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Should Bayern Munich abandon the Bundesliga title chase?

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Despite a dominating first-half performance by Borussia Dortmund, Bayern finds itself only six points back for the Winterpause. Can they afford to sustain a challenge?

FC Bayern Muenchen v RB Leipzig - Bundesliga Photo by Sebastian Widmann/Bongarts/Getty Images

In Bleacher Report’s “Champions League Group-Stage Awards,” Sam Tighe awarded Bayern Munich the prestigious “Leave the League Behind You” trophy, for a special team who’s form in domestic competition is truly abysmal in comparison to European performances. The award also comes furnished with a recommendation to focus Bayern’s efforts on continental competition, cutting their losses in the Bundesliga.

My first reaction was to scoff at the idea that Bayern Munich, the record champions, Die Rekordmeister, the Bavarian giants, might abandon the competition they have dominated for the last six seasons. But the insanity-inducing Winterpause has driven me to the point of considering all potential outcomes for the Rückrunde. As our impending Champions League knockout-round tie with Liverpool edges closer, I am starting to think the idea has merit.

Despite Bundesliga dominance, the ghost that Die Roten have been chasing since 2013 is another Champions League crown. An ailing and aging squad, poor performances, and inconsistency throughout the first half of the season left Bayern ill-equipped to keep up with a young, deep, and invigorated Borussia Dortmund side. A knockout competition, however, is a totally different animal. Bayern’s best XI when healthy is of an elite caliber and can compete with anyone in world soccer. If approached strategically, the Bavarian giants might be able to ensure this best XI is on the field when it matters most in Europe.

Let’s take a look at the arguments for and against abandoning the Bundesliga title race.

It’s time to give up all hope

  • Literally everyone is hurt all the time. Even when they’re not, they probably are. GAH!

The Bavarian giants have a well-documented history of failing health in the latter stages of the Champions League. Whether it is Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, Thiago, Jerome Boateng, or Robert Lewandowski, Bayern seem to catch the injury bug at the worst possible moments.

The injury record this campaign doesn’t bode well for the development of a new trend. Corentin Tolisso is out long-term, while Arjen Robben, Serge Gnabry, James Rodriguez, and Leon Goretzka are recovering from injuries. Even though Kingsley Coman, Thiago and Mats Hummels are finally returning to full fitness, the injury report is never lacking new additions. If reinforcements do not arrive in January, it will be difficult to count on a full-strength squad consistently throughout the Rückrunde.

Injuries and limited depth at fullback, midfield and the front three give legitimate cause for concern.

On the contrary, managing the minutes of Coman, Gnabry, Lewandowski and Thiago will go a long way to ensure that each stays healthy for the pivotal matches against Liverpool and beyond. Kovac’s at times frustrating squad rotation early in season will need to return. Results won’t be guaranteed, but it will increase the likelihood of European triumph.

It is also significant to keep in mind that many of Bayern’s main competitors in the UCL are competing on multiple fronts. Liverpool and Manchester City are officially in a title race, while Barcelona and Juventus still have work to do in the league to ensure their superiority. The door is wide open for someone to claim Real Madrid’s crown. A somewhat disappointing season can quickly turn into the stuff of lore in the Bavarian capital.

It would be naive to claim that six points is an easily insurmountable lead and that Bayern can do it if they put their minds to it. Borussia Dortmund is a quality side, who lost just one game in the Hinrunde. Their defense has been shored up and the attacking prowess of Marco Reus, Jadon Sancho and Paco Alcacer is enough to make any defense tremble.

I am not going to elaborate on their form, statistics, or style of play because we are all aware. Lucien Favre has found a winning formula and their confidence is sky high. Bayern will need to be nearly perfect to overtake them.

Bayern can still win the treble

  • Niko Kovac is figuring it out

Bayern Munich is a supremely talented, albeit thin, side with a manager who is starting to figure things out. A strong run of form to finish off the Hinrunde moved Bayern from 5th place to 2nd, in addition to ensuring the top spot in a Champions League group featuring an up-and-coming Ajax squad.

The midfield pivot of Leon Goretzka and Joshua Kimmich, or Goretzka and Thiago has given stability to the defense, for which Kovac can be credited. Goretzka has started to display defensive discipline, allowing Kimmich or Thiago to exercise creativity going forward, while not leaving them on an island against opposition counters.

Jerome Boateng and Niklas Süle have also developed a formidable partnership. Süle has taken on the role of sweeper, allowing Boateng to take more risks in challenges and going forward. David Alaba, Rafinha and Kimmich have adjusted their attacking approach to be a little more conservative to ensure opposition counter-attacks aren’t so deadly.

Increased defensive solidity along with the form of Lewandowski and Thomas Muller, as well as the emergence of Gnabry and Coman, has helped to reinvigorate a Bayern squad that seemed bereft of ideas only weeks ago.

  • Reinforcements are on the way

A lack of depth may be a thing of the past soon enough. The rumored arrivals of Lucas Hernandez, Callum Hudson-Odoi, and potentially even Benjamin Pavard would address problem areas in the squad and shore up a back line and attack that are in dire need of reinforcements.

This newfound depth would allow Kovac to compete across competitions and utilize rotation without diminishing the quality of the squad. He may be even more willing to employ Kimmich in the midfield and rest David Alaba with quality backups waiting in the wings. Bayern are only a couple of pieces away from returning to prominence.

  • Borussia Dortmund just might slip up

There is a legitimate chance that the current leaders may not sustain their impressive start.

First, BVB has continuously outperformed their expected goals tally, which is not a trend I would count on to continue. The Ruhr-valley side has scored 44 goals in the Bundesliga, while letting in 18. According to understat, the Black and Yellow’s xG tally is just over 33 goals in the Bundesliga with an xGA of 19. In contrast, Bayern have an xG of 39.4, but have only scored 36 goals. Outperforming xG by 11 goals is unheard of, which signifies a rampant degree of clinicality that will likely regress to the mean.

Dortmund is also facing the challenge of competing on various fronts, including the Champions League as they received a daunting draw against Tottenham Hotspur. BVB likely has more depth at their disposal in the attack, but Favre has leaned heavily on Axel Witsel and Thomas Delaney in the center of the park. With an apparent injury to Manuel Akanji, arguably the rock of the Black and Yellow back line, the squad could be stretched thin, opening the door for a resurgent Bayern Munich.

How do you foresee Bayern’s Rückrunde going?