Bayern Munich charge ahead to leave their German rivals playing catch-up

Bastian Schweinsteiger rises to score Bayern Munich’s late winner against Hertha Berlin. Photograph: A. Beier/Getty Images for FC Bayern

In 2014 Bayern Munich charged to the earliest Bundesliga title ever before the end of March, with seven matches to spare. They were slightly later to put their feet up in 2015, retaining the crown with four games left. “German champions on the couch. It’s a weird but beautiful feeling!” tweeted Thomas Müller, after Borussia Mönchengladbach’s 1-0 win over second-placed VfL Wolfsburg on Sunday night had confirmed the inevitable.

The German international goes by the changing-room nickname of Radio Müller thanks to his frequent – but more often than not quite insightful – public announcements, and the slight regret that could be detected in his statement hints at the club’s and their supporter’s bittersweet feelings. As much as Matthias Sammer insisted that winning the league was “never normal”, it nevertheless has become the norm.

It is their 25th championship and their 24th Bundesliga title in their 50th season in the top flight. In the last 20 years, they’ve never had to go more than two years without holding up the “salad bowl” at Munich’s Rathausplatz. “Twenty-five titles – that’s like a silver anniversary,” said Franz Beckenbauer.

Domestic bliss has become almost an annual fixture in the calendar. But that, in itself, wouldn’t have stopped the party. Birthdays are celebrated, too, and it’s in that particular joie de vivre spirit that Müller et al would have liked to have had a few beers. Not to win is to die in Bavaria. To win is to be alive.

Alas, the fixture list didn’t allow it after the laborious 1-0 win over Hertha Berlin on Saturday night secured by Bastian Schweinsteiger’s 80th-minute goal, as Wolfsburg could have still prolonged the “race” by a win at the Borussia-Park 24 hours later. And by the time it was all over, it was too late to down a few because Tuesday night’s DFB Cup semi-final v Borussia Dortmund – “a final”, Pep Guardiola has called it – was only two days away.

Slightly excessive bacchanalian activities following the 2014 Meisterschaft were later blamed for Bayern losing their way against Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-finals. Guardiola is determined to learn the lessons of 2014’s mistakes. Europe is where he and his team will get their kicks and plaudits. Or not.

In the meantime, Dortmund stand in the way of a third successive double. Jürgen Klopp has promised that the farewell flowers he’ll be presented with before kick-off will not soften him up. “We are spoiling for a fight,” he vowed. His team’s struggles in a season that could still deliver a major title and Europa League qualification ahead of local rivals Schalke 04 have been portrayed in some quarters as the inevitable effect of losing two of their best players to Bayern, but in a way Bayern have also suffered from Dortmund’s failure this season.

Klopp’s team, widely seen as the best ever assembled by the Black and Yellows before the start of the campaign, were supposed to push a Bayern team ravaged by injuries and packed with jaded World Cup winners all the way. But the challenge never materialised, neither from Dortmund or anybody else. Guardiola essentially knew by October that he would win the title, which made it easier for him to tolerate the endless stream of negative medical bulletins and to experiment wildly with formations, but also meant that there would be little real reward for his success in doing so at the end of it.

Bayern remain hopeful that the coach whom club sage Herrmann Gerland described as “the best manager I’ve ever seen” will stay beyond 2016. But what will motivate a perfectionist who has perfected winning all but a handful games each season? Forget losing – his team hardly concede goals any more. Bayern have kept 21 clean sheets in their league campaign. Barcelona and Real Madrid, the only vaguely comparable teams in terms of domestic dominance and absolute quality, have notched up 19 and 14 in that category, respectively.

