The news came up on Thursday morning like a flash: Xabi Alonso was a Bayern München player to all effects, signing for a fee of 10m€ and with his contract stating wages of 8m€ before tax. The Basque midfielder was the third Spanish signing Guardiola has made this summer and he will join Javi Martínez, Thiago, Juan Bernat and Pepe Reina in a growing Spanish contingent at Säbener Straße. However, are Bayern’s new signings, including Moroccan defender Mehdi Benatia, up to the standards we can expect from a team with no real financial restraints who is competing to win all trophies? More importantly, will they improve the squad and be the difference that can take them to win the Champions League again?
First of all, it’s important to state that as far as debuts come, Xabi Alonso‘s for Bayern was pretty impressive. Roaming between the defense and midfield, the former Real Madrid midfielder dictated the tempo of the game and participated a lot in play, showing leadership skills despite only having been at the club for a couple of days. Still, as much as it would be a mistake to write his signing off before a match, it’s also a mistake to declare him a success straight away. Alonso has been in clear decline for Real Madrid in the past two seasons, with his physical play overshadowing his technical one, which is why most Madrid fans won’t lose a s second’s sleep with his departure and are mostly delighted at the fact that the club has managed to bring in such a big transfer fee for him.
Alonso, 33 in November, will have cost Bayern more than 26m€ when his contract runs out and while by no means can it be labelled a bad piece of business at this moment, it’s definitely an expensive one for a player of his age who is in rapid decline. While his role playing deeper in the Bayern scheme might be less physically demanding than the last one he had in Madrid, and also that Bayern fans will be delighted to have one of Europe’s best players from the last decade in their team, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of this transfer, especially when Sami Khedira would not have cost much more and is much, much younger than Alonso.
Benatia is a huge gamble with a lot to lose
Just a few days before, Bayern announced the signing of AS Roma’s Moroccan defender Mehdi Benatia for 26m€ plus add-on fees. While Benatia was one of Serie A’s best defenders, the Bundesliga is a completely different ball game. Quicker and more physical, it would be surprising if Benatia’s adaptation was instant. On top of that, he’s got a big transfer fee over his head that will add to the pressure on him that comes when you play for a club like Bayern. Furthermore, Pep Guardiola’s résumé at Barcelona for big transfers was not a good one; the only decent one being David Villa and even that one was put through by the board. The name of Dmitro Chigrinskiy still sends shivers down the spines of Barcelona fans, not just for his poor performances but also for his transfer fee (25m€) and for the loss Barça took a year later when they sold him (10m€). This was a player pinpointed by Guardiola as one that would marshal Barça’s defence for years… The least said about that one, the better, not to mention names like Ibrahimović, Alexis, Fàbregas, Hleb… all signings Guardiola wanted who later were a disaster, both on the pitch and financially. Will Benatia fall into that category? Only time will tell but surely Bayern can afford/find/wait for a better player to lead their defence for the next few years. Serie A fans will disagree but Benatia is one hell of a gamble and one that has a lot to lose.
His other signings this summer have also been unpredictable and surprising. Juan Bernat came from Valencia for 10m€ and it was one that nobody saw coming. While Bernat, 21, had a good season for Valencia last term, there’s no arguing that right now he’s not yet Bayern quality for a starting place on the left side of defence. He had only had a first-team squad number for one year at Valencia and is still only 21 years of age, leaving a club where he could have further developed in a more comfortable and familiar environment with less pressure. There was a consensus of surprise among Spanish fans and media at the precocity of this transfer but it’s obvious that Guardiola has brought him in for when he plays a formation with wing-backs. While hindsight may be a wonderful thing, it’s still an expensive gamble for such an inexperienced and unproven player. If Guardiola had wanted to go for a young player of similar characteristics, Spain’s hottest property at left-back, Alberto Moreno, has shown much more quality and promise than Bernat and was snapped up by Liverpool for just 5m€ more than what Bayern paid for their man. Moreno has already been capped three times by Spain and is an almost certainty to be the only competition Jordi Alba will have in that position for the national team. Signing Moreno would have made much more sense.
Pepe Reina will be earning approximately 3m€ per season – expensive for a backup goalkeeper
The other Spaniard who arrived is goalkeeper Pepe Reina. Reina spent last season on loan at Napoli from Liverpool and has been a regular fixture in the Spain squads that won two European Championships and a World Cup. However, it’s well known that Reina’s presence in that squad was not on sporting grounds but rather due to his dressing room antics bringing the squad together; in other words, he’s the team clown (a quality exhibited in his tiresome insurance adverts in Spain). Like Alonso, Reina, 32, is a player in decline, evident in his last season at Liverpool and at Napoli this past one. Reina cost 3m€ and will be earning approximately 3m€ after tax per season, which is somewhat expensive for a reserve goalkeeper, especially when you have someone like Tom Starke who is of similar age, just as experienced and on much less money. Yes, Reina is a more similar goalkeeper to Neuer than Starke is and has more skill with the ball at his feet than the former Hoffenheim goalkeeper but it seems little return for a player who will mostly be warming the bench and pocketing so many millions of euros.
When you contrast these signings with those made before the summer, Robert Lewandowski and Sebastian Rode, it’s easy to see the difference in the player characteristics. Lewandowski and Rode are two players who are proven in the Bundesliga (quite an understatement if we are referring to the Polish striker) and who still have their best years ahead of them but aren’t in a development phase. In other words, they are players who everyone expects them to deliver straight away and that pose few or no questions at all. On top of all of that, they both cost the grand total of zero euros. Yes, the signing-on fees will have been like a small transfer fee in themselves but these are players who few people can question Bayern about bringing them in.
Bayern are losing their way a bit, but it is their right to do so – Lothar Matthäus
Most people outside of Barcelona think that Guardiola has a god-like status in the Catalan capital and while that may be right to a certain extent, most Barça fans questioned many of his methods, such as team selection and, especially, his transfer policy. Too many expensive mistakes were made during his four-year stint as Barça manager and many fans feel that his huge success in his first two seasons gave him carte blanche to take unnecessary risks. With the Champions League disaster from last year still looming over his head, Guardiola has less room for maneuver at Bayern than he had a Barça in the summer of 2009 and while none of these transfers will condition him immediately, they could come back to haunt him if Bayern fail once again on the continental stage this season.
As Lothar Matthäus said, “Bayern are losing their way a bit, but it is their right to do so”. However, if things go pear-shaped, it will be the second time Guardiola trips over the same stone.