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2011-2012 Season Preview (UPDATED)

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All friendlies and pre-season tournaments are over, all necessary roster moves have been made, and the off-season training camp has wrapped up. FC Bayern Münich’s 2011-2012 season begins this coming Monday with a Pokal match vs. Braunschweig. So strap yourselves in for our season preview, with a close examination of FC Bayern’s roster and our toughest opponents in the three competitions we’re involved with.

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It's now 2 PM Saturday afternoon USA Eastern time, and I've made a few updates - those are marked throughout with the lines of asterisk symbols - take heed. First update - for some reason, the Disqus commenting system doesn't like it when commenters try to post a URL / web-site address. It thinks you're spamming with ads. If you want to point out an article or link, e-mail it to me at bayern.offside@yahoo.com and I will post it in the body of the article. thanks

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Needless to say, there will surely be some disagreements about some of this stuff. As always, feel free to argue against me or each other in the comments, or to just point out things that I got factually wrong. We’ll proceed through three stages: first, a look at how our club stacks up, with special consideration paid to the reinforcements we brought in; second, an examination of the schedules and opponents/possible opponents in the Bundesliga, Pokal, and Champions League; and third, some big-picture thoughts about the club, including the things that fill me with optimism and the things that fill me with dread.

I. FC BAYERN’S ROSTER

According to the club’s official site, it appears that this will be our squad list going into the season:

GK

Neuer

Butt

Riedmüller

Sattelmeier

DEF

Lahm

Breno

van Buyten

Boateng

Badstuber

Rafinha

Contento

MID

Schweinsteiger

Alaba

Gustavo

Tymoschuk

Kroos

Ribery

Robben

Pranjic

Usami

FWD

Gomez

Olic

Müller

Petersen

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An earlier error here has been fixed.  Thanks, Mac.

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Note that this adds up to 24, so not everyone will be dressed for every game.  Ordinarily, I’d be concerned about the possibility of resentment and disgruntled reactions from players who aren’t asked to dress, but we seem to plan on solving that problem (again) by getting enough guys injured that we can barely field a full starting line-up, much less have too many.

If everyone stays healthy week-to-week, the players left off the active game-day squad list will probably be some combination of Riedüller, Sattelmaier (who might be sent down to the reserve squad), Petersen, Pranjic, Breno, and possibly Alaba.

Here’s how I see us at each position:

GK

Pretty straightforward.  We went out and bought Neuer, hoping he’d be one of the best ‘keepers in the world.  Now we need him to deliver.  Note that we don’t necessarily need him to be super-human, as Schalke did.  We just need him to make all the easy and medium-hard saves, and occasionally make a great one.  If he can do that, our goals-against should show a nice decrease, and we’ll be in the running for multiple trophies.

DEF

Not as straightforward.  The additions of Rafhina and Boateng are certainly steps in the right direction.  But, as the last two pre-season tournament showed, we can still be beaten by good strikers, especially on quick counter-attacks and long through-balls or passes over the top.

All of the defenders and midfielders bear some responsibility for shutting down the opposing club’s attack, but I have to say, our CB pairings have been the ones really dropping the ball.  Our opening day line-up with probably be Jerome Boateng + one other CB (Badstuber?) in the middle of that back line.  We’re throwing a lot of responsibility onto Boateng, considering he hasn’t even been on board for 3 weeks now.

Sometimes I wonder why we can’t just designate ONE guy to be the counter-attack stopper.  We pick out a spot maybe a third of the way up the field, spray-paint a horizontal line across the field, grab our best CB by the collar, and say “no matter what, you NEVER cross that line!”  It wouldn’t even require him to stay in the box - just stay within 30 yards of the end line, and never let the other team’s strikers get behind you.

Anyway, I’m rambling.  Sorry.

