After an ultimate high came an ultimate hangover. In 1973-74, Bayern Munich not only won their third Bundesliga title in a row (and fourth in six years) but also expanded their dominance onto the continent for the first time. Less than 10 years removed from life in the second division, the burgeoning German giants took down Atletico Madrid in Brussels to win their first European Cup.
Two months later, a West German squad filled with Bayern stalwarts — including six of the team’s starters, and both goalscorers, in the final round — upset heavily favored Netherlands to win the 1974 World Cup.
A dropoff was almost inevitable in 1974-75, but this one was stark. Star Paul Breitner, long a bit of a maverick, left for Real Madrid under contentious circumstances, and prolific scorer Gerd Muller fell into a long bout of poor form by his standards: after averaging an absurd 53 goals per club season in the previous three years, he would finish with only 30. Meanwhile, important contributors like Uli Hoeness, Franz Roth and Conny Torstensson all battled injuries, Bayern won just one of 11 matches during a turgid winter stretch and manager Udo Lattek was sent packing.
They finally began to rally in March, just in time to inch past the USSR’s Ararat Yerevan and France‘s Saint-Etienne and back into the European Cup final, where they knocked off Leeds United. But their league fate was sealed: They finished 10th, behind Kickers Offenbach and Eintracht Braunschweig and 16 points back (in the two-points-for-a-win era) of champions Borussia Monchengladbach.
Conflict, distraction and hangovers have taken down champions in every sport. It stands to reason that Bayern would have been no different — repeating as champs is really difficult, after all, but in the present day, as Bayern prepare to chase after an 11th straight Bundesliga crown, it’s fair to seek reminders that typical laws of nature might still occasionally apply. Maybe they don’t.
We’re early in what seems like the most tumultuous offseason for the Rekordmeister in quite a while. Star scorer Robert Lewandowski is not only seeking an exit after eight years in Munich, but is also seemingly looking to burn every conceivable bridge on the way out. Rumors suggest that winger Serge Gnabry, far apart from the club in his contract demands, might be leaving, too. Centre-back Niklas Sule, meanwhile, has already left for Borussia Dortmund on a free transfer.
Bayern have raided Ajax for key reinforcements at right-back (Noussair Mazraoui) and in midfield (Ryan Gravenberch), and they appear close to a deal for Liverpool forward Sadio Mane. They will remain ridiculously talented in 2022-23, but after a bumpy season that saw their vulnerabilities exposed in the winter and spring — too late to threaten their league domination, but just in time to prompt a shaky Champions League quarterfinal exit — the six-time European champions and 31-time Bundesliga winners have a lot of questions to answer.
Let’s walk through some of them.
What would they lose in Lewandowski and Gnabry departures?
Three words: high-quality shots. Bayern have long been blessed with a bounty of devastating attackers, and while that won’t stop if (or when) these two leave Bavaria, Gnabry and Lewandowski were first-year manager Julian Nagelsmann’s best options in 2021-22 when it came to both setting up and attempting particularly high-quality looks.
In last week’s discussion about “big shots” — shots worth 0.3 expected goals (xG) or more — Lewandowski was the top name on the continent, creating 41 such shots in league play, easily the most in Europe’s Big Five leagues. (His 23 such goals were also first.) His pressing has dropped off a bit as he has approached his mid-30s, but when it comes to the craft of scoring, no one is more consistent.
Along these same lines, few players complete as many “big passes” as Gnabry. Looking specifically at completed passes worth at least 0.2 expected assists (xA), Gnabry and Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold were tied for first in the Big Five with 15. That only two actual assists came from Gnabry’s completions was rather bad luck, especially considering eight of the passes went to the clinical Lewandowski.
Again, Bayern won’t suddenly lack high-quality passing if these two leave. Thomas Muller completed 13 “big passes” in league play and led the Big Five in actual assists (18), while Leroy Sane had seven “big passes” and seven assists. Joshua Kimmich is a creative force, and 19-year-old Jamal Musiala could soon become one. Still, even if they make great moves in response to this potential loss — here’s where I mention Mane had the second-most “big shots” in the Premier League — that’s a lot to lose. Which explains why Bayern officials continue to insist that Lewandowski remains under contract for one more year and that they won’t entertain suggestions of a transfer unless they feel comfortable with who they have as a replacement.*
(*That also might be why Lewandowski has been so insistent and dramatic in his recent public remarks. He knows how stubborn Bayern can be, and he wants to make a return as unpalatable as possible. Of course, his primary suitor, Barcelona, still have to make the money work for such a move, too.)
What do the newcomers (real and rumored) bring to the table?
