Are FC Bayern Champions League Contenders?
A 19 point lead in the Bundesliga, one loss and two draws since Jupp Heynckes return and a 5-0 thrashing of Beşiktaş would suggest that the record champions are real contenders in the Champions League.
Yet Bayern remains an afterthought for many analysts when discussing the favorites to win the Champions League. Is this simply a bias towards the two Spanish giants and the English sides, or is there actual substance to this analysis?
Since Jupp Heynckes return in October, Bayern has been nearly unstoppable. Through match day 23, Bayern were 19 points ahead in the Bundesliga and had won every match save two. That is good enough for the fifth best record in Bundesliga history through 23 matches.
— Maurice H. Aus S. (@thunder24mh) February 19, 2018
This is a nearly unprecedented level of success in terms of results, however closer examination may mitigate this record slightly. As mentioned previously, the Bundesliga is in a pitiful state at the moment. The top rivals are unable to keep their best players and as a result there is a lack of consistency throughout the Bundesliga.
Bayern have taken advantage of this situation largely by having better, more experienced players as well as the financial strength to fend off the player vultures. Their performances in general though have often been very uninspired and sometimes downright ugly.
Watching the VfL match, the first half against Beşiktaş, and the draw against Hertha, it is easy to see why the “experts” would be dubious of Bayern’s ability to progress in the Champions League. They were downright bad in these scenarios and these are not complete outliers this season.
Bayern have been plagued by inconsistency, especially on the defensive side of the ball. They have regularly been exposed on the counter attack, to the point that a ten man Beşiktaş were still able to create threatening opportunities. This has resulted in the Müncheners being forced to come from behind in several matches against inferior opposition such as Werder Bremen, Hoffenheim and Wolfsburg.
In addition, the midfield has at times looked like the world class group that they are and at others very pedestrian. Against Beşiktaş, Bayern struggled with the pressing they were put under and failed to gain any control in the midfield during the first half.
These struggles with the press have been a lingering issue all season. The opponents that have been able to maintain a high press for extended portions of the game have caused many problems for die Roten. This in turn has only exacerbated their problems with the counter attack.
While the team has still managed impressive statistics in terms of possession, their ability to control and dominate a game through possession has been largely negligible this season. The 76% possessions each against Wolfsburg and Hertha for instance meant very little as they did almost nothing with that possession.
The same can be said for the creativity of the attackers. While they have largely done enough to win matches, they have been overly reliant upon individual moments of brilliance rather than superior build up play.
The first goal against Schalke was one of the few examples of genuinely positive team build up this season. More often the likes of Coman or James have been required to do something spectacular in order for Bayern to break through.
While the team has obviously pulled it together enough to grind out wins for the most part, this will not be enough against the elite sides in Europe. There is however something to be said for their winning mentality.
It is no small feat to continue winning despite poor play. They have managed to beat a few of the better sides, Leipzig and Celtic away, BVB at home, they have faced in both cup competitions this season despite playing poorly.
In the Beşiktaş match, the team saw an opportunity to bury their opponent in the first leg and took it by winning 5-0. This also shows a level of relentlessness and ruthlessness that you need in order to win a competition like the Champions League.
In sports, winning and losing can both be contagious, and continuing to win shows a strength of character that bodes well going forward. It also provides a level of confidence that they should be able to maintain into the later rounds.
The obvious worry for most Bayern supporters is the lack of competition the Bundesliga is providing. Who have Bayern faced that has really pushed this team since Heynckes’ arrival? As previously stated, the Bundesliga is extremely inconsistent and the only truly challenging foes in the Champions League so far have been PSG and Beşiktaş.
Fortunately for Bayern, Beşiktaş went down to 10 men early in the game. Once this happened, it felt inevitable that Bayern would thrash the Turkish side. However, for the time that Beşiktaş were at full strength, Bayern looked extremely uncomfortable and unconvincing.
What would have happened had Vida not decided to take out Lewandowski from behind we’ll never know, but if the first 15 minutes were any indication, it would not have been a 5-0 Bayern victory. That being said, Lewandowski may have scored there given his position and perhaps the floodgates open up anyways. Regardless there is no question that Vida’s sending off changed the dynamics of the game.
That leaves the return leg against PSG in the group stage, as the only real potential benchmark of where Bayern stand against the top clubs in Europe. PSG played their best available eleven at the Allianz and were decisively beaten 3-1.
Despite the positive result, many people have labeled this as a “statement game” for the Müncheners. Because they were embarrassed in Paris, the theory is that they had to be up for this game and make it known that FC Bayern were still FC Bayern.
This is supposed to somehow diminish the result. But when it comes down to it, what is the Champions League other than a series of “statement games?” If Bayern were to win the Champions League, they would need to play six more games. That is not an excessive amount of games to “get up” for.
Bayern have the individual talent to go toe to toe with any team in Europe this season. The fitness and physical strength of the team has returned under Heynckes. Combined with the winning mentality and relentlessness discussed earlier, that makes them a formidable side.
Currently, there is not one clearly dominant European side as there has been in the past few seasons. All of the “giants” have clear weaknesses that can be exploited. Of course some of these teams have played at a consistently higher level throughout the season than Bayern, but that does not necessarily mean that they will continue to do so.
Man City, Barca, PSG, Real and Juve have all recently shown themselves to be vulnerable. Given the respective leads in their domestic leagues, apart from Serie A, there is a general lack of competition facing all of these sides. Bayern will not be alone in their quest to remain focused while having nothing to play for.
Perhaps it is even an advantage to Bayern that we have not seen them at their collective best. Jupp will know that there are areas that can be improved upon and perhaps that will be enough motivation to keep the team on an upward trajectory. Given the talent in the team, there is legitimate reason to believe that those deficiencies can be addressed in time.
While it would be foolhardy to say Bayern are the definitive favorites for the competition, they should certainly be in the mix. This team is a few adjustments away from being a legitimate contender. Having a fully fit Thiago for one will make a huge difference in stabilizing the team and addressing many of the issues discussed earlier.
While those adjustments have remained elusive thus far, Heynckes is no fool and their opposition has yet to really force the issue. The opponents that will however are just around the corner. We’ll soon find out if this team is capable of achieving what their talent suggests they are.
Bayern has the individual quality to win their sixth European title and a coach that is capable of guiding them to it. Whether they do so or not, will largely come down to their ability to pull together as a team, make the necessary adjustments and peak at the right time. A little bit of luck never hurt anyone either.