About the same time last year I posed the same question in the quest to ascertain how far Bayern could go in the Champions League. At that time, the Bundesliga was more or less over and Bayern were fully concentrated on what I described as their 'Holy Grail', the Champions League. As we all know, their efforts failed in the most bitter of circumstances, losing the final on their home ground, the Allianz Arena last May. So what has changed since then?
As an avid follower of all top European football, I was reading an article this week along the same lines from a British journalist who was assessing Manchester United. The English club and their Bavarian counterparts are incredibly similar in stature - record champions in their own country, economic powerhouses each with turnover over EUR350m per annum (3rd and 4th in the world respectively behind the two Spanish giants according to BBC reports), boast vast, global fanbases and are hated by all others. In relation to my latter point, think of ABU in England (Anyone But United) or one of Germany's most successful bands, Die Toten Hosen, with their song "Wir würden nie zum FC Bayern München gehen" (We'd never go to Bayern Munich).
One of the most significant arguments in modern football is that modern football is a squad game, something the journalist also contested in his article. One can no longer rely on having a great team because eleven players are not enough. A club needs double that (UEFA's fixed number of 25 for a squad here is revealing, along with FIFA's 20 outfield players for a World Cup for a maximum of only seven games). This is where Bayern have taken massive strides in the last year. We all saw how impressive Dortmund were in the Champions League group stage this year, topping a group containing Real Madrid, Manchester City and Ajax Amsterdam, but their exertions in European competition and the lack of adequate back-up in their squad, have left them an insurmountable 18 points behind Bayern with only eleven games to play (note: Dortmund have 12 games left at the time of writing). Bayern, by contrast, reinforced what was already a very good squad last summer attempting to avoid a repeat of last year's failings at both home and abroad.
A total of seven players arrive, the most significant being Dante, Mario Mandzukic, Xherdan Shaqiri and, lastly, on transfer deadline day, Javi Martinez. While Shaqiri, the scampering offensive midfielder who excelled with FC Basel in last year's Champions League, has mainly been limited to appearances from the bench, the other three can firmly consider themselves to be primary options. Moreover, Bayern lost no players of any significance. While Dante and Mandzukic may have been relatively unheard of last year, plying their trades for Borussia Mönchengladbach and VfL Wolsburg respectively, their impact has been unprecedented. Dante has come in and stabilised Bayern's weakest area by far, the centre of defence, and his assured performances have led to a first call-up for the Brazil national team. He is a tall defender, calm on the ball and the man who Bayern use to retain possession and launch attacks. In a recent game I attended against Greuther Fürth in January, it was noticeable how many times he played a long diagonal pass with his favoured left foot towards the right-sided forward Thomas Müller and later, Arjen Robben. Mandzukic, let's not forget, was joint top-scorer at Euro 2012, netting three for Croatia in their three group games. Hardly an unknown quantity in Europe then and signed by Bayern because, quoting President Uli Hoeness, Mario Gomez is "good, but not very good," and that "If [Gomez] were very good, we'd have won the Champions League." Mandzukic has firmly established himself as the first-choice striker this season, netting 15 goals to Gomez's five. Hoeness, never shy and retiring, also admitted that Bayern had "probably paid EUR10m too much" for Martinez but in the end the club met the Spaniard's buy-out clause and he was ushered in on deadline day. While one cannot say that he is the last piece in the jigsaw, he certainly has improved his new club tremendously.
Which brings us onto tactics. Pep Guardiola must be unable to contain himself with glee. Not only will he inherit the biggest team in Germany by far, with healthy finances, a great stadium, fantastic training facilities and a successful youth system, he will also inherit a first team that has learnt the value of keeping the ball. Pressing high up the pitch is a trend of modern football that has forced the playmaker in the team to constantly shift backwards. Anything over a decade ago the playmaker would have been the 'number ten', the most attacking midfielder, such as the effortless Zinedine Zidane. However, in the last decade, perhaps started by Andrea Pirlo but certainly perpetuated by Spain and Barcelona's 'Bajitos' (little ones), we have seen the trend of the deep-lying playmaker in an era when retaining the ball is key. Barcelona are a great team but are they exciting? They are certainly winners and this is what Bayern Munich are attempting to recreate. It is no surprise that they have their own Spanish ball-retainer in the form of Martinez, essential despite the high price. As already mentioned, it has also become a feature of Bayern's game to involve Dante in starting attacks as the battle for creative space retreats even further. Dante's playing style is remarkably similar to that of Gerard Pique at Barcelona.
It seems Bayern have learnt from the disappointment of last year and have tried to iron out their flaws with a Barcelona blueprint: maintaining possession is key. Ironic then, that Guardiola should be the new coach from next season. Or is it? How long has he been the coach in waiting? Rumour has it Guardiola has been learning German during his New York sabbatical for at least six months. It would be wrong to disparage Jupp Heynckes, who has just celebrated 1,000 Bundesliga games as a player and coach, but Guardiola has been brought in to win that 'Holy Grail'. Perhaps, with the quality of last summer's signings, the end of Heynckes' managerial career and, more poignantly, the memories of last year, this Bayern team can go on to achieve something special. The league is all but wrapped up and a record points total beckons. The team has a home game midweek in the German Cup quarter-finals and are all but through to the last eight of the Champions League having ruthlessly seen off Arsenal in London.
While there are perhaps still misgivings about the defence, exacerbated by the injury to Holger Badstuber, forcing Jerome Boateng to deputise, Bayern can more-or-less put out two elevens of quality, something few teams in Europe can boast. This not only allows them to rotate the squad, keeping the best players fresh, but it also counteracts complacency, probably the factor which cost Bayern most last May. Add to the bigger squad the increased quality of the first eleven and there is no reason why Bayern can't go all the way in Europe's biggest competition. Last year I said that only the two Spanish giants were better than Bayern. This year there is no better squad in Europe. Guardiola may find he inherits the European champions rather than having to produce them.