With an injury-cursed Borussia Dortmund floundering at the bottom of the 2014 Bundesliga table and with a typically dominant Bayern Munich sitting pretty at the top, Der Klassiker may have lacked some of the drive that it has had in the past few years, as we have seen it determine the winner of the Bundesliga, the DFB-Pokal and the 2013 UEFA Champions League, yet watching the match one could have easily been fooled into believing otherwise. It was the men in yellow and black who struck first, scoring just after the 30-minute mark, and it looked as if Bayern may had underestimated their rivals and tricked themselves into a loss.
Watching the match, I know I found myself having a small heart attack as every second ticked away without a Bayern goal. Had they truly come into this match not expecting a resurgent Dortmund? Had Pep Guardiola failed to prepare his men properly? Had they forgotten that, injuries notwithstanding, this is largely the same Dortmund team that has consistently rained on Bayern’s parade for the past five years?
Then, in the 72 minute mark, Robert Lewandowski put the ball in the back of the net, and all was right with the world. Bayern’s second goal would come just thirteen minutes later, as Arjen Robben scored on a penalty, and the rest of my Paulaner tasted all the sweeter. Those worries that plagued me just twenty minutes ago were forgotten, and I turned my focus to Bayern’s midweek Champions League fixture with AS Roma.
As we check in with the defending champions, the Dortmund match is as good a barometer as there is for how Bayern has been playing this year. As I reflect on their undefeated Bundesliga and Champions League campaigns, I see at once the team that dismantled and embarrassed Roma 7-1, yet I also a team that has drawn with Schalke 04, Borussia Monchengladbach and Hamburg SV. Multiple times, I have seen what I believe to be the best iteration of this team under Pep Guardiola. Yet watching them in some of their matches, I fear that Bayern may be a team that plays down to its opponents.
As far as flaws go, this is not the worst one to have, as in order to play down to one’s opponents, a team must be fundamentally better than their opponents in the first place. What concerns me is that this quality is a sign of a mentally incomplete team. The idea of “mental toughness” in sports is a difficult specter to rankle with. There is no statistical category that proves that one team is stronger between the ears than the next, it is simply something that must be witnessed or experienced. A lack of mental toughness can be an extension of many things. In London, for example, it seems as if Tottenham Hotspur so consistently expect to lose that they will themselves out of winnable matches. Last year in Italy, AC Milan was a team that thought it was better than it was; I recall watching one of their matches and an announcer calling them “a team full of names that is not winning games.” That is another form of mental weakness.
The type of mental weakness that may be influencing Bayern this year is a simple one: Cockiness. Bayern will win the Bundesliga, of this I have no doubt. They have already sealed their advancement to the knockout stages of the Champions League as well. Yet the distance by which they win the Bundesliga, and how far they advance in the Champions League, may not be determined by their feet but by their heads. It is my opinion that it was this same cockiness that saw them obliterated by Real Madrid in a way they had not been in years during last year’s Champions League. In order to avoid that same fate, I need to see Bayern play like they did during their magnificent treble winning campaign of 2013, and as many of their players did for the German national team en route to their World Cup victory this year. In both of those instances, we saw what to me is the platonic ideal of German football – efficient and exacting, yet still beautiful and elegant. This perfection begins at the head and ends at the feet, not the other way around. In order to play like this, a team must not only be talented, but be mentally prepared for the travails of a trying campaign. I believe that Bayern has it in them to channel this austerity and toughness, but only time will tell if they actually manage to do so.
With all that said, let’s hand out some awards take a look at some other signs of progress:
Best Starting XI
Nothing has made me happier this year than watching the combination of Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski wreak havoc on opposing defenses. They are, individually, absolutely stunning players, and their talents work perfectly together. Yet neither of them has been even close to being Bayern’s best player. That distinction is saved for their number one, Manuel Neuer. At 28, Neuer is not only the best goalkeeper in the world, but he has made even the idea of there even being a conversation about it irrelevant. This season saw him go an incredible 688 consecutive minutes in the Bundesliga without allowing a goal, and that streak would have been even longer and would have extended to the DFB-Pokal and the Chamions League had Neuer not conceded two late goals in already decided matches; one in their 3-1 victory over Hamburg and one in their 7-1 thrashing of Roma. Neuer continues to elevate his game and, while many players have been impressive for Bayern this year, no one has played as consistently and at such a high level as Neuer.
