Late June and early July sees the football world turn towards the international arena and the FIFA Confederations Cup, with the 2016-17 domestic season starting to recede into the background.
Not before we take one last look at FC Bayern München, and another season that promised much before petering out. Of course, such things are relative.
When one looks at the past season, we can total up the following list. One Super Cup, one Bundesliga title, a semi-final in the DFB-Pokal, and a last-eight finish in the UEFA Champions League with a defeat against the eventual winners. On any other club’s end of season ledger, this would constitute a fine return. Sit back for a moment, and imagine what any Bayer Leverkusen, Schalke 04 or VfL Wolfsburg fan would make of that. You would see their eyeteeth, placed on the table in front of you. Perhaps a right arm too.
However, this is FC Bayern München. A club whose fans were spoiled with the glorious treble in 2013, and starved of the same success – relatively speaking – since then. For the past four seasons, the team has promised much, without delivering. Again, relatively speaking.
The club’s development under Pep Guardiola did much to whet the appetite in Munich, but produced three seasons that could be described as “close, but no cigar”. When the Catalan crossed the North Sea to England to take up his next “challenge” at Manchester City, the Bavarians turned towards another one of the coaching big guns, Carlo Ancelotti. It is here where our look back at 2016-17 begins.
Could have done better
The discussion about Bayern’s coaching appointments post-2013 has continually split opinion among Bayern fans. Guardiola’s time in charge has been seen as a step up by some, and a missed opportunity by others. Similarly, the first season of the Ancelotti era has created a few divisions.
For the “Guardiolistas” out there, the Bayern class of 2016-17 would lack the structure of the three previous seasons, with a lot of the criticism turned on the coach for not getting things right in the defensive third. Players who had established themselves had become lost, while promising understudies and younger players had spent far too much time on the bench.
A lot of this is true, as fellow Bayern Centraler Susie Schaaf touches on. For a coach renowned for his man-management skills, there were a few things Ancelotti could and perhaps should have done better. The question, however, is how much better he could have done.
First up, Thomas Müller. A player who has become part of the furniture in Munich, whose deterioration in form during 2016-17 was as sudden as it was disconcerting.
It is true that Müller was often played out of position, as Ancelotti desperately tried to mould and mesh him into a new system. That being said, one cannot argue that Der Raumdeuter had clearly stumbled into the first genuine dip in his career since bursting onto the scene in 2009. It was far from a nadir for Müller as he still continued to make an impact with a healthy number of assists, but it was not the Müller we had come to love and appreciate.
One could easily point the finger at the coach, but this alone cannot explain the sudden deterioration in Müller’s confidence in front of goal, particularly his sudden inability to find the target from the penalty spot. This is not down to a coach putting you out on the wing, but an obvious dip in confidence. As well as being one of Bayern’s most reliable players, Müller has always been seen as a game changer. There was little evidence of this as the season progressed.
This argument is supported by Müller’s form for the German national team before the start of the 2016-17 season, where he was just as ineffective in an environment that was arguably more suited to him. Euro 2016 was a horrible tournament, and at no time did he ever look like he was going to find the back of the net. He even managed to miss from the penalty spot in the quarter-final shootout against Italy.
Müller’s poor form at the Euro pretty much followed him like a dark cloud for the rest of the year, and one cannot solely point the finger at the Bayern coach. It could simply be burnout, the result of playing high-pressure football with few opportunities to recharge the batteries. The hope now is that Müller can make the most of the summer break, free of international responsibilities. He is a player who will always make a difference.
Kimmich: deceptive numbers
In contrast to Müller, Joshua Kimmich did have a decent Euro 2016. It is clear that the youngster is a great talent, and his being consigned to the bench for long spells was a constant cause of annoyance for many Bayern fans.
The equation is not so simple, however. Kimmich is solid enough as a defensive midfielder, but his being shifted to the right side of the Mannschaft’s defence was a revelation. He was a natural fit in the role. The problem at Bayern, of course, was the continued presence of a player who had freed up the right-back slot in the Nationaltrikot with his retirement from international football in 2014.
So long as Philipp Lahm was fit, Kimmich had to find a place elsewhere. With both Thiago, Arturo Vidal and Xabi Alonso filling the defensive midfield and Renato Sanches also in the mix, Kimmich often had to play second fiddle. Still, the numbers are deceptive.
In all, Kimmich was on the pitch for 27 of Bayern’s 34 Bundesliga matches, racking up 1,542 minutes of playing time. This was actually more than in 2015-16, where he made 23 appearances and was on the pitch for 1,422 minutes.
Kimmich would accrue less match time in both the Champions League and DFB-Pokal, but was still called upon a dozen times. In total, he played 39 matches in all competitions, with 2,042 minutes of playing time with coming off the bench nineteen times. By way of comparison, he made 35 appearances for 2,292 minutes in 2015-16, coming off the bench eleven times. Overall, the differences are negligible and the numbers are deceptive.
