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The road ahead for Bayern Munich: fixtures and fixes

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Jupp Heynckes’s start at Bayern Munich has been nothing short of spectacular. How long will the magic last?

No rest for the weary.
Photo by Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images

The ‘Heynckes effect’

“That went frickin’ fast,” RB Leipzig’s head coach Ralph Hasenhüttl congratulated Jupp Heynckes after Bayern Munich had beaten his team for the second time in a week. “You didn't need much time — and now you're way out in front.”

What difference a month makes. The turnaround at Bayern Munich under Heynckes has been nothing short of spectacular. On matchday 7, following Bayern’s humiliating 0:3 loss to Paris Saint-Germain and Carlo Ancelotti’s dismissal, Bayern gave away a 2:0 lead for the second time in two matchdays, drawing 2:2 with Hertha Berlin. Dortmund led the league by a full 5 points. The October international break couldn’t come soon enough.

Fast forward a month. As we head into the November break, Bayern have been unbeaten in seven matches under Heynckes. The Bavarians have advanced to the third round of the DFB-Pokal, knocking out Leipzig, qualified for the knockout stage of the Champions League, and decisively defeated chief rival Dortmund in their first encounter this season.

But there are tough matches ahead and underlying weaknesses.

Looming on the horizon: PSG and Dortmund 2.0

Bayern face a relatively forgiving schedule immediately after the international break: two winnable Bundesliga matches punctuated by an away game against Champions League lightweight Anderlecht. If Thomas Müller returns to action as anticipated, this stretch of games is the perfect opportunity to restore his conditioning.

The real test comes in December, during a punishing stretch of six games in two weeks that begins home against Hannover 96 on December 2. Three days later is Bayern’s home rematch with PSG. It is only one game, and Bayern have already qualified for the knockout stage, but this game will be scrutinized as a bellwether of where Bayern Munich falls in the Champions League pecking order, with or without Jupp Heynckes.

While the team struggled for results under Ancelotti, many commentators wrote off Bayern’s roster as too old and outclassed. Heynckes has the team performing again at a high level, but it will take a gala performance against Paris to refute that criticism once and for all. The starting lineup could be tantalizingly similar to the one that won it all in 2013 but it has been four years since then. Can this team still compete against the new heavyweights?

And the final match of that six-game run is yet another final: after eliminating Leipzig in just the second round, Bayern must defeat Borussia Dortmund in the round of 16 on December 19 to advance to the quarterfinals of the DFB Pokal. Given Bayern’s form and Dortmund’s recent struggles, this may seem relatively straightforward, but that impression is misleading.

Bayern dribbling into trouble

Bayern dominated Dortmund in the first half of their first encounter, but the 3:1 result hardly tells the whole story. Bayern’s defense broke down several times, and only a world-class performance by Sven Ulreich kept Dortmund in check.

Shinji Kagawa hit the woodwork in the 31st minute, while Bayern scored two goals off a fortuitous deflection (Lewandowski’s backheel) and a downright strange long-range pass-cum-goal by David Alaba.

That’s the way the ball bounces, but Bayern were not as dominant as they seemed. Christian Pulisic — in my view, the best man on the pitch — burned Bayern’s defenders eight times (out of 13 attempts), including one scene where he eluded three Bayern players attempting to corner him, nutmegging Arjen Robben in the process and setting up a hockey-assist:

That is an alarming statistic with respect to Bayern’s prospects in a rematch against Dortmund next month and with respect to the greater challenges ahead.

Bayern’s trouble with dribbling encapsulates this team’s inherent flaw. It’s offensive players — Kingsley Coman excepted — are aging and not beating their man. The implications cut the other way, too: Bayern are also getting beaten in one-on-one’s more than an elite team should. The biggest offender? Arturo Vidal, who has been beaten on average 1.9 times per game this season (per Whoscored.com). No wonder he was among the first Heynckes benched.

Bayern’s dribbling balance against PSG was as embarrassing as that against Dortmund: Neymar alone completed six of PGS’s twelve dribbles, while Bayern collectively managed four — attempting just eight. This time it was Thiago who was dribbled past an astounding six times, easily the worst performance of the season. And even against a ten-man Leipzig, Bayern successfully completed a paltry three dribbles out of twenty, while Leipzig completed eight out of eighteen.

Heynckes has energized and stabilized the team, but he is still working with the same squad as Ancelotti, with the same weaknesses. Even in defeat, Dortmund outdribbled Bayern to the tune of twelve to three (out of twenty-one to sixteen attempts respectively — yes, Bayern's success-rate was just under 19%). That said, the squad does stand to become stronger going into the critical phase of the season.

Reinforcements are coming

Bayern now is poised to make a deep run into the Champions League knockout stage, but Heynckes and his men will have to beat the odds to take it all. Paris is the new favorite, with defending champion Real Madrid, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, and a defiant FC Barcelona all strong contenders. Bayern will benefit first of all by the return of several players.

