Bayern Munich may now lead the Bundesliga by seven points after the weekend’s results, but the German champions continue to look underwhelming as they chase a fifth title in a row.
Two very late goals at struggling Ingolstadt coupled with RB Leipzig’s surprise 3-0 defeat at home to Hamburg gives round 20 of the league’s fixtures a pivotal look.
But the manner of Bayern’s win did little dispel the feeling that under Carlo Ancelotti they have benefitted as much from the weakness and inconsistency of their opponents as from their own abilities.
Early in the season, I wondered whether the Italian’s more relaxed approach to management might give the club’s domestic opponents hope.
Four months on, those hopes may be all but extinguished – but the doubts remain. Bayern look off-colour. And if domestic rivals have not been able to exploit that, then maybe the likes of Arsenal, who travel to Bavaria this Wednesday, just might.
On the surface, all looks well at the Allianz Arena. Bayern have lost only once this season and look to have finally put serious daylight between themselves and their rivals.
They’ve progressed to the quarter finals of the German Cup, and will be backed to win that again also. In Europe, they are into the knock out phase of the Champions League yet again – their designs on the trophy almost certainly why three times winner Ancelotti got the Bayern gig.
But anyone who has watched them this term will have seen that they ‘ve not been performing to the intense, powerful levels witnessed in recent seasons.
Obviously no two seasons are the same, but a look at the results this season and last is at the very least thought provoking.
After 20 games of this season, the Bavarian giants have drawn four games. They had only four draws in the whole of last season. Moreover, in the games they have won, they haven’t been wiping the floor with the opposition in the manner of last term.
Six of their 15 wins have been by a single goal, and they’ve only had four wins by more than two goals. By this time last season, Guardiola’s vintage had racked up an imposing eight wins by three goals or more.
League performances have been scrappy and riddled with individual errors, with victories far too often the result of individual rather than collective brilliance.
And the malaise – if that’s not too strong a word – has spilled over into their European campaign.
Defeats at Atletico Madrid and surprisingly at FC Rostov saw them finish behind Spanish club in Group D. No shame one might feel, to finish behind Simeone and co.
And yet, given how Atleti have underwhelmed this season, perhaps it does cast an unflattering light on Ancelotti’s side. The shambolic nature of their 3-2 defeat in Rostov certainly did.
Robert Lewandowski is arguably the only player performing close to his best. Twenty goals in his 26 Bundesliga and Champions League appearances suggest he’s still the biggest threat to Arsenal this week.
But the Pole aside, far too many have been playing below par. Like the team itself, just doing enough to get by.
Is it part of a cunning Ancelotti plan to have his side gradually go through the gears as the season progresses? Perhaps to start hitting top form as the Champions League gets serious? Or is it that his more laid back approach has brought about the drop in intensity?
That players who had become used to being challenged both mentally and physically by Pep Guardiola have understandably eased down in what’s a more comfortable environment?
A failure to bolster the squad with creative and incisive talent has had an impact I think, especially in light of the disastrous form of Thomas Muller.
Renato Sanches’s struggle to adapt to his new environment has also deprived the midfield of an injection of much-needed and hoped-for dynamism.
The Champions League, the level at which managers of Bayern Munich now tend to be judged, should provide a sterner test of Ancelotti’s men and methods than the domestic fare.
And on the evidence of the season so far, Arsenal should travel to Germany as much in expectation as in hope.