Bayern’s title procession
Bundesliga was never in doubt for the Bavarian giants but European success eludes new boss Ancelotti
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