Bay­ern’s ti­tle pro­ces­sion

Bun­desliga was never in doubt for the Bavar­ian giants but Euro­pean suc­cess eludes new boss Ancelotti

World Soccer - - Euro Season Review -

Just as the vast ma­jor­ity of Bun­desliga watch­ers pre­dicted, Bay­ern Mu­nich proved the only run­ner in a one-horse race. Cham­pi­ons-elect by Christ­mas and cruis­ing to a record-break­ing fifth con­sec­u­tive ti­tle, they ended up 15 points clear of run­ners-up RB Leipzig.

Un­der new coach Carlo Ancelotti, Bay­ern were not al­ways as con­vinc­ing as they would have liked; not nearly as flu­ent, so­phis­ti­cated and flex­i­ble as they had been in the pre­vi­ous three years when Pep Guardi­ola was call­ing the shots. Yet still they were good enough to sweep all be­fore them, regis­ter­ing only two losses (1-0 de­feats at Borus­sia Dort­mund and Hof­fen­heim), win­ning 25 of their 34 games, scor­ing more than any­one else (89) and boast­ing the best rear­guard in the coun­try (22 con­ceded).

The term pro­ces­sion more or less sums up Bay­ern’s sea­son. Apart from a three-week spell in Novem­ber and De­cem­ber, when newly pro­moted RB led the dance, the Bavar­i­ans had top spot on lock down, im­pe­ri­ously co­cooned in a league of their own.

Not that Bay­ern will be en­tirely sat­is­fied with their ef­forts in 2016-17. For a club of their eco­nomic power and global stand­ing, the an­nual min­i­mum re­quire­ment tends to be two tro­phies. And in the cup com­pe­ti­tions they were to be found want­ing, knocked out at the quar­ter-fi­nal stage of the Cham­pi­ons League by Real Madrid and care­lessly los­ing to Dort­mund in the semi-fi­nal of the Ger­man Cup.

In the Bay­ern board­room opin­ions var­ied as to how they had fared. Club pres­i­dent Uli Hoe­ness, now back at the club fol­low­ing a spell in jail for tax eva­sion, opined one ti­tle was “not quite enough”, while chair­man of the board Karl-Heinz Rum­menigge took ex­cep­tion to the view that yet an­other Bun­desliga crown was merely an in­con­se­quen­tial trin­ket. “I don’t like to con­tra­dict Uli be­cause he’s a friend and a very ex­pe­ri­enced man at this club, but dur­ing his many years here as player, gen­eral man­ager and pres­i­dent, there have been times when we ended a sea­son empty-handed,” said Rum­menigge. “We must not go over­board with our as­pi­ra­tions.

“The Ger­man league ti­tle is some­thing to be proud of. There are 17 other clubs who would be de­lighted to be in our po­si­tion. We have to be

pleased with what we’ve achieved. This is no con­so­la­tion prize.”

Pick­ing up their 26th Bun­desliga ti­tle, Bay­ern might not have par­tic­u­larly shone col­lec­tively or tac­ti­cally. How­ever, they more than com­pen­sated with their vast ar­ray of in­di­vid­ual tal­ent. Play­ers of the cal­i­bre of cen­tre-back Mats Hum­mels – so im­pres­sive in his first sea­son back at his alma mater fol­low­ing an eight-year hia­tus at Dort­mund – ever-im­prov­ing play­maker Thi­ago, Chilean mid­field dy­namo Ar­turo Vi­dal and golden oldie wide-man Ar­jen Robben, who at the age of 33, en­joyed one of the most pro­duc­tive do­mes­tic cam­paigns of his ca­reer, scor­ing 13 and mak­ing an­other 12.

