This article also appeared on GGFN.
Bayern Munich stand at a pivotal juncture in their recent history. A seventh consecutive title, the closest in some time, was secure this weekend but having given the club a clearly defined playing identity via the three stage process of Louis Van Gaal to Jupp Heynckes to Pep Guardiola, and then back to Heynckes via Carlo Ancelotti, this season has again been one of uncertainty, even regression. Although coach Niko Kovac has found his feet, doubt prevails. An aging team is finally being broken up; Franck Ribery, Rafinha and Arjen Robben have gone, Jerome Boateng should follow. But with their replacements yet to be chose and ongoing murmurings over the manager after a weak Champions League exit the real battle has just begun.
After just four minutes the title race was over. Although Borussia Dortmund, needing to win and Bayern to lose, professionally dispensed with Champions League chasing Borussia Monchengladbach, Kingsley Coman had the record champions ahead early on against Eintracht Frankfurt. The rebellion of Sebastian Haller’s 50th minute equaliser was swiftly crushed within three minutes by David Alaba and then Renato Sanches five minutes later. With half an hour to play, the title was Bayern’s.
In their final game for the club, the introduction of Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben signalled early celebrations. In typical fashion, Ribery skipped inside from the left, bamboozling David Abraham and Danny da Costa to nonchalantly dink a fourth over Kevin Trapp. Minutes later Robert Lewandowski and David Alaba combined to provide Robben with a tap in for 5-1. A Bundesliga title secured at home for the first time since 2000, a Ribery goal, a Robben goal: Perfection. All that remained was the usual beer throwing and for departing heroes to lift a seventh consecutive Bundesliga crown.
In the aftermath Bayern president Uli Hoeness described Ribery as “one of the best transfers Bayern have ever made" and the numbers support him. The Frenchman is the only player to have won nine Bundesliga titles, more than Philipp Lahm, Olivier Kahn and Bastian Schweinsteiger all of whom, like Robben, have eight. Since arriving in 2007, a 25m fee paid to Marseille, no one has matched his twenty one-out-of-six ratings from Kicker, the best grade the magazine awards for an individual display.
Ribery and Robben, or ‘Robbery’, have been pivotal for Bayern’s key moments this decade. In 273 Bundesliga games, Ribery has been directly involved in 178 goals; 148 in 202 for the Dutchman, aiding domestic omnipotence. Ribery’s assist for Robben’s winner helped secure the 2013 Champions League title after Ribery had missed the 2010 final in Madrid due to suspension - a key factor in Bayern’s blunt display that day as Diego Milito’s brace won a treble for Jose Mourinho and Inter Milan.
Despite their long lasting impact, injuries have been a concern for both, particularly of late and particularly for Robben. In ten seasons with Bayern 28 league outings is Robben’s zenith while Ribery has only passed 20 twice in the last five seasons having exceeded 30 just once in his twelve campaigns. As such, while restings and rotation in their later years are also factors, their combined total of 305 goals and 253 assists (often for each other) for club and country while contracted to Bayern could be even more impressive. "For both of us, a look is enough, and one knows what the other is thinking," said Robben in Monday’s Kicker. "It remains a great friendship. What we have experienced together is something special. It was a lot of fun."
This season however, Robben and Ribery, now 35 and 36 respectively, have become increasingly marginalised. Due to injury and the form of Serge Gnabry and Kingsley Coman, Ribery has only managed three starts in 2019 while Robben just returned from a knee issue that sidelined him for five months. In turth, this title was won without ‘Robbery’. Neither started the 5-0 drubbing of Dortmund last month, nor any of the subsequent crucial six games during the run in. Perhaps tellingly, it was a younger, hungrier Bayern that rescued their domestic season after Christmas with Jerome Boateng joining the Frenchman on the bench. Gnabry, Coman, Joshua Kimmich, Niklas Sule and Leon Goretzka were instead to the fore in support of Lewandowski.
Nevertheless, worryingly for the rest of the league, this has arguably been Bayern’s worst campaign for some time. Despite the upheaval of Niko Kovac’s arrival and concerns over his suitability, Munich’s lowest points total and worst goal difference since 2011/12 as well as their worst defensive record since 2010/11 and appearing off the pace in the Champions League knockout stages, Munich will still likely win the double. The DFB Pokal final with Leipzig is still to come.
Furthermore, only twice have rivals Dortmund, who squandered a nine point lead, collected more points or more wins and only once since 1976 have they scored more league goals. However, having only squeezed into the Champions League on goal difference last term under Peter Stoger, Lucien Favre’s first season should still be seen as a success despite falling short of overhauling an average Bayern. Of course, Bayern’s dominance is hardly new. This title was their 28th from the 56 Bundesliga seasons to date, exactly half, while 16 of the last 23 German top flight campaigns have ended with Munich victorious. Even so, an opportunity was undoubtedly missed.
