Is this finally it? Before the start of every season we’re looking for a reason why Bayern Munich might not win the Bundesliga, and it has begun to feel like a vain hope for genuine title competition. In May Bayern were crowned champions for the 10th campaign in a row, and the Rekordmeister have been run to such an exemplary standard that few can see an imminent end to the medley.
Yet this time there is a new cast running the show, with Oliver Kahn as CEO in a post-Hoeness and Rummenigge world, having to prove his authority in tandem with Hasan Salihamidzic, a sporting director who has never fully convinced. Bayern’s fabled stability has never really rested on who’s on the pitch or even who’s on the bench, but instead has come from higher up. Kahn and Salihamidzic are in the spotlight, and the rolling saga over Robert Lewandowski’s future was as delicate a summer task as could have been imagined for them.
Bayern always faced a summer of reckoning in 2022, with Manuel Neuer, Thomas Müller, Serge Gnabry and Lewandowski having been having contracts running out in 2023. There was always going to be an odd one out too. Bayern, not being Barcelona, realise that not everybody can get paid. But when we looked at who the gooseberry might be, few figured it would be Lewandowski.
The writing was on the wall from the point in spring when he was offered a mere year’s extension on the same salary, leaving a scratch on the Poland striker’s ego which never faded, hardening his desire to split. Whisper it, but maybe a more fluid front line is more Julian Nagelsmann’s cup of tea anyway. Nobody is pretending Lewandowski, the scorer of 344 Bayern goals, isn’t a loss, but the signing of Sadio Mané gives Nagelsmann options – a front three with Gnabry as a false 9, or a front two of Gnabry and Mané, which looked red-hot in the Super Cup win over RB Leipzig. Bayern’s already potent attack could blossom further, as when Napoli lost 36-goal Gonzalo Higuaín in 2016 and ended up scoring 94 Serie A goals the following season, 14 more than they did with him.
Conversely it was always Nagelsmann’s priority to strengthen the defence, which he felt was behind last term’s Champions League disappointments. The signing of Matthijs de Ligt underlined this – Bayern have only ever paid a higher fee for Lucas Hernández, who will partner the Dutchman – though the coach needs to respond to the accusation that his formation is too cavalier. The depth of flair is beguiling, though. Jamal Musiala, still only 19 but the man of the match in the Super Cup against Leipzig (a performance described as “world class” by Nagelsmann), looks ready for a huge season and Marcel Sabitzer, so disappointing in his first campaign at the club, is standing in well for the injured Leon Goretzka and “one of the winners of pre-season”, according to Nagelsmann. If Kahn and Salihamidzic will be under the microscope, it still feels as if it would take mismanagement of epic proportions to make Bayern slip from the domestic summit.
At least it feels as if Borussia Dortmund are closer to having a plan than before. They dealt with their defensive issues, bringing in Niklas Süle and Nico Schlotterbeck with Salih Özcan to anchor ahead of them, plus Germany forward Karim Adeyemi. Even if Hans-Joachim Watzke has cautioned against expecting instant results, the return of the popular Edin Terzic as coach and the swift completion of their transfer business had created real optimism.
The new striker Sébastien Haller’s diagnosis with testicular cancer has dampened the mood, of course. Clearly Haller’s health as he recovers is the most important aspect of the conversation, but he represents a big sporting loss as well. Quite apart from his prolific Champions League form for Ajax last season, he was so attractive to Dortmund for his intelligence and strength offering to bring Marco Reus and Adeyemi into the game as well (an aspect in which he might have actually represented an upgrade on Erling Haaland). His medium-term absence means BVB will need to fish back into the market for a replacement, with players including Edinson Cavani and Köln’s Anthony Modeste linked in the last week.
Leipzig, so improved by the mid-season arrival of Domenico Tedesco last term, have shown real ambition in making the record signing of David Raum (continuing the now-Germany left-back’s meteoric rise) and in the attempts to bring back Timo Werner from Chelsea, teasing that they might move away from their strictly youth-based model. They have also kept Bundesliga player of the year Christopher Nkunku.
Leverkusen, despite the false start of DfB Pokal elimination in a seven-goal thriller at third-tier Elversberg, have held on to their star Patrik Schick and added the promising Adam Hlozek, while there is considerable anticipation around Champions League-bound Eintracht Frankfurt, who have added Mario Götze and a big centre-forward upgrade in Lucas Alario to their Europa League winners.
Coherent competitors will make this Bundesliga season, or otherwise. It’s just that Bayern’s traversing of this transition period will dictate exactly how intense a competition it can be.