An­other trump card for the cham­pi­ons was Pol­ish striker Robert Le­wandowski. His 30 Bun­desliga goals ac­counted for over a third of Bay­ern’s

“We must not go over­board with our as­pi­ra­tions. The Ger­man league ti­tle is some­thing to be proud of. There are 17 other clubs who would be de­lighted to be in our po­si­tion” Bay­ern chair­man, Karl-Heinz Rum­menigge

to­tal of­fen­sive out­put and on 10 oc­ca­sions he scored two or more goals, in­clud­ing three hat-tricks. He would fin­ish the cam­paign as run­ner-up in the league scor­ing charts, just one goal adrift of Dort­mund marks­man ex­traor­di­naire Pierre-Em­er­ick Aubameyang.

The fi­nal whis­tle of the sea­son was a mo­ment for fond farewells at the Al­lianz-Arena, with out­stand­ing Basque mid­fielder Xabi Alonso and long-serv­ing skip­per Philipp Lahm both ex­it­ing af­ter stel­lar ca­reers. Lahm, in par­tic­u­lar, will leave a huge hole at Bay­ern. In­tel­li­gent, poised, skil­ful and ver­sa­tile, he of­fered world-class abil­ity, and as a lo­cal-born grad­u­ate of the club’s youth scheme he was a true stan­dard-bearer, never re­motely in­ter­ested in mov­ing else­where.

Now 33, Lahm could have con­tin­ued at the high­est level for at least an­other two or three years, but he in­sists the time was right to bow out. “When we have two or three games a week, I do feel that it takes me longer to re­cover,” he told

Stern mag­a­zine. “I can come up with the an­swers to lots of sit­u­a­tions on the pitch, though not with the same reg­u­lar­ity as be­fore.”

Ancelotti’s first sea­son in charge at Bay­ern sharply di­vided opin­ion. Some thought he made a rea­son­able fist of it, that he might have gone fur­ther in the Cham­pi­ons League if in­juries and poor ref­er­ee­ing de­ci­sions had not un­der­mined Bay­ern against Real. Oth­ers were quick to la­bel him a dis­ap­point­ment, cit­ing a string of al­leged fail­ings: a ten­dency to pre­fer old sweats over young guns, his tac­ti­cal con­ser­vatism and lip ser­vice to player dis­ci­pline.

While Bay­ern placed a premium on know-how – with an av­er­age age of 27.8 years, they were the old­est team in the league – RB Leipzig drew their strength and in­spi­ra­tion from the other end of the ex­pe­ri­ence scale. Field­ing a side made up mostly of play­ers aged 24 and un­der, they were wor­thy run­ners-up, a bril­liant mix of ut­ter fear­less­ness, un­break­able team spirit, en­ergy and light­ning-quick at­tacks. Only in early De­cem­ber did they suf­fer their first de­feat and they were es­pe­cially ef­fec­tive on the Bun­desliga road, win­ning eight.

In­tel­li­gently set up by coach Ralph Hasen­huttl, RB’s forte was their ca­pac­ity to beat the op­po­si­tion to the punch. They opened the scor­ing in 23 games, of­ten do­ing so in the first quar­ter-of-an-hour. It was a shock-and-awe modus operandi built around the drive and pass­ing range of box-to-box mid­fielder Naby Keita, as­sist-king Emil Fors­berg and strik­ing tyro Timo Werner, who in March made his full de­but for Ger­many.

For trans­form­ing Hof­fen­heim from rel­e­ga­tion can­di­dates into a top-four side, 29-year-old coach Ju­lian Nagels­mann de­serves a medal, and it says ev­ery­thing about his eye for de­tail and strate­gic flair that his team was such a well-bal­anced out­fit. While hard to beat – they did lose once in the Au­tumn Cham­pi­onship – they were also easy on the eye.

Due to have their first taste of Euro­pean ac­tion in Cham­pi­ons League elim­i­na­tors in Au­gust, Hof­fen­heim are a para­dox. So im­pres­sive in their role of elite gate­crash­ers, yet rel­a­tively un­ap­pre­ci­ated by fans in that cor­ner of south-west Ger­many. Only twice this sea­son was their ground sold out, while sup­port on their trav­els is re­stricted to a thou­sand or so diehards.

