Crushed. Obliterated. Decimated. There were so many superlatives that came to mind as Sheikh Mansour’s millions of petrodollars seemed to evaporate in front of his very eyes Wednesday night on the home field of Etihad Stadium.
On the pitch, his expensive assortment of foreign players crumbled right in front of the Manchester City supporters. Bayern schooled the Citizens in emphatic fashion. City’s expensively assembled squad were left chasing shadows as die Roten ran circles and reduced City’s midfield to pieces with their vicious off-the-ball pressing game high up the pitch. For 80 minutes, the Bavarians played what was a near perfect display of total football. A philosophy of flawless ball retention combined with a ferocious pressing game triumphed over what was nothing more than a rather static assembly of stars signed by City’s Abu Dhabi benefactors. Bayern’s triumph showcased the victory of club ethos over extravagance. The game was a victory not just for Bayern but one for the football purists as well.
But on second thought, are Bayern really a team for the purists? A few Bayern detractors and casual observers of the game oppose this view. Many believe that the Bavarians hold some sort of a monopoly over the Bundesliga; the Big Bad Bayern who are able to sign any player from their nearest domestic rivals at their will. This illusion was largely created by the intense English media scrutiny surrounding Mario Gotze’s controversial transfer to Bayern Munich and the eventual transfer of Robert Lewandowski to the Allianz in 2014.
While the non-German audience may buy into this tripe, a keen observer of German football will tell you that, aside from these two transfers that were largely induced by the arrival of highly-rated Pep Guardiola himself, Bayern have often struggled to get players from their domestic rivals. In 2011 Bayern had a verbal agreement with midfield star Arturo Vidal, but Leverkusen refused to sell. Die Workself rejected Bayern’s lucrative offer and instead accepted a lower offer from Juventus. Bayern also failed in their attempts to sign Lars Bender and Marco Reus. Leverkusen resolutely refused any advances from Bayern over Bender while Reus snubbed Bayern and opted to sign for Dortmund instead. Dortmund themselves have signed their fare share of players from fellow domestic sides while Wolfsburg, Frankfurt, Bremen and Gladbach’s successful transfer raids collectively decimated Freiburg’s team that finished in a Europa League spot last season. Teams signing players from weaker teams in the Bundesliga, as in any other league, is nothing new and is not exclusive to the Bavarians.
Bayern’s victory over City was without doubt a win for the purists. The very best teams in Europe, the legendary teams, tend to have at least 3 or 4 world class home grown players. Bayern Munich have had their fair share of spending in recent years. But the key contrast to City’s spending is that it is far lesser and that there is an ultimate emphasis on relying primarily on their own youth system. Despite boasting foreign superstars such as Ribery and Robben, the core of Bayern’s team consists of Bayern’s very own youth products in the form of Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller, Schweinsteiger, Philip Lahm, David Alaba and Holger Badstuber. Bayern possess a strong identity and ethos to their side and style of play. Their possession oriented philosophy was what attracted Guardiola to Bayern in the first place. Similarly, Barcelona, despite spending when necessary on world class talent like Neymar, rely heavily on their own homegrown La Masia products.
The nouveau riche English side, in contrast, are hardly cut from the same cloth. With Joe Hart in goal and James Milner on the bench, the team on the pitch seems to be nothing more than a random assortment of expensive foreigners. There is no real ethos, no particular football philosophy. What makes matters worse is that the team is artificially propped up by the backing of the Abu Dhabi Group. The club simply lacks an identity.
Detractors of Financial Fair Play wrongly claim that stringent financial rules, advocated by clubs like Bayern, prevent other sides of mediocre stature like City from ever joining the elite due to the prevention of sugar daddies pumping cash into clubs that never earned it. These same critics seem to forget that Bayern Munich themselves started off as a small club that played under strict financial rules created in Germany since the inception of the Bundesliga. The club rose to be the stable giant that it is today due to the flawless manner in which it was structured, shrewd management and emphasis on youth development. Every Euro that the Bavarians spent on a big money transfer today is their own hard-earned cash. Borussia Dortmund now follow the same path. The team that has fought back from being on the verge of bankruptcy and mid-table obscurity are now embarking on a meteoric rise into the upper echelons of European football. They continue to make new and better signings despite the odd sale of a player. As a result, both Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund remain top sides and also retain their identity instead of resorting to becoming a billionaire’s plaything in order to compete at the highest level.
The 3-1 scoreline on Wednesday night flattered City. The manner in which that they were so thoroughly outclassed on the pitch made it extremely satisfying for football purists around the world. Manchester City’s owners might be tempted to pump in another billion to compete with the likes of Bayern and hopefully hit the European jackpot sometime within the next decade. But for now, football romantics can rejoice.