Is Bayern Munich ready to ascend to Champions League winner?
Bayern Munich made it a historic clean sweep of top-of-the-group finishes for the three Bundesliga sides in the Champions League with a 4-1 win over BATE Borisov on Wednesday. On Thursday, Stuttgart, Bayer Leverkusen, Hannover and Mönchengladbach all qualified for the next stage of the Europa League. That's another first: Germany's top flight has never had seven teams involved at the international stage after the winter break.
"This is not a coincidence," said Ottmar Hitzfeld, a former Champions League-winning manager with Bayern and Dortmund. The 63-year-old cited Germany's youth development, Bayern's "exemplary financial management" and excellent infrastructure as the main reason for the Bundesliga's renaissance at this level.
But the jubilations are premature, Matthias Sammer warned. The Bayern sporting director, as his wont, was unimpressed by the league's achievements.
"I'm surprised we're celebrating as if we've won a title," said the former Germany midfielder. "Of course I'm happy. But what are our aspirations? Getting out of the Champions League groups should be the minimum aim. It's only starting in earnest now."
That is true. Previous campaigns taught teams like Bayern that there are often wide fluctuations in form between performances in the group stage -- when the pressure isn't nearly as high -- and the much more fraught knockout matches in February, March and April. Knowing what we know today, however, is the club in a better position to win a fifth Champions League title? Let's look a little more closely.
Sammer was reluctant to talk about The Reds' chances to go one further than last year's traumatic Champions League final defeat in their own stadium.
"It's too early to talk about taking stock," he grumbled. "We still have three tough (domestic) games before the winter break that we need to take care of."
It's precisely this kind of slightly dour, unrelenting ambition that made Bayern appoint him in the first place. The idea is to keep everyone on their toes and for him to act has the bad cop to coach Jupp Heynckes' more relaxed good cop. A bit of friction at the beginning aside, it seems to have worked very well. Sammer's been discreet in his interventions in order to avoid Heynckes' authority. The 67-year-old and the club are still undecided whether they'll extend his reign beyond June 2013, but Sammer's presence ensured that there is no lame duck scenario.
Heynckes, meanwhile, has been less afraid to rotate his squad this season. This approach has benefited the team physically and mentally, and it also made sure that everyone feels as if they belong in this beefed-up squad. There's a bit more thoroughness, too. In response to concerns from Bastian Schweinsteiger, Heynckes made sure to spend more time practicing dead-ball situations. All in all, management has done better than anyone could have anticipated
Bayern is still playing a possession-based game in a 4-2-3-1 formation. The elegant if slightly gauche Toni Kroos has mostly been used as the No. 10 behind a solitary striker, but the overall majority of Bayern's goals are being created by the wide players. Deep-lying opposition can frustrate them, but the team has crucially added a new string to its bow in this campaign: it is pressing higher and more determinedly to win back possession. Bayern has taken a leaf out of champion Dortmund's approach, and as a result, it has been able to utilize the full attacking potential much better.
"Dortmund has made us more hungry," Bastian Schweinsteiger said recently. There's no doubt that the Bavarians have become a more complete outfit as a consequence.
In Manuel Neuer, Bayern has a keeper beyond reproach, the odd over-confident error when kicking the ball aside. No problems there.
Dante, the ?4.7 million signing from Gladbach, has been a useful acquisition. The 29-year-old Brazilian center back has brought a useful combination of aggression, technical skill and attacking threat; he hasn't missed a game in the league nor in the Champions League and established himself as an important presence in the dressing room, too. On the left, the return of the mercurial David Alaba solved a long-standing problem, and captain Philipp Lahm is as dependable as ever on the right. Holger Badstuber has also had a solid season, especially when he was allowed to move back to his favorite position at the heart of the defense. Unfortunately, the 23-year-old ruptured his cruciate ligament in the 1-1 draw with Dortmund last week, and he is unlikely to feature much before the end of the season.
His injury opened the door for Germany international Jérôme Boateng. The 24-year-old is a skilled and pacey defender but prone to lapses of concentration and rash challenges: his silly sending off against BATE could yet come back to haunt Bayern in the last 16 matches. Veteran Daniel van Buyten, 34, is also available, along with midfielders Javier Martinez and Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, who could both moonlight at center back. All in all, Bayern is a fraction more solid than last season, but doubts about Boateng's reliability will persist. It's also worrying that their fantastic defensive performances in the league, where they have only conceded six goals in 15 games, has not been reciprocated internationally. Seven goals in the minus column from six games in a pretty poor group point to some weakness.
Forty million euros was a lot of money for a holding midfielder, but Bayern felt Martinez could be the missing piece of the puzzle and thus, money was no object. The 24-year-old's understanding with Schweinsteiger needs improving, and he's only beginning to find his feet, but the early signs are promising. Ironically, Brazilian midfielder Luiz Gustavo has been playing better than ever before in light of the new competition. It'll be interesting to see whether Heynckes will be tempted to use Luiz Gustavo and Martinez as a defensive shield against top international opposition and move Schweinsteiger into the No. 10 position. There's no doubt that both the quality and the amount of options for Heynckes have increased, however. Swiss winger Xerdan Shaqiri is an excellent fall-back alternative for Arjen Robben (right), Franck Ribery or Thomas Müller (both left). The latter two are having fantastic individual seasons with a combined goal-tally of 16. Robben's fitness problems have prevented an extended run in the side, but he's hardly been missed. In terms of depth and sheer ability, Bayern's midfield is marginally ahead of Real Madrid's and not too far off Barcelona's.
Here, too, Bayern has learned the lessons from last year -- to an extent. The club toyed with the idea to sign Edin Dzeko to put more pressure on Mario Gomez but instead went for the lower-profile Mario Mandzukic (Wolfsburg) and Claudio Pizarro (Werder) to give the offense more oomph. Mandzukic has really done the business with nine goals, Pizarro has shown less consistency but netted six times in the Champions League and DFB Cup. Now that Gomez has overcome his preseason injury, both will fade into the background. but there's no question that they provide much more cover than Ivica Olic did 12 months ago. One of Bayern's biggest problems was its inability to bring on adequate subs when Gomez was having a bad day at the office, like in the decisive defeat against Dortmund in the league and the Champions League final against Chelsea.
Bayern's tactical tweaks, new management structure and added talent put it in a better position than last year. In addition, the Bavarians are threatening to run away with the Bundesliga title. This could have a positive effect later on in the season: the domestic dominance could make it easier to rotate players in the spring and keep everyone fresh. Bayern is more settled than Real Madrid, less dependent on a single player like Barcelona, and it has more depth than Dortmund, which is threatening to make some European waves this season, too. The biggest concern, however, is the quality of the center backs. Without the widely underrated Badstuber ("he's an incredibly important player for us," said a shocked Schweinsteiger after the Dortmund game), Bayern will remain vulnerable in matches against the continent's best sides, vulnerable to one moment of indecision that can put a whole game on its head. And that's not purely a theoretical problem, as Didier Drogba proved with devastating effect back in May.