A con­stant theme of the 54th edi­tion of the Bun­desliga was achieve­ment against the odds. En­er­gised by the goalscor­ing feats of French striker An­thony Modeste, Cologne booked their first con­ti­nen­tal ren­dezvous in 25 years. El­e­va­tor club Freiburg sealed a Europa League berth, while peren­nial strug­glers Ham­burg once again dodged a rel­e­ga­tion bul­let. Else­where, Werder Bre­men coach Alexander Nouri mas­ter­minded an amaz­ing New Year turn­around, with an 11-game un­beaten run pro­pel­ling the team from the drop zone to a highly com­mend­able eighth.

Forced to re­con­fig­ure af­ter the de­par­ture in the 2016 close sea­son of key men Mats Hum­mels, Hen­rikh Mkhi­taryan and Ilkay Gun­do­gan, a young, tran­si­tional Dort­mund side ar­guably ex­ceeded ex­pec­ta­tions, fin­ish­ing a cred­itable third in the Bun­desliga, lift­ing the Ger­man Cup and reach­ing the last-eight of the Cham­pi­ons League.

Most of their prob­lems were ex­tracur­ric­u­lar in na­ture: the shame­ful sight

“But we – di­rec­tor of sport Michael Zorc and my­self – have worn our­selves out deal­ing with the coach­ing staff” Borus­sia Dort­mund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke on why coach Thomas Tuchel had to go

of BVB ul­tras at­tack­ing vis­it­ing RB Leipzig sup­port­ers in Fe­bru­ary; the one-game clo­sure of their fa­mous Sudtri­bune ter­race – pun­ish­ment for ob­jec­tion­able fan be­hav­iour at the same game – and, of course, the bomb at­tack on their team bus en route to a Cham­pi­ons League quar­ter-fi­nal first leg against Monaco.

There was a toxic caul­dron of bad blood sim­mer­ing at the West­falen­sta­dion: anony­mous play­ers leak­ing crit­i­cism of coach Thomas Tuchel to the press; Tuchel fall­ing out with chief scout Sven Mis­lin­tat; the coach at log­ger­heads with CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke – a power strug­gle for all sea­sons.

Watzke had come to the con­clu­sion that TT was not a team player and did not iden­tify with the club. Tuchel felt sore about a num­ber of re­cruit­ment is­sues and when the post­poned Monaco game was re­played just 24 hours later, ap­peared to crit­i­cise the board for their part in the de­ci­sion.

In the end, some­thing had to give and as soon as the sea­son ended, Tuchel was gone. “We had two suc­cess­ful years with Thomas Tuchel in which we reached our sport­ing goals,” wrote Watzke in an ex­plana­tory open let­ter. “But we – di­rec­tor of sport Michael Zorc and my­self – have worn our­selves out deal­ing with the coach­ing staff. As things stood, we couldn’t see any ba­sis for a suc­cess­ful part­ner­ship in the fu­ture.”

Too many sup­posed pow­er­house clubs ended up in no-man’s land or worse. Rather than make a push for the top three, a sloppy Schalke spent the en­tire cam­paign in a mid-ta­ble rut; reg­u­lar Cham­pi­ons League par­tic­i­pants Bayer Lev­erkusen went into a tail­spin, even flirt­ing with rel­e­ga­tion; while big-spenders Wolfs­burg en­dured a night­mare and were so dys­func­tional that they had to take part in the rel­e­ga­tion/pro­mo­tion play-offs, even­tu­ally se­cur­ing their top-flight sta­tus with a scrappy 2-0 ag­gre­gate vic­tory over sec­ond-tier Ein­tra­cht Braun­schweig.

Record break­ers...Bay­ern Mu­nich cel­e­brate win­ning a fifth suc­ces­sive Bun­desliga ti­tle

Strong... Hof­fen­heim’s Benjamin Hub­ner heads home against Ein­tacht Frankfurt

Farewell...Xabi Alonso has played his last game for Bay­ern

High flier...Davie Selke of RB Leipzig

Gone...Dort­mund’s Thomas Tuchel

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