No one can touch them in the Bundesliga and they've already taught Manchester City a lesson in Europe. Fraught by in-fighting last season Bayern Munich are now genuine contenders for the Champions League - here's how they turned it around.
This season, FC Bayern München have been on a quite spectacular run of form and results. Germany’s most successful club currently sit top of the Bundesliga, having scored 25 goals in nine games, while conceding just once. And in Europe they’re looking just as strong. They sealed a clinical 2-0 away win at Villarreal on matchday one and then confidently dispatched Manchester City in the Allianz Arena at the end of last month. Those two wins were followed up with a 1-1 draw away at Napoli last night (a game they really should have won by a comfortable margin), and Jupp Heynckes’ men look good value to finish as group winners. So on what foundations have FC Bayern been able to sustain this remarkable run of form, and what can the Reds achieve this campaign?
If we’re drawing comparisons with last season, the first observation one might make is how much of an improvement the team has made in defence. Dortmund won the Bundesliga at a canter, and conceded just 22 goals. Bayern finished in third place last year, ten points behind the champions, and conceded 40 goals in their 34 games. Many figures at Bayern ascribed the team’s failure to challenge for the title to their poor defensive record, and it was one of the reasons why Louis van Gaal was relieved of his managerial duties last April. This season, with a few formational adjustments and a couple of new faces, Bayern’s defence looks impenetrable. Jerome Boateng, a recognised German international and ex-Hamburger, was signed from Manchester City in the summer and immediately played in his preferred position at centre-back, as opposed to right-back (although he has played just as well at right-back to accommodate Holger Badstuber in the middle). Boateng and Daniel van Buyten, a consistent performer at the heart of Bayern’s defence since the beginning of the 2006-07 season (and another ex-City and Hamburg player, coincidentally), have forged a formidable partnership at the back. Add to that the defensive capabilities of Philipp Lahm on the left, a world-class full-back beyond any doubt, and Brazilian Rafinha, a superb €5.5 m purchase from Genoa in the summer, and it’s no wonder that their defence has been so miserly this year. And when talking about a team’s rearguard, it’s important to mention the goalkeeper. In Manuel Neuer, Bayern have, arguably, the world’s best between their posts. Before the own goal conceded last night, Neuer had played over 1,200 minutes without conceding, breaking Oliver Kahn’s record in the process.
On an individual level, not many players have matched the level of performance that Franck Ribéry has shown this season. As a right-footed winger playing on the left, he has terrorised defences this season. He demands the ball incessantly, and has the confidence to run at defenders all day long. He was a constant thorn in the side of Manchester City recently, and his stats this season make for astonishing reading. He has been involved in almost half of Bayern’s league goals this season, with four goals and eight assists. He’s performed so well that the team isn’t really missing a player of Arjen Robben’s quality all that badly, since the Dutchman suffered a hernia at the start of October. It’s worth mentioning the purple patch that Mario Gomez is going through at this moment in time too. He’s bagged 14 goals in 14 matches this season, although, in fairness to Ribéry, they’ve mostly been tap-ins set up by the Frenchman. The spine of their midfield also looks in fantastic shape. Bastian Schweinsteiger continues to run the midfield for Bayern – do we expect anything else these days? – where he is ably supported by Toni Kroos and Brazilian holding midfielder Luis Gustavo, signed in January from Hoffenheim. It’s a mark of how strong Bayern’s squad is they don’t need Miroslav Klose. He would be warming the bench at Bayern this year, were he still there, yet he’s currently proving he’s far from past it at Lazio.
The players backed Philipp Lahm when he was chastised by the media for criticising ex-managers, and the defender’s prediction that the furore over his comments would blow over has been proven well and truly correct.
Traditionally, Bayern have always been represented quite substantially in the German national team. Right now, they’re almost monopolising the Nationalelf. No less than eight first-team players at Bayern are current internationals and have been used by national team coach Joachim Löw in his recent squads for the EURO 2012 qualifiers (Neuer, Lahm, Boateng, Badstuber, Schweinsteiger, Kroos, Thomas Müller and Gomez). Germany were the first team, barring co-hosts Poland and Ukraine, to qualify for next year’s European Championships, and they did so in emphatic style, winning all ten matches. They have a very strong squad, and are deservedly mentioned in the same breath as Holland and current holders Spain as the favourites for the tournament. Now if you consider that two thirds of that team is made up of players from FC Bayern, it isn’t hard to see why their team is so strong and why they’re currently strolling, in the Bundesliga at least. And since Bayern contribute so much to the current German squad, which has been playing such fluid football in recent months, it therefore follows that good performances from the national team stimulate good performances for Bayern themselves. That may sound a rather obvious, and tenuous, connection to point out, but there is merit in it. Jogi Löw and Heynckes essentially play the same formation as managers of their respective teams. The 4-2-3-1 formation allows for a pacey, fluid and expansive style of play, which Germany invariably execute to perfection. It’s a curiously similar situation to how Barcelona play, in comparison with the Spanish national team. As the German national team improves, so do FC Bayern.
Right now there just seems to be a great mood throughout the club, which is helping to underpin their good run of results. There is unity in the squad – the players backed Philipp Lahm when he was chastised by the media for criticising ex-managers Jürgen Klinsmann and Rudi Völler in his autobiography recently, and the defender’s prediction that the furore over his comments would blow over has been proven well and truly correct. Manager Jupp Heynckes has the full support of the notoriously expectant club president Uli Hoeneß after a difficult start to the season when they were beaten at home on the opening day by Borussia Mönchengladbach, and then narrowly edged past FC Zurich to qualify for the Champions’ League group stage. The players have also responded to him, especially Ribéry, whom Heynckes has allowed to play with a freedom this year which was stifled by previous coach Van Gaal. And there’s a feeling that the constant strife for improvement shown by the team on the field is being matched by what club Chief Executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge is doing off it; an almost unacknowledged but reciprocated appreciation of the ‘cleaning-up-football’ work that Rummenigge is involved in, which is also helping to contribute to mood of optimism at Säbener Straße.
On the field at least, Bayern are in a run of form where they expect, and are expected, to win every match they play. They’re heavy favourites for the league title and an excellent bet to make at least the semi-finals of the Champions League. Their next three league games are at Hannover, at home to Nürnberg and then away to newly-promoted Augsburg, with the return game at home to Napoli sandwiched in the middle. It doesn’t seem like that unbeaten run will end any time soon.
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