For Kimmich, the best is surely yet to come. Following the recent retirement of Philipp Lahm, the youngster should be set fair to take full ownership of the right-back slot while also being an option in the defensive midfield. Problems solved, one would have thought.
Stuttering Sanches, coughing Coman and Costa
It is true that Renato Sanches did not get much air time – just 903 minutes in total, and 25 showings with eleven off the bench. But, truth be told, he did not really deliver on the pre-season promise. While the Portuguese teenager has great potential, this was hardly evident for a lot of the time. There was plenty of physicality, but not much in the way of a footballing brain. At times, the combination of these two things was painful to watch.
In much the same way, French youngster Kingsley Coman had a quiet season and Brazilian Douglas Costa was also a far cry from the free-flowing winger who had shown plenty of fleet of foot in 2015-16. Much hope had been placed in this new duo taking over from the ageing Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben, but when called up they largely failed to deliver.
Can one blame the coach for this? Perhaps, in that he seemed to show a greater desire to play the tried and tested formation rather than roll the dice with the younger duo. On the other hand, Robben proved once again that he remains indispensable when he is on form.
Perhaps more worrying was the form of David Alaba. It is fair to say that the Austrian was one of those players who expanded their skill sets under Pep Guardiola. Dynamic going forward, an excellent defensive mindset, gifted with a sharp turn of pace. Oh, and that lethal left foot too.
This season, Alaba was half that player. Going forward, he was fair to decent. Defensively, he would have looked better in a Bayer Leverkusen Trikot. There were far too many defensive lapses and brainless moments – not befitting a player of his talent.
On the plus side, there was Thiago Alcântara, who finally made the big breakthrough after some nightmare seasons blighted by injury. We all knew that the Spanish international was a class act, but finally he was able to put it together for a whole season. Carlo Ancelotti’s decision to deploy the talented defensive midfielder as more of a playmaker was inspired, and the results were phenomenal.
Quite simply, Thiago was a joy to watch.
Visitors to Bayern Central may throw out a couple of other names, but it is fair to argue that Thiago was not just the best player for Bayern this season, but the best in Germany, too.
You cannot put a good man down. Every time you think Arjen Robben might fall aside after yet another spell on the physio’s couch, he comes back even better. Had the flying Dutchman been fully fit for the entire season, the trophy cabinet might have had an extra glint.
For a player seen by many as past his prime, Robben continued to prove everybody wrong with pace, energy and passion that appear to be increasing rather than waning. He has truly knitted himself into the fabric of the club, and will continue to thrill us all with those darting runs down the right followed by that trademark cut inside.
Some critics of Ancelotti have argued that he has relied far too much on Robben, to the detriment of the younger players. Yes, there is the risk that the bald winger can break down at any moment. But while he continues to do what he does, he is the best there is.
For the second time in two seasons, Robert Lewandowski was Bayern’s shining star. A few duff outings not withstanding, the Pole was outstanding in front of goal as he was narrowly pipped in the race for the Torjägerkanone by Dortmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
The downside was that when Lewandowski was missing, the entire Bayern attack appeared to go AWOL. With the Bundesliga meeting with Dortmund already won, the striker was sent crashing by ‘keeper Roman Bürki. He would get up to sweep the resulting penalty into the net to secure a 4:1 win, but had to spend the next week being treated for a shoulder injury.
Lewandowski’s absence in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Madrid was a major loss, more so for the fact that he would have probably taken the penalty that was sent into the crowd by Arturo Vidal.
It showed that Bayern found it hard to adapt and find the right shape without Lewy. Without a dedicated backup striker on the bench, the coach found himself juggling options that were either unworkable, or having to rely on players who were either unsuited to the role or badly out of form.
The statistics bear this out, and are even more telling. In just 46 appearances, Lewandowski found the back of the net no fewer than 43 times, a staggering rate of almost a goal a game. Next in the list comes Arjen Robben, with 16 goals in 37 matches. After that, a raft of players with single-figure returns. Kimmich and Thiago with nine apiece, followed by Müller and Vidal on eight.
Looking at these numbers, it is no great surprise that Bayern struggled to score when Lewandowski was absent.
For all of the concerns about Bayern’s defence, there were few differences between 2016-17 and the previous three seasons. Ancelotti’s side conceded a total of 37 goals in 49 matches (0.75 goal conceded per match), which was not as good as in 2015-16 (33 goals in 55 matches, 0.6 gpm) but on a relative par with 2014-15 (39 goals in 51 matches, 0.76 gpm) and 2013-14 (38 goals in 52 matches, 0.73 gpm).