However, strength in depth has been a feature of the Bundesliga this season, fostering hope of another title race next term. Third place Leipzig will remain a potential threat, even if the incoming Julian Nagelsmann told Monday’s Kicker "Leipzig can’t compete with Bayern Munich in salaries - that's another world,” the 31 year old conceded, “but you can compete for titles with a hungry team." Leipzig under Ralf Rangnick were only ten points back and will be reinforced Nagelsmann’s arrival as coach with Reluctant Ralf returning to his favoured sporting director role. Quite the partnership.
Mid-table when he arrived over Christmas, aided by a vibrant young side lead by Kai Havertz and Julian Brandt, Peter Bosz propelled Bayer Leverkusen into the top four via some rampaging displays in 2019. Eintracht Frankfurt stormed to the Europa League semi finals despite Niko Kovac’s departure last summer while Thorgan Hazard’s best season to date helped Borussia Monchengladbach to fifth, beating Bayern along the way. Hoffenheim continued to punch above their weight, drawing twice with Dortmund, and Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg proved remarkably consistent as quiet rejuvenations continued. At one stage or another the entire top half proved competitive.
However, the chasing pack may struggle to maintain that development. As Nagelsmann hinted, Leipzig’s model may make a sustained challenge tricky; Champions League football will provide significant leverage but Havertz and Brandt could yet leave Leverkusen this summer; the unerring finishing of Frankfurt’s talismanic Serbian forward Luka Jovic may already be La Liga bound while Hazard has already agreed to join Dortmund who themselves will struggle to hold onto Jadon Sancho.
Typically Bayern are the only club capable of ring-fencing their best players and ploughing hundreds of millions of euros into strengthening. While significant potential also remains to cannibalize their rivals, a trusted Munich tactic, Bayern have already nearly doubled the Bundesliga record fee to add French world cup winning defender Lucas Hernandez (80m) for Atletico Madrid while capturing compatriot Benjamin Pavard from Stuttgart. With Robben and Ribery finally moving on, parachuting in the likes of Lille’s devastating Ivorian forward Nicolas Pepe or Leroy Sane of Manchester City, as has been suggested, will happen sooner rather than later.
Kicker meanwhile were not optimistic for change, highlighting the ‘disgrace’ of Schalke’s 7-0 Champions League loss to Manchester City as part of the a ‘failed’ European season for German clubs and referencing the ‘painful balancing act between tradition on the one hand and devotion to money on the other.’
Although Bayern’s dominance seems likely to continue, regardless of the traditional beer shower from his players on Saturday afternoon, Niko Kovac may not. Despite Hoeness referring to the title as "a very special championship", Kovac’s future remains in doubt. After the 5-0 thrashing of Dortmund last month, which effectively won Munich the title, CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge told Sky that the club would "analyse everything after the season ends. There was a phase when there was a lot of internal criticism, otherwise we would not have had a nine point deficit.”
After an autumn dip in form, Kovac has returned Munich largely to their all-conquering selves, losing just once in the league since the start of December. A period that included a run of 13 wins from 14 games. An astute coach capable of knitting a disparate squad together, as he proved with Eintracht Frankfurt over the previous two seasons which included a DFP Pokal win, Kovac undoubtedly understands the club, also winning the title as a Bayern player. The second half of the season has seen the Croatian noticeably impose himself on an entrenched Bayern side to good effect.
As Kicker pointed out, although Hoeness refused to discuss the coach’s future, sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic conceded that "the facts speak in favor of the coach" while fan reaction towards Kovac in the aftermath of the title win was overtly positive. Nevertheless, a lot may depend on the Pokal final later this month while Kovac is struggling against the spectre of his team’s limp Champions League exit to an admittedly devastating Liverpool team. While the 0-0 draw at Anfield may have highlighted Kovac’s strengths in deploying a combative, solid unit, the following 3-1 loss at home underlined weaknesses in his team’s ability to impose themselves at the highest level. Before the Dortmund win he was accused by some at his presser of not being a ‘tactical nerd’.
When celebrations die down and beer reserves are exhausted, crucial decisions will need to be made. Although Kicker speculate that the manager will be allowed to continue, his future remains questionable. While Kovac has proven himself domestically, Bayern - in parallel to Juventus and PSG - will be prioritising European success. If Kovac can’t provide it, then who? With ‘Robbery’ leaving, finding replacements, in both footballing and emotional senses, will be a nuanced and expensive task. The answers Hoeness, Rummenigge and co find for such questions could mean another decade of dominance or the continuation of a slow descent away from Europe’s summit.
by Adam White