Bayern Munich's treble

Bayern's place among the greats

May 31, 2013
By Miguel Delaney

It was the perfect way to emphasise the point. With 12 minutes left of the 1972 European Cup final and Ajax winning 1-0, Johan Cruyff rose above the Inter Milan defence to seal both the trophy and the treble. If that achievement was rare enough, so was the manner in which it was secured. The player that had transfixed the continent with his feet surprisingly settled its finest competition with his head.

"I had a lot of qualities," Cruyff said with a smile years later, "but heading wasn't the best. It confirmed our football was maybe a level above."

It also underlined the extent of Ajax's supremacy. For a player of historically high quality to win a game of such high stakes with the one element missing from his game was an act that symbolically brought the season to completion.

That, of course, also reflects the true meaning of a treble: the sense of totality, the elusive notion of leaving nothing else to do or win, utter domination.

As Bayern Munich stand on the verge of an equally fulfilling victory, chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge had his own way of putting it: "This team has already entered the history books, but they can make themselves immortal now."

Bill Shankly used the same term to Jock Stein on the night in 1967 when his Celtic side became the first in Europe to complete a treble. It was all the more impressive because the Scottish side made it a quadruple by winning the League Cup. "Jock," the Liverpool boss said with his typical bombast. "You're immortal now."

Should Bayern beat Stuttgart in the DFB-Pokal on Saturday, they will become just the seventh side in history to win that wondrous combination of domestic league, cup and Champions League in one season.

Given that the German club has been a defeated opponent for three of those sides -- Manchester United 1999, Barcelona 2009 and Inter 2010 -- and was twice denied the feat near the death, it would deepen the sense of a journey's end. The stats, however, further illustrate that Bayern might just be striking out on their own.

Below are the records of the six previous treble winners as well as the 2013 Champions League winners. For the purposes of comparison, only matches from the European Cup, league and main domestic cup are included.

The ratios from those records provide an even more relevant comparison.

As can be seen from the figures, it would be fitting for Bayern to finally claim this feat, because few sides have enjoyed a season as close to perfection as this. Only one previous treble winner has a greater win percentage than the Germans, only two have a better scoring ratio and none have a better defensive record.

All of this does raise questions about their exact quality. Would a treble put Bayern on the top level of Europe's historic pantheon? Does their record do so already? Surely something that near to perfection is extremely persuasive?

Not necessarily. For a start, there is a difference between a team's defined fundamental quality and developing the right rhythm for a propitious period of time. As a consequence of factors like momentum, an existing lead and opposition sides falling away because of all that, teams can get into positions and runs that exaggerate their exact level. That was arguably the case with Manchester United and Barcelona this season, who both talked giddily of trebles at different points. It's possible that may have happened in the Bundesliga this year too.

As much as an entire season supposedly evens out the variables of fortune, a single campaign is still prone to its specific conditions that skew things. As Teddy Sheringham said about United's 1999 treble: "We had a little rub of the green at the right time, and we dug deep at the right time as well."

In a broader context, PSV Eindhoven were fortunate to find such form in 1988, at a point just after the dominant English clubs had been banned from European football and just before Arrigo Sacchi's Milan initiated such a quantum leap in Italy. Similarly, Bayern Munich probably benefited from encountering Barca in this season's semifinals at a time when the Catalans' various problems had built to a peak. Otherwise, the victory may not have been so emphatic or even a victory at all.

It is one of the curiosities to Bayern's campaign. While they are an obviously excellent team, there is still the odd feeling that their quality isn't quite as compelling as their records and that they have significant room for improvement. Should they manage that, though, they will have proved that this season's achievements have so much more to them. That is the key point.

Pep Guardiola
APIncoming Bayern boss Pep Guardiola is no stranger to treble success.

A statement from Pep Guardiola after Barcelona's 2009 treble somewhat summed this up: "We're not the best team in Barca history, but we've had the best season." The Catalan boss was trying to be humble and pay heed to the Cruyff team of 1992, but it was his own side that would prove him right. Although the evolved Barca outfit of 2011 would win one fewer trophy, they were -- ironically -- a much more complete team.

Further illustrating how the total domination of a treble can swing on unpredictable single moments, superior sides such as Real Madrid 1953-60 and Liverpool 1976-85 never won one.

They instead won many more trophies over a longer period of time, as did Ajax of the early '70s. For Cruyff's team, completing the treble was not down to a twist of fate but a natural consequence of Total Football.

Having adopted a similar approach, Bayern must now replicate that. Of course, they must start by actually winning the treble. Even if they fail, though, recent history suggests they will get a chance to do so again.

It is no coincidence that, after 43 years of European Cup history in which only three trebles were won and all of them in smaller leagues, we are now on the verge of a third treble in five seasons in one of the major competitions.

Previously, the likes of the Bundesliga or Serie A would simply have had too many quality teams for any one side to be so commanding. Now, as has been argued on this site in the past week, we are seeing the rise of the superclubs that tower over everyone else to a disproportionate degree. Such records are a reflection of their resources.

Either way, one of those superclubs now stands on the brink of a truly supreme achievement. For Bayern, history awaits. Perfection may follow.