Friday, 24 January 2014

Why The Bundesliga Is Already Over

With the Bundesliga about to return from a four week break you’d be hard-pressed to find a single person who believes that Bayern won’t again be champions.  And if this wasn’t bad enough they’ve managed to already destroy next year’s league by announcing the signing of Dortmund’s Robert Lewandowski on a free at the end of this season.  The continued dominance of the Wintermeister (winter champions) is predicted by everyone and has now gotten to the point where serious questions are being asked about how much this is harming the league.

Bayern are back to their old ways, buying up their closest challengers best players whether they want them to or not.  Putting ‘strengthen yourself, weaken your rivals’ into practice as often as possible.  They’re back to behaving like 90s era Vince McMahon, buying everyone else’s talent with the express aim of ruining their challengers.  In Germany in the last couple of years they’ve gone from being a more attractive option for a player looking to get paid and win titles to the only option.  Next year’s title is as good as their already.

Don’t believe me?  Look at the evidence.  They’ve lost one game in the Bundesliga in a season and a half.  They’ve already had their two hardest games this season (Dortmund away and Leverkusen away) and came away with four points from them.  Before this season started Bayern had already taken Mario Gotze, Dortmund’s beating heart, the player they’d attributed more hope to than any other.  Now they’ve signed Lewandowski, just the kind of strong, technical, mobile and prolific striker needed to make Dortmund’s formation work and the player that will probably prove harder to replace than any other.  Given that last season with both players in their team Dortmund finished 26 points behind them it’s hard to imagine them turning it around by next year.

Dortmund of course were the team meant to stop this from happening.  That they’ve become a spent force already is the surprising thing.  After the shock of having Gotze smuggled away to Bavaria against their wishes they had a great close season.  They signed players that seemed to fit their template and system and integrated them well.  They kept the rest of their coveted players for at least one more season.  They had the best start to a season in their history.  And then they ran themselves into the ground.  One theory doing the rounds is that Jurgen Klopp’s hard pressing style (the first stat he checks for after the match is if his team has run further than the opposition) is to blame for the amount of injuries they’ve had to contend with.  What’s clear is that unlike Bayern they don’t have the squad to cope, especially now as an established Champion’s League contender.  With both first choice elevens out they would run Bayern close.  This season they played them with an entire back four absent and lost 0-3.  Seeing if they’ve managed to recuperate after the physical and mental break winter has given them will be fascinating.

This applies to Klopp as much as the players.  In recent months he’s looked like he might be undergoing a slow burn mental breakdown as the boys from Bavaria delight in seeing how far they can push him before he snaps.  At the minute he’s starting to look like Michael Douglas halfway through Falling Down, after abandoning his car in traffic and just before a Korean shopkeeper asks him to pay over the odds for a can of coke.  You fear for fourth officials if things don’t turn around soon.  Arresting the slide permanently rests on him performing another close season rescue job.  Losing Lewandowski is their customary one star player a year.  Any more are tempted away and the improbable really will become impossible.

Leverkusen must be worried.  The last time they had a team this decent Bayern promptly nicked their two best players (Michael Ballack and Ze Roberto from the legendary runners up team of 2001-02).  This vintage is improving faster than most would have expected but in truth are still some distance off living with Bayern.  Outside of a period of 90s era self-destruction it’s hard to see anyone unseating them.

The league wide headshaking over the extent of Bayern’s dominance has come just as the Bundesliga was finally ready for their big world tour.  Driving up undervalued overseas rights is the next logical step for a league on the up.  For this Bayern are both its biggest strength and weakness, especially when the Bundesliga is so associated with a level playing field.  Yes you can see the best team in Europe play weekly but as an overseas fan with no affinity to any club why would you bother watching a league where only one team would win?  Even in Spain there are two (three now with Atletico, a pointer to the kind of drive and luck with injuries that will be needed to even challenge).  The problem is as much about perception as anything.  Once everyone assumes that only one team can win it then that’s as much of a problem as it actually happening.

None of this is Bayern’s concern of course.  They would argue, quite rightly, that their success and profile brings attention outside Germany to a league that needs it.  And if we have anyone to blame for Bayern’s current excellence it’s Dortmund.  It was their two titles that drove Bayern to add their pressing and teamwork to their already formidable individual talents.  It’s the responsibility of the rest of the league to raise their efforts to reach up to Bayern, not to debate ways of trying to bring them down.  The question over whether any of them realistically can challenge Bayern long term mainly boils down to resources.  Financial fair play or not, when your richest club (Bayern) have twice the budget of the second richest (Dortmund) they’re likely to pull ahead of the rest.

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