For all intents and purposes, the Bundesliga race ended with a chip shot. On May 26, Joshua Kimmich popped the ball over both the Borussia Dortmund defense and their goalkeeper, Roman Burki, and that was pretty much that. Bayern Munich beat Dortmund 1-0 and extended its league lead to seven points with five matches to play.
Eight straight! This is astounding even by Bayern’s standards. The Rekordmeisters had won 21 of 44 Bundesliga titles before this run began, sure, but that’s only about half! They had won three in a row on three occasions (1972-74, 1985-87, 1999-2001), but they’re now one year away from a three-peat of three-peats.
How did this happen? How did the Bundesliga’s heavyweight one-up itself so drastically?
It’s a good time to be a blueblood
UEFA’s most recent European Club Footballing Landscape report lists 11 clubs who made over $400 million in revenue in the 2018 fiscal year. Bayern is the only German club in the mix, and it is about to win an eighth title in a row. Among the others…
— Juventus averaged three to four Serie A titles per decade from the 1950s to 2000s but won every crown from 2012 and 2019 and was ahead of the field when the coronavirus stopped play in March.
– In France, Qatar Sports Investments basically bought the Ligue 1 title on a permanent basis when it bought Paris Saint-Germain in 2011; PSG has won the crown seven of the last eight years, loaning it to Monaco for a year in 2017 before taking it back.
– In Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid have been the dominant forces for a long time, but while they combined for six La Liga titles in the 1980s and seven in the 2000s, they came within three points — via a narrow Atletico Madrid title in 2014 — of a clean 10-for-10 sweep in the 2010s. (Atletico, by the way, is the No. 12 club on the 2018 revenue list and reached two Champions League finals this decade. Not exactly a minnow either.)
Of Europe’s big five leagues, only the Premier League has a balance of power that swings and sways right now, and that’s only because it has six of the aforementioned financial heavyweights (Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur), not just one. Bayern’s title streak is awfully impressive, but it’s also a sign of the times.
Roster continuity and stability
Bayern’s title streak has taken place despite quite a bit of managerial upheaval. The streak began with Jupp Heynckes in charge, but he retired after 2013’s league, German Cup and Champions League treble. Pep Guardiola took over for three seasons, then left for Manchester City and was replaced by Carlo Ancelotti. Ancelotti won the league in 2017, but Bayern’s Champions League form fell, and after an iffy start to his second season, he was replaced by Heynckes on a caretaker basis. Niko Kovac took over in the summer of 2018 but lasted only a month longer than Ancelotti; Bayern had to pull off a big comeback to win the league in 2019 and found itself mired in a logjam this past fall. Kovac was fired on November 3, and Hansi Flick took over as interim. He’s done so well that he kept the job full-time.
Despite those changes at the top, Bayern has maintained stability in part because the roster doesn’t change all that much.
In 2012-13, goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, attacker Thomas Müller, defender Jerome Boateng and defender/midfielders David Alaba and Javi Martinez combined to account for 32% of Bayern’s minutes in league play. In 2019-20, the same quintet has accounted for 30%. Martinez and Boateng, both 31 years old, could be on their way out, but Neuer and Muller recently signed contract extensions. Alaba, who has dominated since Flick moved him to center-back, has a contract that expires in 2021 and an extension has yet to be resolved.
The roster evolves each year in Munich, but never too much at any given time. Each season, between 14 and 18 players account for at least 3% of Bayern’s minutes, and only once in this streak have more than two of those players left in the same offseason. (In 2017, Bayern lost Philipp Lahm and Xabi Alonso to retirement and sent Douglas Costa to Juventus.)
Among this season’s nine primary minutes-earners, six have been in the rotation for at least five years, and only one, fullback Benjamin Pavard, is in his first year with the club. So far this year, 14 players have played 3% of minutes at the moment, and while there could always be some plot twists, it appears only two will leave (Boateng and Barcelona loanee Philippe Coutinho).
Mistimed challenges by their rivals
In any sport with a broad difference between haves and have-nots, whether it European soccer, college football or anything else, a well-organized middleweight or light-heavyweight club will occasionally get its chance to break through if its timing is good.
In 2015-16, for instance, Leicester City fielded its best team ever in a moment when each of the league’s six heavyweights were faltering — Manchester City didn’t yet have Guardiola, Manchester United was directionless after Alex Ferguson’s retirement, Liverpool was just getting started with Jürgen Klopp, Chelsea was between identities, and neither Arsenal nor Tottenham Hotspur had quite enough oomph. That allowed Leicester to make one of the sport’s most incredible title runs. If they had risen two years later, however, things wouldn’t have come together in the same way.
According to the website EloFootball.com, Borussia Dortmund hit its historic peak as a team during the 2012-13 season. BVB had won the previous two league titles and rolled unbeaten through a Champions League group that, incredibly, included Real Madrid, Ajax and Manchester City. They beat Real Madrid again in the semifinals but ran into maybe the best Bayern team ever to date.
Basically, Bayern’s best trumps your best. Having already won the league title by 25 points, Bayern weathered an early storm and took down BVB, 2-1, at Wembley Stadium. The team’s form would fluctuate in the coming seasons, but challengers never made the right run at the right time. At points during this eight-year span, Bayer Leverkusen, Wolfsburg, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Schalke 044 would all field excellent teams, but they fielded them when Guardiola was leading Bayern to record point totals.
Beginning in 2016-17, Bayern found itself with a bit of a stale roster. It was a little too stable, and the club was slow to replace aging players like Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Rafinha. Whereas players aged 30 and older contributed only 14% of minutes during the 2013 treble run, they contributed 37% in 2016-17 and 40% in 2018-19. Bayern’s level of domination slid, but when they were at their most vulnerable, BVB were retooling and none of the other potential challengers had their act together. The league as a whole struggled in European play in these years, a signal that a downturn in league strength was happening at the same time as Bayern’s own downturn.
This season, BVB have been excellent once again, and RB Leipzig has broken through. Borussia is seventh in the EloFootball rankings (it hasn’t finished higher than seventh since 2013) and RBL is eighth, easily its highest position. Bayern, however, are first in EloFootball’s ratings. Flick took over in November, and the team hasn’t lost since early-December.
Dortmund upgraded its roster significantly in January, acquiring teenage goal-scoring sensation Erling Haaland (among others) and they’ve dropped only six league points in this calendar year. And Bayern still took over.
When Champions League play resumes, likely in August, Bayern will be the betting co-favorites alongside Manchester City. These iterations of Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig could have potentially dethroned the champs in 2018 or 2019, but not in 2020.
So how long might this go on?
Honestly? This could last a while. Bayern’s roster recharge has taken hold, and while players like Neuer (34), Müller (30), Lewandowski (31) and Thiago (29) might be at or past their respective primes, the club has fully established a core of athletes who are likely to continue improving for a while: Joshua Kimmich (25), Serge Gnabry (24), Alphonso Davies (19), Kingsley Coman (23), Leon Goretzka (25), Pavard (24), Lucas Hernandez (24), Niklas Süle (24), etc.
BVB could continue to play at the level of a top 10 European clubs if they retain Haaland, and RB Leipzig continue to get more and more organized despite the imminent exit of Timo Werner. But Bayern’s best will always be better than everyone else’s in the Bundesliga, and Bayern appears to be at its best again. Challengers might have to wait a bit longer for a window of opportunity to open.