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.