Bayern have been in a financial league of their own for a good 30 years now. But rivals could always rely on the Bavarians wasting a lot of their money on a fair number of South American duds (Bernardo!), one-hit league wonders with no genuine class (Hashemian!) and their not too infrequent hiring of managers who were either unsuitable, highly combustible or out of their depth. Ever since Dortmund’s double in 2012 forced them to take a long, hard look at their transfer-market failings and tactical deficits, they have been getting everything right, however. Jupp Heynckes was the perfect coach to push them over the line in 2013, Guardiola one of a tiny group of managers good enough to motivate and develop the treble winners further.

The big, record signings – Javier Martínez for €40m, Mario Götze for €37m – have worked out, as have the medium ones (Thiago for €25m, Robert Lewandowski for free but a huge sign-on fee, Medhi Benatia for €26m, as well as the cheap no-brainers. Left-back Juan Bernat, a snip at €10m, represents the sort of clever move Bayern have rarely pulled off before. Wages, meanwhile, are high, but still on the relatively modest side, by international standards. Their turnover-to-wages ratio stands at (only) 37%.

They’ll have to build a new team after Guardiola, Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry have gone in a couple of years, but it’s hard to see them get it wrong. In Michael Reschke (ex-Leverkusen), who joined last summer, they have one of the best scouts and transfer-market operators in the business.

So if Bayern will not drop, who will come up to their level in the future? It’s a question with no easy answers. Dortmund, under Thomas Tuchel, should be a formidable foe, but they’ll probably need a year or two to regroup. The same goes, at best, for Schalke. Leverkusen have the makings of contenders under Roger Schmidt but will have to fight off offers for their players by clubs like Dortmund and Volkswagen-owned Wolfsburg, who can pay significantly higher wages. Gladbach face the same challenge. And Wolfsburg need to prove that they can play in the Champions League and compete in the league first. They broke apart at the last attempt in 2009.

It might be hard to understand for British based-observers who saw the Premier League hierarchy getting shaken up by new-money Chelsea and Manchester City, but an end to FFP limitations is not seen as a desirable solution by the clubs below the self-made behemoth, despite the Reds’ solitude at the top.

There are two reasons. First, FFP has had little to no impact on the Bundesliga domestically, since the 50+1 rule has prevented takeovers and benefactors pumping millions into clubs in the first place. Those clubs who are owned by corporations, meanwhile, are hemmed in by other considerations. (The situation might change when RB Leipzig get promoted.) In a nutshell, it didn’t need FFP to protect the bigger clubs from nouveau riche upstarts. Uefa’s regulation are only stopping what has never happened before.

Secondly, even if 50 + 1 were to be abolished, Dortmund and the majority of clubs would not be interested in entering a financial arms race at the price of ceding control of the club by the members to an outside sugar daddy. It’s a matter of principle for them as well as one of simple mathematics. There are only so many billionaires and sovereign state funds to go around, and the “elite” can always find a bigger sheikh, when push comes to shove. BVB’s much lamented – and much exaggerated – break-up since 2013, on the other hand, would certainly have happened much sooner in a world of 10 PSGs and Manchester Citys. It’s one thing to try to hold off Bayern, who operate profitably and cannot feasibly sign every good Bundesliga player, quite another to survive in a Space Invaders game where the opposition don’t worry about killing themselves (financially), over and over again, until they take you out. Without FFP, in other words, life for a self-sustainable, typical Bundesliga club relying on organic growth would be de facto impossible.

So we’re stuck with Bayern – and everybody else, in a tremendously balanced 17-team league where relegation contenders can end up as European qualifiers and vice versa in the course of a couple of months. TV ratings and stadiums crowds would suggest that German football is happy to settle for an existence in the slipstream of Bayern’s silver sofa surfers. For the time being, at least.

Results: Mainz 2-0 Schalke, Cologne 1-1 Bayern Leverkusen, Bayern Munich 1-0 Hertha, Dortmund 2-0 Frankfurt, Hamburger SV 3-2 Augsburg, Hannover 1-2 Hoffenheim, Stuttgart 2-2 Freiburg, Paderborn 2-2 Werder Bremen, Borussia Mönchengladbach 1-0 Wolfsburg


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