MID

Keep playing like that, and we'll find a place for you

Keep playing like that, and we'll find a place for you

This includes CMs and wings.  We’ve been pretty strong here since I started following FC Bayern 5-6 years ago, and this year promises to be no exception.  Schweinsteiger, Tymoschuk, and Gustavo are solid as CMs, Ribery and Robben are as good a wing pairing as there is when healthy, and Usami and Alaba add depth and versatility.  Kroos is the wild card - he’s looked so good this summer (in Bayern pre-season games, and for the German national side) that we need to figure out how to get him into the line-up.  But is he really good enough to replace Müller or Bastian?  Can we combine him and Bastian at the CDM spots, or do we lose too much defensive stopping power?  For this first week, it appears most likely that Müller will slide into one of the wing spots and Kroos into the CAM / second-striker role.  But once Ribery and Robben are both healthy, some decisions will have to be made.

STRIKERS

Because the last category included both CMs and wings, this section discusses only the front-most two players on the field.  Here, we have an embarrassment of not-quite-riches.  Müller is the only real blue-chip elite player in the group.  Gomez is our usually-effective blunt instrument, devoid of much technique but physically strong, and good at knocking home chances when they fall to him.  Olic is the high-energy spark plug that was so effective two years ago, but had hit a wall last year (even before his injury).  Petersen is the talented youngster who has a long way to go before he even sees the field as a sub in a big game, much less a starter.  And Kroos is lurking in the shadows, ready to take the Müller spot if Müller has to cover the wing (or gets hurt himself).

I guess the big question is how long will Gomez’s leash be.  In other words, he will certainly start the season as our lead striker.  If he starts cashing in chances right away, great.  If he struggles, how long until a Müller-Olic or Kroos-Müller combo is considered?  Five games?  Ten?

II. Our competitions and schedules

One at a time:

BUNDESLIGA

You can see our complete schedule here.

From what the gambling world has to say, FC Bayern are the odds-on favorites to win the BL this year.  Here are the next six best-favored clubs to contend for the title, with the odds for each and a brief synopsis of my thought.

Dortmund - 9/2 odds

Until they’re knocked off, last year’s champs have to be up there with the top contenders.  I think the Sahin loss will hurt them, but their defense is rock-solid with Hummels, Subotic and Felibe Santana.  Lucas Barrios and Shinji Kagawa lead a threatening attack.  If Mario Götze puts it all together this year, Dortmund could be a threat in the Champions League as well as the BL and the Pokal.  I really mean that.

Bayer 04 Leverkusen - 10/1 odds

The Vidal loss really hurts them; he did practically everything for their club.  Still, between Ballack, Augusto, Rolfes and Sidney Sam, they have enough to contend.  At 10-1 odds, it’s not a bad bet, frankly.

Schalke 04 - 14/1 odds

Neuer did so much for them last year, it’s hard to see them moving on smoothly without him.  I always liked Huntelaar (one of my favorite players, actually), but he would have to go on a season-long hot streak, along with Howedes and Raul, for them to contend for the title.  A Champions League spot is a real possibility, though.

Werder Bremen - 20/1 odds

They have Mehmet Ekici.  We might regret having sold him, but looking at it now, we basically don’t have any room for him on our roster.  They also have Felix Kroos, Toni’s younger brother.  On defense, they have Mikaël Silvestre, who spent a decade with Manchester United and then two years with Wenger’s French contingent.  He’ll turn 34 next week.  I’m not feeling too threatened looking at their line-up.

VfB Stuttgart - 25/1 odds

I just had to look it up to make sure I was thinking of the same team.  Didn’t these guys finish near the bottom of the table last year?  I’m not even going to dignify this by looking up who they have.  No threat.

VfL Wolfsburg - 25/1 odds

I can’t believe they have the same odds as Stuttgart.  I think the Wolves might be a legitimate contender this year.  Simon Kjaer is one of the better young defenders in the world.  Arne Friedrich is probably past his absolute prime, but still a capable defender who doesn’t make many mistakes.  Diego is a complainer, but if he gets his head together he can be a very effective middie.  Christian Träsch and Marcel Schäfer are both better than average at their positions.  I guess you could argue that they don’t have anyone who’s truly world-class, but having 8 or 9 guys who are solidly above average can keep you in the title race if just a couple other teams slip.  What am I missing?

