FC Bayern: Bouncing Back

by Ciaran Kelly

It was the night of 22 May, 2010 at the Santiago Bernabéu.

Having rescued their season in the dramatic and decisive 4-1 Group A victory over Juventus in Turin, which could so easily have cost Louis van Gaal his job had they lost, Bayern went on to defeat Fiorentina, Manchester United and Lyon to face Internazionale in the Champions League Final – a feat unimaginable only a few months beforehand.

Up to that point, van Gaal had sworn by his prozesstrainer style of management, where his methods would take time to develop, and spoke with admirable passion, refusing to answer to the club’s chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge’s demands for weekly meetings and tactical changes, at the club’s AGM in November – which, rather than Turin, was seen as the turning point of his reign at Die Bayern from within the club. After all, having sold Jürgen Klinsmann favourites like Lukas Podolski, Tim Borowski and bravely loaned out 2008/2009’s top scorer Luca Toni after a fierce falling-out over a lack of player professionalism, van Gaal had, while walking into a better situation after Juup Heynckes’ stellar caretaker spell at the end of 2008/2009, entered a club where personnel indecision (Michael Rensing/Hans-Jörg Butt and Klinsmann’s dropping of his hand-picked captain and general Mark van Bommel), Buddhist statues, language classes on site and unorthodox yoga sessions were at large only twelve months previously.

From this, and as always, van Gaal’s methods took time but after just 30 points from a possible 48 in the Bundesliga and dismal defeats to Bordeaux in the Champions League, Turin carried near career-defining importance for the Dutchman. Having ultimately failed to implement his mathematical-like and modern (passing over free role expression) interpretation of Total Football at both Barcelona (never took off in the Champions League and never afforded the freedom that the likes of Arjen Robben were given to Rivaldo and Luis Figo) and the Netherlands (‘Clockwork Oranje’ implosion in their failure to qualify for the 2002 World Cup), van Gaal was ludicrously deemed an Eredivisie standard coach. Nonetheless, van Gaal fought on: winning 18, drawing 4 and losing just 2 games as the squad and van Gaal, complete with Lederhosen, celebrated their domestic double at the Marienplatz in true van Gaal style: by promising to give it their all in conquering Europe.

The FC Hollywood image and selection policy of Bayern, that had won them so many titles and cups over the years, had received a fresh and much-needed injection of Bavarian spirit with van Gaal’s intolerance of foreign stars’ egos, such as Robben (fall-out over his substitution in the Champions League semi-final against Lyon) and Franck Ribéry (poor form and unprofessionalism off the field had seen his career stall), and the bold yet brilliant promotions of Diego Contento, Holger Badstuber and Thomas Müller into the first XI. It set-up an intriguing Champions League Final against Internazionale, with Bayern having one of Europe’s most inform players in Robben and the likes of Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger (reborn from flashy and erratic winger to devastating box-to-box midfielder under van Gaal) and Ivica Olić played some of the most consistent and effective football of their careers in that 2009/2010 season.

Nonetheless, despite José Mourinho’s philosophy of using Inter’s brilliant defensive foundations and counter-attack as a ‘cynical’ way of defeating opponents, such as when they had just 24% possession in the semi-final second leg against Barcelona, Bayern went into the final as massive underdogs. This was down to, as much as Mourinho’s brilliant transformation of Inter’s mentality on the European stage, Bayern having a soft centre, losing four European games on the way to the final and being without their suspended gamebreaker Ribéry. Despite this, inspired first-half performances by the uncharacteristic puppet-master van Bommel and the marauding Robben had Inter, and namely Christian Chivu, retreating but a typical fast-paced Inter counter, Júlio César’s kickout led to an expert one-two and finish by Diego Milito from Wesley Sneijder’s threaded through ball on 34’, epitomised Inter’s devastating exploitation of football against the run of play.

