Maybe we take greatness for granted. And maybe, if only for just this season, Bayern Munich isn’t the team we all expect them to be. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be; each and every name on their squad makes it abundantly clear that the opposite should ring true. But for whatever reason, they aren’t. For whatever reason, they’re not hitting the heights we’ve become used to seeing each week within the Bundesliga.
This past Saturday against Hertha Berlin—where they were lucky to steal a point—was just the latest example.
Yet three days earlier, in their midweek Champions League clash against Arsenal, there they were—the unforgiving, clinical and merciless Bayern. The one we’ve learned to expect in recent years. Heading into this matchup, I believed this was going to be the year Arsenal held their own against the Bavarians when it mattered. This was going to be the year the Gunners took advantage of a side that’s been ordinary at best throughout most of their domestic campaign. And for 45 minutes, I wasn’t wrong. But within a ten-minute span in the second half, suddenly it was 4-1. Bayern had arrived.
But this arrival, and the performances that typically accompany it, have been so few and far between. Why is that? When the season began, it appeared as though they were picking up right where they left off. Beginning with a 6-0 romp against Werder Bremen at home, Bayern followed up with an 0-2 result against Schalke, 3-1 against Ingolstadt and 3-0 against Hertha before starting to stall.
Still, all that stalling has them five points atop the table with 13 matches remaining. If struggling means you’re still leading the league, it’s terrifying to imagine what Bayern should be doing instead. After all, they did need a couple extra minutes to sneak away with a point against Hertha. And they did need all 90 minutes (and then some) to get past relegation-threatened Ingolstadt. You can watch their matches and notice something is not quite right. You can watch their matches and reasonably observe that they should be better.
But at the same time, give some credit to the rest of the Bundesliga, will you? Look, Bayern have won four consecutive league titles and are closing in on a fifth. They have also won three of the last four DFB-Pokal cups and could very well make that four in five this season. So from that standpoint, it’s easy to see where people get the idea that Bayern is the only club that shows up in Germany. It’s also lazy and ignorant, something so many of us fans willfully choose to be at times.
Now I’m not saying you have to like or even watch any league you do not want to. That would be ridiculous. What I am saying is that if you’re going to criticize, make sure you understand what you’re criticizing. Make sure you understand what else is going on. Yes Bayern currently lead the Bundesliga once again, but look at the clubs below them competing for spots in Europe.
Newly-promoted RB Leipzig, for starters, are just five points behind. Sides such as Eintracht Frankfurt and Hoffenheim are currently holding on to Europa League spots. Frankfurt needed to win a relegation playoff just to remain in the top flight last season while Hoffenheim only finished one point ahead of them. Hertha, typically a mid-table at best side, qualified for Europe last year and are on the verge of doing so again.
Meanwhile, UCL staples such as Schalke and Bayer Leverkusen inexplicably continue to struggle. After finishing fifth and third respectively in 2015-16, they rest 11th and eighth. Big-money Wolfsburg, runners-up in 2014-15, crashed to eighth last season and have fallen even further (14th) this campaign. In terms of the relegation playoff, they are just three points from safety.
And one more: Borussia Mönchengladbach. Since finishing 16th in 2010-11, they’ve qualified for Europe in four of five seasons, three of which being the Champions League. But much like Leverkusen, Schalke and Wolfsburg have done this season, Mönchengladbach have struggled. Their loss to Leipzig on Sunday keeps them on just 26 points and in 11th.
So maybe we take greatness for granted. Perhaps Bayern is just this season’s version of the great team that simply finds ways to win. But what if I told you that some of the other Bundesliga sides are finally getting their act together? Would you believe it? I mean, can we feasibly write every single one of these clubs exceeding expectations off as a one-off? If it doesn’t seem that simple, that’s because it’s not.
Sometimes you just have to give credit—which, by the way, doesn’t mean you can’t criticize.
Of course this isn’t like Leicester winning the league. We can grant that. And yes, the picture atop the Bundesliga has rarely deviated in recent years. But if anything, how Leicester look now is a rather obvious indictment of just how poor the rest of the Premier League was last season. The Foxes deserve their credit just as others deserve criticism. Likewise, many of these Bundesliga sides deserve credit. And believe it or not, we can still criticize Bayern from time to time. That’s how this is supposed to work.
But if a handful of lackluster league performances is the trade off for turning it on during UCL knockout stages, so be it. If that’s the trade off for being a little less entertaining, what are you going to do? It’s good enough to be first in the Bundesliga. It’s good enough to make another deep DFB-Pokal cup run. And until results start going against them, it’s good enough, period.