Only Bayern can beat Bayern

Posted by Stephan Uersfeld

Having played the greatest season ever by a German team, and adding not only the most sought-after coach in football, but also two of the biggest talents in Europe to the club, is there anyone -- or anything -- that can stop Bayern Munich from winning back-to-back Bundesliga titles?

Let's take a look at Bayern's opponents before touching base on what really could prevent Bayern from defending their title. Looking at the current Bundesliga squads, it is unlikely that any team, outside the trio of Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen and FC Schalke 04, could realistically compete with Bayern. However, you never know in German football, and over the past decade or so, a few dark horses have ended up on top of the standings at the end of the season.

VfB Stuttgart won the title in 2007 and VfL Wolfsburg's title win -- the last great achievement of German coaching legend Felix Magath before he finally turned into the first day trader in Bundesliga, buying and selling players at his will -- was also a major upset, just like Borussia Dortmund's first title in 2011.

Despite having to sell Mario Gotze to their fiercest rivals this summer, Dortmund look the team most likely to challenge Bayern for the title. The Champions League finalists have spent wisely over the past few weeks, adding fast attackers Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to their "pressing machine".

Henrikh Mkhitaryan enjoyed a fine Dortmund debut
GettyImagesHenrikh Mkhitaryan has joined Dortmund from Shakhtar Donetsk.

For their shaky defence -- 42 goals again conceded last season -- they acquired the services of the take-no-enemies style of Greece international Sokratis Papastathopoulos. A selection of fine youngsters, such as Erik Durm, Jonas Hofmann and Marvin Sarr, add quality to a squad that looked thin on various occasions last season. It could look thin again as Dortmund will want to make it out of their Champions League group for a second year in a row and then "take it from there."

Dortmund's Ruhr Rivals Schalke 04 have, without a doubt, made some well-considered moves on the transfer market -- looking for players to develop rather than established names. In Adam Szalai they have found an experienced Bundesliga target man to lift some pressure off Dutch striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, while centre-back Felipe Santana crossed the great divide from Dortmund to Schalke and is likely to stabilize the club's defence.

The likes of Leon Goretzka and Christian Clemens, who joined the Royal Blues from Germany's second tier, are two huge German midfield talents and will add to the competition in the squad. Julian Draxler, Max Meyer and Sead Kolasinac have all stormed into Schalke's first team from the club's famous youth academy, Die Knappenschmiede, and Peter Herrmann, the man behind Jupp Heynckes last season, has joined the club as one of the assistant coaches. However, it may be too early for Schalke, who are, nevertheless, on a good path.

Bayer Leverkusen finished last season only a point behind Borussia Dortmund but their inferiority complex has not helped them in the past, nor will it help them in the future. Over the past few days, several Bayer Leverkusen players have bemoaned the lack of attention the team receives, with outgoing Bayer CEO Wolfgang Holzhauser suggesting that Leverkusen should target becoming "everyone's favourite second team."

Given those discussions, but also looking at the double burden of Champions League football, Leverkusen, who have replaced Chelsea-bound Andre Schurrle with Hamburg's highly rated South Korean talent Heung Min-Son and outstanding right back Daniel Carvajal, who had to return to Real Madrid, with Italy Under-21 Giulio Donati, will more likely be fighting to stay in the top four of Bundesliga. It also remains to be seen if Sami Hyypia had been the man behind Leverkusen's success last year or if Sascha Lewandowski, who was fed up with professional football and returned to the club's youth academy, was the brain behind Leverkusen 2012/2013.

So, with maybe Borussia Dortmund and -- an even a bigger maybe -- Schalke 04 the only challengers, Bayern can only be stopped by themselves.

Pep Guardiola Bayern Munich training
GettyImagesPep Guardiola has started his preparations for the 2013-14 season

The famous phrase "if it ain't broken, don’t fix it" has been slowly creeping into the minds of football fans looking at the current changes at Bayern Munich. Whereas during his presentation in late June, Guardiola claimed he would need "to adjust to the players 100 percent." He has since caused irritations at Sabener Straße by slowly adjusting the players to his needs.

