GUANGZHOU, GUANGDONG - JULY 26: Mario Mandzukic of Bayern Munich is congratulated by Thomas Muller after scoring during a friendly match against VfL Wolfsburg as part of the Audi Football Summit 2012 on July 26, 2012 at the Guangdong Olympic Sports Center in Guangzhou, China. (Photo by Victor Fraile/Getty Images)
A long, long summer for FC Bayern fans is almost at its end. If you're (somehow) unaware of why that would be, start here (thoughts after our loss to Chelsea in last year's Champions League final), here (match thread for our last loss to rivals Borussia Dortmund) and here (recap of Germany's crashing out of this summer's European Championships). If you're not new around here, you know exactly what time it is. Climb aboard for the preview.
Let's start with the roster itself - position by position. If you've been following the club all summer, you can skim over this part.
Manuel Neuer was brought over before last season as the missing piece of the puzzle - the world-class German 'keeper who could be a commanding presence along the back and make the occasional amazing save to win us a match or preserve a lead. I would say he did that for 95 percent of the time last year. The problem was, the 5 percent of the time when he wasn't doing that, he was ... I want to say "awful," but I guess that's too harsh. Put it this way: when he screws up, he REALLY screws up.
Most of Neuer's blunders come when trying to clear the ball and/or when venturing out of the net. In other words, I don't recall him making any Robert Green-style howlers where he should have made a save and didn't. It's more a question of his being so aggressive and so confident that he'll needlessly venture off his line, or try to start a break for Bayern with a long pass when he could easily have waited to make a safe one, or try to make some beastly punch-save, or otherwise get too far ahead of himself and make an error. It's easy to say "just stop doing that," but his confidence and his aggressive attitude are a big part of why he's so successful the other 95 percent of the time. I think we have to accept him for who he is: an excellent goalie who will make numerous great saves, who will intimidate the opponents with his strength and his presence, and who will do something catastrophic once in a while. Hopefully he can cut down on those, or at least not do that at the worst possible time.
Everyone's going to now weigh in and say how much they love him, but if you go back to the comment section after the 2nd 'Gladbach match last season, there were a few people wondering why we bought him in the first place.
Starke was brought in as back-up upon Butt's retirement. If we need him to come in for a game or two, I actually think Starke could go a great job. But let's hope we don't need him for an extended period of time, because he's definitely a half-step down from Neuer.
There were a few defensive errors last year, generally coming against clubs that can work a quick-strike counter-attack, that obscured the fact that we actually had a really solid defensive unit. In fact, we were within one match of equaling the record for fewest goals allowed in a 1. Bundesliga season. It was towards the end of the year when the club hit upon what will hopefully be the defensive set for this season: David Alaba at LB, Badstuber and Boateng at the CB spots, and Philipp Lahm at RB.
Of course, with our well-documented injury troubles, this won't be the defensive line-up for opening day. Alaba and back-up FBs Diego Contento and Rafinha are all currently nursing injuries. Our starting 4 for opening day will probably be some combination of Badstuber, Boateng, Lahm, newcomer Dante (picked up from BMG this summer) and oldcomer Daniel van Buyten, back to full fitness and ready to show he's still got something in the tank. That's actually 5 pretty good defenders right there, but the problem is that 4 of the 5 are more naturally CBs. Also, 1 of the 5 (Lahm) has already seen his position moved and moved again 3 times in the last 3 seasons, 1 of the 5 (van Buyten) is a little stiff and pretty limited as to what he can do in the open field, 1 of the 5 (Dante) is a new addition, and while he's a very talented player, it's unclear how he'll fit in with the established players, and 1 of the 5 (Boateng) is a strong, fast, skilled guy who goes through long stretches of play where he looks like he can't tell his own ass from a hole in the ground.
Once Alaba gets back to full fitness, I really think our FB pairing should be set: Alaba at LB and Lahm at RB, with Rafinha and Diego providing back-up and rotational duty as needed. That leaves a lot of competition for playing time at CB. But competition has a way of making players better, and it's certainly better to have too many good CBs than too few, as we found out last year.
MIDFIELD / WINGS
Looking back on it, it was here where we really dominated last season. I can't recall a single match in which we didn't control a majority of the possession, and when a goal kick was sent deep into the middle of the field, I feel like Bayern came away with the ball two-thirds of the time. Of course, as we saw in the CL Final, controlling possession doesn't mean you always win. Still, as far as the performance of the midfield, there's not a whole lot more you can ask.
Bastian Schweinsteiger is the general and the visionary. The only question with him is his fitness - which, unfortunately, is a concern. He had an ankle problem last spring, and it's been flaring up all summer. But if he's fit and ready to go once we get to the meat of the season, no one can beat us out in the middle of the field. With Bastian + Kroos at the CDM spots if we predict a free-flowing match, Bastian + Gustavo or Bastian + Tymoschuk if we need more tackling and ball-winning power, Ribery and Robben on each side, and Xherdan Shaqiri ready to fill in on either wing as needed, I can't think of anyone in the world who can go toe-to-toe with us in the middle third of the field. Against Real Madrid in the two-legged Champions League tie, we controlled 55 percent of the possession, took more shots, earned more corner kicks, won more loose balls, and basically ran the game against what was thought to be the most talented team in the world.
