After der Klassiker, Bayern’s Old Men Have the Last Laugh

During the latest reiteration of the Bayern-BVB saga (aka the regrettably but usefully named der Klassiker), a battle for first-place, which ended as a “Bayern Treatment” 5-0 win for Bayern at the Allianz, I experienced what’s surely the psychological equivalent of a football season compressed in a .gif. That is, a full cycle of damn near everything.

Yes, there were stages: 1) shock, 2) rage, 3) depression, 4) acceptance, and 5) reflection. These stages were colored by my love for Borussia, hence the sad stuff. But as the dead rubber of a second half ticked on, I reflected on the state of the Bundesliga, of Bayern, and of Borussia.

Others have already covered the nuts and bolts of what went wrong tactically for Borussia and what Bayern executed perfectly to make BVB look like a patzer midtable side. Yes, the match was as bad as the final scoreline indicated.

The shocking 5-0 scoreline provides a rare opportunity to see clearly the bigger picture of what’s going on in the Bundesliga right now.

Perhaps more than any other type of result in football, big (I mean BIIIIIIIIG) losses have a clarifying function. Even when injuries are at play (as they were for BVB with Pulisic, Hakimi, Alcarer, and Guerreiro out), the depleted underdog side can revert to tactical means to keep a match close or frustrate a superior opponent. So in my mind, a big loss in this context is usually psychologically telling.

I mean, it was impossible to predict the stunning 5-0 scoreline. Look, I was (stupidly) hoping for an edgy 1-1 draw, or even a “moral victory” 2-1 loss for Borussia, spurring on a great title-race-sprint-to-the-end. But not this. These closer scorelines were more rational, more conformable to our data and our analytical understanding. However, a 5-0 “Bayern Treatment” whuppin’ for BVB at Allianz begs for interpretation.

After a win/loss this bad so late in a season when the title is on the line, you’ve got to turn to psychology, culture, the big picture, or dare I say (a big n-word coming!) narrative. In other words, these other factors help explain the specific formation and tactical mistakes BVB and Lucien Favre made, while also helping to explain consummate performance of Nico Kovac’s Bayern squad.

At least this pivot is my best guess at how to process Bayern’s 5-0 beatdown of BVB.

Bavarian Phronesis and Nous

In the dying minutes, I concluded this match was a battle of … brace yourself! philosophy coming! … phronesis and nous. Bayern had them. BVB didn’t.

I’ve written about phronesis on here before, but basically it refers to the Aristotelian notion of doing the right thing in the right way at the right time for the right reasons. It’s a sort of practical wisdom–a knack born from much experience and nous. (Please bear with me and pardon any philosophical messes I’ve made here.) While phronesis is sort of a “complete package” of intention+timing+action, nous is something like the actual practical intelligence powering it. For the ancient Greeks, nous refers to an intellectual capacity to distinguish true from false or real from seeming; for example, our word “understanding” is derivative of it.

In the context of football, phronesis is strongly inflected through playing experience, especially experience undergirding already skilled players. And Bayern Munich has a boatload of such players: Manuel Neuer, David Alaba, Thomas Müller, Robert Lewandowski, Javi Martinez, Mats Hummels, and even Joshua Kimmich. These dudes are (still!) skilled and deeply experienced. In the context of the Bundesliga, most of the these players have been around for all 6 of the 6 consecutive titles Bayern has won. That’s a helluva core. And this skill + experience adds up to a boatload of ol’ phronesis.

I see phronesis all over my colleague Abel Meszaros‘ tactical analysis of Bayern’s win; Bayern’s players perfectly executed a perfectly selected gameplan by Nico Kovac’s. FCB’s pressing schemes suffocated each BVB attacking outlet systematically. A stunning shutdown. Sure, this BVB side was injury-depleted, but it still contained the wordclass attackers, Marco Reus and Jadon Sancho, as well as arguably one of Europe’s best midfielders right now, Axel Witsel. Yet from coach to players, Bayern displayed a remarkable intelligence in planning for and playing out this match. I have the sense that Bayern understood exactly what was at stake and possessed the know-how to succeed under the pressure of this single match probably deciding the league title. Hence Bayern’s nous.

