At each and every step of the forthcoming season, the fortunes of new Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola are guaranteed to be the number one narrative, with the twists and turns of the ex-Barcelona boss’s Bavarian adventure chronicled and examined in the minutest detail.
The tactics and playing style Guardiola adopts, the personnel he selects, the way he adapts to German working conditions, his relations with the media and even the figure he cuts in a pair of lederhosen will all be placed under the media microscope. And for the most sought-after coach on the planet, the phrase “no hiding place” will be the ever-present reality.
When Guardiola’s arrival at the Allianz Arena was announced in January, it was widely portrayed as the final piece in the jigsaw to definitively put Bayern on top of the European pile. However, a lot can happen in six months, and by masterminding the most magnificent of clean sweeps – victories in the Champions League, Bundesliga and German Cup – veteran coach Jupp Heynckes effectively tore up the road map to the summit, in the process making himself an almost impossible act to follow.
Perfection, of course, cannot be bettered, and for this very good reason it would be wise for Guardiola to play it conservatively, forgoing the Camp Nou franchise revolution for continuity and simply keeping the high-powered Bayern engine ticking over. Forget the radical.
But if Guardiola is feeling the strain of Alpine-high expectations, he certainly did not show it during his first official Bayern press conference, charming the 240 journalists who hung on his every word with good humour, modesty, charisma and a surprisingly strong command of the German language.
All in all, it was the best possible start to a new era at the Bayern trophy factory.
With an all-conquering group of players already in place, a surfeit of young talent (the average age of the Bayern squad is only 25), plus the addition of Guardiola and €37million attacking-midfield acquisition Mario Gotze from Borussia Dortmund, Bayern are naturally odds-on favourites to defend the title they clinched so comfortably last season. But that’s not to say that the Bavarians only have to turn up to prevail in this, the 51st edition of the Bundesliga.
Every three or four years, Bayern have a tendency to misplace their domestic golden touch and, with everybody gunning for them, such an accident cannot be ruled out in the months ahead.
Teams who win big often suffer from a subsequent loss of hunger and Guardiola may find it tough outside of his Catalan comfort blanket. And it’s also conceivable that the Bavarians will be distracted and drained by the demands of the Club World
Cup in December.
In the event of Bayern slipping up, no team is better equipped to take advantage than Dortmund. Fresh from last season’s Champions League exploits – when they only lost narrowly in the Final to Bayern – they can sweep anyone in the country aside with their attacking elan. And despite being destabilised by the shock loss of Gotze, and striker Robert Lewandowski’s desire to fly the nest, the Westfalenstadion side are a remarkably resilient bunch who are warriors on the pitch while still capable of absorbing the regular loss of influential figures.
A Dortmund title push will depend on an improvement in their squad depth. That may be a huge challenge, but it is one made to measure for coach Jurgen Klopp, a born leader with a supreme flair for galvanising and motivating. The signing of Armenia international Henrikh Mkhitaryan from Shakhtar Donetsk is a signal of intent.
While the Bundesliga race is likely to boil down to a Bayern-Dortmund shoot-out, the battle for a top-four spot and Champions League qualification could well be a more democratic exercise, with several teams harbouring genuine hopes of breaking through.
Third last season and just a point adrift of runners-up Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen may have lost two key performers in forward Andre Schurrle and Spanish right-back Daniel Carvajal – who left for Chelsea and Real Madrid respectively – but they remain full of counter-attacking threat, infectious vitality and the marksmanship of Stefan Kiessling, who was the Bundesliga’s top scorer last term.
Schalke have a wealth of creative and front-line brilliance to call on with predatory striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, attacking midfielder Julian Draxler and the left-sided Christian Clemens, a recent buy from Cologne. Meanwhile, Armin Veh’s young and resourceful Eintracht Frankfurt side rightly believe they can build on their over-achieving feats of last term, when they rose from top-flight new boys to sixth spot.
Wolfsburg are also back on an upward curve. Spearheaded by the strike force of Ivica Olic and Bas Dost, they looked far more fluid and sharper in the second half of last season, and they also boast one of the best corridor-of-power operators around in ex-Werder Bremen general manager Klaus Allofs. Hanover could be on the verge of a great leap forward following a promising summer recruitment drive that saw the arrival of Dortmund’s gifted young schemer Leonardo Bittencourt and promising central midfielder Edgar Prib from Greuther Furth.
For the Bundesliga to truly move up to another level it desperately needs a bit more end product from some of its most popular sides. Over the last few years, the prestigious likes of Hamburg, Bremen, Stuttgart and Hertha Berlin have all been on the sick list, but if that quartet were to suddenly awaken it would be a shot in the arm for the entire league.
Hamburg and Bremen both made changes of leadership this summer, the former bringing in ex-Bayern centre-back Oliver Kreuzer to replace Frank Arnesen as director of sport, while Bremen dispensed with the services of Thomas Schaaf after 14 years
and appointed former Freiburg boss Robin Dutt, who in his last incarnation was the German federation technical director.
Re-established in top flight
After running away with last term’s second division, Hertha’s mission to re-establish themselves in the top flight will, to a large extent, depend on the continued excellence of Brazilian creator-cum-goalscorer, Ronny.
Stuttgart, who were champions in 2007, have done no end of good transfer market business, particularly with the acquisition of Leverkusen defensive all-rounder Daniel Schwaab, Moroccan striker Mohammed Abdellaoue from Hanover and Dortmund’s sparky midfielder Moritz Leitner on a two-year loan deal.
Returning to the Bundesliga for the first time in 28 years, Eintracht Braunschweig’s one and only goal will be survival and the
same applies to Augsburg, who miraculously managed to pull away from the drop zone in the latter part of last season
Freiburg, however, whose reward for a wonderful fifth-place finish was to have their heart ripped out with half their side snapped up by Bundesliga outfits with deeper pockets, could struggle.
By Nick Bidwell
Season starts: August 9, 2013
Season ends: May 10, 2014
Team-by-team guide to the new season
• For all this season’s Bundesliga fixtures, go to www.worldsoccer.com/world-service