Bayern keep the Bundesliga at bay




The more things change, the more they stay the same. This 2018/19 Bundesliga season saw a great deal of change but once again, Bayern Munich won the league even though they had to wait to the last day to claim their prize.

The record champions, Bayern, began the season as strong favourites despite hiring a relatively young coach in Nico Kovac and in the full knowledge that their squad was ageing and in need of regeneration.

When Kovac accepted the job towards the end of the 17/18 season with a DFB Pokal final still to play against his future employers, many, including myself thought that the former Eintracht Frankfurt boss was going to be a transitional coach for a transitional Bayern. Yet with the celebratory beer still drying on the Croatian coach's head, on Saturday, Kovac insisted that he would be the Bayern coach next season and few believe him.

However, not everyone in the team that clinched the title on an emotional afternoon at the Allianz on Saturday will be joining him next season. 
Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben have terrorised Bundesliga full-backs and centre-halves for 12 and 10 years respectively. Age has rendered them a touch slower but it's my view that their decline is one of the reasons why Bayern took so much time to get going this season. Kingsley Coman and Serge Gnabry are more than capable wing-men but they can only succeed "Ribery" and not replace them.

That both Bayern legends scored on their final appearance in a Bayern jersey is a true storybook ending to their magnificent achievements. 

The Bavarians began their seventh consecutive title defence strongly with wins over Hoffenheim, Stuttgart, Leverkusen and Schalke and established a two-point gap at the top of the table over the unlikely Hertha BSC in second. However, the capital club would be one of the three teams from the next eight matches to beat the Champions. the others being Borussias Mönchengladbach and Dortmund 3-0 and 3-2 respectively.

The latter victory was seen, inaccurately as it turned out, to be a turning point in the season. Firstly because it established daylight between Bayern and Dortmund and second because it exposed some real weakness in the Bayern backline, especially the German international Mats Hummels whose reduction in pace had not gone unnoticed before but was cruelly emphasised during this game.

These losses combined withdraws with Augsburg, Freiburg and Fortuna Düsseldorf left Bayern in fifth place and full crisis mode. Kovac was under real pressure and it is possible that were it not for the absence of a suitable replacement in November, he would have been replaced. There was talk of dressing room disharmony (there usually is in these situations) and reports that Columbian talisman, James Rodriguez was furious with the way he was being utilised by the coach.

Outsiders got a real insight as to the extent of the crisis when Club president, Uli Hoeness, CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic called a press conference to attack the press for what they considered to be unfair criticism of their players and to threaten them with legal action.

This was the sort of stunt that Bayern has played in years gone by with a very different media landscape but it backfired. Suddenly the club hierarchy looked foolish and out of step. Bayern looked like a club that was being run by has-beens and was in danger of losing their place among the clubs at the top table of European football.

But of course, the crisis passed. Bayern were, in truth never that bad and as it turned out Borussia Dortmund were never that good. Painful revenge was exacted on the pretenders to Bayern's crown in the shape of a 5-0 win in early April. While it was not straightforward and Dortmund kept them honest, few people were surprised when the champions successfully defended their title on Saturday. Seven days later, they may win the double if they overcome Leipzig in the DFB Pokal Final in Berlin.

In spite of the concerns about Thomas Müller, Mats Hummels, Jerome Boating and Manuel Neuer this Bayern team still has Joshua Kimmich, David Alaba, Leon Goretzka (who can only improve), Serge Gnabry, Kingsley Coman, Thiago and of course Robert Lewandowski who scored just the 35 goals this season.

There is, however, a cautionary bell that tolls for Bayern Munich. 

Already additions to the squad are on their way.  VfB Stuttgart's World Cup winner Benjamin Pavard will make up the new Bayern backline along with Lucas Hernandez from Atlético Madrid. However, Uli Hoeness said after the Eintracht game that Bayern will not be spending more than €80m on one player. In Bundesliga terms that still amounts to a sizable hill of beans. It's unlikely that even Dortmund will spend that much on a player (they don't have to).

However, when you add the Champions League into the question you have to wonder if the Rekordmeister need to shop at a more expensive marketplace to improve on their second-round showing this season. Where winning the domestic league is almost a given, true success for Bayern is measured by their European campaigns which have recently been disappointing.
Also, it must be pointed out that while Lewandowski seems to have put aside his ambitions to move to Real Madrid, the Polish international is 30 years old and only one man. Injury or a downturn in form are always possibilities and there is no one who can replace him. There is talk of Timo Werner making the move from Leipzig but I imagine that if the young German international's valuation by his club wasn't €80m before, it certainly is now. Even then, Werner is not Lewandowski. In fact, quite frankly no one is Lewandowski. Replacing or allowing for his absence will require time to develop young players or more realistically, a transfer fee of well over €100 million for a top level striker.

It is possible that Hoeness is bluffing and that Bayern Munich's transfer budget is higher. That would be as well for him because it is a matter of statistical fact that clubs need to keep spending to keep up and even tighter spending regulations from UEFA will not completely constrain their rivals in Spain, France and England from breaking the transfer record. In that regard, the German champions may need to reach deeper into their purse... if they can.

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