For one, the injuries to Juan Bernat and Thomas Müller should be ancient history. That gives Bayern back its outstanding second choice at left-back and a key member of the starting lineup. Given his performances against Celtic and Dortmund, James Rodriguez looks as if he has finally arrived, but Bayern would not be Bayern without Müller plying his trade. Müller also relieves pressure on Bayern's wingers by distracting central defenders, so we might potentially see Bayern's low dribbling-success rate climb. How Müller's return affects James under Heynckes remains to be seen.

The return dates for Manuel Neuer and Franck Ribery are hazier. According to initial estimates, Neuer should be fit to rejoin the squad in January — well in time for the Champions League. The timeline for Ribery's knee injury is similar: two to three months, with a potential comeback in January. Ribery just began running again, so he is well on his way.

But Neuer's and Ribery's injury history and Ribery's age and form in particular leave ample room for concerns and complications. While there is absolutely no doubt that Neuer would again be our starting, world-class keeper, Ribery's future is far less clear. Questions were being asked about his performances under Ancelotti, and Coman has made a virtually irrefutable case for supplanting him.

Even healthy, Ribery should not freeze Coman out of the lineup. By the same token, that also means Bayern's present offense is about as good as it will get. Bayern seem to have few options to improve this year.

A striker, a winger, both, or . . . none?

Even with a completely healthy roster, Bayern still betrays weaknesses that only new signings can remedy. First and foremost is the lack of a backup striker. The situation is so problematic that Robert Lewandowski himself commented after missing Bayern's clash with Celtic:

It is really hard on me this season. I'm starting now every three days for Bayern Munich and for the [Polish] national team. But no player can play 90 minutes in every game in a season. But at the moment there is no alternative. We [i.e. Bayern] don't have a backup at my position.

But who could Bayern conceivably sign to sit behind Lewandowski? None of the various names being floated (e.g. Anthony Modeste, Mario Gomez, Sandro Wagner) seem plausible. Given the direction of the team and the exploding transfer market, signing a talented but relatively untried youngster seems like the most promising move.

Just two years ago, Bayern blew the Bundesliga away by buying Douglas Costa from Shakhtar Donetsk. Costa was hailed as the player of the Hinrunde in his debut. Could the front office stun us again? It is anyone's guess who Bayern could find, if anyone. The task may also have become much more difficult after the departure of technical director Michael Reschke and his chief scout Timon Pauls for Stuttgart this past summer.

The other weak point is the same as before the season: replacing Robben and Ribery. Bayern has only grown thinner on the wings with the departure of Douglas Costa for Juventus Turin and Ribery's long-term injury. Robben has been enjoying a prolonged late resurgence, and has performed noticeably better under Heynckes, but he is still a far cry from his glory days. Ribery already looks like a shadow of himself. Right now, Bayern is one injury away from playing Müller or James on the wing and adopting a new offensive strategy.

ESPN FC's Mark Lovell stirred the pot by suggesting that Bayern may make another run at Alexis Sanchez, citing “sources,” but Karl-Heinz Rummenigge seemed resigned to the fact that “the door will be closed” shortly thereafter. According to Rummenigge,

The possibilities will be limited. Whoever has a good player won't give him up or only for a horrendous amount of money. But we will neither be prepared or able to pay a horrendous amount of money for a transfer.

Rummenigge acknowledged that there may be “a good idea that doesn't cost wildly too much money yet makes sense.” Barring that, the outlook for a transfer is bleak.

What teams may come ...

Where does all this leaves Bayern Munich as we look ahead? Bayern will eventually have the world’s best goalkeeper back in the goal, depth at left-back, and a healthy Raumdeuter wreaking havoc up front. But in all likelihood they will be riding the same wings they are now, one of which will be thirty-four years old, with another aged veteran all too eager to help.

In contrast, Bayern’s defense, which seemed so thoroughly outclassed against PSG, should be better: Ancelotti notoriously benched both Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng in Paris, both of whom should start — presuming that Boateng at last makes a full recovery and finds his form. David Alaba also now looks more and more like his former self, and Javi Martinez’s renaissance as a defensive midfielder has helped Bayern concede only three goals in seven games. That stability, however, has to translate into fewer lost one-on-one's if Bayern are going to beat the big clubs.

The situation remains decidedly mixed. There is little room for error and — on offense — less for injury. The rematch with PSG will be a must-watch duel for prestige. Bayern will take this home match very seriously, but will PSG? And can Bayern find a way to slow down dangerous dribblers like Neymar and Pulisic? It could be the difference between winning and losing in the next round of the DFB-Pokal and the Champions League beyond. Heynckes was clearly just the coach this team needed, but he will have to muster all his powers to restore Bayern to an offensive and defensive juggernaut.