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Why Bayern Munich’s Bundesliga form is vastly different from its cup form this season

How did Bayern beat Barcelona and PSG yet struggle against Augsburg and Leverkusen? The answer might surprise you.

Bayer 04 Leverkusen v FC Bayern München - Bundesliga Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Well, Bayern Munich are in quite a pickle. The Rekordmeister are currently second in the Bundesliga table, having relinquished top spot to Borussia Dortmund following a painful 1-2 defeat at Bayer Leverkusen.

At the time of writing, Bayern’s league record reads 25 games, 15 wins, 7 draws, and 3 defeats. Bayern have barely won half of their league games, and a lot of them were pretty unconvincing. The Hinrunde games against Union Berlin, Stuttgart, Augsburg, Dortmund, Köln, and the Rückrunde games against Eintracht Frankfurt, Stuttgart (again), and today come to mind. That’s way too many unconvincing games, more than an entire third. Bayern are going through their worst Bundesliga season in years, probably the worst since Jupp Heynckes’ reign in 2011/12.

From these stats alone, it looks like Julian Nagelsmann is doing an extremely poor job and should be shown the door before all hell breaks loose. But does he really? In truth, the Bundesliga tells only half the story.

Bayern are participating in two other competitions this season: the DFB-Pokal and the Champions League. Bayern’s record in these cup competitions reads 11 games, 11 wins, 32 goals scored, a measly 4 conceded. Not a single game of these 11 was unconvincing, with the only possible exceptions being the first half of the home win against Barcelona, and the nervy last half hour of the first leg against Paris Saint-Germain. Other than that, it has been smooth sailing for Bayern.

How can one explain such abysmal league form coexisting with brilliant cup form? Is it inconsistency? Complacency? No, it seems like it’s much more than that. In this writer’s humble opinion, Bayern Munich are suffering from an unlikely reason: being human.

What exactly does that mean, many will ask. Well, it’s simpler than one may think. Although no one may want to admit it, the team has been unconsciously prioritizing the latter two competitions while not exactly focusing 100 percent on the Bundesliga. Remember how Bayern nullified the best striker in the world against Barcelona only to slump to a defeat to lowly Augsburg? Remember how Bayern came away with a win to PSG only to go bust against Gladbach for the umpteenth time? There’s barely any explanation for how performances can go from hero to zero in the space of just a few days, other than the theory that the team is simply not concentrating as much as they need to in the Bundesliga.

But Maverick you cockeyed crafty yet clueless conspiracist, I hear you say, why would professionals give up any game when they’re being paid millions to kick a ball around? To locate the answer to this question, we must look at the background of the current season, and go a bit back into the seasons before.

Since the glorious treble in 2020, the only major trophy that Bayern have won in the past three or so years is the Bundesliga. Not that the multiple Super Cups and the sextuple-crowning Club World Cups are meaningless trophies, they are all valuable titles. But in the big three competitions, Bayern have not been that consistent, if not a bit unlucky. The best Bayern could do in either competition was a narrow away-goal defeat to PSG in the Champions League quarterfinals. The other exits were quite frankly embarrassments in Bayern standards. Losing to Villarreal last season still stings, while the humiliations by Holstein Kiel and Gladbach in the Pokal are also black marks in Bayern’s history book. It is therefore only natural that cometh this season, the team is much more determined to make sure that such calamities do not repeat themselves, and go the extra mile in every Pokal and Champions League game. As a result, Bayern fans were treated to some of the best football the team has played this season in the cup competitions, not to mention stellar results.

Meanwhile, the Bundesliga, while still the most ‘honest’ title of them all as per Nagelsmann, has lost some of its sparkle. Winning the Bundesliga has become almost customary and taken for granted that some fans have started to devalue it. Even though winning the Bundesliga deserves just as much fanfare as winning any other major trophy, people are quick to criticize when the team ‘only’ wins the Bundesliga in a single season. Nagelsmann himself was heavily chastised last season even after winning the tenth consecutive Bundesliga title just because he failed in the other two competitions. It should come as little surprise that the Bundesliga’s fallen merit can result in the team prioritizing the cup competitions ahead of it, especially after the team set a new league record with their tenth consecutive title last year.

But Maverick you pompous, pretentious and poorly groomed pontificator, I hear you say again, why would the Bayern machine that won every competition there was three years ago start prioritizing things? Again, the process is not really something that the team does deliberately. It’s not that the team suddenly declares: “Right, let’s consider the Bundesliga dead, we’ve got bigger sausages to fry.” Rather, it’s more of an instinctive approach. Because the other competitions, namely the Champions League, are more important, the team starts acting differently. Players don’t run the extra step they would in the cup competitions. The coach uses league games to tinker with formations so that he is prepared for all possible scenarios in the cup competitions. The compounded failure in the cup competitions, plus the insurance of the ten consecutive league titles, somehow causes the team to focus less on the Bundesliga, hence the inconsistent form.

Prioritization is not an uncommon phenomenon, and it is certainly not unique to football. People all over the world living busy lives set priorities for themselves, sometimes taking chances that they probably shouldn’t. A heavily burdened journalist, for example, might only skim over a slow news story in order to focus on a big breaking event. A finance intern might leave deciphering boring numbers and charts to a friend while he or she focuses on that big presentation tomorrow morning (believe it or not, I speak from experience). It’s the same with football. Sometimes teams will leave some baskets empty while putting more eggs in others.

Now, for a team like Bayern, juggling all three competitions might seem like daily work, but we must not forget that this season has been particularly challenging and burdensome due to the ill-timed winter World Cup. It may sound like a cheap excuse, but again, the team is made of humans, not machines. While it certainly isn’t the most professional move, it is not too surprising that, given the compounded circumstances – the need to convince in the cup competitions, the seemingly decreasing value of the Bundesliga, and just a hectic schedule overall - this season might just be one that the people put more emphasis on one thing more than the other.

Is this all just a conspiracy? Perhaps. But there is little reason to otherwise explain just how a team can look so different according to the competition. In the Champions League, Bayern are among the favorites, yet in the Bundesliga, they are not top of the table anymore. It is a weird scenario, but one that may not have been unforeseen. Bayern has always turned up in the big cup games this season, and they are fully capable of doing so again. It would not be too surprising if this is the year that Bayern’s Bundesliga dominance comes to a halt, but the team ends up celebrating a different title win come the season’s end.

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