Friday, 24 January 2014

Why The Bundesliga Is Already Over

With the Bundesliga about to return from a four week break you’d be hard-pressed to find a single person who believes that Bayern won’t again be champions.  And if this wasn’t bad enough they’ve managed to already destroy next year’s league by announcing the signing of Dortmund’s Robert Lewandowski on a free at the end of this season.  The continued dominance of the Wintermeister (winter champions) is predicted by everyone and has now gotten to the point where serious questions are being asked about how much this is harming the league.

Bayern are back to their old ways, buying up their closest challengers best players whether they want them to or not.  Putting ‘strengthen yourself, weaken your rivals’ into practice as often as possible.  They’re back to behaving like 90s era Vince McMahon, buying everyone else’s talent with the express aim of ruining their challengers.  In Germany in the last couple of years they’ve gone from being a more attractive option for a player looking to get paid and win titles to the only option.  Next year’s title is as good as their already.

Don’t believe me?  Look at the evidence.  They’ve lost one game in the Bundesliga in a season and a half.  They’ve already had their two hardest games this season (Dortmund away and Leverkusen away) and came away with four points from them.  Before this season started Bayern had already taken Mario Gotze, Dortmund’s beating heart, the player they’d attributed more hope to than any other.  Now they’ve signed Lewandowski, just the kind of strong, technical, mobile and prolific striker needed to make Dortmund’s formation work and the player that will probably prove harder to replace than any other.  Given that last season with both players in their team Dortmund finished 26 points behind them it’s hard to imagine them turning it around by next year.

Dortmund of course were the team meant to stop this from happening.  That they’ve become a spent force already is the surprising thing.  After the shock of having Gotze smuggled away to Bavaria against their wishes they had a great close season.  They signed players that seemed to fit their template and system and integrated them well.  They kept the rest of their coveted players for at least one more season.  They had the best start to a season in their history.  And then they ran themselves into the ground.  One theory doing the rounds is that Jurgen Klopp’s hard pressing style (the first stat he checks for after the match is if his team has run further than the opposition) is to blame for the amount of injuries they’ve had to contend with.  What’s clear is that unlike Bayern they don’t have the squad to cope, especially now as an established Champion’s League contender.  With both first choice elevens out they would run Bayern close.  This season they played them with an entire back four absent and lost 0-3.  Seeing if they’ve managed to recuperate after the physical and mental break winter has given them will be fascinating.

This applies to Klopp as much as the players.  In recent months he’s looked like he might be undergoing a slow burn mental breakdown as the boys from Bavaria delight in seeing how far they can push him before he snaps.  At the minute he’s starting to look like Michael Douglas halfway through Falling Down, after abandoning his car in traffic and just before a Korean shopkeeper asks him to pay over the odds for a can of coke.  You fear for fourth officials if things don’t turn around soon.  Arresting the slide permanently rests on him performing another close season rescue job.  Losing Lewandowski is their customary one star player a year.  Any more are tempted away and the improbable really will become impossible.

Leverkusen must be worried.  The last time they had a team this decent Bayern promptly nicked their two best players (Michael Ballack and Ze Roberto from the legendary runners up team of 2001-02).  This vintage is improving faster than most would have expected but in truth are still some distance off living with Bayern.  Outside of a period of 90s era self-destruction it’s hard to see anyone unseating them.

The league wide headshaking over the extent of Bayern’s dominance has come just as the Bundesliga was finally ready for their big world tour.  Driving up undervalued overseas rights is the next logical step for a league on the up.  For this Bayern are both its biggest strength and weakness, especially when the Bundesliga is so associated with a level playing field.  Yes you can see the best team in Europe play weekly but as an overseas fan with no affinity to any club why would you bother watching a league where only one team would win?  Even in Spain there are two (three now with Atletico, a pointer to the kind of drive and luck with injuries that will be needed to even challenge).  The problem is as much about perception as anything.  Once everyone assumes that only one team can win it then that’s as much of a problem as it actually happening.

