Tactically bereft at times, and far too much depending on heavy-hitting talent, Carlo Ancelotti’s first year helming Bayern Munich was not horrible. Nor was it anything to brag about.
A Bundesliga title is the saving grace in a season where older players should have been phased out; giving the youngsters a leg up on their respective futures with the venerable club.
I should probably preface this think-piece by stating that I am absurdly pro-Pep Guardiola, and if you might not be? You probably will not be happy with anything I have to say, here on out.
It was a season of missed opportunities, not only for Bayern, but for their competition. Ancelotti has been allowed a seemingly gaudy 15 point-clearance atop the table not for anything that Munich did right, particularly, but what everyone else got wrong. Let’s absolve the rest of the Bundesliga of their mediocrity, though, and worry about what went correct. And what did not.
“Direct football” and the 4-3-3
Ancelotti’s hiring was supposed to return the team to more direct football– I am guessing à la Jupp Heynckes’ iteration, but I can not really be sure considering the result. The Italian trainer was convinced he could pound a square peg into a round hole; continuing with his beloved “la Decima” tactics through much of the Hinrunde. There was a massive problem, though.
Keeping the defense in a more reserved position made the back line detached from the rest of the unit. Under Guardiola, this would have been anathema. Through much of the first half of the season, you could painfully squirm watching the opposition have so many different paths towards Manuel Neuer’s goal.
Dump a long ball over FCB’s defensive midfield? Sure. There was a gaping hole there. Expose the wingbacks that had far too much space to cover? Why not. Beat Bayern on the counter with acres of the pitch open? Yes, do that. Only when the back four moved forward were die Roten finally able to get a sort of grip. And they still allowed the fewest goals in Europe!
I suppose I am speaking from a lofty place of privilege, but it is difficult to separate what could have been (!!!) to what was.
Man management and the Müller question
For a guy whose reputation is making players happy, Ancelotti failed. Man management is supposed to be his thing, yeah? How does one go about upsetting both of his left wings, a world-class centre-back and all of his youth?
Though the pair were oft-injured, neither Douglas Costa nor Franck Ribéry were happy with their playing time. The former will likely leave (and no, I do not think that is a good thing) while the latter– when fit, is still great(ish)– is signed until 2018. Ancelotti favoured the veteran Frenchman whenever possible, and now here we are trying to sign Alexis Sánchez.
Jérôme Boateng, with a dodgy groin problem he cannot quite shake, was left out in favor of the Mats Hummels/Javi Martinez centre-back pairing while Joshua Kimmich was left out of most things entirely. Do not even get me started on Renato Sanches…
… Just kidding! For the amount of money that Bayern splashed to get him in, Sanches was merely an afterthought when he should have been worked into the Startelf on the regular. There were plenty of opportunities, and a host of veteran talent, to allow him time to grow, learn and get accommodated. Instead, a handful of garbage time minutes, and an ill-timed start against Hoffenheim in the Rückrunde has set a very talented kid’s progress back a year.
Thomas Müller’s case is different, entirely, as he was utilized incorrectly for large swathes of the season. Not effective entirely on Bayern’s right in a 4-3-3, he would also be usurped at the ten for Thiago Alcantara in a 4-2-3-1. It is hard to argue the brilliance of Thiago versus the unexpected Muller, but Ancelotti clearly could have had them both. He largely chose not to.
You know what is amazing? Bayern’s world-class talent. You know what is not? Depending on the individual brilliance of one guy to get three points because tactics are wrong or substitutions are wrong. How many times was a match left up to the one who could pull through; be it Robert Lewandowski, Arjen Robben, Thiago or Vidal?
Those moments are bone-shakingly, shot-takingly, high-fiveingly (I made that up) incredible, mind you, but they are also not worthy of the talent of the team as a whole. As a team. Something has been lost in the transition from the smooth unit of Pep to the stunted, static display Bayern fans were afforded many times this season.
It’s hard to say goodbye
Xabi Alonso and Philipp Lahm took a lot of heat this season– legends of the game whose legs could not quite keep up with their minds anymore. Alonso never really had wheels, but his brain never lost a step, while Lahm had a rocky sort of first half, but was energized towards the end as the team solidified. (Please do not go boo-hoo-ing me over this, either, and be fair in your assessments.)
But where Alonso was a recent, lovely treat, Lahm is Bayern Munich. I have not missed a match live since the 2007-08 season, and he has always been there on my TV, or in the stadium. After the antics of Oliver Kahn, and the badassery of Mark van Bommel, I was not quite sure that Lahm as captain would be effective. While my heart went out to Bastian Schweinsteiger– a legend that wears his passion on his sleeve, his face–the quiet, confident leadership of Lahm would be a tonic to all of our hyperactive souls.
His eight-year partnership with Arjen Robben on the right is likely the most successful for a RB/RW combination in European history. They were a delight, and an honor, to watch as they devastated side after side. Though Robben was granted the advantage earlier in their careers, it grew into a symbiotic, reciprocal relationship as the years passed.
Stepping out of Bayern fandom, and into the DFB, I will always be the most sad for Fips for giving up Fernando Torres’ winner at Euro 2008. It is a trophy he deserved as much as all the trophies he has collected. Herr Lahm, you will be sorely missed.
Who needs a sporting director, anyway?
I can only say that I am happy that Lahm chose not to accept the position. Between Uli Hoeness, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Jan-Christian Dreesen, there is no room for anyone else– certainly not a non-bombastic guy like Lahm.
Hansi Flick may have been a good call, but he was wise in choosing Hoffenheim. Gladbach’s Max Eberl also chose to steer away from Bayern’s autocrats. I will still pine for Matthias Sammer, but I know that’s just a pipe dream.
Though Bayern’s big three tick all the governing boxes, there is still a sort of disconnect between the players and the club that cannot be ignored. There seems to be some conflict over how best to move the Reds forward and that resulted in an needlessly messy season behind the scenes.
Carlo Ancelotti was mostly disappointing, but I expected that. The transition from Heynckes to Guardiola was far smoother.
Bayern’s brightest stars– Lewandowski, Thiago, Robben– made the Bundesliga title possible.
The front office needs to make a clear decision on how to go forward, whether it’s splashing cash in the transfer market or promoting youth. Or both. Currently, they do neither very well.
At the end, as a lifelong supporter? The Meisterschale is always the most important trophy to win. Everything else is just extra frosting on cake. Fans may feel hard done by in Champions League competition, and there are legitimate gripes, but if you haven’t figured out, by now, that that trophy is so much more than just skill? I have nothing for you. Same goes for the Pokal, to a certain extent.
I am wholly curious to see how this summer pans out, what the team will look like next season, and if anyone has learned their lessons. I’ll start with Carlo first.