When one considers that the the defensive unit was riddled with injuries for most of the season, things were not that bad. Well, statistically at least. It seemed that for the whole season either Mats Hummels or Jérôme Boateng were out of action. Things were compounded in the final month when the seemingly unbreakable Manuel Neuer also succumbed to injury.
A good rest for the established campaigners will hopefully get Die Roten’s defensive polish back next season, and the acquisition of the Hoffenheim pairing of Niklas Süle and Sebastian Rudy should provide the necessary cover. With a little rotation employed to keep everybody interested.
During the course of the season, there was constant moaning in the Twittersphere that Bayern had become boring. Yes, there were a few dull matches. But no more than under Guardiola, where there were a number of snooze fests with more emphasis on pass counts and possession percentages than scoring goals.
Again, a simple analysis of the figures busts this myth. In their 49 matches in 2016-17, Bayern found the back of the net 130 times, an average of 2.65 goals per match. This can be compared pretty favourably to the return in 2015-16 (128 goals in 55 matches, 2.32 goals per match) and 2014-15 (128 goals in 51 matches, 2.51 goals per match).
Guardiola’s team of 2013-14 did manage better with 141 goals in 52 matches (2.71 goals per match), but even this cannot touch Jupp Heynckes’ record in 2012-13 – 149 goals in 52 matches at (2.86 goals per match).
So, boring Ancelotti? Maybe not.
The absence of luck
It is true that Ancelotti could have reacted faster to a number of situations at the sharp end of the season, but what really defined Bayern’s season was their lacking that little bit of luck at crucial moments. Yes, Die Roten did have some Dusel moments – apologies to any Hertha fans reading this – and they certainly rode their luck in the comeback thriller against Leipzig. However, when they really needed her to make an appearance, Lady Luck was conspicuous by her absence.
Of course, we are talking about the quarter-final defeat against Real Madrid – a team that has gone on to claim three Champions League victories in four seasons since Bayern’s last Henkelpott success in 2012-13. The absence of Robert Lewandowski, Vidal’s missed penalty and the silly red card for Javi Martínez would shape the first leg in Munich, but the horror show directed by Hungarian referee Viktor Kassai in Madrid was something unlikely to be repeated.
Ancelotti could have taken subbed Vidal out before he was sent off for making a clean challenge. Had things gone the other way, Madrid fans could have been saying the same thing about Casemiro, who lived a charmed life for the entire 120 minutes. A bad offside call against Bayern, two clearly offside goals for Madrid, their players getting away with murder and Vidal getting a red for taking the ball. No luck to be found there.
Not even a committee of Ancelotti, Heynckes, Mourinho and Guardiola could have picked Bayern out of that pickle.
Then there was the DFB-Pokal semi-final failure against Dortmund. Just a couple of weeks earlier, the same opposition had been roundly trounced 4:1. Had a couple of players not left their shooting boots at home, we would have seen a similar result. Instead, Lewy had an off day in front of goal, Die Roten were unable to kill Dortmund off, and were subjected to a horrible pair of sucker punches.
Again, no could coach could have done much about that.
Carletto the Bavarian
In previous articles, I have argued that Pep Guardiola was not the best fit at Bayern. A great coach, granted, but not a man who fitted in with the club culture in Munich. During his time on charge, I had begun to see Guardiola as a man who looked awkward with the whole thing, a man who would have preferred a slim glass of distilled unicorn tears from the plains of Outer Mongolia to a foaming Maß of wheat beer.
Carlo Ancelotti, by contrast, just seemed to slip into the mood. Effortlessly, without the bellicose shenanigans of a Louis van Gaal. The Italian looked at home in his Lederhosen, made a concerted effort to engage with the supporters, and made a genuine effort in taking in the spirit of mia san mia. Then there was his sharing his recipe for spaghetti carbonara with Bayern’s head chef Alfons Schuhbeck.
Ultimately, supporting a football team is about watching that team win. It is about results. It is also about, wherever possible, winning games with beautiful football. But at Bayern there is another layer, and this is something that only Bayern fans can understand.
In imbibing the spirit of mia san mia and making himself a part of the fabric of the club, the Italian has won a place in the heart of many Bayern fans. I do not think that I am alone in thinking this.
What comes next?
First, we all need a long summer break. If just to rid us of the residual pain that still remains of a season that was so promising for so long.
Thanks to Nationaltrainer Jogi Löw deciding to rest the senior pros, Joshua Kimmich is the only Bayern player at the upcoming Confederations Cup – though we can say three if we count the incoming Süle and Rudy.
The new signings will surely fill the defensive squad gaps that became all to apparent last season, and there is a need for a more versatile attacker. Perhaps another striker too, to provide some backup for Robert Lewandowski. Then, to complete the puzzle, the “return” of Thomas Müller. The reality is that Bayern has the squad, and all it needs is a bit of oiling and tweaking.
A little bit more luck would come in handy, too.