“Watch out Arsenal, we’re better than last year”, quoted Arjen Robben, Bayern’s mercurial winger ahead of their crucial clash against the Gunners in the round of sixteen of the UEFA Champions League . The Reds from Munich certainly have one of the best squads in Europe considering the depth in class and talent they pocess. Even without the arrivals of Mandzukic, Dante, Shaqiri and Martinez, the Bavarians boasted a formidable squad that had the flair, stability and creativeness that all greats teams in history have had.
When Louis Van Gaal took over the helm in 2009, he inherited a team that had a lot of creativity and talent but lacked a stable foundation and philosophy that the great Bayern Munich teams of past had. Most great clubs in history have had teams built around a core of players who form the soul of a team. Sir Alex’s Manchester United of the past decade and the current Barcelona have had a similar set-up. Van Gaal set about fashioning a core – players in whom was inbred the Bayern philosophy and way of playing. Lahm and Schweinsteiger were made leaders of this core and in came the likes of Thomas Müller, Holger Badstuber and they were followed by the likes of Toni Kroos, David Alaba , Diego Contento and Emre Can. The Dutchman and then Jupp Heynckes have over the past 2-3 years built a team around this core bringing in talent in the form of Robben , Gomez and Dante to name a few to plug gaps that the academy had failed to produce and in the process forged the Bayern Munich of today.
Turning the clock 7-8 months back, this very same squad, minus the new additions, looked down in the dumps and deflated after their Champions League finals loss to Chelsea, a game they dominated for large parts and probably deserved to win. The look on Schweinsteiger’s face after the whistle, said it all for the German giants who finished ‘bridesmaid’ in three competitions last season. The body language of the entire squad was one of deep distraught and in the middle of this disheartened bunch sat the core of the team in Lahm, Schweinsteiger and Co. This very same core also formed a major part of the German side that offered so much but were left frustrated in the semifinals of Euro 2012.
The defeat against Chelsea and being trophyless for two season has been a bitter pill to swallow and many feared that this would be the end of what could have been the beginning of a great team. But as the saying goes ‘What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger’. Bayern have come out of their past season miseries brilliantly and have definitely been one of the sides to beat this season enjoying a healthy 15 point lead at the summit of the Bundesliga and topping their group in the Champions league. Having conceded in just 7 goals and pumping in 57 in 22 games, Bayern look to be running away with the title in Germany that has been helped by playing a brand of football that can be described as eye-catching to say the least. The new arrivals have gelled in well with the Bavarian philosophy and more importantly increased the depth in talent in the roster. Confidence is on a high at the Bavarian camp and they have never looked more daunting in over a decade.
But will failure to progress in the Champions league this season create a major dent in the establishment and team that has been running smoothly like an well oiled machine this season? Will it gut the morale of the ‘core’ of Bayern Munich that has done so well to put behind them past failures and move on?
A letdown in the tournament this season could well burn a large hole in the team’s morale and create cracks in its very foundation built on the shoulders of key players like Lahm, Schweinstiger, Müller, Kroos, Badstuber and Alaba. Die Roten signaled their intentions for the future by the signing of Pep Guardiola for next season, who was so successful at Barcelona by building a team around a bunch of players who lent stability to the system. A shaky foundation can never lend stability to a structure if it has cracks within, no matter how much one spends on the assembly above it. Matthias Sammer was brought in last summer as sporting director for this exact reason and he has done a fantastic job in mending the cracks so far. He along with Heynckes and the core are going to have a tough job in hand in the next 2-3 months to ensure Bayern’s success this season and most importantly to bury the ghosts of the last season. Jupp Heynckes and his men will of course be aware of the enormous expectations that their loyal fans have when they take the trip to London and a failure at this stage will not just be disheartening to their supporters but can also effect the system as a whole as well.
Even though they seem to have the Bundesliga title in their pockets, the Champions league is what Bayern have been gunning for over the last 3-4 years and that is what they will have their eyes set on for this season. Bayern’s core have done quite well in picking themselves up this season and have led from the front in their excellent campaign so far. Their true test of resilience and character starts this Tuesday against Arsenal in the Champions league and progression and even winning the prestigious cup could pave the way for one of the greatest teams to dominate Europe.