There is a myth in German football, that if ever FC Bayern fall from their proverbial horse, they promptly get back on and ride away into yet another glimmering sunset. The reality is, of course, that, although they eventually – inevitably – remount, there are usually a lot of tears before they do so.
The course of 2011 has been rather in keeping with these traditions of precociousness. The sacking of van Gaal and the near disastrous end to last season led Uli Hoeness to throw the toys out of the pram and quite literally demand new, more expensive ones to replace them. Hoeness returned to his favourite old teddy in Jupp Heynckes, while Jerome Boateng was brought in after a tug of war, cheque books and morals with Manchester City. The arrival of ex-Schalke defender Rafinha caused healthy controversy as Phillipp Lahm was forced to switch flanks to left back, but most polemical of all was the symbol of Bayern’s monopoly of all things Bundesliga: the one time Schalke hero and Germany number one Manuel Neuer.
With a bolstered defence, a gleaming new gold trim on the red strip, and a significantly smaller amount of steam erupting from Uli’s ears, what could go wrong? A 1-0 home defeat to Gladbach on opening day, is what.
A quick recovery
In possibly the single worst start anyone could have imagined, given the criticisms Bayern’s profligate transfer policy had endured, their two star signings got together to create a nightmare of a defensive error and let Gladbach steal away three points in the first match. Bayern’s attack in that game, moreover, looked equally underwhelming. Unable to break down the exquisitely constructed Gladbach defence, Bayern reverted to long ball tactics, and a cold dread fell over the Allianz Arena.
With the exception of a couple of hiccups, however, the Rekordmeister’s run since that day in August has fulfilled expectations comfortably. Neuer soon settled, going nearly 800 minutes without conceding a single goal. It was a record that was testimony to a Bayern defenc unrecognisable from its 2011 incarnation. Boateng’s solid performances not only benefited himself, but also the previously under performing Daniel van Buyten, who seemed to thrive on the competition, and the full back switchover found simultaneously a solution for two of Bayern’s major problems from 2011. Firstly, the left back issue was gone. Rafinha’s performances proved plenty of critics – including myself – inescapably wrong, and Lahm’s consummate professionalism at left back helped welcome in a new era in the development of one skilful Frenchman.
When Franck Ribéry was interviewed by kicker earlier in the season, he insisted that his newly rediscovered form was a tribute to Heynckes, and that under van Gaal, he had never been able to thrive. As self-excusing as the assertion sounds, he probably just about hit the nail on the head. Heynckes’ team have clearly gelled far more than van Gaal’s ever did. Not only have several new, big name players been assimilated seamlessly into the first eleven, but the former stars – even the ones given their chance and nurtured by van Gaal such as Toni Kroos and Thomas Mueller – have also risen to a new challenge.
Form and complacency
Kroos, in particular, has been a revelation for Bayern this season. With the possible exception of Luiz Gustavo, there are few who would contest that, in terms of progress at least, he has been Bayern’s player of the Hinrunde. By no means guaranteed a starting spot for either club or country at the start of the season, Kroos has developed rapidly to establish himself as an increasingly versatile midfielder who is becoming ever more indispensable for both Bayern and Germany. When Bastian Schweinsteiger picked up an injury in the Champions League fixture against Napoli, there was talk of the whole Bayern system faltering in his absence. With Toni Kroos in the side, no such thing was ever going to happen.
Among the other notable performers has been Mario Gómez, whose unnerving ability to appear three inches from the goalline and prod the ball over it is becoming ever more remarkable. With a gorgeous new haircut and a goal tally of 16, Gómez can once again declare himself the Bundesliga’s most prolific goal getter, and stats nerds are getting can barely control their excitement at the prospect of Gerd Mueller’s league season record of 40 being broken this year. The lost years of Bayern’s ever-injured wingers, meanwhile, have definitively come to a close. After a bleak 2011 season for both Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben, both now look as dangerous as ever, supported as they are by the new full backs.
Indeed, the only reason that Bayern aren’t clear of second place by a number in double figures seems to be an increasing, but not unfamiliar, partiality to indulgent complacency. With the pace of their attacking football, Bayern have often taken leads early and then sat on the halfway line, content to keep the ball, and their several goal lead, for the remaining seventy minutes of the game. Against certain teams, this laziness has been costly, and come the end of the season, they will not be able to afford to do it against teams like Dortmund and Barcelona.
Off field verbals
This return to form for Bayern’s squad means that, despite embarassing afternoons in Hannover and Mainz, they are sitting pretty at the top of the Bundesliga. With a DFB Pokal quarter final date lined up and the knockout stages comfortably reached in the Champions League, normality has been restored in Munich.
So much so that the hierarchy, who spent most of last season either spitting ill-disguised bile at van Gaal or defending themselves from the even more precocious fanbase, have this season been able to turn their well documented voices elsewhere. Karl Heinz Rummenigge’s vocal criticisms of FIFA have secured his Europe-wide status as the Che Guevara of the anti-corruption movement, defending his fellow clubs against the mighty organisations with every breath in his body. True to Guevarian form, however, even the fellow clubs themselves are not exempt from his particularly eloquent brand of abuse. Manchester City have been in a perpetual war of the words with Rummenigge over the new Financial Fair Play rules. If he weren’t invariably in the right, the Bayern chairman would probably have been assassinated by now.
Prospects for 2012
As for 2012, the future is distinctly orange for Bayern. And not in the superfluously Dutch way it used to be under van Gaal. The return of Schweinsteiger should restrengthen the team ahead of the coming onslaught of fixtures in February. Ironically, it is the Pokal where Bayern will probably encounter bigger problems than the Champions League to begin with, with Stuttgart a slightly more menacing opponent than FC Basel. The Swiss outfit have knocked out Manchester united, however, and Bayern have already paid the price for complacency this year.
In the league, it seems their main competitors for the title will, as predicted, be Borussia Dortmund. Without the Champions League to worry about, Dortmund will be, for a second year in a row, all guns blazing as they head into the Rueckrunde, and, having already lost 1-0 to the Champions at home, the return game at the Westfalenstadion will be a crucial game for Bayern. In Europe, Bayern have, in the eyes of most of the European press, established themselves just behind Real Madrid and Barcelona as favourites to win the tournament. If their luck holds in the draw, and they don’t meet a Spanish team until the final, few would bet highly against their home advantage paying off in May. A major injury or confidence crisis notwithstanding, Bayern look set to make this a bog standard even year, ad find themselves competing in the latter stages of all three major tournaments. The rest of Germany finds it terribly dull. For Bayern fans, it’s just the way of the world.