For the fifth year in a row Bayern Munich supporters have woken up after yet another Champions League exit, and for the fifth year in a row the disappointing results are epitomized by a feeling of “what if.”
Bayern’s losses to the three Spanish giants and Liverpool share a common pattern of injuries and suspensions. All football teams of course must deal with injuries throughout the season, yet, if we reflect on Bayern’s previous losses, we find an irritating pattern according to which the squad is either missing key players due to injury or suspension or features players who have just returned from stints on the sidelines.
Could there be another reason? In this article, I will argue that there is a weakness in becoming too big of a fish in a small pond. I will make the argument that facing sutained domestic competition will aid Bayern Munich’s European campaigns.
Bayern’s previous sparring partner
In terms of elite status, Bayern has been the club in Germany with the largest trophy cabinet since the 1970s. After the 2013 triumph at Wembley, Bayern cemented its position as the best team in Germany. Pep Guardiola’s Bayern won the league in record time and crushed most of its domestically opposition. Yet, when playing in Europe, Pep’s Bayern fell short in the semi-finals three years in a row.
Pep’s predecessor, Carlo Ancelotti, won the league with ease but was then fired mainly due to the cold shower Bayern received in Paris. His sacking suggests that Bayern management and supporters are simply not satisfied with domestic trophies.
The best Bayern team I have seen, the 2012-13 edition, became great, in my view, because the bar had constantly been raised by their domestic competition, Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund. Arguably the best Dortmund team that has ever existed, Klopp’s men won the league twice before 2012-13 and also crushed Bayern in the DFB-Pokal in 2012.
Bayern’s 2011-12 team was by no means a bad side: they reached both the Cup and the Champions League finals while finishing second in the league. But Bayern’s sparring partner in the league, Dortmund, was better — a team that continuously forced Bayern to raise its standard of play, which they did the following season.
After 2013 triple, however, Dortmund did not have the economic clout to give Bayern a serious challenge in the league. During Pep’s first season, Bayern won 29 out of 34 league games. Yet when it was time to face Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-final, Bayern was knocked out without scoring a single goal. History almost repeated itself in the following season, when Bayern, who were again already winning the league, were knocked out by Barcelona after losing the first game by a wide margin.
The need for a league rival
Ever year there is no guarantee that Bayern will play a team that can give them a sufficient challenge domestically. Real Madrid and Barcelona, meanwhile, play elite clubs in their domestic leagues and cups at least four times a year. And not only do they play each other, but they also have to raise their standards against Simeone’s well-drilled Atletico Madrid year in and year out.
I believe that the need to elevate your own performance by competing with other elite clubs domestically gives an advantage when competing in Europe. Reflecting on previous Champions League winners, many of them had a league rival during their winning European campaign. AC Milan had their city rivals Inter, the three Spanish clubs had each other, and the two English winners, Manchester United and Chelsea, had their Premier League rivals.
2013 Bayern had Dortmund, and in 2001 Schalke 04 forced Bayern to treat every league game like a final, as they were incredibly close to winning their first league title.
This is a theory that can be applied to Paris St. Germain’s struggles in Europe, as well as to Juventus. They both are teams that as of late have had little competition in their respective leagues and seem to struggle when playing quality opposition in Europe.
My theory is also not limited to the pinacle of world football or club football. Australia joined the Asian Football Confederation after it was frustrated that FIFA refused to give the Oceania Confederation a guaranteed spot in the World Cup. Australia was always the best team in Oceania but struggled in playoff matches. Playing in the Asian Confederation gave Australia the chance to secure one of four guaranteed spots, but it also gave them the opportunity to play against better opposition during qualifications. Instead of playing against opposition like American Samoa, Australia has benefited from joining the Asian Confederation and playing better teams more frequently. It has raised their standard of football. Since joining, Australia has never failed to progress to the World Cup.
This might seem as a simple solution to a complicated problem. There are, of course, many reasons why Bayern has fallen short in its last five Champions League campaigns, but I firmly believe that a lack of consistent domestic competition plays a vital role.
This year, Bayern has indeed been challenged in the Bundesliga. But, in contrast to the 2012-2013 season, it is not because their German counterpart is particularly goo. Sadly, it is because Bayern itself has simply been below par. Favre’s Dortmund is a good side, but it is not nearly as good as Klopp’s was, a fact amply illustrated by their 3-0 loss to an injury-ridden Tottenham Hotspur. Bayern has already lost four games in the league this season (compared four losses total last year), yet Bayern still has every chance to win the league. It is no secret that this season’s campaign has been incredibly uneven. The fact that Bayern might still win a domestic double anyway proves that they do not need to be at their very best to win domestic trophies.
To play devil’s advocate: while I personally dislike what RB Leipzig stands for and the way in which they have climbed to the top, I would not be opposed to seeing Bayern square off against a new Bundesliga sparring partner. Now that Julian Nagelsmann will join the Lawn-Ballers this summer, their ongoing rise could be a blessing in disguise for Die Roten.
Unfortunately, the quality of the Bundesliga, in general, has declined since the final at Wembley in 2013. Bayern’s preparedness on the international stage has likewise declined. It would be to Bayern’s benefit if Dortmund continues to raise the bar in the league and Nagelsmann’s Leipzig gives Bayern yet another reason to elevate its game.