Unbridled optimism is standard for Bayern Munich. Bayern is one of the rare clubs whose, no matter the circumstances, fans will always see the glass as half full. Even during last year’s capitulation to Barcelona in the Champions League, the sense was that this was an aberration of some kind. Barcelona were not better than Bayern, they were simply better at the right time. Bayern was injured and tired, Barcelona was peaking at the perfect time, much like the last side to win a European treble – Bayern in the 2013-2014 season. For Der Rekordmeister, failure is not aceeptable, but when it can be so easily washed down with champagne after victories – it makes it slightly easier to stomach.
This optimism, and being accustomed to winning, does result in exceedingly high standards, and the failure of Bayern to live up to said expectations can result in harsh consequences. Despite having won the Bundesliga in both of his first two seasons, Pep Guardiola finds himself on the managerial hot seat after consecutive Champions League failures. The second Bayern is perceived to be somehow less than perfect its fans will turn on the nearest scapegoat. Luckily for Pep, the first three matches have been nothing short of spectacular for Bayern, and optimism is easy to come by as the team returns from the international break and turns their eyes to the coming Bundesliga campaign.
Best starting XI: Manuel Neuer, Medhi Benatia, Juan Bernat, Philipp Lahm, David Alaba, Arturo Vidal, Xabi Alonso, Douglas Costa, Arjen Robben, Thomas Muller, Robert Lewandowski
This is a difficult lineup to craft because, outside of the inclusion of German stalwarts Neuer, Lahm and Muller, there is no wrong answer. This not only speaks to how well the team has played thus far, but also to Guardiola’s managerial ability. The positional fluidity of his side and his squad rotation has seen 14 or 15 players worthy of being considered for this XI, and it has seen them excel at different points on the field. Looking at this particular lineup, it could a 4-4-2, 4-3-2-1 or even a 3-5-2 and still make sense and win matches. Each of those lineups could feature different players at different positions as well. While this team is not perfect, its depth and Guardiola’s intelligence should guarantee that they will continue to be competitive for Champions League honours.
Best performer: Thomas Muller
Muller is an easy choice here solely because of his goalscoring prowess thus far (five goals in three matches). This is only a part of his game though, and right now Muller is playing absolutely magnificent soccer. Guardiola has used him as a midfielder, a centrally attacking midfielder and a forward, and while he has looked best at his natural position of midfield, he can seamlessly push forward to attack or stay behind the attackers and uses his endless reservoirs of creativity to set up the likes of Costa and Lewandowski. Muller was already one of the best players in the world entering this season, yet he has somehow taken another step forward.
Most improved player: Mario Gotze
I almost want to give this to Muller as well, but let’s spread the wealth. Gotze has been a bit of an enigma for Bayern since his arrival. At times, he has looked like the future talisman of the team he was supposed to be; other times he has looked desperately overwhelmed and out of place. This year his time on the field has been limited (127 minutes) but productive. While he has yet to score, he has been completing about 90% of his passes and he has shown an acceptance of Guardiola’s passing dogma. Part of the reason he has struggled is that his style of play does not coalesce with Guardiola’s managerial style. If Gotze is to succeed under Guardiola, he will need to show a willingness to compromise and respect the system, and he finally seems to be doing that. He is playing a more complete game with less of an attacking focus, and while he still has great strides to make, he has finally started to come around in a significant way.
International duty has once again resulted in a key injury for Bayern. Arjen Robben went down with a groin injury while playing for the Netherlands against Iceland. He will be out four weeks, but as we have seen over the past few years with Robben, one injury has a disturbing tendency to roll into another one. Meanwhile, Franck Ribery, Holger Badstuber and Javi Martinez all have yet to see any action this year as the oft-injured trio all attempt to return soon. Martinez’s return will likely come first, as he returned to training this past Tuesday. There has been very little coming out of the Säbener Straße in regards to Ribery’s injury, but Philipp Lahm was recently quoted saying, “I am convinced that Franck will return to his best. Everybody who writes him off is making a big mistake. We are there for him as a team to support him and to build him up again after all his misfortune. And he is 100 percent motivated. It is not like he has lost his desire to return. I am absolutely certain that he will get back to his best form.” Finally, Badstuber is supposedly close to returning, but there is no timeframe for his return right now. The best one can do is to keep their fingers crossed for the oft-injured defender.
Best business completed in transfer window: Douglas Costa
This is a toss up between the Brazilian forward Costa and the Chilean midfielder Arturo Vidal. Both players have been fantastic for Bayern thus far, arguably their two best players behind Muller. I’ll give the nod to Costa because he has produced two assists and a goal, but that is mostly due to where he plays versus how he plays. Costa has shown an exceptional nose for the net, and while Robben may not like his post-goal celebrations, there will definitely be more to come and when they lead to more Bayern successes, Robben will likely find said celebrations more palatable.
Rating the manager: A
With all the controversy that has surrounded Guardiola’s future in Munich, he has come out and made an authoritative statement about his abilities as manager. He has shown a great fluidity with where he is playing his men as well as which formation he plays them in, and this has brought out the best from a lot of his players. He has integrated two very different players in Costa and Vidal seamlessly into the squad; both players have played all 270 minutes for the team. He is also rotating the squad already; Vidal, Costa and Muller are the only to have played all 270 minutes. Guardiola is still one of the best managerial minds in world soccer, and three matches into the season he has proven that to any doubters.
Are there any? This team is so complete. The one concern I have is that they possess the ball so often, and that possession tends to be in their opponent’s third, that their defense can sometimes grow disinterested, allowing their opponents to create easy chances where there should not be any. Once the defense realizes this they do a good job closing down, but when they start to regularly play better sides, this could become a serious problem.
Forecast for remainder of season:
As high as Bayern are riding right now, this is in part because of the quality of their opponents, or lack thereof. They did demolish a talented Leverkusen side, but that was in Munich and early season matches are not always a good barometer for later matches. That being said, Bayern will continue to dominate. They have never won the Bundesliga four years in a row, so the team can use that possibility as added motivation.
Overall rating: A
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