With a record fourth-straight Bundesliga title expected for Bayern Munich, 2015-16 success for the club will come down to the Champions League, fair or not, writes Jonathan Wilson.
No team has ever won four German titles in a row before. Not in the Bundesliga, and not in the complicated days before the national league when the champion was decided by regional tournaments feeding into a knockout. When Bayern won a third straight title last season, it was the fifth time since a national championship was inaugurated in 1903 that a team had completed a hat trick. But nobody’s ever done four. This should be the story of a great quest, of a champion struggling against the entropic imperative to register the greatest run of sustained success in history, but it’s not. Bayern will, almost certainly, win the title.
This is the bind into which European football has fallen. So uneven is the distribution of wealth, so efficiently has the bulk of the money in the game been directed to those at the top, that there is now a tier of super-clubs whose position is all but unassailable. Barcelona and Real Madrid at least have each other to wrestle with–and it’s only two seasons ago that Spain was enlivened by the miracle of Atletico winning a two-horse race despite being neither horse–the Premier League has its top table of four, but in Germany (Bayern) and France (PSG) there is only one.
Last season, Bayern won the league by 10 points, even though it lost three of its last four games. The season before, Bayern won the league by 19 points. The season before that it won the league by 25 points. It would take a failure of almost inconceivable proportions for it not to win the league again this season.
The most recent Deloitte report into football finance shows Bayern as the third-richest team in the world with revenues of €487.5 million.
The next highest German team is Borussia Dortmund with revenues of €261.5 million. No wonder Bayern has effectively been able to devastate a side that won the two titles before the hat trick by signing Robert Lewandowski and Mario Gotze.
And if Bayern, which opens the 2015-16 campaign Friday against Hamburg (2:30 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 2), isn’t plucking the prize assets from its potential rivals, other wealthy clubs are: Dortmund had earlier lost Shinji Kagawa to Manchester United and Nuri Sahin to Real Madrid (Atletico, the other great upstarts to reach a Champions League final recently has undergone a similar process of defoliation–even clubs just outside the top 10 of the world’s wealthiest can battle the market only so long). That Wolfsburg got to within 10 points last season was remarkable, but the chances of it starting the season with its most eye-catching player, Kevin De Bruyne, are slim, with Manchester City hovering.
The league is such a foregone conclusion that it almost doesn’t matter. For Bayern to win it may be to make history, but there’s little glory there: it’s like walking down the street–the only story is if something goes unexpectedly wrong. The real interest for Bayern is the Champions League, and in that quest lies the full awkwardness of Pep Guardiola’s position.
When he was named as Bayern’s new manager during the 2012-13 season, he was considered the best manager in the world, demanding and intense, yes, but innovative and inspirational as well. Jupp Heynckes, the incumbent, was seen as chronically old-fashioned, but of course he won the treble before departing, leaving Guardiola with an impossible standard to live up to.
Guardiola’s first season brought only–only!-a double: the Bundesliga and the DFB Pokal, and a humbling Champions League exit in the semifinal. Last season brought a Bundesliga, a Pokal semifinal defeat on penalties and a humbling Champions League exit in the semifinal. Suddenly questions are being asked about whether his intensity is actually inhibiting the players. His legacy at Barcelona is being reassessed: was he actually a genius or did he just have Lionel Messi (although as half a dozen Argentina managers have proved, having Messi is no guarantee of anything)?
There have been a number of flashpoints: the spat with the club doctor Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt that led to his departure, the coldness in his relationship with Thomas Muller, the decision to sell Bastian Schweinsteiger, an icon of the club. None of the incidents or decisions in themselves are that significant, but together they create a picture of a manager whose philosophy is not entirely congruent with that of the club he leads.
His contract expires at the end of this season and, as rumors continue to circulate that he will move to Manchester City, there is little prospect of him extending that deal–even if the club wanted him to, which is far from certain. It seems an absurd demand, but such is the modern world of super-clubs that if Guardiola fails to land the Champions League, his time at Bayern will probably be judged a failure.
Arturo Vidal has arrived and should add some bite to the midfield, while Douglas Costa can perhaps offer a touch of the unpredictable from wide, but there’s a strange sense that until March, none of this really matters. Defeat on penalties to Wolfsburg in the Super Cup suggested a scratchiness to Bayern, but even allowing for that, the chances are that by the turn of the year the league is all but won and the attention will have shifted to the Champions League.
Bayern’s season and how Guardiola’s time at the club is judged are likely to hinge on a couple of key knockout games against other superclubs, the sort of matches for which the Bundesliga is no longer any preparation. A year of reeling out wins only for everything to be decided over one knockout tie: how did it ever come to this?