Most Improved Player
Here is where Gotze can step up and accept his award. Since his Dortmund days, it has been clear that Gotze has possessed the talents to be a truly exceptional player. This year has seen him start to become what we all knew he had the potential to be, and that is one of the best players in the world. No, he is not quite in the Ronaldo-Messi realm quite yet, but he easily places into that crowded second-tier of burgeoning stars. Four months younger than Neymar, I would vehemently argue that Gotze is, at this point, a superior player. His game is flawless. This is not to say that there is not room for improvement, but quite simply there is nothing the young man cannot do on the pitch.
Bayern is such a deep team that while they have faced numerous injuries, their play has been largely unaffected. Their biggest loss to injury has been talismanic midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, but he retuned to first team training on Tuesday and his projected return of early 2015 seems very likely. It is possible that he will outpace that projection, but the smart move for Guardiola here is to keep him on the bench through the end of this year, as that will give Schweinsteiger a greater chance of enduring what are sure to be long and trying campaigns both nationally and internationally.
While the Schweinsteiger injury has loomed over Bayern’s head all year, David Alaba and now club captain Philipp Lahm’s injury too will be a major source of concern for Munich. First, let us take a second to admire what an incredible player Alaba is. Had I said he was Bayern’s most improved player, would anyone have batted an eye? He has developed into one of the best all-around players in the world, starting ten of Bayern’s eleven matches, a number bested only by captain Lahm. The loss of Alaba is crushing, in both the sense that it is going to be a difficult road for Bayern to traverse without him, and in the sense that no one wants to see such a talented 22-year-old in the midst of his best season succumb to injury. Fortunately, the injury does not appear to be as devastating as we once may have thought. Like Basti, Alaba will almost certainly return in early 2015. On the other hand, Lahm’s three month layoff compounds the side’s woes and will be a very difficult player to cover.
Transfer Window Forecast
How Bayern handles the coming transfer window will be interesting, and it will be indicative of where Guardiola sees this team going. If they stand pat, it says two things – A. Guardiola is not concerned about the injuries to Schweinsteiger, Alaba, Javi Martinez or Thiago Alcantara, and B. Guradiola believes that any roadblocks Bayern have hit are best overcome through allowing the team to gel and work together rather than a lack of talent.
That being said, teams like Bayern never simply watch a transfer window pass. When considering the players that may be available in the coming window, I simply do not see anyone who would make sense for Bayern to aggressively pursue. Sergio Ramos may follow Xabi Alonso’s suit and ditch Spain for Germany. Marco Reus and Meszut Ozil’s names will be thrown around, as they always are. Daley Sinkgraven and Martin Odegaard are two hot young names to eye carefully. Still, barring a significant name becoming legitimately available, however, I expect this to be a quiet transfer window in Munich.
Pep Guardiola is, in my humble estimation, the best managerial mind in soccer. His accomplishments in Barcelona and in Munich thus far speak for themselves, but his ability to incorporate diverse talents into a set strategy is a truly incredible ability and a testament to his understanding of the game. There is no better strategist pacing the sidelines in 2014.
Guardiola still has work to do in Munich, though. My concern is that the aforementioned lack of mental toughness starts with Pep. It is not that he lacks mental toughness, watching his dominant Barca sides shows that, it is that he has not found a proper way to bring an essentially Spanish approach to the game in to Germany. He is progressing towards that in a nice way, though. He clearly understands his team better than he did a year ago, and vice versa. It was always going to be a problem incorporating two known commodities smoothly, but I think every match is a step forward for Guardiola and his men.
If you have been paying attention, you know the answer to this – mental toughness. A successful campaign for Bayern is a treble, at this point. That is a mentally trying goal. Knowing that this is the expectation will undoubtedly weigh heavily on the minds of the Munich men. They need to be able to overcome this weight and play as if nothing is expected of them. Part of the reason I believe they were so incredible in that 2013 campaign was that they were haunted by the specter of their home loss to Chelsea in the previous year’s final. This embarrassment led them to play with a hunger they had lacked previously because they had now known the sting of defeat on the highest level. They need to show that they can channel that energy and hunger once again.
Rating (out of 5 stars): 4.5
I wish I could give my beloved Reds a perfect record, but they are not quite there. I wish I could write off their draws in the Bundesliga as aberrations, but something tells me they might not be. I wish I could forget their unceremonious Champions League exit last year, but alas, their 5-0 aggregate thumping from Real Madrid still gives me the fantods. They are the best team in Germany, but that is not enough. Success in Munich is means that they hoist not one, not two, but three trophies at the minimum. They are tantalizingly close to doing so, but I am not sure that they are there, and that is why they are not yet a ten.