Heynckes, Gomez, Neuer, Schweinsteiger, Kroos – the first half of Bayern’s 2011/12 season always provided us with things to talk about. Some dramatic, some rather petty, but never boring. It’s time to recap the events.
Jupp Jupp Hooray?
Even before the season began, there was drama. Jupp Heynckes was hired as new coach, a move that didn’t make every fan happy. Critics said he’s too old, not modern enough – that he lacks a clear philosophy. Others, and I’m one of them, thought that this is exactly why he’s the right man for this situation. Not only is Heynckes a calm person, chances that he’ll cause a scene are very low, he is quite the opposite of indirect predecessor Louis van Gaal: Heynckes wants his team to play successful football first and have a clear-cut identity second. Instead of immediately hiring another “concept coach” who would’ve completely destroyed the van Gaal foundation and confused the players even more, the club opted for a man who frees the team from the psychological constraint. Jupp Heynckes as bridge between two concepts.
The grass on the other side…
Munich never calms down, though. The coach is just one piece of a jigsaw, other pieces are players and, as usual, new pieces arrived last summer. I think repeating the Manuel Neuer discussions is redundant. Basically every signing was criticized by some. Jerome Boateng? An inexperienced center back. Nils Petersen? A talented player who will never help Bayern. Rafinha? A cheap solution. In case you’re wondering why I don’t mention Takashi Usami, he apparently was unknown enough to excite everybody.
Half a year later, it’s safe to say that none of the signings turned out to be a disaster. Manuel Neuer already broke a record (oh how weird, annoying and funny all those clean sheet counts were). Jerome Boateng looks to be a good solution to counterbalance Holger Badstuber (the latter calm, the former wild) and, at least in my opinion, only plays as right-back so often because Heynckes wants to help him become a part of Germany’s starting lineup at the upcoming Euro. Rafinha needed some time to get used to Bayern’s style of play but is improving on a weekly basis. Nils Petersen doesn’t play a lot, fortunately because that means Mario Gomez is absolutely untouchable these days, but when he does I already enjoy watching him. People complained how there isn’t a single direct Schweinsteiger backup, these persons have to love the fact that Petersen is exactly that for Gomez.
Following a solid win over Braunschweig, the old FCB showed up against Gladbach. Complacent, static, sluggish. To make things worse, Manuel Neuer’s (pretty much only) mistake cost them the goalless draw. When they struggled in Wolfsburg as well, doubters felt confirmed. But Luiz Gustavo’s last-minute goal for the 1-0 win proved to be the beginning of a fabulous run.
Score and destroy
Zürich was beaten, Hamburg was thrashed (a massive upset, considering the exaggerated reactions in mid-July after Bayern lost a preseason match 1-2), Zürich was eliminated and Bayern thus qualified for the Champions League group stage. You could see the relief on the pitch. Kaiserslautern, Freiburg, Villarreal, Schalke, Leverkusen, Man City – they were all rejected by Bayern like late-90s NBA players by Dikembe Mutombo. Mario Gomez on fire.
An exhausted FCB had to accept a goalless draw in Hoffenheim, an unlucky 1-1 in Napoli (if I remember correctly, the hosts didn’t register a single shot on goal) and a scrappy 1-2 loss in Hannover that shocked the football world like an earthquake.
No shoulder, no brain
All those results weren’t as costly as what happened in early November: Bayern played one of the best halves in recent memory and comfortably lead 3-1 against Napoli when Bastian Schweinsteiger’s shoulder shattered. A nervous team managed to win 3-2 without the midfield maestro but the impact was obvious. Skill doesn’t help if the brain is missing, that was the case in Bavaria. An incredibly shaky 2-1 in Augsburg was followed by a minor domestic downfall. Two consecutive Bundesliga losses, against Dortmund and in Mainz, made it impossible to hide the nervousness, even the win over Villarreal and the consequential qualification for the Champions League round of 16 didn’t seem to be more than a side note.
But Bayern bounced back. They were about to lose yet another time, this one against Bremen, when Arjen Robben entered the pitch after about an hour. The former and soon-to-be but at that time not current league leader proceeded to win 4-1. Three not always beautiful successes in Stuttgart, against Köln and in Bochum brought back a certain degree of self-confidence, embodied especially by Toni Kroos and Franck Ribery. Right in time for the winter break and the comeback of Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Just give ’em the title
Based on the results, this was a superb first half of the season. The group of death was survived with ease, all three cup matches were won (who cares how) and a 3-point lead in Bundesliga isn’t shabby, either. In fact, it’s the best result for Bayern since 2005/06 when a 6-point lead after 17 matches was enough to win the title. The last time that a club didn’t win the league title despite such a lead was in 1993/94 when Frankfurt’s 2-point lead wasn’t enough to prevent Bayern from winning the league. Since the rule change two years later (3 points for a win instead of 2), a lead of three points or more was always enough.
No time to rest
So all in all, we can be happy fans. But there of course are things that should be improved. The defense lost a lot of its stability. According to Heynckes, that’s due to not having been able to further practice defensive work during the season. So we should expect an improvement there very soon. We’ll see.
Interchangeability, unpredictability and activity have improved, Bayern isn’t as static anymore, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement. The team still has to learn how to beat ultra-defensive teams. The ‘good’ news: there’ll be plenty of opportunities to learn that during the upcoming second half of the Bundesliga season. But I don’t want to criticize too much because as I said, this has been a good season so far.
Mario Gomez, the success. He scores on the pitch like Casanova in the bedroom.
Toni Kroos, the delicacy. Beautiful, efficient football, he lets the run ball for him.
Franck Ribery, the reborn. Give him love and he pays back with loveable football.
Holger Badstuber, the rock-solid. Always on the pitch, always doing his job, he forgot what nonsense means.
Bastian Schweinsteiger, the brain. Called a wannabe leader earlier this year, now deemed irreplaceable.