Bayern Munich bow out and look like fading force among Europe’s new elite | Jonathan Liew

Germany’s perennial champions lack focal point and collective spirit and were very much second-best against Manchester City

Two hours and 53 minutes into this Champions League quarter-final, Bayern Munich finally scored. It was a Joshua Kimmich penalty, moot and meaningless, but still smashed into the very centre of the goal as if to make a point. Hey. Pssst. Lads. Maybe try aiming for the big netted thing. The one between the two metal things. It’s surprisingly roomy!

The finer details of this 4-1 aggregate defeat will be lost to the winds of history. Yet over the two legs of this tie, Bayern’s expected goal tally of 3.49 was just a fraction behind Manchester City’s at 4.23. Both sides got a dodgy penalty. Between the two boxes, as Pep Guardiola admitted afterwards, there was not a great deal to choose between them.

“Kings of the Cup!” read a giant banner unfurled in the Bayern end a few minutes before kick-off. The Südkurve shimmered with silver flags arranged in the shape of the Champions League trophy. The branding here was clear enough: this is our turf, our territory, our competition. Yet in reality it felt like a grand old club trying to cling on to its own idea of itself, desperately trying to animate with words and motifs a mythology they can no longer sustain on the pitch.

And so in retrospect, perhaps the emblematic moment of this game – if not the tie – came only 17 minutes in, when Leroy Sané was put clean through on goal by Jamal Musiala. It had been a dominant opening by Bayern, the Allianz crowd on its feet, Thomas Tuchel twitching and waving in his technical area. But Sané put his shot wide and that was essentially Bayern’s night in microcosm: guns spiked, blades blunted, one of Europe’s most dominant attacking teams reduced to pale smoke.

For those of us reared on some of the great Bayern sides of recent years – the punches in bunches, the serial demolitions of Barcelona – the spectacle of them not scoring can be a curiously disorienting experience. Kingsley Coman whirred and whizzed away. Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting staggered around wondering what game he was in. Crosses went to nobody. For Bayern the City penalty box became a sort of weird vortex, a place where attacks go to die.

Last summer Bayern sold perhaps the world’s best striker, Robert Lewandowski. There were good blue-chip replacements on the market – Harry Kane, Ousmane Dembélé, Romelu Lukaku – but none of them realistically within Bayern’s spending structure. Bayern are not really shopping in the premium aisle any more, if they ever were. And so a cut-price deal was negotiated for Sadio Mané, with the hope that he and Choupo-Moting could cobble enough cutting edge between them to mount a challenge.

Thomas Tuchel was eventually sent to the stands after two yellow cards, and is now under pressure to make sure Bayern win the race for the Bundesliga title.
Thomas Tuchel was sent to the stands after two yellow cards, and is now under pressure to make sure Bayern win the Bundesliga title. Photograph: Ronald Wittek/EPA

And perhaps it will be enough for another Bundesliga title. But in the last decade their only Champions League – despite enjoying insuperable financial dominance and the pick of the best players and coaches in Germany – has come in the pandemic-ravaged mini-tournament of 2020. Over the two legs of this quarter-final, they generated 31 shots and zero open-play goals. What, exactly, has gone awry here?

Perhaps the real giveaway was at the other end of the pitch. Erling Haaland was once the sort of player Bayern would have deemed theirs by birthright: a young Bundesliga jewel, ripe and ready for poaching. But Haaland to Bayern was never really a serious prospect and so these days Haaland does his looting and pillaging for their opponents: throwing his weight around, scoring the decisive goal on the night, haunting the waking nightmares of Dayot Upamecano.

Upamecano was the obvious fall guy after an eclectic 180 minutes, but the origin of his troubles lay elsewhere. The reality is that if you keep letting teams such as City run at you, then things like this are going to happen a lot. The ruthless Bayern press so lovingly assembled by Hansi Flick has been flayed to ribbons. These days it takes Bayern’s front four whole eras to get back into position after an attack breaks down, leaving them essentially defending with six players. This is a team simply not working hard enough for each other, a collection of stars with no shared purpose: FC Hollywood, the sequel.

With more obvious scapegoats in the Bayern hierarchy, Tuchel will get time to sort this mess out. But restoring Bayern to the summit of European football will take a good deal more than ritual bloodletting. It will take the sort of humility that has not always been this club’s strongest suit, a realisation that this competition is no longer their home turf, that the old order of football is being upended in real time.

Instead, it is clubs such as City who are today’s establishment: imperious, institutionally secure, financially omnipotent. There is a treble there for the taking and it would be weirdly poetic if they did so by conquering Arsenal and Manchester United at home, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid and Milan in Europe: a roll-call of Europe’s legacy clubs, all bowing to the coming force.

What does the new order of European football look like? Over the next few weeks we may be about to find out.


Jonathan Liew at the Allianz Arena

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