“It was okay, it was good. But you don’t win the Champions League with good and OK.” The words of Bayern Munich centre half Mats Hummels in the wake of his side’s 2-1 quarter final first leg win over Sevilla last Tuesday night.
“Good and OK” – not good enough to win the game’s biggest club prize, but as Die Roten sealed an unprecedented sixth Bundesliga title in a row on Saturday, they’re all that’s really been required most weeks for Bayern to see off all-comers domestically.
Such has been Bayern’s dominance, so predictable was this their 28th title win that the addition of another Bundesliga trophy to the straining Allianz Arena trophy cabinet elicits not much more than a shrug of the shoulders for many.
Bayern are held to higher standards after all. They have to be. The fact that Pep Guardiola’s inability to win the Champions League when in charge still feels like a failure, despite delivering three titles in a row (including two domestic doubles), underlines the point.
Hummels may have had misgivings about the quality of his side’s performance at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan last week, but the result nevertheless puts them on the cusp of yet another Champions League semi-final.
Finish the job on Wednesday, and they’ll be into their sixth in the last seven seasons. It’s a mightily impressive record, and yet the fact they’ve not won the competition since 2012-13 rankles.
Then as now, Jupp Heynckes was in charge. Incredibly, the 72-year-old has made the final on the three occasions he has managed a side in the competition. A fourth final for the great German cannot be ruled out. But as Hummels suggested, they need to be better. Ok won’t cut it.
Since replacing Carlo Ancelotti back in October in the wake of a 3-0 mauling by PSG and their worst Bundesliga start in seven years, Heynckes has eradicated much of the sloppiness that had begun to characterise the Italian’s reign.
According to Bundesliga.com’s Mark Rodden
Bayern had gone stale and had lost their intensity under Ancelotti. The likes of Xabi Alonso and Philipp Lahm retiring didn’t help, but performances weren’t good enough, and several influential senior players turned against him.
Bayern have won 29 of the 32 games they’ve played since Heynckes’s return for his fourth stint in charge at the club, losing just twice. Their form sees them champions with a month left in the domestic season, into the semi-finals of the domestic cup and in contention for European glory.
“In many ways, Heynckes has gone back to basics and what worked for him before,” says Rodden. “One of the most important changes was putting Javi Martinez back in defensive midfield.
The Spaniard had been used mostly in central defence by Guardiola and Ancelotti, but he prefers the midfield role and was hugely influential there in Bayern and Heynckes’s treble-winning season of 2012/13.
Bayern were conceding a goal a game under Ancelotti at the start of the season, but they have been much more miserly since then.”
Heynckes has also returned to his fluid and dynamic 4-2-3-1 formation and according to Rodden, “the players have praised his clear philosophy and structure – they all know what he expects of them.” This may help explain the return to form of Thomas Muller, a player who clearly puzzled Ancelotti, and the increasing influence of James Rodriguez.
Bayern look more like themselves, but how good are they? As ever, the Bundesliga appears a poor guide. Indeed, the lack of quality and competition it offers cannot help Die Roten in terms of gauging just how much better they will have to be if they are to win the Champions League this season.
Perhaps the best hints lie in the competition itself. PSG certainly showed up Bayern’s early season weaknesses. And while the German champions have hardly been tested since, the Sevilla game did highlight how at the highest level defensive errors must be kept to a minimum and opposition mistakes must be punished ruthlessly.
This is the mark of the very top sides, and its where the talented Spanish side fall down. And it is here that Bayern must match up with the very best if they are to properly elevate themselves above Bundesliga bully status.