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UPDATE - well it turns out I don't know shit about anything.  But you already knew that.

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DFB POKAL

The same clubs as above are going to contend for the Pokal crown, obviously.  Given the single-elimination format, there’s always a better chance that a not-great team can come storming out of nowhere to win it.  Aside from the clubs mentioned above (Bayern, BvB Dortmund, Bayer Levs, Schalke, Werder B, Stuffgart and Wolfsburg), any other clubs within the entire DFB would have to go on a crazy run to win the Pokal.  If any were to do so, I’d guess Hamburger, Mainz, Köln, or SC Freiburg would have the best chance … but that’s most just hunch.

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

First of all, we have to get past a final play-off round just to get INTO the group stage.  We find out our opponent on August 5, then play them in a 2-leg tie on August 16 or 17 and August 23 or 24.  If and only if we get past that, we’ll be one of 32 teams in the CL group stage.  As of now, the gambling odds on our top competition, along with my ill-informed summary of each team:

Barcelona - 5/2 odds

Yeah, yeah.

Read Madrid - 5/1 odds

You can never count them out, but they seem to be in a lot of flux right now.  I guess Ricky Kaká is staying?  They didn’t get Suarez or Sanchez, but they also didn’t sell Benzema or Higuain.  Their offense is still up there with the best in the world.  Mourinho has his work cut out for him again, but the tools are there.

Manchester United - 7/1 odds

The Chicharito factor does invigorate them, and Rooney, Vidic and Valencia are still really good.  Interesting to see how David de Gea will fit in.  They have made the CL Final 3 of the past 5 years, I believe, so I’m not ready to count them out.

Chelsea - 8/1 odds

A lot of older players, a lot of issues to be worked out, brand new manager.  If they can figure out some way to get Drogba and Torres working together, they can win on offensive firepower alone.  Otherwise, I see them having an off year.

Manchester City - 12/1 odds

I can’t think of anyone in the world I would less like to see win the CL.

AC Milan - 18/1 odds

Shockingly long odds for a team coming off a Scudetto-winning year.  They have Zlatan, Pato and Robinho up front, they’re pretty well-organized, and they’ve recently been linked with some last minute upgrades to the line-up (Aquilani, Sneijder).  Even if they don’t make any more moves this summer, they have money and can always reinforce in January if they can find someone who isn’t cup-tied.  If you have 1 dollar and would rather have 18 dollars, this might be a bet worth sinking your teeth into.

If and when Bayern gets into the group stage, I’ll do a bigger, deeper Champions League preview.  For now, I feel like analyzing our chances at winning a competition we haven’t earned our way into might be jinxing us.  So, we’re moving on.

III. POSSIBLE POSITIVES AND NEGATIVES

Our season could go in a number of different ways.  Expectations are running high, but they’re also high for at least 2 or 3 other clubs in Germany and at least 4 or 5 others throughout Europe.  At this point, I would just like to point out two things: one is my biggest reason to feel good about FC Bayern football, not just this season, but really for the foreseeable future.  The other is my biggest Bayern-related fear.

OPTIMISM

What I like most about our current arrangement is that we have a very impressive combination of current stars at the peak of their games combined with very talented young players.  This is a really difficult balance to achieve.  A club like Chelsea has been relying on the same core (Terry, Lampard, Cech, Drogba) for a decade now.  They’ve certainly done well on several occasions, including winning trophies, so you can’t say they’ve failed.  But that always leaves you in a circumstance where you can feel the window closing, but aren’t sure what to do about it.  They could come out this year and look old, slow, and boring, and it would basically be too late to do anything except blow up the whole squad and start over.

On the other hand, you have clubs like Arsenal, who are always in the midst of a youth movement.  That also has a lot to recommend it: young players are exciting, and it’s fun to always project 2 or 3 years down the road and imagine how great your club can be.  But they’re seeing the limits of that strategy now, as they haven’t won a competition of any kind in years, the fans are always told that “next year” will be the year they go for it, and some of their star players are getting frustrated.

