It may seem unconscionable to suggest that a club that won the Treble last season, a club that’s coming off 22 wins on the spin (including an 8-0 drubbing of Schalke in their season opener Friday), a club that last lost a match on Dec. 7, 2019 — and has won every game, bar one, since then — might be a little bit short-handed going into the season. But that’s exactly where Bayern Munich find themselves right now.
Manager Hansi Flick said as much last week, and he’s right. He said he’d be assessing his squad and wasn’t ruling out the possibility of new signings. You hope the people upstairs are listening — not something to take for granted. As successful as Bayern have been, this is also the club that thought Philippe Coutinho would be a good fit, that in the past three years has twice changed managers just after the start of the season and the close of the market and where, at times, it feels like there are too many cooks.
The fact is this team is short — or at least, shorter than they need to be — in a number of positions. The starting lineup isn’t the issue; it’s the depth. And that matters when you consider that this promises to be one of the most congested campaigns in recent history: if they advance all the way to the Champions League final, like they did last season and like they hope to do again, it will last 253 days.
Contrast this with their last non-COVID-19 affected campaign, 2018-19, which lasted 288 days. More games in less time generally adds up to more fatigue and less recovery time, which means more injuries. Throw in the fact that the Bundesliga’s customary monthlong winter break has, by necessity, been reduced to two weeks over Christmas and New Year, and there won’t be the usual opportunity to recharge the batteries in midseason either.
There are at least three evident areas of concern.
The most obvious is right-back. Benjamin Pavard is a World Cup winner, but there is no natural backup for him unless you want to move Joshua Kimmich there, opening up another hole to plug in the middle of the park. (And, as we’ll see, that’s not easy to do.) What’s more, Pavard is more of a recycled central defender than the sort of attacking fullback best-suited to Flick’s system. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Bayern are actively looking for an alternative in that position. They’ve been linked with Ajax’s much-hyped U.S. international Sergino Dest on and off all summer. He certainly fits the bill in terms of characteristics, though the most recent reports suggest he could be heading to Barcelona.
Then there’s central midfield. Thiago Alcantara‘s departure has left Bayern with three reliable options for two positions: Leon Goretzka, Joshua Kimmich and Corentin Tolisso. And even Tolisso requires a bit of a leap of faith to be placed in the “reliable” category: he missed most of 2018-19 following a cruciate injury and is coming off ankle surgery last spring.
Get past them, and you’re looking at Michael Cuisance, who made all of 10 appearances last season, mostly after Bayern clinched the title and they were playing out the string of games. He only turned 21 last month, so he can still grow, but his performances have been uneven. Dig even deeper and you’re talking about Javi Martinez, who is 32, coming off a string of injuries and, most important, with a year left on his contract, is on the verge of moving to Athletic Bilbao.
Want to talk wingers? Flick, ideally, would love to have four. Instead, he has three: Serge Gnabry, Kingsley Coman and the newly arrived Leroy Sane. The latter, of course, is a magnificent talent, but he’s also a guy who played just 12 minutes of football last season. Coman, too, hasn’t exactly been the epitome of durability: he missed at least two months in each of the last three seasons.
Those are the big ones. If you want to be a stickler, you note concerns in other areas. Bayern have four options at center-back, which is good, but one of them (David Alaba) is a year away from free agency and embroiled in a renegotiation that threatens to turn nasty (none other than Uli Hoeness called his agent, Pini Zahavi, a “money-grubbing piranha”). Another, Niklas Sule, missed six months last year with a cruciate injury. Lucas Hernandez? He was out for three months (and, the year before, missed six months with an MCL injury). That leaves Jerome Boateng, who is 32.
Or you might note that should something happen to Robert Lewandowski — knock on wood, the man has been a machine in terms of durability — you either turn to Joshua Zirkzee, who is 19 and only made his debut last season, or you move somebody else (Thomas Muller? Coman? Sane?) and therefore creating another hole to plug. The same principle, of course, applies to Muller’s attacking midfield role. You can replace him with Cuisance or you can add a midfielder, which means Cuisance becomes your only option on the bench.
Here’s the thing: Bayern lost Sule, Hernandez and Tolisso for long stretches last season and still won the Treble. You can look at it as evidence of their resilience and their capacity for ingenuity, like giving Alphonso Davies a shot at left-back after Alaba was moved into the middle and discovering he was a world-class left-back. Or you can take it as a warning: Bayern players aren’t invulnerable, far from it, and while they were able to absorb last season’s injuries, they might not be so fortunate this year.
There are fringe youngsters who might step up: Tanguy Kouassi, Chris Richards, Zirkzee, Jamal Musiala and even Cuisance, frankly, has to fall into that category. But the thing with youngsters is that ideally, you want to be the one to decide when to give them a shot, rather than being forced to do so by circumstances.
The versatility of many Bayern players — Alaba, Kimmich, Mueller, Hernandez, Pavard — allowed them to weather injuries without missing a beat. But that’s not something to be taken for granted. And the fact that all of the above (bar Hernandez) are starters right now means you’re effectively playing whack-a-mole, plugging one hole by making another appear.
Relative to this time last year, Bayern have said goodbye to Thiago, Philippe Coutinho, Ivan Perisic and Alvaro Odriozola. Throw in Javi Martinez and the departed (or near-departed) accounted for 5,213 (13.9 percent) of the club’s total league minutes played. Expecting Sane, a bunch of kids and the guys who were long-term injuries last year to stay fit and make up the difference is a gamble.
It’s also an unnecessary one. Bayern, like all clubs, have been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis, but smart management from on high has ensured that they perennially turn a profit for the past two decades-plus. It would be incredible — if not downright negligent — if they didn’t use the cushion they had to buy themselves some “insurance” in the form of a few extra bodies.
That could mean Dest or another attacking fullback. It could mean a winger, perhaps Perisic, who did fine on loan last season: Bayern passed on the option to buy, but the truth is they have leverage over Inter, who need to balance the books. Expect his price to come down as the Oct. 5 transfer deadline approaches or, possibly, Bayern to work out another loan deal. And, of course, another midfielder who can help share the load with Kimmich and Goretzka.
We’re not talking about bringing in superstars at great expense; we’re simply adding extra padding to smooth out what is going to be a brutally intense season. It would be a shame if the unexpected — whether injuries, positive COVID tests or simply the biweekly wear-and-tear of playing in Flick’s high-intensity system — derails the defence of Bayern’s Treble when they have the tools to repeat.