FC Bayern – winning the championship but losing much else

Georg Separator June 3, 2023

FC Bayern become German champions for the 11th time in a row

In Dortmund, the Borsigplatz was cordoned off, Dortmund’s championship celebration planned. So was FC Bayern’s new start. Then football happened. Mainz took an early lead in Dortmund, Bayern only had to win in Cologne to retain the title after all.

At first Bayern did what they did too often this season: Causing penalties and squandering leads. Ljubičić scored to make it 1-1, Dortmund were ahead in the live standings.

But FC Bayern is FC Bayern. Onwards, always onwards. And so came the 89th minute. Schwäbe saves against Sané, Cologne try to clear their lines, Kimmich intercepts the ball, via the left side the ball comes to Gnabry, who gives it to Musiala. In one fluent, continuous motion Musiala receives the ball, swivels around his opponent, and with a precise shot places the ball in the far corner. Goal. Cheers. Champions.

FC Bayern’s sporting rollercoaster ride

Good first half of the season

FC Bayern’s season got off to a good start even before the first matchday. The transfer window of the record champions was unanimously praised almost everywhere. Through the sales of Lewandowski Nianzou, Roca, Chris and Omar Richards, Zirkzee, Mai and Früchtl, FC Bayern took in over €100 million. Lewandowski meant an immense loss in sporting terms, but €45 million for an almost 34-year-old should make the departure bearable. Especially since FC Bayern had already reinvested the transfer fee. Mané, de Ligt, Tel, Gravenberch and Mazraoui came for a total of €137 million.

The start of the season proper was also perfect, with five wins in the first six games. 26 goals scored in six games whetted the appetite for more. Lewandowski was forgotten. The new fluid offense with Mané, Musiala, Müller and Gnabry clicked right away.

Julian Nagelsmann seemed to have overcome the disappointing second half of the 2022 season and the new FC Bayern seemed to be playing close to Nagelsmann’s ideal. Hasan Salihamidžić could also be satisfied. And the club with him. So satisfied, in fact, that his contract as sporting director, which was set to expire in 2023, was extended until 2026.

Mané, one of the two top transfers, convinced in the first half of the season with consistency and scored 11 goals until the World Cup break. The second big transfer, de Ligt, needed time to settle in, but also showed from the start that he would be worth the transfer fee.

Choupo-Moting’s goals were one of the things that helped Bayern out of a small results crisis at the beginning of autumn. FC Bayern went into the long winter break at the top of the table and with a spotless Champions League record.

Second half of the season crash with a happy ending in the Bundesliga

A devastatingly long winter break for FC Bayern, as it turned out. Mané got injured before the World Cup, Neuer afterwards.

With three draws, FC Bayern came out of the break way below expectations. It was to be a portent for the rest of the season. In the calendar year table for 2023, FC Bayern is only in third place behind Dortmund and Leipzig.

Coach Julian Nagelsmann had to leave after a defeat in Leverkusen and the loss of the 1st place in the standings. He was succeeded by Thomas Tuchel. His mixed debut at FC Bayern manifested itself in two quarter-final exits in the DFB-Pokal and the Champions League.

Large parts of the team failed to get going after the World Cup. Sadio Mané and Leon Goretzka were out of form for the entire second half of the season. Serge Gnabry and Leroy Sané were also weak. Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, who had been so important in the first half of the season, was often absent due to injury. Shooting star Jamal Musiala was unable to build on his outstanding first half of the season. Thomas Müller had to make room for others time and again. Dayot Upamecano made too many mistakes. Alphonso Davies oscillated between injury and a crisis of form. Yann Sommer could not recommend himself as a serious challenger for Neuer. Noussair Mazraoui, Ryan Gravenberch and Mathys Tel struggled for playing minutes.

The few bright spots in the squad included a steady Benjamin Pavard and Matthijs de Ligt, whose flying saves feet first are among the highlights of the second half of the season. Kingsley Coman was the most consistent winger, but his perennial shortcoming of making too few scorer points stuck with him in the Rückrunde as well. João Cancelo recommended himself for a permanent contract. Joshua Kimmich performed well individually, but failed to pull the team out of its hole as a leader.

The 2-1 win in Cologne was emblematic of the season: lead squandered, poorly played, but it’s still Bayern, and the individual class is enough most of the time.

Celebrating and appreciating the championship

The players and fans were clearly happy about the unexpected championship. FC Bayern have often been convincing and dominant in the last decade.

This season, it was a new quality that led to the title: controlled crashing.

The club and the team did not quite implode in the end, although it looked that way at times. After all, six wins from nine league games under Tuchel were enough to put them level on points with Dortmund.

That the goal ratio, of all things, was the deciding factor thanks to 92 goals scored is one of those punchlines that also show that seemingly simple answers (“striker missing”) perhaps fall short after all.

