Week 2 in the Bundesliga: Bayern ride their luck
It has become a commonplace of English football to assert that genuine champions are separated from mere pretenders by their capacity to win despite playing poorly. Whether or not German fans evaluate title-winning credentials in the same curious way I couldn’t say, but on the evidence of the past two games Bayern Munich’s followers may be tempted into hoping that it is the team with the most undeserved victories who is most worthy of topping the table come season’s end.
Saturday’s victory over Wolfsburg saw Bayern put in a much more disjointed performance than they had done a week earlier in defeat to Borussia Mönchengladbach. In the season’s first game Arjen Robben started in his customary position on the right of the attack, with Thomas Müller filling the corresponding berth on the opposite side of the pitch. Müller was Bayern’s best outlet that day, and in retrospect his switch away from the left flank to accommodate Franck Ribéry during the second half could be said to have foreshadowed his marginalistion against Wolfsburg, where he started on the right in place of the injured Robben.
Ribéry gave a largely dynamic yet ineffective performance, often bursting past his marker only to mislay a pass or tumble in hopes of earning a free kick, though it was from his lay-off that Luiz Gustavo scored in the 90th minute. Müller was functional but far from spectacular on the right, and the failure of the widemen to offer sufficient ammunition to Mario Gómez left the burden squarely on the shoulders of Toni Kroos, the central figure of the 3 in Bayern’s 4-2-3-1 formation. Unfortunately, for all his promise Kroos’s talents may be best harnessed in a deeper role, as he proved for Germany midweek, deputising ably for Sami Khedira in the friendly win over Brazil. Indeed, a booking for a ludicrous dive on a rare foray into the penalty area seemed to accurately encapsulate the midfielder’s discomfort in such an advanced position.
Teams richer in enterprise than Wolfsburg will punish Bayern, though the men in green should have gone into the dressing room at half time a goal up. Patrick Helmes was incorrectly adjudged to have begun his run from an offside position when he headed home Marcel Schäfer’s cross from the right. In fact Wolfsburg were for stretches by far the better team. and the introduction late on of Koo Ja-Cheol, whose intelligent movement in the final third of the pitch clearly unsettled Bayern’s defence, gave the Bavarian club an indication of the kind of player best suited to playing behind Gómez.
Of course the attacking midfielder that just about any club in Germany would love to have is Borussia Dortmund’s Mario Götze, who scored one and helped to set up two more in the first round of Bundesliga matches, and then capped a commanding performance against Brazil, playing in front of Bayern’s Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger, with a delightfully taken goal. Unfortunately for Götze, Dortmund seemed to be collectively suffering from the effects of sleep deprivation against Hoffenheim on Sunday. Occasional spells of lucidity failed to compensate for the general sluggishness that characterised the club’s performance as Sejad Salihovic’s wonder strike ultimately went unanswered, with both Götze and fellow midfield maestro Kagawa Shinji, perhaps tired from their midweek international commitments, withdrawn during the second half.
The season is yet young. Borussia Dortmund’s creativity in midfield suggests that should Robert Lewandowski prove himself an able deputy for the injured Lucas Barrios, goals won’t be a problem, though questions must surely linger over the team’s ability to sustain a domestic challenge while also doing credit to themselves in the Champions’ League. Bayern Munich will doubtless gather steam, though at this rate they may well be hoping that their main rivals falter. Conversely Mainz and Hannover, who finished in the Europa League spots last time around, currently top the table and will be looking to build enough momentum to weather the rise of the more traditional giants.
This will be my first season spent following the Bundesliga with any degree of intimacy. Like many whose interest has been piqued by Germany’s recent successes internationally at both senior and youth level, I have found it impossible to refute claims that the Bundesliga is amongst the best places to go to watch football played with both great pace and great skill. Things are still in their infancy, but I am already starting to wonder why on earth it has taken me so long to become a devoted watcher of the German game!