While future needs could indeed come about with Lewandowski’s and/or Gnabry’s departures, Bayern quickly moved to address the needs that emerged in 2021-22.
Kimmich and Leon Goretzka are both vital members of the Bayern midfield, and both missed extensive time — Kimmich because of fitness issues following a particularly bad COVID-19 case, Goretzka because of a hip issue. Bayern played 47 matches in all competitions, but Kimmich and Goretzka were both on the pitch for only 22 of them. Corentin Tolisso showed flashes of solid form but missed extensive patches of the season to injury as well, while Marcel Sabitzer never really got going in his first season at the club.
Enter Gravenberch. The 20-year-old has proved strong in terms of basic interventions (interceptions, tackles, etc.), and he was brilliant in buildup play for a brilliant buildup team. He owned Eredivisie midfields, winning 66% of his duels and 77% of his aerials in the middle third and completing 89% of his passes to someone in the middle third. He made his national team debut at age 18 and has already made 10 appearances. With Tolisso leaving and Sabitzer’s status uncertain, Gravenberch becomes both the deputy for Kimmich and Goretzka and a huge piece of Bayern’s future.
The other primary need Bayern showed during the season came down the right touchline. Longtime right-back Benjamin Pavard began to thrive as a centre-back in a three-at-the-back structure, but Bayern struggled at times with natural width — especially in the midfield, where anyone from Kimmich or Goretzka to one of many centre-backs (Pavard, Lucas Hernandez or Sule) might end up with most of the touches.
If Gravenberch is a good fit, it appears at first glance that fellow Ajax product Mazraoui is a spectacular one. The lanky 24-year-old was the Joao Cancelo of the Eredivisie, contributing heavily in both attack and defense. He won 59% of his duels in league play, completing 83% of his passes in the attacking third and creating 1.4 chances per 90 minutes, well above average for a right-back. Perhaps more encouragingly, those numbers were also steady in Champions League play (57%, 88% and 1.4, respectively).
Mazraoui has dealt with an almost Christian Pulisic-like variety of injuries through the years — random knocks, an eye injury, plus thigh, foot, knee and ankle problems — and has topped 3,000 minutes in all competitions just once in the past four seasons. In theory, Bayern can still go with the “by-committee approach” for width on the right if he’s out, but his presence could make a massive difference.
There is great balance to a lineup with Hernandez, Dayot Upamecano and Pavard at the back; Goretzka and Kimmich in the middle; Mazraoui and Alphonso Davies wide; and whichever combination of solid attackers up front, even if that requires a decent amount of luck in keeping them all fit.
Then there’s Mane. If Bayern are able to complete their long-rumored deal for the 30-year-old, it would certainly go a long way toward filling the impending Lewandowski-and-Gnabry void. Liverpool used him as both a left winger and centre-forward at times in 2021-22, and he produced in both roles. Among Premier League attackers, he finished the season with the third-most touches in the opponent’s box, the fifth-most shots in the box and the fifth-most first-time shots. And he did this all despite sharing attacking duties with Golden Boot winner Mohamed Salah (not to mention Diogo Jota, Luis Diaz and Roberto Firmino).
Like the 33-year old Lewandowski, Mane is not as much of a pressing presence anymore, but he’s coming off maybe his most impressive attacking season. The only other Premier League players who combined at least 15 goals and 40 chances created: Salah, Jota, Manchester City‘s Kevin De Bruyne and Tottenham Hotspur‘s Son Heung-Min and Harry Kane.
That’s elite company, and now, he could be coming to a more attacker-friendly league.
No centre-forward in the world could single-handedly replace Lewandowski’s production if he departs, but Mane could replicate a good chunk of those numbers. If Bayern don’t sign another attacker, it would put pressure on players like Sane (all competitions: 14 goals and 14 assists among 74 chances created), the oft-injured Kingsley Coman (eight/five/51) and Musiala (eight/five/36) to raise their respective games a bit. But they’re capable of doing it.
What went wrong last year (when something actually went wrong)?
Really, two results made Nagelsmann’s first season in charge feel more disappointing than it actually was.
Bayern did win the league by eight points despite massive injury issues, after all, and they did outscore Champions League opponents by a combined 31-7 over 10 matches. They finished the season third in FiveThirtyEight’s SPI ratings, far closer to the top two (Manchester City and Liverpool) than the rest of the field.
Still, those two results were jarring. Their 5-0 loss to Borussia Monchengladbach in the second round of the DFB-Pokal was a shocking blowout in the middle of an otherwise excellent run of form: In their two matches before and after this game, they beat four top-half-of-the-table German teams by a combined 16-4. And their 2-1 aggregate loss to Villarreal in the Champions League quarterfinals denied us a tantalizing date with Liverpool in the semifinals.
