This should have been the ideal fixture to take us into the Winterpause. A soupçon of a possible fight for the title, an indication that Bayern Munich would have work to do in the second half of the season, a sense of leaving the public begging for more in the last match of the calendar year – along the line of tradition like last year’s late, late Robert Lewandowski goal digging out a win at Bayer Leverkusen, or the two goals in the last four minutes that were needed to put away Wolfsburg, Friday night’s visitors, two years ago in this same fixture seeing us into Christmas 2019.
By the end of the match, however, all Die Wölfe were begging for was mercy. There was never any cliffhanger potential here and if you were looking for statistical hope, you were doing so in the wrong place. Never before has a team with 43 points or more at Christmas failed to go on and win the Bundesliga, and that’s where Bayern are.
There were four and it could have been so many more for Bayern, who were kept at arm’s length for much of the first half by the ultra-defensive visitors (but still led through an early, predatory Thomas Müller strike) but pressed with greater vigour in the second half, and Wolfsburg were powerless to resist. Bayern were “incredibly sharp” in those second 45 minutes, as their coach Julian Nagelsmann told DAZN, while understandably classifying his first half-season in charge as “a lot of fun.”
Other records have been shattered along the way. Their 56 goals for the first half of the season is a never-before-reached high watermark, and they’re well on pace to beat Bayern’s Bundesliga best of 101 from 1971-72. Lewandowski, naturally, was also responsible for something new. He has now surpassed two seemingly impregnable Gerd Müller records this year, a late goal here taking him past Der Bomber’s record for a calendar year (42 trumping 41), having beaten his single season record in spring. The visitors, given their particularly harrowing history against Lewandowski in this fixture, must have felt they got off lightly in conceding just one to him, a satisfying left-foot volley with the game long since decided.
Neither this stream of statistical superlatives, nor the sense of the inevitable, should diminish Bayern’s achievements. They are playing magnificent football under Nagelsmann and while the Hansi Flick era was packed with performances to get the pulse racing, an artistic pinnacle to compare with the Guardiola years, the new man is aiming to move away from such a haphazard, visceral, turbo-Keegan type of template. Nagelsmann praised his side for their “very good control” of the game. “I prefer good control to 10 chances and 10 counter-chances,” he stressed.
The last week, which looked challenging on paper, has only strengthened Bayern’s hand. Putting away a stubborn Mainz last weekend was one thing. Faced with a jaunt to Stuttgart and this reception of Wolfsburg without their first-choice midfield axis of Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka, Bayern have flown. Nine goals scored, none conceded and the title almost signed and sealed, even before a spluttering Borussia Dortmund fell 3-2 at Hertha on Saturday night. Those needed have stepped in with authority. Marc Roca, who had cut the figure of an outcast, is now in form and probably playing himself out of a potential move, loan or otherwise. “Looking at the last six months, I’m glad that we had such a big squad,” said Nagelsmann. “We needed every player.”
The unlikely central midfield of Roca and Jamal Musiala have been excellent, though it does feel as if everything is going their way. Musiala was set to be substituted in the closing minutes, but Benjamin Pavard’s unscheduled sprint from the pitch changed that. “Benji came out and said in French that he had to go to the bathroom,” recounted Nagelsmann. “Then he decided to play for another 15 seconds, played three or four more passes and when the ball was on the other side, disappeared into the tunnel.” So exited a grinning Pavard, with Musiala staying on and shortly afterwards, he laid on Lewandowski’s goal. With the mix of swagger and serendipity, the 5-0 reverse at Borussia Mönchengladbach in the DfB Pokal in late October is a result that is more incongruous and inexplicable as time goes by.
For Wolfsburg, expected to be part of the chasing pack, this was a seventh straight loss. Sporting director Marcel Schäfer was looking on the bright side – because what else can you do after a game like this, and an opponent like this, especially when you’ve already fired one coach this season? – as he looked back on the rubble of recent weeks. “Due to the Champions League elimination, we will be able to put in a lot of work on the [training] pitch,” he argued, “and this will give Florian the chance to work on the understanding between [the players].”
Wolfsburg were criticised for a lack of ambition in some quarters but Florian Kohfeldt, their manager, was constrained by a shortage of personnel – particularly in the wide areas, where the banned Jérôme Roussillon or the injured trio of Paulo Otávio, Admir Mehmedi and Maximilian Philipp could have given the side some energy out wide, particularly on the counter. Further forward, he was lacking Lukas Nmecha, one of the bright spots of the season so far. For Kohfeldt and company, it may well get worse before it gets better.
That may well be the case for the rest of the Bundesliga too. Nagelsmann’s Bayern are, it seems, just warming up.
• The potential competition did themselves no favours this weekend, with Dortmund inexplicably letting a half-time lead in Berlin disintegrate (“we gave the game away,” bemoaned stand-in goalkeeper Marwin Hitz) with Hertha scoring three times in 18 second-half minutes, including two belting finishes by Marco Richter for the hosts. Earlier on Saturday Leipzig suffered their first loss under Domenico Tedesco, 2-0 at home to lowly Arminia Bielefeld. “I couldn’t have imagined us scoring if we’d have played for another hour,” admitted the coach. Leverkusen are still six points adrift of second-placed BVB after going down to a late Kevin Schade goal in Freiburg.
• Christian Streich’s side, instead, finish the Hinrunde in third place and with the joint-best defensive record in the Bundesliga.
• Max Kruse finished off a good week, getting married on Wednesday – having proposed live on TV from the Olympics back in July – and striking a spectacular winner at Bochum on Saturday, making Union only the second team to win a Bundesliga game there this season. The only fly in the ointment was VfL fans throwing beer cups at Union players. Kruse said he had “seldom seen such antisocial fans” though clarified later on Instagram that “80% of Bochum fans are nice”.
• The Anthony Modeste show rolls on into Christmas. He missed a few chances he would normally gobble up for Köln against Stuttgart, but then scored a formidable header, his eighth of 11 Bundesliga goals so far, in the 89th minute to snare another three points in what has been a highly satisfactory first half of the season. The emotion at full time was clear, with a tearful Modeste embraced by teammates and his coach Steffen Baumgart.