Sports

Why Bayern Munich Is Steamrolling Europe’s Soccer Titans

The German juggernaut has been very good for years. But not like this.

Lewandowki yelling in celebration on the pitch at Pavard as Pavard approaches him
Robert Lewandowski of Bayern celebrates with teammate Benjamin Pavard after scoring his team’s second goal during their Bundesliga match against VfB Stuttgart at Mercedes-Benz Arena on Nov. 28, in Stuttgart, Germany. Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Nothing should be this easy in 2020.

Thirteen months ago, Bayern Munich—champions of Germany, champions of Europe, winners of 15 straight Champions League games before a team of its second-stringers drew at Atlético Madrid Tuesday—was in what passes for crisis among the best European super clubs. The team had lost its second game of the 2019-2020 season on Nov. 2, a 5-1 thrashing at the hands of Eintracht Frankfurt that dropped Bayern to fourth place in the Bundesliga. It was early, there was plenty of time, and it was still the halcyon days of late 2019—but something wasn’t clicking. It was clear the team wasn’t playing its best.

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Bayern fired manager Niko Kovac the next day and elevated assistant coach Hansi Flick to the position of interim manager. Flick was a longtime German national team assistant who had joined Bayern in the same role only months before. At the time, his highest head coaching experience was in a third-tier regional league. There was a sense that the more interim his tenure could be, the better. That sentiment only heightened when Flick lost two of his first four games in charge.

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And then, all of a sudden, no one stood a chance. From that point until the end of the season—mid-December through late-August—Bayern did not lose a single game, not just in Germany but in any competition. The team only drew one time, in February. It rolled through everyone it faced, despite the pandemic and all its ensuing medical, logistical, and financial challenges. Bayern scored three or more goals in 12 of its 20 remaining domestic games. It beat Chelsea 7-1 over two matches and Barcelona 8-2 in a single game. Star striker Robert Lewandowski scored 55 goals in 47 games. Flick came in like an overqualified IT guy, rooted around amid the wires for a bit until he found the button labeled “unbeatable juggernaut,” and pressed it.

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There was no revolution, no new signing that unlocked the roster’s potential, no major shake-up of the lineup. Flick’s tactical changes—more pressing, more emphasis on width and creative overloading of one zone or another—were smart but hardly groundbreaking. And because it looked so easy, there was nothing to grab onto, little to serve as a narrative hook. Bayern’s dominance was routine, even though it had been turned up to 11. An awe-inspiring achievement had been rendered into something kind of boring.

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It was more interesting to talk about the high-octane, low-budget games of Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta or Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds than Bayern, the same way that mad scientists and lone geniuses are more interesting than big corporate labs. Bayern is supposed to be good, so the fact that it has been way better than good doesn’t register in the way it should. This is why some people argue that you can’t tell a good story about Superman, because everything’s too effortless for him. He’s only threatened by the occasional cosmic hell tyrant or superintelligent shade of the color blue or whatever.

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This season, unbeatable is relative. Injuries have caught up to Bayern, forcing it to go weeks without valuable contributors like Joshua Kimmich and Alphonso Davies. But world soccer’s compressed schedule and positive COVID diagnoses have cost just about every other team valuable contributors, too. If by the eye test, Bayern looks a little slower, the results have barely shown it. It has lost once in 2020-2021, a Bizarro World 4-1 defeat to Hoffenheim that felt as if the steamroller driver left the keys at home that day. Bayern also drew against Werder Bremen a few weeks ago after rotating much of its midfield, and it drew against Atlético on Tuesday at a fraction of its full-strength.

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Soccer’s just a little short on intergalactic rock monsters or brooding billionaire geniuses at the moment. Bayern has peaked just as many of Europe’s top teams are faltering, and even if it’s coming down from that high point, then the 2020-2021 season’s unique challenges are preventing very few rivals from climbing up to meet them. Real Madrid and Barcelona are in simultaneous disarray, which doesn’t happen very often. Juventus is still finding its way under new coach Andrea Pirlo. Pep Guardiola’s schemes to keep Man City’s defense from conceding on quick counters up the gut are growing increasingly Wile E. Coyotean.

Domestically, we’ll know more after Saturday, when Bayern plays second-place RB Leipzig, the same team against whom it played that February draw. A Leipzig win would put it atop the Bundesliga, but still, the long haul favors Bayern. Last year’s most exciting players for both Leipzig and current third-placed Bayer Leverkusen both suit up for Chelsea now. Borussia Dortmund’s raft of young attacking talent makes it a theoretical threat, but Borussia Dortmund has had a raft of young attacking talent for each of the past eight seasons as well, and Bayern won all those titles anyway. So it’s a bit like Sisyphus hoping that this is the time the boulder sticks at the top.

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There are so few teams that look capable of standing a chance without having to play out of their minds, and the number is dwindling. Liverpool’s injury luck has finally run out. Paris Saint-Germain had its shot against Bayern last year in the Champions League final and threw it away. No team is invincible, as Hoffenheim’s upset helpfully demonstrated, but everyone else is a whole lot more vincible than Bayern is.

Flick’s great achievement is to have found the right balance of pacey dribblers, pinpoint passers, and clever targets who could find a pocket of space inside a straitjacket. It’s a collection of tremendous parts assembled in a way that improves them all, capable of going over, around, or through any defense, especially at full strength.

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Kimmich’s versatile skillset gives the team an extra player wherever it needs one on the pitch. Davies, the 20-year-old Canadian left back, looks like a real-life Tecmo Bo, fast enough to run by anyone and talented enough to steal their souls on the way past.

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Thomas Müller, dropped from Germany’s struggling national squad by coach Joachim Löw in 2019 as too old for international soccer, responded by breaking the Bundesliga record for most assists last season with 21. Serge Gnabry—dropped from West Bromwich Albion by Tony Pulis in 2015 as not good enough for English first-division soccer—scored nine goals in 10 Champions League games last season.

Front and center is Lewandowski, who, like Bayern, has been so good for so long that we might take for granted just how high he has risen. He scored 40 or more goals in each of the past four seasons, but apparently he had the capacity for more. He’s forever lurking over the shoulders of defenders like a horror villain, waiting to exploit the right combination of their inattention and the space on the field. He’s got the sort of body control where you suspect he could juggle the ball in a closet, and he uses it to turn awkward, hip-level passes other forwards might struggle to corral into assists. Look at how he stops and turns and stretches and still traps this bouncing cross precisely enough so he can get around it and get the shot off in last season’s Champions League final.

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Now Lewandowski is the tower at the center of a field of heliostats, the focal point who converts the tremendous energy his teammates are capable of harnessing into output. As they have grown more dynamic, his numbers have increased. His form this year—12 goals in eight league games, 15 in 14 total—is so good it’s practically molten. It’s probably best not to stare directly at him, just in case.

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So dominant was Lewandowski in 2019-2020 that pretty much everybody knew that the decision by France Football to cancel the 2020 Ballon d’Or hurt exactly one person, and it wasn’t Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. This is more than a great player carrying an underdog to a tournament final, which won Luka Modric the award in 2018. At some point in 2020, Lewandowski surpassed Ronaldo and Messi to become the world’s best player, and there’s no evidence yet from this season to indicate that either of them is going to storm back into the lead.

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How strange that someone was able to stage a bloodless coup against that duopoly after more than a decade of their dominance. (Barcelona, 8-2 losers, might argue it wasn’t that bloodless.) It feels as though there should have been some kind of announcement, a stock market ticker to follow or a countdown to hold our breath to. It feels like it was too easy. Only for Bayern.

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