The attack had fallen into a bit of a funk around the time of the Villarreal loss — they scored either zero or one goals in six of eight matches between Feb. 26 and April 12 — but Bayern still finished a distant first in the goals-friendly Bundesliga in goals scored, xG generated and shots per possession. While Villarreal prevented them from finding almost any particularly high-quality looks, that wasn’t exactly a season-long issue either: They were third in the league with 13% of their shots generating at least 0.3 xG.
We could nitpick a bit that only 56% of their shot attempts came from inside the defensive box (sixth in the league), or that their average post-shot xG for shots on target (0.34) ranked fifth. They were a bit better at shot quantity than quality this season — Mane could help quite a bit in that regard — but they were as prolific as ever over the course of the season.
Gab Marcotti warns Robert Lewandowski that forcing his way out of Bayern Munich will prove difficult.
The blowout to Gladbach was a bit more indicative of real issues, but only so much. Bayern allowed by far the fewest shot attempts in the league — as tends to be the case with teams that possess the ball 65% of the time — but they ranked seventh in xG allowed per shot, eighth in percentage of opponent shots allowed in the box and ninth in save percentage. They righted some of their issues in transition defense compared to 2020-21, but they still gave opponents more decent looks than Nagelsmann would have preferred.
Perhaps some issues would have been expected with (a) a first-year manager, (b) a first-year starter at centre-back (Upamecano, attempting to fill a void left by the departed David Alaba) and (c) midfield injury troubles, but it was an occasional issue all the same.
Do they have an actual Bundesliga challenger to worry about?
While Bayern have often fielded one of the two to three best teams in Europe, we’ve seen even weaker Bayern teams win the Bundesliga due to the lack of a genuine challenger. Dortmund have always seemed to fall victim to the wrong injury (or overall flaw) at just the wrong time, emerging power RB Leipzig haven’t put together a genuine, 34-match run at the champs just yet, and none of the other potential German heavyweights has manage to both get and keep their act together over the long haul.
It’s at least possible that changes in 2022-23. We’ll talk about this more in depth when we’re closer to the season — as it becomes more clear whether RBL can hold on to star Christopher Nkunku, whether Bayer Leverkusen can keep Patrik Schick and Moussa Diaby, etc. — but as things stand, BVB, RBL and Leverkusen could all present interesting challenges.
Borussia Dortmund lost star Erling Haaland to Manchester City, but they already got used to playing without him during an injury-plagued 2021-22. With that windfall, they added the most recent star attacker from FC Salzburg in Karim Adeyemi, and while their defense desperately needed an upgrade, they potentially provided just that in adding Sule and SC Freiburg star Nico Schlotterbeck. They are looking for another attacker, and if United States standout Giovanni Reyna can finally return to full strength after a year beset by hamstring issues, it would be like adding yet another star attacker to the fold. They could end up with better depth in key areas than they’ve had in quite a while.
After a miserable start that saw them eliminated early from both Bundesliga and Champions League contention, RB Leipzig topped the table in the second half of the season as new manager Domenico Tedesco shored up the defense and Nkunku continued to produce magic. If they hold onto Nkunku and simply maintain that second-half form from start to finish, they’re potential contenders.
Under first-year coach Gerardo Seoane, maybe the most interesting young(ish, he’s 43) manager in the league, Bayer Leverkusen uncovered a tantalizing combination of sturdy defensive potential — they ranked 11th in shots allowed per possession, but only 6% of those were “big shots,” fewest in the league — and spectacular transition play. They averaged 0.9 goals per match in transition possessions (what I define as possessions lasting 20 or fewer seconds that start outside of the attacking third) and allowed only 0.3; both marks were the best in the league. Generally, whoever owns transitions in Germany puts a big point total on the board, and that will only be amplified once Florian Wirtz returns from his ACL injury and turns the Schick-Diaby duo back into a power trio.
Again, we’ll see if these challengers can hold on to all of their key pieces in the next couple of months, but Bayern’s choice to raid Ajax instead of a domestic rival (as has happened countless times through the years) was certainly unique and helpful.
Bayern indeed finished 10th in 1975 after three straight Bundesliga titles. They finished 10th again in 1992 on the heels of seven straight top-two finishes (with five titles). Another run of three straight titles ended in 2002. A run of four straight top-twos ended in 2007, and the club only (“only”) won two of the next six titles.
Streaks end. Even though Bayern have become the first club among Europe’s Big Five leagues to win 10 straight league titles and will undoubtedly be one of the continent’s better teams again this coming year, there’s just enough uncertainty on the horizon to create at least a little bit of doubt at the thought of an 11th straight crown.