Bayern Munich have had the surest of grips on the Bundesliga for the last five years. Now, in their desperation to grab a European trophy with both hands, they are in danger of letting that domestic dominance slip.
Carlo Ancelotti’s eyebrow is not the only one being raised at Bayern after the German juggernaut’s shaky start to the season suffered another jolt at the hands of Wolfsburg on Friday.
Robert Lewandowski and Arjen Robben – the only two consistent performers to be found at the Allianz nowadays – had opened up a 2-0 lead before Sven Ulreich, the injured Manuel Neuer’s hapless stand-in, fumbled Max Arnold’s free-kick into the net.
Wolfsburg would go on to clinch a draw but this was not an isolated incident, nor a goalkeeping mishap to draw a line under. Bayern simply look tired.
Their defeat to Hoffenheim lacked the attacking fluidity you’d come to expect from the club and they even toiled in the Champions League victory against Anderlecht, who battled stoically with 10 men for 80 minutes.
Perhaps you could point to the players. Franck Ribery and Arturo Vidal are performing like they feel every one of their 30+ years, while the 28-year-old Thomas Muller has clearly taken a blow to what was cast-iron confidence in his game. Club captain Philipp Lahm and conductor-in-chief Xabi Alonso rode off into the sunset last season.
There has been no shortage of young blood however. Corentin Tolisso, Kingsley Coman and James Rodriguez have all arrived from abroad while Bayern continue to cherry-pick the best local talents in Nikas Sule, Sebastian Rudy and Serge Gnabry. Schalke midfielder Leon Goretzka is running down his contract in anticipation of another move.
RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund have invested moderate amounts but make no mistake – relative to Bayern’s financial footing, the rest of the Bundesliga are trudging through mud.
It was with this knowledge that Ancelotti was appointed as Pep Guardiola’s successor in the first place, as even the Italian himself assumed that any coach of Bayern would barely have to lift a finger to win the league.
“Bayern will win the Bundesliga without even taking their hands out their pockets,” Ancelotti told La Gazzetta Dello Sport before the opportunity came along. “I must confess that I cannot enjoy Bayern’s games. There is simply too little real competition.”
Why then did Ancelotti plump for the job? And why did Bayern move on from Guardiola? Because the Italian had won as many European Cups in 11 years (three) as had been paraded in Munich in the preceding four decades.
Sure, Bayern loved the fact that Guardiola’s ‘beautiful’ style had shone the international spotlight on the club, but what’s pretty football up against the type of pragmatism that wins trophies?
The thought process went that Ancelotti would never let Bayern get thumped by Real Madrid and Barcelona in the way that Guardiola had. A solid base, with some individual flourishes, is an Ancelotti team’s watermark.
The problem is, Ancelotti has always worked at his best when a team is ready for that final push rather than in a state of flux.
Look at his past achievements. Dida, Paolo Maldini, Gennaro Gattuso, Alessandro Nesta, Andrea Pirlo and Clarence Seedorf were starts in both of his Champions League successes with AC Milan – over a four-year gap that is quite remarkable.
He gave Real Madrid the fabled La Decima in 2014 but there was no need to rip the foundations down in a team brimming with such talent.
With Paris Saint-Germain, who were part way through their throwing-cash-like-confetti plan while Ancelotti was at the helm, he stuttered and even ceded the league to the ultimate underdogs in Montpellier in 2012.
It’s not total disaster for Bayern and they will likely still go on to win their Bundesliga. But is Ancelotti the coach who can meld the young and talented with the battle-hardened veterans – amid murmurings of discontent from the latter? History suggests not.