In the increasingly stratified world of European soccer, fans of Bayern Munich who began following the club in the last seven years may have learned something new: struggle. In 2013, Bayern Munich won the treble under Jupp Heynckes, winning the Bundesliga by 25 points. Bayern has won the Bundesliga ever since by at least 10 points until this season.
This season, 2018-2019, Bayern did not clinch the title until the last matchday, and there was a chance, however remote, that Borussia Dortmund could win. Three points were in play, and Bayern led by only two. The team had inexplicably let leads slip away against inferior opponents before. Instead they crushed Frankfurt 5-1, just as Sandro Wagner said they would.
The struggles of this season were a new experience for many newer fans of the club. They were not pleasant, but they provided something very valuable: perspective. Those struggles came in the form of a new coach who arrived without the international stature of a Champions League contender (let alone a winner!), a team in transition as aging superstars remained on the roster for one last season, and a series of injuries to some of the most important players on the squad.
A coach finding his feet
Niko Kovac began the season as a solid Bundesliga coach who was untested at the highest level. Now he had to manage a team of superstars. He was “not in Frankfurt anymore,” as one of them angrily protested. Kovac tried to establish his authority early with a strict approach. But that proved unpopular and impossible to enforce. He tried to prevent injuries and forestall unrest by rotating the starting lineup from game to game. But the policy pleased no one, and the results reflected the team’s malaise. After the debacle against Düsseldorf, the front office itself told Kovac that things must change. And they did.
But the team had its own inherent problems on top of managerial mistakes. Two important roster spots were claimed by a 34-year-old Arjen Robben and 35-year-old Franck Ribery (now 35 and 36 respectively). Ribery’s early performances left much to be desired, and Robben spent most of the season sidelined by a series of mysterious injuries — including even a bizarre dental ailment.
A variety of baffling errors committed by Bayern’s veteran center-backs, Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng, complicated the fraught process of finding a partner for the young Niklas Süle. Kovac first preferred Boateng, but by the Hinrunde Mats Hummels had recovered his form, while Boateng already seemed on his way out.
And of course there is Manuel Neuer. After missing over a year of time since fracturing and refracturing his metatarsal, Neuer’s return to the starting lineup went anything but smoothly. Neuer showed such a dramatic decline in form that many wondered whether Bayern should be seriously concerned. Although Neuer eventually began to look like himself, a late calf injury sidelined him for the final matches of the season, and it remains uncertain whether he or Sven Ulreich will play in the DFB Pokal final.
Few reinforcements, many injuries
Although Bayern did not sign anyone specifically for Kovac, the coach had two fresh new players to build on this season in Leon Goretzka and Serge Gnabry. Both transfers had been arranged prior to Kovac’s arrival, but both prospered under his management, especially Gnabry, who flourished on the right wing of Bayern’s offense. Goretzka also played several critical matches for Bayern, establishing himself as a hard-working, flexible midfielder and a goal-scoring threat.
But injuries exacted a heavy toll: Corintin Tolisso’s unfortunate ACL tear ended his season just as it had begun brilliantly with a goal-scoring performance against Bayer Leverkusen. And of course the most painful injury of all for the team: the syndesmosis tear that Coman suffered in the season opener against TSG Hoffenheim. Suddenly, Kovac had no choice but to start Ribery on the left wing instead of holding him back as a veteran joker.
Although Gnabry compensated somewhat on the right wing, the lack of support out left significantly hindered Bayern’s offense. Coman was absolutely devastating for Bayern once he took to the pitch again in the Rückrunde. His long-anticipated return to the starting lineup, pushing Ribery back onto the bench, was arguably the single most significant factor in Bayern’s dramatic turnaround in the new year.
A lesson in perseverance
I openly speculated in October that Borussia Dortmund could win the Bundesliga. At the time, they owned a 6-2-0 record and had just crushed Atletico Madrid 4-0 in the Champions League group stage. Their offense was on fire, sporting a 27:8 goal difference through just 8 games. Bayern, meanwhile, had already entered its slump and owned a record of 5-1-2. It’s weak goal difference of 15:9 reflected the team’s offensive woes after Kingsley Coman’s injury and frustrating finishing by Robert Lewandowski and others.
Historically, 9 of the 15 teams on the list of the 15 best Bundesliga starts finished in first place — i.e. 60% (cf. the list in the link above), and I suspected that Dortmund would do the same.
And I could have lived with that outcome, honestly, for all the reasons set out above.
But Niko Kovac lives by the motto of “never giving up.” Dortmund had built a 9 point lead over Bayern by December, and by January some pundits argued that Bayern should abandon the Bundesliga title race to focus exclusively on the Champions League. But Kovac and the team continued to contend on all three fronts. They “clenched their butts” — in the words of Thomas Müller — and got to work.
The team that struggled through the fall became the most dominant of the Rückrunde and in the widely anticipated rematch with Dortmund in April, Bayern turned the Klassiker into a 5-0 Massiker. Although the team still suffered setbacks — a 1-1 against Christian Streich’s Freiburg and another 1-1 draw against Nürnberg — Bayern suffered a single loss (to Peter Bosz’s revamped Leverkusen) in the Bundesliga Rückrunde, while Dortmund struggled.
Dortmund’s exasperating Rückrunde mirrored Bayern’s weak Hinrunde, but Bayern prevailed in the end, crowning the season with a 5-1 walloping of Eintracht Frankfurt with goals by the departing superstars Robben and Ribery.
What's more Mia san Mia than that?
Here we are now with one game left, the DFB-Pokal on Saturday. Doubts continue to swirl around the fate of Kovac. Even minutes after Bayern had clinched the title last weekend, reporters were asking both him and his players for their opinions on his future. Kovac has kept a low profile, saying only he “was confident that it would continue,” while Bayern’s front office declined to comment. Only sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic — the least powerful of Bayern’s decision-making trinity — expressed his “complete support” for Kovac.
In my opinion, Kovac has achieved something remarkable this season. His and the team’s struggles this season were all of ours, and he gave Bayern fans — and possibly also the players themselves — something they have lacked in the past few seasons: precious perspective. Perhaps you follow other teams in other leagues or in other sports where success is elusive. I happen to be a diehard Oakland A’s fan. They always strive to contend, but as a small budget team, they are compelled to take gambles and make compromises that sometimes prove to be losing bets. But when it works against the odds, the feeling is magic.
Obviously, Bayern is not at all a team like the A’s or, say, SC Freiburg or Mainz 05, which impressively stay in the top flight year after year despite a rotating roster of relatively inexpensive players. Bayern enjoys the benefits of hard-won capital, sound management, and stability. Practically all of Bayern’s reserve players on the roster could be starters elsewhere in the Bundesliga.
But for all those advantages and historical dominance, nothing is guaranteed, and it is important to remember that. It takes only a handful of missteps, flukes, and injuries to derail even one of the biggest clubs. Look no farther than Bayern’s perpetual Champions League bogeyman Real Madrid. After their icon Ronaldo departed for Juve, Real somehow finished trophyless in third place this year, 19 points behind Barcelona and 8 behind their city rival Atlético. Real fired their first manager, Julen Lopetegui in October. His successor, Santiago Solari lasted only until March. And now Zinedine Zidane is back to rebuild the team he left just a year before.
But Bayern Munich is not Real Madrid. Kovac stayed, never gave up, and fought literally to the end. That fight was worth it. And worth doing again.