The last time we had an international break, FC Bayern München were still coming to terms with their traumatic early season coaching change. Just over a month later, it is like all of those problems had never happened. We are all starting to bask in the warm red Osram glow.
When Carlo Ancelotti was dismissed at the end of September, Bayern were “in crisis”. Five points off the lead in the Bundesliga, and reeling from a catastrophic 3:0 hiding in Paris. Just over a month later, there has been a complete turnaround.
Sweeping the decks
With the Bundesliga going into a short recess for the final international break of 2017, Die Roten are now a comfortable four points clear of their nearest rivals. They have booked their place in the last sixteen of the Champions League with two matches to spare, and are still ticking in the DFB Pokal too.
When Jupp Heynckes returned to Munich, expectations differed. While some expected things to be like 2013, most Bayern supporters adopted a more sober approach. Simply, one of control and consolidation. Getting things back upright and back in order. Sweeping the decks, but with a calm and orderly approach.
This has largely been achieved.
I say “largely”, because even now some people are not entirely happy. Yes, Bayern have been a little lucky and at times unconvincing. A scrappy, scratchy and stale 1:0 win against Hamburger SV. A tough cup win over a ten-man RB Leipzig, where the referee took centre stage; a somewhat fortunate win by the odd goal in three against a spirited Celtic side.
Are you not entertained?
Things could have toppled over in Leipzig. But they did not. It could have all come unstuck in Glasgow. But it did not. The main boxes have been ticked, and this is what we should be concerning ourselves with right now. Bayern are back on top of the league table, are through to the third round of the domestic cup, and will be playing Champions League football after the winter break.
Is there still room for improvement? Absolutely. The team is far from the swashbuckling Bayern of old, but we have plenty of time for that.
In grinding out these tough wins, the team have given themselves the opportunity to up the ante further down the line. When I read some of the more critical comments after the Celtic match, I was immediately reminded of a scene from the film Gladiator. Having slain his opponents, the hero Maximus Decimus Meridius senses a distinct lack of enthusiasm from the arena. He hurls his gladius into the discontented crowd, before turning on them.
The situation was much the same for FC Bayern after the Celtic match. They had managed to deal with a team that had spent the entire ninety minutes biting at their ankles, but for some it was not enough. Die Roten had been far from convincing, and had failed to entertain.
In Gladiator, Maximus is told that he needs to win the crowd. Against Borussia Dortmund, Die Roten had the perfect opportunity to do just that and silence any remaining critics. It was a genuine gladitorial contest, at one of the biggest and most intimidating arenas of them all. Against Peter Bosz’s Barbarian hordes.
In what was one of the most exciting matches of the season so far, Heynckes and his men delivered. And how. While it is fair to say that Dortmund have not been in great form of late, it is still Dortmund. A proud team, playing in front of a loud and proud crowd. But Bayern had the weaponry. They had the skill. They also had that little bit of luck.
The yellow and black beast was slayed, and with plenty of style, too.
Injury problems meant that Heynckes could not pick the team he wanted, but those who were fit stepped up to the plate. Arjen Robben, who continues to keep his advancing years at bay. James Rodríguez, showing that he clearly has a part to play. Robert Lewandowski, clinical as always against his former team. Then, goalkeeper Sven Ulreich, who continues to improve with every match. Once a blob, now a brick wall.
I have said it before and will say it again. At the end of September, all sorts of lurid predictions were being made. It was going to be like 2011 again. Dortmund were away and clear, and the title was theirs to lose. The wheels were coming off in Munich. Robert Lewandowski was waxing lyrical about Real Madrid. Jürgen Klinsmann was poised to return to the Säbener Straße, along with his army of healers, nutritionists and yoga gurus.
OK, the last bit was a joke.
Munich moon mission
As soon as Heynckes returned and switched the lights back on, I likened his first mission to sending a landing craft to the moon. First, the launch. Then, the jettisoning of the three booster rockets. Finally, the landing.
The launch, of course, was the 5:0 demolition of SC Freiburg. Success. Then, the first booster release phase. Hamburg, Celtic and the cup tie against Leipzig. A brief “Houston, we have a problem” moment against the feisty fizzy pop mob, but again success. After that, the second booster. Leipzig, Celtic, Dortmund. Three wins from three. Again, success.
After the international break comes the final booster release, and what should be a calm and smooth drift to the final destination. FC Augsburg, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Hannover 96, Eintracht Frankfurt, 1. FC Köln and VfB Stuttgart. In all fairness, not the most testing opposition. Add to that the two remaining Champions League ties against Anderlecht and PSG, which will be less concerning than they might otherwise have been.
Should the Bavarians negotiate this third phase and execute the perfect landing in Stuttgart in mid-December, they could be sitting ten points clear of the chasing pack before the season goes into its annual hibernation. Who would have entertained such thoughts even a month ago?
It is not just Dortmund that have fallen away. TSG Hoffenheim, following their victory over Bayern earlier in the season, had also been lined up as a possible threat to the Bavarian hegemony. Where are they now? Just about inside the top ten, out of the DFB Pokal and on the brink of Europa League elimination.
Curiously enough, the media gossip about much-fêted Hoffe coach Julian Nagelsmann has also piped down somewhat. A mystery, indeed.
Things are looking good. The corner has been turned, and the turmoil following Ancelotti’s departure is long behind us. But the key is still consolidation and accumulation. To remain confident without expecting too much. To be satisfied with getting the right results, while waiting patiently for the team to slip into a higher gear. Which will surely happen.
The task right now is to achieve that smooth landing. Then, we can start thinking about what recalibration needs to be done ahead of the return journey. While the big issues appear to have been fixed, getting things just right remains an ongoing process. Many more tweaks will be needed.
There has been much talk about a replacement striker, and various names have been thrown about. We have just over a month until the end of the Hinrunde, and I have decided to ignore all of the gossip. The best time for any discussion will be during the Winterpause; until then, we have what we have and should let the coach do what he needs to do right now.
In Jupp we trust.