Meanwhile, BVB greatly lacked both phronesis and nous. In hindsight, Favre’s gameplan (was there one?) seemed naive and complacent, i.e. severely underestimating Bayern’s ability to play an energetic press-heavy game after the Bavarian’s grueling mid-week escape against Heidenheim in the Pokal. While Kovac correctly (but wisely!) gambled that BVB would struggle with the press, given their raft of injuries, Favre incorrectly gambled on using physicality (in the form of Delaney, Witsel, Zagadou, and Akanji) to bully a seemingly old and tired Bayern. If anything, Bayern’s physicality bullied BVB, while the visitors were mostly kept out of the final third. I realize I’m conducting convenient hindsight reasoning here, but it’s just that the Expected Goals numbers are so damn convincingly in Bayern’s favor.

Two Clubs in Two Different Places

Three days later as I write this, Bayern’s win underscores the importance of accumulated experience, skill, and ultimately wisdom in football. I can’t help but marvel at what this Bayern core has achieved and the phronesis and nous it possesses. On the flip side, Bayern’s win underscores the collective lack of accumulated experience and wisdom of this BVB side. All season, many of us forgot how young this Borussia side is, not in terms of birthdays necessarily, but in terms of unit-experience, i.e. of experience playing together. In some ways, Favre never quite figured out what his best XI is, while squandering the impressive talent moldering on the BVB bench.

I’m not complaining about Lucien Favre. I love him as a coach and hope he stays around for many season. However, it’s just that Favre’s BVB doesn’t know who it is yet. This is a club searching for a footballing identity still; it’s not clear yet how this collection of young talent will cohere and which additional transfers will complete the unit.

In other words, Favre’s BVB is a work in progress. The 5-0 loss at Allianz definitely clarifies and underscores this fact (as well as other facts, like explaining BVB’s UCL exit to Spurs, perhaps).

Not so Bayern. This side is a consummately completed work; a side still living off the fumes of Pep Guardiola’s three transforming years, as channeled through Jupp Heynckes’ last eighteen months in charge, and as channeled through Nico Kovac’s blend of sticking with the old, but adding defensive boldness. To me, it’s little wonder that this Bayern side largely resembles last season’s team, and the team before that, and the team … Sure, Kovac has made tactical changes, but Bayern’s spine of key players has remained. And for good reason. It works.

However, after Bayern’s big 5-0 win, I wonder if we just watched a sort of “last hurrah” for this Bayern core? We already know that “Robbéry” is on its way out, and it seems likely that Boateng, Hummels, Neuer, and Müller will soon follow. Moreover, Bayern ran into a strong Liverpool side in the Champions League, and “only” has domestic trophies left to play for this season (the Bundesliga and the Pokal). So this BVB visit may have been the club’s final “statement” match, as well as a final high profile triumph for the ageing core of players. Perhaps.

As the Bayern core changes over to younger players (your Kimmichs, your Komans, your Gnabrys), I expected we’ll see a couple seasons of identity-searching for Kovac-led Bayern; however, unlike BVB, Bayern’s turnover has been relatively evenly paced, usually a couple key players at a time. By contrast, BVB’s squad has turned over numerous times since the back-to-back Klopp-led Bundesliga titles. Moreover, Borussia has been forced to weather various coaching regimes–all with greatly varying playing philosophies: Thomas Tuchel, Peter Bosz, Peter Stöger, and now Lucian Favre. No wonder there’s little collective phronesis and no stable identity and playing philosophy right now at BVB. Favre’s BVB need a couple more seasons to cohere, surely.

Bayern Restore Their Throne

Regardless, a Bundesliga changing of the guard hasn’t happened yet. Although this season surprisingly seemed to promise such a change as Favre’s BVB rode the top of the table, it’s still Bayern who lords over the Bundesliga. No question. I’ll stick to this claim even if weirdness happens and BVB somehow pass Bayern to win the Bundesliga this season. If such weirdness happens, I’ll confidently assert that Bayern was the Bundesliga’s best club this year. Easily.

After beating Borussia 5-0, Bayern reminded us all that the Bavarians are still in a different class. As Abel Meszaros put it, BVB was shown up to really belong in the RB Leipzig, Leverkusen, Gladbach pack of clubs, rather than as Bayern’s co-equal. At this point, it’s hard to argue otherwise.

My prediction: this BVB will be Bundesliga champion sometime in the next two seasons. (I have to hedge this prediction, just a touch!) In the meantime, Bayern are still our overlords. The old men still reign, may their names be praised.

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and sports are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Howler magazine, 11Freunde, America Magazine, The Short Pass, Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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