Juventus dominated Serie A with nine titles in a row before finishing fourth twice recently. This season, they are likely to finish in a similar position. Paris Saint-Germain dominate the French league financially at least in the same way that FC Bayern dominate the German league. Paris has lost the title twice in the past eleven years.

Financial power and Dortmund’s blunder aside, this championship is a special one, one that impresses in its very own way, also and especially because of the side noises. We can take our hats off to this team and congratulate them on this success.

What remains of the day?

Lack of clarity about squad strength

Had Nagelsmann already got the most out of the squad? How much responsibility does Tuchel bear? How good is this squad anyway? Is FC Bayern still one of Europe’s top teams or were mistakes made in squad planning and FC Bayern will rather have eat humble pie and focus on rebuilding in the next few years?

The current perception seems clear: The balance sheet shows the worst Bundesliga season in terms of points since 2011, in the Champions League FC Bayern have been waiting for a semi-final appearance since the 2020 title, and the team was shown its limits against Manchester City.

The team lacks a centre forward and an (anchor) six. In addition, there are reasons to assume that the hierarchy in the team has become lopsided. Lewandowski and Alaba are gone, Neuer was injured for a long time, Müller’s role has become smaller. In terms of playing time, he only finished tenth in 2022/23, after finishing second the previous year.

But the situation is not that clear-cut. Manchester City were in a class of their own on both days. But which other team in Europe is ahead of FC Bayern? Liverpool FC Haas just missed out on the Champions League, Real Madrid has clearly been beaten in LaLiga and looked even worse against Manchester City than FC Bayern. The Spanish champions from Barcelona, on the other hand, bowed out of Europe early. Chelsea and Manchester United continue to outdo each other in getting as little product as possible out of their resources.

In the Champions League, FC Bayern clearly left FC Barcelona and Inter Milan, the eventual finalists, behind them in the group stage, followed by two convincing victories over the Parisian star ensemble in the round of 16.

FC Bayern scored 2.7 goals per game. That is the best value in the big five European leagues. Even Manchester City’s brilliant attack, featuring Erling Haaland, only scores 2.5 goals per game. All the other teams follow at a considerable distance. So FC Bayern’s offensive setup in particular cannot have been completely haphazard. The thesis that it was a clear mistake not to buy a new centre forward is not supported by these figures.

The squad also has at least one foundation on which Hasan Salihamidžić’s successor can build. If Jamal Musiala succeeds Thomas Müller, only Manuel Neuer remains from the 2013 team. Besides Musiala, de Ligt, Kimmich, Davies, Coman could be cornerstones of a top international team for years to come.

Only the future will show whether FC Bayern 2023 is a top team going through a weak phase or a top team trending down. Both are conceivable at the present time. The club seems tombe at a crossroads.

Return of FC Hollywood

FC Bayern’s sporting crisis went along with a resurgence of FC Hollywood.

Starting with Manuel Neuer’s injury, which also led to the separation from goalkeeper coach Toni Tapalović, to Serge Gnabry’s trip to the Paris Fashion Week and the dispute between Mané and Sané, tabloid topics increasingly dominated the coverage of the club.

Leaked information about the dismissals of Nagelsmann and, more recently, Kahn and Salihamidžić contribute to this picture, as does the generally unfortunate communication.

Open leadership questions

Jan-Christian Dreesen immediately succeeds Oliver Kahn and has the chance to restore peace to the club. As an acting board member, he should be a “plug and play” solution.

The situation is different in the sporting director position. A successor for Hasan Salihamidžić is still being sought. A lot of work is waiting for the transfer department. Cancelo’s loan expires. The future of Pavard and Hernández is unclear. FC Bayern are planning to sign a centre forward. Wish lists have probably already been drawn up, players evaluated and talks held. A vacancy in the role for too long could jeopardise transfers or lead to strategically important transfers being made before a new sporting director is in place. Neither of these are desirable scenarios.

So far, the supervisory board has survived without any personnel changes. Rightly so? The role of the board also seems questionable, at least in parts. No one cuts a good figure in the separation from Oliver Kahn. The separation from Hasan Salihamidžić was relatively harmonious. But the supervisory board does not appear to be stringent in this matter. Salihamidžić’s contract was only extended by three years at the end of last August. Hainer effusively praised the Bosnian for his work so far and especially for the 2022 transfer summer. Is one season – without question a disappointing one, for which Salihamidžić bears a large share of the responsibility – enough to revise the previously very positive verdict of five years? Or was the contract extension in August already a misjudgement by the supervisory board? Or were the hirings of Kahn and Salihamidžić already the real mistakes?

After the dismissals of Kahn and Salihamidžić, Uli Hoeneß’ philosophy of filling the club management primarily with ex-Bayern players can no longer remain the supreme doctrine at FC Bayern.

»Eier, wir brauchen Eier!«

— Oliver Kahn

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