Few people still believe that 2-0 is a dangerous lead or that shooting from distance on a wet surface is advisable. But another beloved cliché of German football has proven much harder to shake off: A strong Bayern Munich presence has been seen as key to a strong national team since the golden 1970s, when the club and Nationalmannschaft were largely indistinguishable, jointly dominating European football.
Hansi Flick, himself a former Bayern player and recent Munich manager, is certainly a believer. A year on from Joachim Low’s late swansong of a sweet 2-0 defeat to England at Wembley, the national team manager has found form and consistency as he put the house on red. With a few exceptions in the problem areas (full-backs and centre-forward), his side are simply Bayern redux. The personnel and the system – a pressing 4-2-3-1 – closely resemble the side that won the Champions League in 2020 in devastating fashion with Flick at the helm.
There’s Manuel Neuer in (and out) of goal, of course; Niklas Sule, who will leave for Borussia Dortmund next season, is a guaranteed starter at centre-back; Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka lead the midfield, with Thomas Muller ahead of them; Serge Gnabry and Leroy Sane are the wide forwards. Moreover, teenage prodigy Jamal Musiala is still part of the first wave of substitutes, adding creativity on both flanks, as Muller or even further back.
In Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Italy in Bologna, Germany started with seven Bayern players for the first time since the 2014 World Cup. Compare and contrast that Bavarian dominance with Low’s marginalization. Munich-based players during the confusing Euro 2020 shambles. Only four Bayern men (Neuer, Muller, Goretzka, Kimmich) started in a confusing Wembley XI that featured Mats Hummels (Borussia Dortmund) and Matthias Ginter ( then at Borussia Mönchengladbach) in a loosely Atalanta-inspired 3-4-3 system that no one except winger Robin Gosens and Chelsea’s Kai Havertz knew about club football.
Low’s inexplicable fascination with this formation has left many players in positions so unnatural they could have appeared in the latest Stranger Things series – with equally chilling results. Kimmich was horribly ill-chosen at right-back, Havertz withered on the right wing and Muller had far too little room to maneuver on the left side of the attack.
Flick’s trick since taking charge in September last year has been to reintegrate as much and as much of the Bayern squad he left just three months earlier. The departure of Toni Kroos from the national team and the disappearance of Hummels paved the way for a complete takeover of Bayern, which was further aided by the superb form of the Munich midfield attacking quintet in the first half of the season under Julian Nagelsmann.
There are some stylistic differences and diverging details but, overall, Muller et al have rarely missed a beat as they go from smashing Barcelona one week to cruising past Armenia next. Against admittedly docile opposition, this heavily Bavarian Germany played well to regain some of the popularity the national team had ceded during Low’s disheveled final act (2016-2021). Ten games without defeat (eight wins, two draws) have revived a good dose of euphoria, to the point that many are expecting a serious challenge at the World Cup.
It speaks volumes about the steady progress under Flick that a draw against Italy, Germany’s traditional bogey side, was seen as a huge disappointment on Saturday. “There were a lot of things I didn’t like,” the national team manager said harshly, “we lacked precision and intensity.” Striker Kimmich was equally critical, saying his side’s performance was simply ‘not good enough’. In truth, the performance of the visitors did not quite justify this level of self-flagellation. The approach game and the pressing had especially been there, especially during a fine first 30 minutes which had left Roberto Mancini’s revamped team little time to breathe. All that was missing was a bit of finesse in the final third – or better still, shooting from outside the box – to turn German verve into goals.
And yet, the flaws weren’t so surprising. Flick discovered the logical downside of his concept: a German team brimming with talent from Bayern also imported their problems wholesale. All the issues familiar to those who have witnessed the Bundesliga champions’ strange loss of form and cohesion since the winter break were on display at the Renato Dall’Ara stadium. Both Goretzka and Kimmich looked distinctly rusty after missing many weeks respectively through injury and illness. Gnabry, despite all his labyrinthine runs, has been largely ineffective in front of goal – just as he has been since the start of the year. He’s only scored six goals for Bayern in 2022.
His partner on the opposite flank, Sane, strayed far worse. After making a superb start under Nagelsmann, the former Manchester City winger’s recent performances have once again lacked seriousness and focus. At Bologna, the 26-year-old couldn’t be blamed for an out-of-possession effort but his work on the ball was poor throughout. Muller, too, has apparently not recovered from his club team crisis. He often found the right space but rarely the right pass or finish.
The Bayern contingent’s struggles were compounded by Germany’s traditional concerns in certain areas. Jonas Hofmann (Borussia Mönchengladbach) and Thilo Kehrer (Paris Saint-Germain) offered a small lead. In Kehrer’s defence, his main job was to tuck in when Gnabry was in a high position, but the lack of dynamism from the full-backs is a major concern when it comes to the World Cup. Newcomers like David Raum (Hoffenheim) don’t have much time to prove themselves.
At the front there is a large hole in the shape of Robert Lewandowski. Timo Werner tried hard enough to make up for the Polish striker’s regrettable ineligibility, but the Chelsea striker is never happier leading the line against a deep enough defensive block. Lukas Nmecha (Wolfsburg) is a more orthodox, if less gifted target man, while future BVB striker Karim Adeyemi thrives on transition. Germany will have to find different solutions up front, perhaps like Bayern will have to in a post-Lewy world.
Having held himself hostage to Bayern’s fortunes, Flick must be hoping his successor at the Allianz Arena will conjure up the same kind of perfect attacking storm he did last year at the same stage of the season in time to the departure of the plane for the World Cup. . In light of Bayern’s near-monopoly on world-class talent in the Bundesliga, the benefits of sticking to Munich’s plan and personnel still clearly outweigh the risks, despite the ripple effects of domestic issues. .
Even a German team that fails to come together, as they did in Bologna, has the characteristics of a decent Champions League quarter-finalist; a well-drilled unit, capable of performing in recognizable patterns. It might not be that much, but it’s still a lot more than can be said for most teams they will face in the World Cup. In international football, primarily a contest between teams with varying degrees of shortcomings, Flick’s club team approach has a decent chance of proving once again that the old adage about Bayern and Germany is true.
(Top photo: Federico Gambarini/photo alliance via Getty Images)