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Welcome back, Bayern Munich crisis! How we missed you.
The perennial German champions’ hyper-intolerance of non-wins has long been a flip-side to their dominance of the Bundesliga, or some might say, one of the underlying reasons for it. Along with money, obviously.
They could never just let a second consecutive draw — a 1-1 at home to Cologne snatched with a 90th-minute equaliser from Joshua Kimmich — go, shrug their shoulders and say to themselves, “Meh. We’re still top of the league and we’ll probably win it anyway, as we have done in the 10 previous years.”
Sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic was moved to verbally “dismantle the team” after Tuesday’s match, as Bild put it, questioning their focus. “We need to understand that the championship is at stake,” the 46-year-old said angrily, “I don’t get the sense that everyone does that.”
Predictably, the former midfielder’s ire focused on Serge Gnabry, who had visited Paris Fashion Week at the weekend and documented his trip extensively on Instagram.
“That’s amateurish, mucking about somewhere on your day off — that’s precisely what Bayern Munich isn’t about,” Salihamidzic said. “A day off is supposed to be about resting, in order to go full throttle again next week.”
The 27-year-old was contrite the next day, realising it perhaps wasn’t the best look, especially in the opening week of the second half of the season with the club playing three games in eight days. But he hadn’t broken any rules and was undoubtedly singled out as a convenient scapegoat after being substituted at half-time.
You could go through the entire side and not find a single player who had played at their regular level in the opening 45 minutes, a shambolic series of misplaced passes, poor decisions and puzzling disorganisation off the ball. The visitors’ gutsy pressing and tireless work had a role to play in that too but Bayern’s rushed nothingness brought back memories of last season’s stuttering form after the winter break.
Even after they had recovered their composure and appetite in the second half, their interminably long possession sequences produced precious few clear-cut chances. It took a spectacular long-range strike from Kimmich to rescue a point. “It was a bit better (after the break) but we certainly have to talk about approach, attitude and commitment,” the Germany midfielder said.
Julian Nagelsmann’s take was a bit more generous. “We played a very good game in the second half,” the Bayern head coach said. “But two points from two games is not enough for what we want.”
As is always the case in Bavaria, a significant part of the team’s problems seem self-inflicted.
Manuel Neuer’s season-ending skiing accident and the need to squeeze his replacement Yann Sommer into the team with minimal preparation hasn’t done much for a depleted defence. Bayern’s dismissal of goalkeeping coach Toni Tapalovic — and especially its timing, three days after the season restarted — was bound to produce headlines, as was Gnabry’s sojourn in the French capital.
But such juicy topics shouldn’t distract from the fact Nagelsmann has learned important lessons from last year’s disappointing denouement.
By popular dressing-room demand, the 35-year-old has been talking a lot more with a lot more players since the winter break. He has also simplified training exercises, refrained from over-engineering his tactics and largely avoided rotation. The players, in other words, will find it hard to blame him for their two disappointing outings so far in 2023. The responsibility lies with them, as Salihamidzic underlined.
Bayern’s sporting director has been at the club long enough to understand that their position as the apex predators of German football can breed the temptation to take the odd mental siesta.
His sharp intervention was bound to add to the noise but it follows a tried-and-tested playbook.
Bayern and their readiness to go into crisis mode after every draw or two are a great case study for the “prevention paradox”. By treating every minor setback as a catastrophe, they often stave off real trouble.
If only Schalke had such issues. They were beaten 6-1 at home by RB Leipzig and even then got off lightly in the end.
“The club are looking at 17 farewell games,” Kicker wrote in recognition of their rapidly-diminishing chances of staying up. Schalke are seven points from safety but it might as well be 30, the way they were taken apart at the Veltins-Arena on Tuesday.
Schalke have lost their past four Bundesliga games (Photo: Lars Baron/Getty Images)
Leipzig, by contrast, are only four points off leaders Bayern at the midway point of the Bundesliga season, and are easily the best side in the division at the moment. And that’s without their best player, the still-injured Christopher Nkunku.
Wolfsburg are on an even better run.
Tuesday’s 5-0 destruction of Hertha Berlin — the Schalke of the German capital — was their sixth win in a row. Niko Kovac has managed to forge a squad of decent but largely unspectacular players into a functioning unit who don’t just defend really well but also attack with increasing gusto. They are the 2023 success story almost no one had on their Bundesliga bingo card.
The less said about sorry Hertha the better.
In front of future investor Josh Wander of the US-based 777 Group, the abject performance of Sandro Schwarz’s men was reminiscent of those awful pitches you get from Dragons’ Den no-hopers that are included in the show solely for comedic value. Buyers beware, though. This one is more likely to end in tears.
Borussia Dortmund, by contrast, were laughing once more.
Their game at Mainz was more balanced than Sunday’s 4-3 see-saw at home to Augsburg, but only in the sense that they defended better and created far less going forward. It needed a second late Gio Reyna goal in as many matches to secure three somewhat flattering points.
Thanks to the American’s timely interventions, Dortmund are almost back in the Champions League places.
(Top photo: Markus Gilliar – GES Sportfoto/Getty Images)