Bundesliga 2018-19: Dortmund excite but still no match for transitioning Bayern
When Paco Alcacer strode forward and beat Manuel Neuer with a delightfully nonchalant dink in November to secure Borussia Dortmund a 3-2 win over troubled Bayern Munich, German football looked reignited.
Dortmund were sitting pretty at the top of the Bundesliga after 11 games with 27 points, seven clear of fifth-placed Bayern, while they were attracting adulation from across Europe for their vibrant football and faith in youth.
It was only their second victory in seven Klassiker contests in all competitions and the improvement was clear to see from their 6-0 dismantling at the Allianz Arena just over seven months prior.
As for Bayern, they were in something of a crisis by their standards. It was the second game in a run of three league outings without a win – a streak they also endured across September and October – and the future of new coach Niko Kovac was already mired in uncertainty.
8 Wins— Borussia Dortmund (@BlackYellow) 10 November 2018
+21 Goal Difference
of the Table pic.twitter.com/Jm239T1054
Bayern's stranglehold on German football appeared to be slipping, but fast-forward six months and they are again lifting the 'salad bowl' after a 5-1 battering of Eintracht Frankfurt with Dortmund having to settle for second. The hope that things were about to change in German football has quickly evaporated.
IS KOVAC THE RIGHT MAN?
Bayern's campaign has been dominated by debate over whether Kovac is up to coaching such a massive club, having made the leap from Eintracht, whose expectations were rather more modest.
Even with Bayern crowned champions, Kovac's future is clouded. Media reports constantly link other coaches – such as Mauricio Pochettino and Jose Mourinho – with the job. There is every chance they could win a domestic double and still opt for change.
Some players are reported to have been frustrated by Kovac's training methods and tactics, while a bust-up between Kingsley Coman and Robert Lewandowski in April suggested there are still issues to iron out.
Lewandowski also criticised Kovac's tactics after their Champions League elimination at the hands of Liverpool in March. There has been little to suggest the Croatian is in complete control.
#Kovac on yesterday's training incident: "Two players got into a scuffle. We had a conversation as a three, in which both players apologised for their behaviour. They are very sorry for what happened."#FCBayernpic.twitter.com/jQiEkgVeO4— FC Bayern English (@FCBayernEN) 12 April 2019
In fairness to Kovac, his position has hardly been helped by those in charge at the club, particularly the eminently vocal CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.
After the 5-0 demolition of Dortmund on April 6, Rummenigge seemingly remained indifferent towards the coach with his response to the question of whether Kovac had secured another season at the helm. He said: "There is no job guarantee at Bayern for anyone."
He then brought up the selection policy used by Kovac during their early-season woes, saying the problems were all "self-inflicted" because "the coach was rotating all over the place".
Club president Uli Hoeness was similarly critical of the rotation back in October, telling Kovac he was putting his "neck on the line" with such a policy, though he has largely been more measured than Rummenigge.
Hoeness had suggested Kovac could still be in charge next season even if Bayern did not win the title, though one thing is clear; an apparent power struggle between two strong characters in the hierarchy is unlikely to be helpful for the coach.
INEXPERIENCED DORTMUND CANNOT GO THE DISTANCE
Luckily for Bayern and Kovac, Dortmund have not exactly been problem-free themselves. Despite their undoubted brilliance in the first half of the season, they have endured two difficult runs since the turn of the year.
A hamstring injury to Marco Reus in February did not help matters, while their defensive options have been depleted for much of the season and inexperience arguably contributed to several big-game collapses.
Alcacer's form has tailed off somewhat as well. The former Barcelona striker scored 12 Bundesliga goals before January, but he has only managed to add another six in 2019.
In a deeper squad that may not have been an issue, yet there is no natural like-for-like replacement in the squad, with the rest of their forwards generally more comfortable out wide or in supporting roles.
Bayern have also been dogged by injury problems, yet they have been able to ride the storm.
Bundesliga record for most substitute goals in a season?— Borussia Dortmund (@BlackYellow) 20 December 2018
Top scorer in the league?
Ready at a minutes notice?
It's Paco time pic.twitter.com/bO3vnmMiIU
BAYERN REIGN SUPREME DESPITE TRANSITION
With a new coach at the helm and experienced players coming to the end of the line at the club, this season was seen as the start of a transition for Bayern, a period that made them vulnerable.
Their tally of 78 points is the second-lowest haul a Bundesliga-winning side has managed in a single campaign since 2009-10, when the division was rather more competitive as only 15 points separated top from sixth.
That proves there was an opportunity for their rivals to capitalise, but still a youthful, exciting Dortmund side has fallen short and RB Leipzig ultimately paid the price for starting the campaign poorly.
With Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben departing and set to be replaced by fresh signings in what will likely be another busy transfer window for Bayern, Dortmund and the rest might sense one more opportunity next season if the Bavarians' sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic gets things wrong.
But on the evidence of this term – and the fact Die Roten have already shelled out approximately €115 million on Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard – the Bundesliga remains a grim procession that Bayern cannot lose even when they are some way below their usual standard.