None of this is Bayern’s concern of course.  They would argue, quite rightly, that their success and profile brings attention outside Germany to a league that needs it.  And if we have anyone to blame for Bayern’s current excellence it’s Dortmund.  It was their two titles that drove Bayern to add their pressing and teamwork to their already formidable individual talents.  It’s the responsibility of the rest of the league to raise their efforts to reach up to Bayern, not to debate ways of trying to bring them down.  The question over whether any of them realistically can challenge Bayern long term mainly boils down to resources.  Financial fair play or not, when your richest club (Bayern) have twice the budget of the second richest (Dortmund) they’re likely to pull ahead of the rest.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Why Man Utd Not Qualifying For Europe Would Be Good For Them

There’s a freedom in failure, a licence to do what’s necessary to get back to success.  Long term it might just be best for Man Utd and David Moyes to properly experience it. 
The Glazers were granted an incredible gift after buying Man Utd when Alex Ferguson decided that his socialist background somehow didn’t mean he should object to the amount of debt placed on his football club (since the takeover close to a billion pounds has been paid out in fees and interest according to some estimates) and got on with the business of winning titles on a comparative shoestring.  This doesn’t bode well for David Moyes’ chances of carrying out the massive surgery on the squad needed to get them back to where they need to be.  With the Glazers’ history of doing just enough it’s easy to see a scenario where they sneak into fourth place and go through another transfer window failing to sign anyone of note.
Better then to fail completely, have a great big bush fire of a season.  Finish seventh and out of Europe completely.  Let the fans and media wail that the Empire of Old Trafford has reached its’ end.  Moyes can hold his six year contract in front of him like a shield and point out that the squad he inherited obviously wasn’t good enough.  With the fear of missing out on Champions League football for another season the Glazers would surely have to grant him the money his rebuilding needs.  Without the demands of Europe to worry about he could ship out the dead wood and replace it with fewer players of higher quality.  Going for the title the season after would be easier without the extra games, especially compared to nicking a Europa League spot and having to do the dreaded Thursday-Sunday schlep.  And it’s not like coming from seventh to win would be unprecedented.  In Italy Juventus’ current dominance was started from finishing seventh the season before their first league title.  Dortmund finished fifth then won the league twice and got to the Champions League final the year after.  They were both clubs in worse positions than Man Utd are now.  They used their failures as fuel for their revolutions.  Does anyone really think that Man Utd don’t have it in them to do the same?
The main question over whether this is possible has to be Moyes.  Dortmund and Juve had Jurgen Klopp and Antonio Conte respectively, coaches who are now seen as the equal of anyone in Europe.  When they took over they were seen as inexperienced and untested at the highest level, just like Moyes now.  After doing distinctly below average with the team he inherited from Ferguson Moyes should be given the chance to show what a Man Utd team built by him would look like.  Failing in his first season might perversely be his best chance of getting the chance to do it.
And does anyone really think that they’re ready to have a serious tilt at the Champions League anyway?  If Ferguson thought they were anywhere close he would have surely taken the chance to try and add his name to the list of managers to win it three times.  He looked at what was needed to turn the current squad into contenders and understandably decided he’d had enough.  The timing of it left Moyes with problems he had no chance of fixing right out of the gate, problems big enough to require a full scale rebuilding job, not a January top-up. 
Whether Moyes would get the opportunity to rebuild is anyone’s guess.  Man Utd made such a big deal of him being given time to build a legacy as Ferguson's anointed chosen one that it’s unlikely that they’d backtrack so completely now.  And to give the fans credit they’ve taken their first real taste of (mild) failure better than many would have predicted, with very few calling for Moyes to be given the boot.  Whether this good will extends to the Floridian billionaires who call the shots only time will tell.  It’s clear that taking the time and expense to float ten percent of the club on the New York Stock Exchange wasn’t with the intention of having the share price drop through the season often and low enough to make it onto the back pages.

Financially there should be no question that they could afford the hit of one season without Europe.  The commercial deals signed over the last ten years would be enough on their own to keep most Premier League clubs in the black.  And the lure of being Man Utd should be enough to attract high calibre players without being able to offer them Europe.  They would still be Man Utd.  The walls to Old Trafford would still stand.  They’d still be on TV every week.  Ferguson would still be in that odd position in the stands, just over Moyes shoulder.  Giggs would still be knocking about somewhere.  After twenty five years of not having to think about it, a season wasted might be the most worthwhile one they could have.