We’ve been here before. A few years ago, I had John Lennon help us in collectively imagine Bundesliga stats, like possession rates and shot tallies, without Bayern. “Imagine all the people, living life in peace, yoo-hoo-hoo.” Heh, sure. These were the middle days of Pep Guardiola’s Bayern giving everyone the #BayernTreatment, possessing 70% of the ball, and just flat out taking no prisoners. Very grim times for the rest of us. The future looked like one long winter with no Christmas. Bayern’s dominance was overshadowing just about everything else happening in the league. About that long winter, well, we’re still in it. Bayern have won every Bundesliga title since 2011-12. And as Bayern is on the cusp (already, dear Lord) of winning its 6th straight Bundesliga title, it’s time for us to lick our wounds and settle in for another episode of “Imagine There’s No Bayern.” The master himself will set us up:
I knew you’d be ready to watch.
So Bayern’s domestic success continues unabated. World without end. Yet without fail, as the each Bundesliga season begins, the rest of us hopefully pretend that another club will be a contender to end our Bayern-winter. I am no better; I too play this game. I used to be one of those people whose keenest expression of Schadenfreude was a Bayern Bundesliga loss. However, as this season winds toward its final chapters, I find that I’m not caring about Bayern in the Bundesliga anymore. In other words, I’ve decided that, concerning Bayern, Das ist mir Scheißegal. (I don’t give a damn.) So imagining there’s no Bayern isn’t a far-fetched exercise in my mind—it’s something that I’ve slowly found myself already doing this season. Perhaps it took five years of Bayern battering everyone else, but I finally reached a breaking point this season, where I just stopped caring about or even noticing Bayern’s domestic presence.
It’s gotten to the point that, instead of kvetching about by who/how Bayern will be toppled, I’ve simply bracketed Bayern away, tucking the Bavarian Giants out of sight, as I survey the Bundesliga each matchday. In a sense, Bayern has become like the weather or like mute and indifferent natural forces that ravage the earth. Bayern has become a de-personalized force in the Bundesliga—a sort of really bad thunderstorm with flash flood warnings that each Bayern opponent must endure during the two dreaded matchdays when the Bavarians appear on the fixture list. Once the storm passes, it’s back to the regular matchday struggles and dynamics. In other words, I’m mostly evaluating the league’s development, narratives, achievements, and “health” without including Bayern in my considerations. I’ve found that the Bundesliga is so much interesting in this view, which simply brackets Bayern away.
Moreover, I’m now convinced that my bracketing away exercise is warranted. Historically, as Uli Hesse observes in Bayern: The Making of a Global Superclub, Bayern has been the most dominant club throughout Bundesliga history, only being challenged temporarily a season here, a couple seasons there, or during Mönchengladbach’s decade of success (during which Bayern was also quite successful). However, even during these brief spells of conceding titles to other Bundesliga sides, Bayern was always the powerful undercurrent, the anchoring point against which everything was contrasted. Hesse explains that Bayern was a pioneer in professionalizing itself and making money, which, in turn, reinforced the club’s success, bringing in even more sponsors and revenue in a virtuous cycle. Bayern has been at this cycle for half a century and, consequently, is decades ahead of everyone else. Remember, it’s not as if Bayern are about to win its 6th total league title in the club’s history. Nope, Bayern is about to win its 28th title. In other words, Bayern has doing this title-winning thing for a long time. Need proof? Take a look:
- German title prior to 1960s: 1
- Bundesliga titles in the 1960s: 1
- Bundesliga titles in the 1970s: 4
- Bundesliga titles in the 1980s: 6
- Bundesliga titles in the 1990s: 4
- Bundesliga titles in the 2000s: 6
- Bundesliga titles in the 2010s: 5 (not including this current season)
What I’m trying to say is that Bayern’s dominance is a long-standing institutional feature of the Bundesliga, which was founded in 1963. Yes, Bayern has never won six consecutive Bundesliga titles before, but perhaps missing this feat previously was simply a historical accident, or perhaps can be explained as the fruits of Bayern’s decades-long process of making more money than everyone else in Germany. Bayern’s superior purchasing power means that the club will always attract the best talent in Germany, which only increases the club’s prestigious global superclub status. Again, my point is that Bayern’s superiority is an institutional feature of the Bundesliga itself, decades in the making. I guess I don’t expect this bedrock feature ever to change, or at least I don’t expect it to change in a couple seasons during what appears like an impossibly long streak of dominance for Bayern.
