After rounding off a domestic double with a routine defeat of RB Leipzig Bayern Munich’s dominance within Germany remains without question, as does the tangible lack of quality within the Bundesliga to mount a credible challenge to the Bavarian giant’s hegemony. Being all-conquering does not necessarily equate to greatness, an epithet that could hardly be used to describe Niko Kovac’s workmanlike side. A healthy top division often mirrors the fortunes of a country’s national side, and vice versa. It is therefore no surprise that Die Mannschaft, under the tired leadership of Joachim Loew are experiencing a crisis of having too few German players from whom to choose, especially those of the requisite quality, and, like Bayern, are having trouble cutting the cord with players way past their usefulness.
It would seem that Bayern have somewhat after the event awoken to the fact that their stars of yesteryear are dining out on past glories but now offer little to a squad that needs to move on – albeit in a somewhat delayed reaction to the advancements made on the European stage by Liverpool, Manchester City, and Paris St. Germain. The €80 million signing of Frenchman Lucas Hernandez and compatriot Benjamin Pavard, a free from relegated Stuttgart, represent a positive start to a necessary root and branch overhaul but Bayern need to go far further if they are to mitigate against the huge losses of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery. Caught cold in the past by the departures of Philipp Lahm and Xavi Alonso Bayern have repeatedly failed to learn from being ill-prepared for the day when their untouchables leave the Allianz Arena. It is arguable that Lahm and Alonso have still to be adequately replaced; along with the need to source alternatives for Robben, Ribery, and the also departing Rafinha, Bayern’s ‘in tray’ also includes the need to sign a worthy striker to complement Robert Lewandowski, and his eventual successor.
Manchester City’s Leroy Sane would appear to fit one of the now vacant wide berths but despite the 23-year old’s negligible contribution to City’s domestic treble and in some respects being an unfulfilled talent, the Abu Dhabi regime at Eastlands are reluctant to let the former Schalke 04 winger leave for less than £100 million. I would be surprised if Sane isn’t receptive to a move to Bavaria, where he is all but a guaranteed starter, but Bayern, even in what must now be a desperate search for reinforcements, will not and should not be held to ransom by a club who purchased the player for in the region of £40 million. A conspicuous absentee from Loew’s doomed 2018 World Cup squad Sane will surely be eager to re-cement his place in the national side; playing week in, week out in the Bundesliga should aid his quest to do so.
It is astonishing that a club of Bayern’s size and wealth in effect only number Lewandowski as an out and out striker within its first team squad. Arsenal supporters will undoubtedly be surprised by the responsibility given to Serge Gnabry and whilst Bayern have to some extent got away with a paucity of attacking options during their domestic duties it has been within a wider European context where they’ve been found out. To look how far Liverpool have come with such a tripartite of attacking riches – Mane, Salah, and Firminho – with able deputies Divock Origi and Daniel Sturridge shows the similar distance Bayern have fallen behind clubs of relative standing elsewhere in Europe. Canadian Alphonso Davies and prolific second-string striker Kwasi Okyere Wriedt could one day prove to be the answer but in the here and now Bayern require proven quality that have been there and done it on the domestic, and ideally European stages. Leipzig’s often spoken of Timo Werner would fit the bill but to ease the aging Lewandowski’s burden and plan for his eventual exit Kovac needs to recruit not one, but two front men of repute.
This would now appear to be a pre-season of transition at Bayern like no other in recent times. Aside from the confirmed departures of Rafinha, Robben, and Ribery there are compelling cases for Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels, and even two automatic-selections of times past, Manuel Neuer and Thomas Mueller, to seek pastures new. I have always felt that Boateng secured gigs far above his station, with the former Borussia Dortmund-defender Hummels now performing below his previous high standards. Whilst Manuel Neuer appears to have lost much of his invincibility after a succession of lengthy injuries it is Mueller, the Ian Baker-Finch of football, whose cocky self-assured mien engendered from world-class talent has now all but vanished – along with what made his football do the talking. It has at times become embarrassing to watch a player formerly of such reputation going through comparative agonies on the pitch, with nobody daring to suggest that it is time to move on someone considered part of the Bayern furniture.
The future of Kovac himself is far from certain, despite domestic dominance secured at half pace. Although Dortmund got closer to Bayern Lucien Favre’s side are not yet ready to take their rivals to the wire. A two-point deficit behind the eventual Bundesliga champions suggests a nip and tuck title race, which I would strongly argue that it wasn’t. if though there was a season where Dortmund had a chance to overhaul Bayern it could now be said to have just passed, unless Favre can acquire this pre-season as smartly as Bayern will expensively.
It would seem that the Croatian Kovac has fielded unfair criticism following Bayern’s meek surrender to eventual Champions’ League finalists Liverpool, where the disparity of resources and squad-depth were painfully obvious for all to see. Without significant additions to the recruitment of Pavard and Hernandez Bayern will register a net loss of personnel, perpetually playing catch-up for the departed Alonso, Lahm, Robben, and Ribery, a lack of an understudy and eventual successor for Lewandowski, and the refusal to acknowledge the waning of Mueller, Neuer, and Hummels.
The only comparable club in Europe, both in respective standing within domestic and European contexts facing a summer of such upheaval is Manchester United. After securing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to much fanfare after the divisive reign of Jose Mourinho reality started to bite once results levelled off and the shocking state of United’s squad was laid bare. While United have continued to spend big money during a period that Bayern resisted to plan for the future it can successfully be argued that all that glitters at Old Trafford certainly isn’t gold. Money doesn’t guarantee success but nor does a revolving door policy of managerial retention, especially when successors preferring different styles of play are expected to plug round holes with square pegs before bringing in their own personnel. There are respective lessons to be learnt from continuity that borders on stasis, even inertia and reckless spending from a conveyor belt of managers adding their own interpretations to squads crafted by their defenestrated predecessors, although the fine line in football between success and failure has never been so thin and unforgiving.
For Niko Kovac’s position to be under review it needs to be questioned why Bayern failed on the European stage; this would ultimately seem to be the reason why he has been criticised to such an extent, even branded out of his depth. The simple answer is that the squad lacks the ability and depth to win with swashbuckling elan whilst keeping the door shut at the back. Against domestic rivals barely able to lay a glove on Kovac’s side Bayern had enough to retain their domestic stranglehold but on the European stage, the lack of plan b options and a general deterioration of quality within German football as a whole cannot be ignored, nor blamed on Kovac. It is not for Bayern to remedy the ills of German football but the myth that a strong Die Roten equals to a formidable German national team finally needs to be dispelled once and for all.