Of course, running the game doesn't necessarily mean winning the game. In order to win, you have to get better play out of your ...
Mario Gomez, FC Bayern's starting striker, has been on a goal-scoring tear for the past two seasons. Over that time, he's also has his share of cringe-worthy misses and blown opportunities (a few of which took place in the CL Final). Whether you like him or not, it was clear that we needed to bring in some back-up, even if just to have someone who can mix it up late in the game, as well as give Gomez a rest sometimes.
Our answers were Claudio Pizarro and Mario Mandzukic. Pizarro is well-known to Bayern fans, but it's Mandzu who looks like he's going to feature more prominently, especially in the first few weeks while Gomez rehabs an injury. Mandukic isn't as physically imposing as Gomez, but he has fluid movement and a nose for the ball. He's also excellent at headers, something we haven't had recently (although Thomas Müller has been zeroing in on that skill as well).
Müller is our starting "second-striker." If you disagree, you're incorrect. That is all.
CORRECTING LAST YEAR'S PROBLEMS
Last year, we had a few problems that damned our quest for trophies, and that handed us a few losses even in matches where we clearly outplayed the opponents. The first was squad depth. Well, on this score, I think FC Bayern's front office did a great job this summer. Dante is going to be a huge factor in the backfield - whether he starts on day 1 or not, he's going to get plenty of burn. Shaqiri is, at worst, one of the best back-ups on the planet. At best, and depending on how versatile he is, he might be in the starting line-up sooner than anyone expects. And our new striker back-ups give us a better strike force than anyone in the world except for maybe Real Madrid (who actually have a problem on their hands, with Benzema and Higuain both wanting to play) and Manchester City (who are apparently managed like my little cousin's team on X-Box FIFA). With the hectic schedule once Champions League play starts, combined with injury problems and the need to give opponents a new look every so often, this was a very positive summer on the "depth" front.
On a few other issues, it's entirely unclear whether FC Bayern has done enough to overcome anything. For example, we looked rather toothless on corners and free kicks last year. Jupp Heynckes said that he didn't have time to run many free kick drills after taking over last summer. You'd hope that the club would make some tweaks to the set-piece tactical package this year; also, with Mandzukic on board and van Buyten back, we should have some better header-power. Still, until we see some improvement, that has to be a question mark.
Another issue last season was a lack of tactical flexibility for Bayern, especially offensively. We certainly scored our share of goals, but we did have some ugly scoring droughts. And considering how we routinely dominated the middle of the field, we probably should have been finding the net even more regularly than we did. One of the big problems was opponents doubling and tripling up on Gomez and Müller and forcing our wings outside and into the corners. Since Ribery and Robben are dribble-drivers rather than ball-floaters, we were reduced to trying to dribble through multiple defenders or taking pot-shots from distance. And as we brought CMs and FBs up to generate offense, we opened ourselves up for a counter-attack. This is another thing that we'd hopefully improve upon with more practice time, and especially with a different cast (Shaqiri, in particular, should bring a different look and maybe cross up opponents' defenses). Again, though, you can't feel confident that this has been solved until we see some evidence.
Alright ... alright. This might just be the Seagram's VO talking, but I actually have a really, really good feeling about this upcoming season. After two straight years of no trophies, we certainly don't have any particular reason to be proud or optimistic. But the talent is there. If you look at our losses over the past 24 months, most of the big ones resulted from injuries, suspensions, momentary mental breakdowns, and just plain horrible luck. The loss to Inter in 2011? A fluke play that gave them their winning goal, and their first goal might have been offside anyway. The opening loss to 'Gladbach last season? Neuer and Boateng, both in their first competition game for Bayern, get mixed up, and the loose ball falls right into De Camargo's path. The first loss to Dortmund last season? A rebound flies up into the air and somehow lands right on Götze's foot. The CL Final loss? We controlled over 60 percent of the possession, created a dozen decent chances, and dominated the game, even with practically half our team out through suspension, and Tymoschuk playing CB for the first time in over a year.
In particular, I'll refer back to one of our most astute comments ever received, from alsam Uraie, in the immediate aftermath of the Chelsea loss. In fact, I'll reprint it in full:
This took me a while to dig...
After possibly the darkest hours as a Bayern fan, I finally could see a light at the end of the tunnel (or am just crazy and trying to convince myself others, please tell me).
Treble. I think we're going to do it. Three new trophies to add to our case, including the biggest one in the world of sports. I'm drunk, but I'd be saying it even if I wasn't drunk.
If you're a supporter of another team, you have one hope: hope you avoid us in every competition. If you're relying on a win over FC Bayern to get anywhere, then you're going nowhere. Bring your best line-up, bring your oil money or your Russian mob money, bring your bribed referees. Bring your supporters, bring your new strikers, your new 'keepers, your roster of high-priced back-ups, and your youth products poached from German leagues. Bring anyone you want, put them in any stadium you want, line them up any way you want, blow the whistle, and drop the ball. And we will fucking BURY you.
Thanks for reading.