The rookie Müller, remarkably making his 52nd appearance for Bayern that season, had a glorious opportunity on 47’ and his miss proved costly: Milito easily turning Daniel Van Buyten on 70’, before a brilliant side-foot past Butt. While it was the end of Mourinho’s Inter dynasty, the final should have laid the foundations of Bayern’s. It was their first Champions League Final for nine years and if van Gaal was given the funds to improve a leaky defence, that had been reliant on Butt, Martín Demichelis and Van Buyten for too many years, Bayern had potential brilliance in tandem with Lahm, Badstuber, Schweinsteiger, Robben, Ribéry, Müller and prophetically, Mario Gómez. Gómez had initially struggled to live up to his reported €32 million transfer fee under van Gaal, but the Dutchman reminded the media that he was still just 24 and maintained that he would rediscover his devastating Stuttgart form in the 2010/2011 season.

Given Bayern’s standing as one of the one of the richest clubs in world football, having earned the highest commercial revenue in the world in 2009/2010 with €172.9 million according to Deloitte’s Money League, the fact that they decided not build on their success and aim to remedy their obvious weaknesses was startling. Although van Gaal did spend €82.7 million in the summer of 2009/2010, principally on Robben and Gómez but admittedly some debatable and overpriced amounts on Anatoliy Tymoshchuk and Danijel Pranjić too, and in hindsight, given Jupp Heynckes’ recent spending, surely there was enough money for a reasonable transfer budget. Also, going by van Gaal’s major overhaul of the squad in the summer of 2009 and his previous transfer activity at other clubs, he has never shied away from investing and boosting his squads. Therefore, it is surprising, despite their obvious stars, that Bayern did not deal with their major problems of overpaid and aged players that should not have been anywhere near the first XI: namely Butt, Van Buyten, Demichelis and van Bommel (his first-half masterclass against Inter was an exception in a series of inconsistent, average and below-par seasons).

Robben’s pre-season muscle tear, that ruled him out until January, proved a massive blow and Ribéry was still struggling with form and fitness, along with a questionable attitude and motivation which were clearly irking van Gaal, who had made the Frenchman Bayern’s highest paid player in their history after handing him a reported €10 million (€192,000) annual salary at the end of the 2009/2010 season. A dismal performance by Ribéry in his comeback friendly from an ankle injury against Unterhaching in November saw van Gaal publicly question the Frenchman’s commitment. It had the desired effect. Although he made just 32 appearances that season, just two more than his injury-ravaged 2009/2010 campaign, Ribéry was one of Bayern’s few consistencies as they stuttered and struggled throughout the season. The Frenchman managed 11 goals and 21 assists in 32 appearances for Bayern and made Robben’s loss, who still managed a magnificent 13 goals in 17 matches in an injury-disrupted season, slightly more bearable.

However, Bayern failed to replicate a sustained and impressive run of form until Robben’s return to full fitness in March. Although the Dutchman’s presence was missed, van Gaal had been right about Gómez – who was one of Europe’s top finishers with 39 goals from 45 games. However, the team as a whole were underperforming and up until Bayern’s turning point 6-0 victory against Hamburg in March, which ironically came after the Bayern board announced van Gaal would be leaving at the end of season (ended up being sacked on 7 April) and came too late in comparison to the 2009/2010 Juventus win in December, Bayern had managed just 42 points from a possible 75, had been knocked out of the DFB-Pokal by Schalke in the semi-final and had thrown away a brilliant away goal advantage against a poor Internazionale side in the Champions League second round. As if to prove a point to those above him, van Gaal sold Demichelis and Van Bommel and brought in the badly-needed central midfield industry and composure of Luiz Gustavo in January but, again, it was too late.

Van Gaal, despite Bayern’s late season renaissance, was not even handed the dignity and decency to finish off his reign by leading Bayern to Champions League qualification and his assistant Andrias Jonker instead oversaw the final six league games. Like in 2009, the wily Jupp Heynckes was parachuted in – only this time, he was given a permanent contract and had nothing to prove to the Bayern fans and board who, in hindsight, badly regretted his sacking in 1991 after his impressive two seasons with Bayer Leverkusen. Heynckes spent  a total of €39.8 million on Manuel Neuer, Rafinha, Jérôme Boateng and Nils Petersen in the summer and also left his mark on the departures, something van Gaal left too late to do, by selling van Gaal favourites like Thomas Kraft, Hamit Altintop and to a lesser extent, Miroslav Klose.

