We’ve seen it before, but it’s still difficult to know exactly how it should be characterised. It was brilliant, beautiful, ugly, deflating, awe-inspiring and a huge letdown all at the same time. Bayern Munich’s hegemony shows no sign of letting up and neither does it show any potential for being less of a source of conflicting feelings and views.
Normally the Bundesliga’s Top-Spiel is on a Saturday at 6.30pm local time, situated perfectly between going to a game in the afternoon and stepping out for the night. Yet Bayern’s visit to Leverkusen – enterprising and entertaining thus far under new coach Gerardo Seoane – which in a strictly statistical sense pitted first against second, was not until Sunday afternoon. Maybe the different scheduling would offer a different script?
Bayern quickly removed any maybes. Any hope the hosts had lasted 179 seconds, the time it took Robert Lewandowski to put Bayern in front with a smart rabona flick from close range after Dayot Upamecano helped a free-kick across the six-yard line. Just after the half-hour mark, four more goals followed in the space of seven minutes – another for Lewandowski, a couple for the magnificent Serge Gnabry and one that Thomas Müller gleefully helped in with his thigh in between. With the visitors 5-0 up after 37 minutes, Leverkusen’s players were as punch drunk as Brazil’s in 2014. For Belo Horizonte, you could read BayArena.
It was a powerful statement set off by a statement of Julian Nagelsmann’s own. The coach chose the same XI that had let Bayern’s – and his – unbeaten record slip 14 days before, at home to Eintracht Frankfurt. His selection was a challenge to his players to focus on the present, not to think about the just-completed internationals or the forthcoming Champions League, and to sharpen up. They accepted the challenge with real style and determination.
For Leverkusen, there was a feeling of inevitability. “They rarely lose twice in a row,” Rudi Völler lamented afterwards. You saw it too in the reception for the players as they approached their supporters in the Kurve to acknowledge them at full time. Rather than express anger to the team, those fans “felt the need to console their players”, as Süddeutsche Zeitung’s Ulrich Hartmann put it – and it was that, rather than the second-half display in which they kept Bayern at bay and even scored a goal of their own via Patrik Schick, that was in the forefront of the mind. But by then, it had been over for a long time.
It had been pitiless from the champions. “The first half was brutal,” in the words of Seoane, who talked of “seven insane minutes in which Bayern clearly showed us why they are the best team in Germany”. Hartmann spoke for many when he looked ahead to Bayern’s next big domestic test, against Dortmund at the start of December, with more than a hint of fatalism (“the next alleged top game”). His colleague Christof Kneer wrote in a Sunday editorial that this was exactly the sort of occasion that ended with Bayern “accused of vandalism and wilful destruction, that they are ruining the Bundesliga”. If their dominance gave this the feel of “a benefit game”, as Kneer suggested, “then the good cause can’t have been the Bundesliga”. The tradition of Bayern-Dusel – a sort of luck that saw them always scratch out a late winner to prevail somehow – has turned into “Bayern-Grusel”, as Kneer has it. Bayern horror. They even turn capable opponents’ worst nightmares into a dreadful reality.
Existential angst over competitive balance shouldn’t overshadow the fact we are looking at very possibly the best team in Europe right now – or damn close to it, if not. Die Werkself have players of aptitude and bravery, led by teenager Florian Wirtz who had the small consolation of laying on Schick’s goal with a smart pass, but he was like the rest of his teammates in the first half, a virtual prisoner as the visitors swarmed all over them and killed their opportunity to press as they like to do. Nagelsmann’s hand is clear to see but, led by Leon Goretzka and Joshua Kimmich in terms of intensity, the course set by Hansi Flick has not been wildly deviated from.
For those who see Bayern flexing their muscles in this way as anti-competitive spite, it’s worth considering the competition they face in Europe from clubs with less of a need to examine the balance sheet so closely. “Such games [as this],” wrote Kneer, “are powerful statements both internally and externally. They help players like Kimmich, Goretzka and Gnabry to continue to give preference to Munich over clubs run by the emirates or oligarchs.” Get paid and have fun. That, rather than being killjoys, is this Bayern’s way.
Erling Haaland came back from injury and dutifully completed the checklist of exactly how and why Dortmund need him so much, even if it was captain Marco Reus who gave the team an early lead against Mainz with a rocket. The Norwegian extended their advantage from the penalty spot and after BVB gave away the sort of ridiculous goal they have made an unwelcome habit of, Haaland clinched it by converting a superb assist from the again-excellent Jude Bellingham. “It would have been great if we could have [replaced him] sooner,” said Marco Rose, “but then he goes and scores another goal in the 95th minute, which can help you out.” It is clear that a reliance on their star forward is far past the point of being a choice.
Wolfsburg are now struggling to stay with the pack. After their four-out-of-four start they have gone four Bundesliga games without a win, with Saturday’s 2-0 loss at Union Berlin their third reverse in a row. On top of that, centre-forward Wout Weghorst has tested positive for Covid and will miss this week’s Champions League match at Salzburg.
Union are now in the top five but put Wolfsburg noses out of joint with a comment on their website’s live-text commentary describing Hertha loanee Dodi Lukebakio’s point-blank miss for the visitors in the first half, when the game was goalless. “Even my uncle would have scored,” it said, “and he has an artificial hip and a broken knee. You can tell the man came from Hertha!” Wolfsburg managing director Jörg Schmadtke later told Bild of his annoyance “even if it was meant to be funny”.
Having ended Bayern’s unbeaten home run with that stunning win, Eintracht surrendered their own sequence of invincibility, losing on their turf for the first time in 23 matches – and to struggling Hertha, no less. Jürgen Ekkelenkamp’s decisive header means the will-he-won’t-he of Pal Dardai’s future will likely continue for at least a few weeks – but after a week in which CEO Carsten Schmidt surprisingly quit, any end to drama in the capital’s favourite soap opera appears unlikely.