Given this larger historical pattern of Bayen’s dominance, and the battering of these last 5.5 season, bracketing away the Bavarian Giants in the Bundesliga context just makes sense. Look, Bayern’s dominant status in the Bundesliga is hermetically sealed until (or if) some “black swan” of an external force blows up the status quo.
And you know what? It’s okay. Again, about Bayern, Das ist mir Scheißegal.
Without Bayern, the Bundesliga is an incredibly hotly contested league this season. Without Bayern, this season would have the title race of the half century. Start with table slots 2-6, which are separated by only 4 points:
Bracketing away Bayern, this part of the table poses the question: who’s the Bundesliga’s best side? We just don’t know right now. It’s exciting, because a case can be made for RB Leipzig, Bayer Leverkusen, Borussia Dortmund, and Schalke 04—all of whom appear equally strong in many ways. Meanwhile, Eintracht Frankfurt and FC Ausburg have been incredibly disruptive to the status quo all season, capable of beating anybody.
A skeptic could respond to my previous paragraph by arguing that I’ve inadvertently made a case for the Bundesliga’s mediocrity, since Bayern is so far ahead of what’s essentially a muddled pack of pretenders. Sure, our skeptic is correct, if Bayern is the standard by which the whole league is being judged. And given that Bayern does play in the Bundesliga, it’s natural to measure the league like this. However, I’m arguing precisely the opposite: that Bayern is a giant-sized outlier, distorting our perceptions about the Bundesliga. Look, I’m not trying to be twee by having us hold hands, close our eyes, and sing about a Bayern-less world. Basically, I’m finally convinced that evaluating the Bundesliga by Bayern-like standards is absurd. The Bavarians have always already been ahead of everyone else in the Bundesliga. And will be.
So that I don’t appear to overstate my case, I’ll qualify it by admitting that perhaps I’ve simply learned how to really appreciate and focus on the non-Bayern narratives in the league, and have genuinely learned how to elevate their importance. Bracketing away Bayern changes the way the top half of the Bundesliga table appears. Without Bayern the Bundesliga is one of Europe’s most competitive, and hence, exciting leagues. Perhaps the exciting league. Slots 2-10 on the league table are a big lump of competitive fun, separated by 7 points. No one has secured anything. No one has lost anything. All the Champions League and Europa League qualification spots are up for grabs. Don’t you want to know who finishes #2 this season? I find this question to be the most interesting one in Germany right now. The question’s mere existence, in my Bayern-less view, points to a lump of footballing quality in Germany, rather than mediocrity. The question also underlines the league’s remarkable ability to remake itself very season in terms of new surprise clubs and players emerging.
I mean, who anticipated the rise of Eintracht Frankfurt with Marius Wolf, Sebastien Haller, and Timmy Chandler? (Be sure to read Abel Meszaros’ two part series on this topic.) Or FC Augsburg with Caiuby, Philipp Max, and Michael Gregoritsch, and Alfred Finnbogason? Or Schalke’s rapid resurgence under Domenico Tedesco? Or Borussia Dortmund’s rise, fall, then quasi-rise? Or RB Leipzig looking significantly less convincing this season, but still sitting in 2nd place—barely? Or the extent of Bayer Leverkusen’s resurrection under new coach Heiko Herrlich and the Jamaican phenom Leon Bailey? These clubs have been equally compelling and mysterious this season. Nothing is settled between them. Besides, these clubs make bracketing away Bayern easier, since their narratives simply have a stronger gravitational pull right now. (Bayern’s narrative loses its gravitational pull by November, basically.)
Imagine there’s no Bayern? No problem this season. It’s easier than you think. And thanks in no little part to Bayern. Intriguingly, Bayern itself might be implicated in erasing its own Bundesliga significance, at least so argues Uli Hesse in a recent 11Freunde piece. He argues that Bayern might be unintentionally hurting itself through its unmitigated success these past six seasons, and observes German-wide indifference to what Bavarians do domestically. Partially, Hesse blames Bayern run of (presumably) six straight championships, an observation that might slightly trouble my analysis of Bayern’s dominance as a long-abiding Bundesliga problem and pattern. However, Hesse’s argument paradoxically points a finger back at Bayern, who simply can’t assume that its domestic dominance is consequence-free. I thought of myself when I read Hesse’s article. I manifest his observation of someone who, more and more, ignores a club that drifts further away into the ether of global superclubdom.
Bayern? Das ist mir Scheißegal.
The rest of the Bundesliga? Good lord, what a league right now.