Bayern Munich have found a variety of different ways to become Bundesliga champions since 2013. This title, their ninth in a row, was sealed as the team arrived in the Allianz Arena’s home dressing room before the Saturday evening kick-off against Borussia Mönchengladbach.
Bayern were virtual champions as they left the team hotel to get on the bus to the stadium just before 5pm local time, with Borussia Dortmund leading Bayern’s mathematical rivals RB Leipzig 2-1. As a number of players watched the game in the north-west unfold on their phones on the journey, Dani Olmo’s equaliser for future coach Julian Nagelsmann’s team meant Bayern would have to finish the job themselves against Gladbach. Then Jadon Sancho’s late winner meant that Bayern knew the title was theirs in the home changing room, before the players had even had the chance to get into their training kit.
Not that one sensed Bayern especially needed any favours. They led after 112 seconds when Robert Lewandowski smashed a shot low into the far corner, beating Yann Sommer all ends up. In fact, one of the Bundesliga’s very best goalkeepers didn’t have much chance with any of the ensuing five either – two of which were Lewandowski completing his hat-trick and taking him to 39 Bundesliga goals for the campaign, just one behind Gerd Müller’s should-never-be-beaten season record from 1971-72.
Future Dortmund coach Marco Rose was not impressed by his side’s efforts (“if you want to pee standing up, you have to act like grown-ups”) but Gladbach are hardly the first team of standing to be caught as a rabbit in Bayern’s headlights. The hunger from the home side was palpable, with the shouts of Hansi Flick and Hasan Salihamidžić from the touchline prompting a reply from Max Eberl from the opposing bench, as Süddeutsche Zeitung’s Sebastian Fischer underlined. “You’re German champions and you’re 5-0 up,” the Gladbach sporting director hollered back. This was Bayern playing the hits – once more, with feeling.
Clearly there is buy-in to help Lewandowski reach an individual goal that looked as if it might slip away due to the knee injury which hampered Bayern’s European season at a crucial juncture (“if we play the way we set out to,” said Flick, “Robert will benefit from it”), but there is a collective will to keep alive the feeling that this could be just the start of a dynasty. Part of the feeling of continuing, searching for more must be being a slight feeling of anticlimax from these strange times, with Bayern winning the title while at home for only the second time in these now nine straight years of victory.
It was also the second successive Bundesliga celebrated without a beer shower, with drinks limited to the dressing room and the bus. The fun in transit was at least a departure from Flick’s and Salhamidzić’s fall-out on the bus earlier this year – Bild reported at the time that Flick had told the sporting director to “shut the hell up,” a version of events Bayern ducked rather than denied – which precipitated a public address of the situation from both, and prefaced the coach’s eventual departure.
Flick exits with seven titles won, a remarkable effort even at a club where Thomas Müller and another imminent leaver David Alaba each celebrated a 10th Bundesliga win. Flick left a fond message for his successor Nagelsmann in his post-match press conference, enjoyed with champagne (“you’ll have a lot of fun with this team,” he smiled) and the future does look good, even if Premier League teams’ displays in the Champions League in recent weeks have laid down a gauntlet to the Bavarians for the coming seasons.
Nagelsmann’s main area of work promises to be defence, with Bayern having leaked a wholly uncharacteristic 40 goals in the 32 league games to date. Given the young dynamic of this Bayern, to be fostered around the Lewandowski-Müller-Manuel Neuer trio, the new man probably wouldn’t mind bringing his excellent young defence from Leipzig with him. He will have to settle for just Dayot Upamecano, a very Bayern signing at reasonable buyout clause plus generous wages and, at only 22, the French defender should be able to grow with the plan. Upamecano will not, however, be a remedy to all ills – he has had an up-and-down season, and his major weakness of getting drawn towards the ball, sometimes a long way up the pitch (underlined by Sancho’s delicious nutmeg on him on Saturday), will not be easy to correct with Bayern’s current approach. Nagelsmann will need to be firm in evolving this time, without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
So where does this leave all the rest in terms of being able to compete? It won’t be easy. The field must hope for some teething problems for Nagelsmann and some instant returns for themselves, with as many as the current top seven likely to be bedding in new coaches in 2021-22. And despite a dramatic closing stanza to the second half at Dortmund, it was a day on which Leipzig underlined just how far they are from being a genuine contender, particularly in the game’s first hour. The excellent Jesse Marsch has a big job on, without question.
Yet the key to a more competitive Bundesliga lies in empowering the field, rather than holding Bayern back. They are sure to be mixed results in this new age – perhaps even for the Rekordmeister – but a quiet summer in the transfer market might provide the background for some helpful stability and organic growth. Even if Bayern, however they win the title, remain Bayern.
• Elsewhere the dress rehearsal for the DfB Pokal final, unpopularly placed this coming Thursday, was a thriller that underlined the strengths and weaknesses of both sides. It mattered more to BVB, who finally got back into the top four thanks to Sancho’s winner, beautifully crafted in tandem with Raphaël Guerreiro, and celebrated wildly in the stands by the injured Erling Haaland, who is also touch-and-go for the final. Clearly a return to the Champions League would be the biggest dagger to current speculation over the Norwegian’s future, with the in-form Sancho’s post-match words (“I love it here”) doing little to dampen tentative suggestions in the media that he might decide to stay for an extra year too.
• Wolfsburg kept their nerve and remained third, with an excellent Josip Brekalo hat-trick not fully describing their utter dominance of Union Berlin, but Eintracht Frankfurt dropped points against near-neighbours and recent bogey team Mainz, who would have taken all three points but for Ajdin Hrustić’s wonderfully inventive (and quite lucky) late equaliser. It is out of Eintracht’s hands but their two top-four rivals have more difficult remaining fixtures – in fact both play Mainz, now unbeaten in nine under Bo Svensson.
• The relegation battle is alive too, with Schalke gone but just two points separating 14th (Hertha) from automatically-down 17th (Köln, beaten 4-1 at home by Freiburg).