First, he introduced a new system, the 4-1-4-1 formation, and got rid of the old, and rather successful Bayern system of the past season, the 4-2-3-1 formation. Over the past couple of days, several Bayern players have commented that this new formation will take some time to learn.

"Pep Guardiola has his own ideas," Bayern captain Philipp Lahm said, adding the team needed to "work on fine-tuning in the next few weeks." The France international Franck Ribery called the new system "a bit weird" and urged everyone "to talk, learn and train."

The second step was for Pep Guardiola to go public with his wish to sign Thiago Alcantara from his former club. During a news conference that left the German public stunned, Guardiola demanded, "I want Thiago and Thiago only." It also became increasingly evident that Guardiola was much more than the humble coach he was during his opening news conference in July.

The former Barcelona man knows what he wants and he knows how to get them, through praise. That day he told the media, "Mario Gotze is a super, super player. But I need Thiago." Guardiola also called Dortmund striker Robert Lewandowski a super, super player but handed the question of the Poland international's protracted transfer over to Bayern officials Matthias Sammer and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. With that, and his statements about Thiago, he basically ended all talks of Lewandowski becoming the second Dortmund player to change colours this summer.

Thiago Alcantara has signed for Bayern Munich.
APThiago Alcantara is already up to speed.

The Thiago deal, however, went through over the next couple of days. The Barcelona midfielder had been a Manchester United target but admitted that when Guardiola told him about the option to join the treble holders, he basically made up his mind about his switch to Bayern.

With Thiago, the club's midfield is now packed with talent. Players from six nations expected to be involved in the next year's World Cup will be competing for a spot in Guardiola's starting formation. Franck Ribery (France), Arjen Robben (Netherlands), Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland), Luiz Gustavo (Brazil), Javi Martinez, Thiago Alcantara (both Spain) and the Germany quartet Mario Gotze, Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller and Bastian Schweinsteiger have all been key players for their countries over the past few months. But what exactly is this formation and where will everyone fit it?

During his Barcelona days, Guardiola always played with one holding midfielder, Sergio Busquets, covering the two "eights" in midfield. The Spaniard used Xavi and Andres Iniesta most of the time, but at Bayern, before the recent signing of Thiago, German internationals Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger looked destined to become the offensive pairing in midfield.

This has now changed. Thiago joined Bayern to win minutes and, after their past history, will know of Guardiola's plans. Without going into further details over who could lose their place, the dressing room could become a problem for Guardiola if the results are not meeting the Bayern standards.

If Guardiola pulls Javi Martinez back to the centre-back position, this would mean either Brazil international Dante or German international Jerome Boateng, who are both struggling to be permanent starters for their countries, would be consigned to the bench. Mario Gotze has not joined Bayern Munich to sit on the bench, rather thinking he was Guardiola's wish player, but the youngster, who has been fighting with injuries over the past few years, has yet to start preseason after suffering a muscular injury ahead of the Champions League final.

"In such a team with so much quality a lot of very, very good players had to sit on the bench last season," said Toni Kroos, one of the candidates to be dropped from Bayern's starting XI. The Germany midfielder added that playing for Germany "is only possible through good performances for the club."

Given that Bayern players could play up to 66 games until next year's World Cup, the deep squad will guarantee Kroos a few games, but whether those games will be enough to win back his place as the first replacement in the holding midfield position on the German international team seems questionable. His competitor for that position is Dortmund's Ilkay Gundogan, who has a guaranteed place in Dortmund's midfield.

"When you are the coach at FC Bayern you have to play good all the time, you have to always win. That is the situation," Pep Guardiola said. And, indeed, results will be needed from the beginning to stop Bayern from returning to the old FC Hollywood. If they manage to do so, they will not be stopped in Bundesliga and could be the first team to defend the Champions League title.

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