FC Bayern’s board, especially Christian Nerlinger and KHR, have done a great job (in my opinion) of mixing star power with promising youth.  We have a few guys who are star players that are at their peak (or maybe even starting to pass it?) - Ribery, Robben, Olic and van Buyten come to mind.  Then we have a number of guys who are past 23 but not yet 28, who have established themselves as world class but who theoretically have may good years ahead of them - Gomez, Lahm, Bastian, and Neuer, mostly.  Then, we have a world of talented young guys who can be the “next wave” a few years down the road, or who can step in and perform pretty well this year if they have to: Petersen, Alaba, Usami (if we keep him), Kroos, and Boateng, among others (Müller deserves his own column, I still can’t believe the guy is only 21).  Even this Vastic kid looks promising.  After such a disappointing year last year, I think our front office has done a lot to restore fan confidence.  Of course, if we come out and lose the first 3 or 4 games, I’ll be the first in line bitching about all the new players we need.

PESSIMISM

Ribery and Robben are both hurt again, and they appear to be made of low-quality cardboard.  But this isn’t my biggest worry.  Neuer has a ton of responsibility on his shoulders, and a few plays in the recent pre-season tournaments showed us he’s not going to be a defensive cure-all.  His failure to justify that big move would be a disaster.  But that’s not my biggest worry either.

My biggest worry, and I think the biggest worry of a lot of Bayern fans, is that last season’s dip in form of our three big German stars - Schweinsteiger, Lahm, and Müller - was not an anomaly; that these three have found their level, and they are actually just solid players who can do several things well, but not truly world-class stars.  In other words, I’m pessimistic about the possibility (not saying it’s true, just the possibility) that, in 2008 through the summer of 2010, these three went on a collective hot streak, but in fact their true level is closer to what we saw last year.

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UPDATE - to be clear, this is my fear as far as something that could POSSIBLY happen, not something I'm saying WILL happen, or already has.  Just the thing that worries me the most as far as potential.

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Every good player will have ups and downs during his career.  You generally can’t tell when the career is ongoing how the guy will be remembered when all is said and done.  Just to take an example: Wayne Rooney was known for a while (2006 through early 2009) as just a tough, fairly effective striker who did a good job of playing next to Cristiano Ronaldo.  It wasn’t until the beginning of the 2009-2010 season that he exploded.  Then, he started to be talked about as one of the best strikers in the world.  This past year, thanks to injuries, emotional turmoil, and maybe just a dip in form, he wasn’t talked about in that category as much.

So which is it?  Is Rooney one of the greatest players of our era, and last season was an anomalous drop-off?  Or is he just a decent striker, nothing spectacular, and his 2009-2010 season was an anomalous hot streak?  We won’t know until he’s done playing - you can’t write the book on a guy when the story is still unfolding.  Same thing with Diego Forlan - he want from underachieving also-ran with Man U, to world-class striker and contender for the Ballon d’Or in 2009-2010, back to underachiever by the end of last season.  Even Kaká has had ups and downs.  There’s no guarantee that he’ll be remembered as one of the greatest of his generation.

So, along those same lines, my biggest fear is that Lahm, Bastian, and (to a lesser extent, because he’s still so young) Müller have found their level, and it’s not at a quality point where they can lead us to a CL crown.

Don't let us down, kid

Don't let us down, kid

If those three get back to how they were playing between 2008 and early 2010, we have maybe the best framework in the world: an elite player at the back, another in the middle, and another towards the front.  That’s a skeleton that you can build CL-winning clubs with, no matter what happens to Robben.  We can start with those three and augment the roster every year if we have to.  World class wings can be had, if you have the money.  World class strikers practically grow on trees.  But if our three best German-bred players turn out to be less than we previously thought, those positions will be really, really hard to replace.

This is the first time I’ve gone over 3,000 words.  If anyone is still reading, thanks for hanging in there with me.  Our Pokal campaign starts Monday - I don’t know about you, but I can already smell it.