bundesliga’s volatile nature, which saw the likes of Stuttgart winning the salad bowl one season, before plummeting outside of the Champions League places the next, meant that the teams behind Bayern München weren’t likely to gather enough experience in the Champions League and the Europa League to put in a decent challenge at that level.

Since this time, three or four teams have started to compete for the Champions League places on a regular basis with the likes of Schalke and Dortmund have started to gather a decent amount of experience competing in Europe’s finest club competition. Their  results in the Champions League, compared to three or four years ago, have improved drastically. Furthermore, despite Bayern’s complete dominance last season, we saw two German teams giving it a good go in the Champions League final, in a match which either side could have won. Moreover, four Bundesliga teams qualified for the knock out stages of the Champions League this year, which is a first in German footballing history.

Yes, Bayern may rule the Bundesliga; however, the quality of the league overall has improved over the last few years, as demonstrated by the success of Bundesliga clubs in the Champions League. Another sign of improvement is Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United strengthening their squads with Germany Bundesliga talent, which is a clear indicator of the improvements which have been happening for some time now. Could you possibly have imagined that many German players at some of Europe’s finest clubs 7 or 8 years ago? I don’t think so.

Finally, one could also approach this debate from a more philosophical point of view. The Bundesliga is still amongst the fan friendliest leagues in the world. Ticket prices are cheap; you are allowed to drink a cold beer in the stands whilst watching the game, standing terraces are still allowed and the quality of what is happening on the pitch is not too shabby either. The interests and concerns of fans stand stronger in Germany than in most other leagues in Europe (e.g. through 50+1 rule) as well. Foreign investors can’t take over Bundesliga clubs, change the club’s jerseys colour (e.g. Cardiff City in the Premier League) and do as they please when it comes to everything else. Think about it: do Serie A, the Permier League or La Liga offer similar fan-oriented experiences? Both German and English football fans alike may talk about “their team”, but make no mistakes, it is the German fan who has better chances of being heard and changing his club in his own image. At the end of the day, your voice as a fan being heard matters a whole lot in Germany.

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