Bayern’s backline had been shorn of a quality centre back for the best part of a decade and even then, Lúcio’s time in Munich did not reflect his consistent best - in comparison to his form with Leverkusen and his renaissance at Internazionale. Boateng, who was incredibly unlucky with injuries and being played in his unnatural right back position at Manchester City, has given Bayern a massive improvement in pace and composure, in comparison to Demichelis and Van Buyten, and has also matched the pairs’ strength and aerial prowess. Like with centre back, Bayern have struggled with the goalkeeper position and have failed to adequately replace Oliver Kahn since his retirement in 2008. Michael Rensing was much-hyped but never lived up to his promise; Hans-Jörg Butt never recovered the consistency he displayed at Leverkusen between 2001 and 2007; and Thomas Kraft, despite his brilliant debut performance in the 1-0 win over Internazionale at the San Siro last season, made a series of costly errors and from this, van Gaal’s credibility and control were undermined by the board.

Manuel Neuer, while still showing his 25 years in his timidity in commanding his box and his occasional lapses in concentration, has proven himself as one of the top five goalkeepers in Europe in the past twelve months, following an impressive World Cup, Champions League campaign and consistent performances for Schalke under both Felix Magath and Ralf Rangnick. To boost the defence even further, Heynckes also snapped up Genoa’s marauding right back Rafinha. Given the dearth of reasonably priced, experienced and cultured full backs in Europe at the moment, Rafinha, despite his mixed spell at Genoa, has proven Bundesliga pedigree and could turn out to be one of the bargains of the summer: costing just €5 million and allowing Philipp Lahm to take up the left back position, where he has sparkled, despite being naturally right footed, for Germany under Joachim Löw in recent years.

Nils Petersen is an interesting prospect, having scored 35 goals in 55 games for second division Energie Cottbus, and is highly-rated by Bayern, who gave him ‘Gerd Müller’s number nine’ shirt. Petersen, despite showing his 22 year age with his occassional rash composure in front of goal, has perhaps exceeded expectations already: scoring 2 goals in 5 matches. With the supremely-talented Toni Kroos valued by Heynckes, unlike van Gaal who only used him sparingly, Bayern have an array of options, depth and are not as unashamedly reliant on Robben and Ribéry as they once were. Proving himself as a gamebreaker and showing that last season was not a fluke, Gómez has started the season in blistering form: scoring 10 goals in 9 games and with his international career also taking off, it surely will not be long before Gómez is widely-considered as one of Europe’s top marksmen.

Even though the conspiracists will claim that Bayern have been handed an easy start to the season, originating in previous complaints from chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge about the calendar and shared TV deal, they have played sides that they dropped points to last season: drawing away to Wolfsburg, losing away to Kaiserslauten and being defeated away to Schalke in 2010/2011. Bayern have managed to win all three of those fixtures this time round and have won ten, losing their opener to Borussia Mönchengladbach, of their eleven competitive games so far this season: scoring 26 goals and conceding just one goal. Badstuber, apart from a shaky performance against Schalke, has been revived, following a poor 2010/2011 campaign under van Gaal, alongside Boateng in the heart of the defence. Robben, who has missed the past five games, has not been so wholly missed as in previous occasions with Kroos, Müller and Ribéry sparkling as both creative and goalscoring threats.

Even with the perils of a blistering early season start in mind, Bayern look well-placed to go into the winter break with a healthy lead – having been handed preferable home matches, as opposed to tricky away trips, against rivals Werder Bremen and Borussia Dortmund before the break. Bayern also have a great chance to top their Champions League group, against the similarly ranked Manchester City, Napoli and Villarreal, a feat they have managed in seven of the past thirteen Champions League group phases that they have qualified for.

After losing a year from not investing after the great success of 2009/2010 and having suffered a brutal and traumatic 2010/2011 season, it is already safe to say that Bayern have bounced back under Jupp Heynckes.

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