As has become the norm in recent years, Bayern Munich are top of the Bundesliga and on course to win the title. However, Kevin Hatchard believes all is not well with the Bavarian giants.
By Carlo Ancelotti’s own admission, it can be harder taking over a successful team than it is wading into a firefight where major changes are needed. When he agreed to replace the departing Pep Guardiola at the Bayern helm, the avuncular Italian knew full well that he was succeeding a coach that Bayern had been desperate to keep.
Not only did the Catalan deliver three Bundesliga titles in three seasons, but he did so in remarkable style. Admittedly, he took over a treble-winning side that had flourished under the experienced Jupp Heynckes, but he quickly put his own stamp on the team. In the Bundesliga, Bayern won 25 of their first 27 games under Guardiola, and their first league defeat came after they had wrapped up the title in March – the earliest any team had secured the Meisterschale in Bundesliga history.
In Guardiola’s three campaigns, they won the title by 19 points, 10 points and 10 points. They conceded just 58 Bundesliga goals in three seasons, and rattled in 254 at the other end. The German Cup was also won twice. His detractors sneered, declaring that anyone could win the Bundesliga, as it was a one-club league with no real opposition. The facts tell a different story. In the seven seasons before Guardiola arrived at Sabener Strasse, there were four different champions of Germany, as Bayern were joined on the rostrum by Stuttgart, Wolfsburg and Borussia Dortmund (twice).
Bayern president Uli Hoeness was glowing in his praise of Guardiola’s reign. He credited the former Barcelona boss with helping transform Bayern into an international brand (I can sense traditionalists everywhere shuddering at those words), and he felt that criticism of Guardiola’s failure to win the Champions League during his tenure was harsh.
There’s no doubt that Guardiola also improved many of the players at his disposal during his three-year tenure. Thomas Mueller rattled in a career-best 20 Bundesliga goals in his final season under the current Manchester City manager, Jerome Boateng largely cut out the errors that had previously prevented him from becoming a world-class centre-back, and David Alaba thrived in a number of different positions. Guardiola also took a risk on young Joshua Kimmich, who described his former boss as having “big balls”, because he was willing to play the 21-year-old in high-profile, high-pressure games time and time again.
Despite the bar being set dauntingly high, Ancelotti made the perfect start to his reign, winning his first eight competitive games. The former Milan boss has become famous for his ability to convey a thousand words with a raised eyebrow, but it was Bayern fans who were raising their eyebrows in late September and early October. Bayern drew with both FC Koln and Eintracht Frankfurt, throwing away three leads in the process. They also lost 1-0 at Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, a result that ultimately cost them top spot in their group.
Was Ancelotti’s 4-3-3 too predictable? Was the pace of play too slow? Why were Bayern suddenly conceding goals? The man affectionately known as ‘Carletto’ suddenly had questions to answer, and he has admitted that his players have taken a while to get used to how he wants them to play. There is less of a focus on possession, the full-backs no longer drift into midfield to create overloads, and Bayern are trying to be more direct.
Ancelotti has preached a mantra of “evolution, not revolution”, but all of these subtle changes take time, and the job is far from complete. Bayern are still in three competitions, and are three points ahead of surprise challengers RB Leipzig in the title race, so there is no crisis. However, Bayern’s recent performances show they are still relying on individual brilliance to win games. A flat performance at rock-bottom Darmstadt was rescued by an outrageously good long-range drive from Douglas Costa. A 2-1 win at Freiburg was only decided in Bayern’s favour thanks to a breathtaking stoppage-time winner from top scorer Robert Lewandowski, and afterwards his teammate Arjen Robben conceded that it was a game his side didn’t deserve to win.
It was a similar story in Bremen at the weekend. Stunning left-foot strikes from Robben and David Alaba had seemingly put Bayern in command at half-time, but hosts Werder pulled a goal back and gave the champions an almighty scare in the second period. In his post-match press conference, Ancelotti said his side lost their way at the Weserstadion, dropping too deep and inviting Werder back into the match.
In the fullness of time, I suspect Bayern will win the Bundesliga this season, and they are worthy favourites to win the German Cup too. However, unless performances improve, Bayern’s hunger for European dominance may not be sated in this campaign.
As Guardiola struggles to get consistent results at Manchester City, and English critics queue up to gleefully tell him he’s been “found out”, it must be nice for him to know that there are many people in Munich who still appreciate the work he did. Bayern don’t often lose people they want to keep, but Guardiola does things his way, and now his successor at the Allianz Arena must work tirelessly to forge his own legacy.
Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kevinhatchard