If hearts hoping for the Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund rivalry to run and run sank at the April news of Mario Gotze’s move to the Allianz Arena, they are bottoming out now. The confirmation of Robert Lewandowski’s long-mooted move leaves the European champions reinforced to the limit of comprehension, and their domestic rivals reaching for the binoculars.
In some ways, the deal is typically Bayern, vacuuming up the best talent from their rivals to simultaneously furnish themselves with Bundesliga tried-and-tested and to weaken rivals.
Lewandowski following Gotze on the road south is reminiscent of Ze Roberto and Michael Ballack of Bayer Leverkusen making a similar voyage, after Klaus Toppmoller’s side narrowly missed out on the Bundesliga, DfB Pokal and Champions League back in 2002.
This is just one example, of course, for there are several others of Bayern recruiting from current rivals, or from clubs that had bested them in recent times.
Centre-back Valerien Ismael, a cornerstone of Werder Bremen’s irresistible championship side of 2004 before joining Bayern in 2005, is one that springs to mind. Arguably, the arrival of Mario Basler from Werder Bremen in 1996 falls into the same category, even if his final season at the Weser had been a tricky one for club and player.
The difference, of course, between the Leverkusen moves from 2002 and the Lewandowski one is that Dortmund bravely exerted their power of attorney in refusing to let the Poland striker go to the Allianz in the summer, reasoning that losing both him and Gotze at the same time would be too much.
It is a decision that is coming under intense scrutiny now, as the effects of playing the highest stakes poker with Bayern are examined. Many will say Dortmund erred in not cashing in, especially given their financial pratfalls in the past—a feeling amplified by Raphael Honigstein’s revelation in this excellent ESPN FC explanation of the saga that Dortmund turned down a €31 million offer for Lewandowski in summer.
It’s certainly a defensible gamble. Despite a tricky last few months that has seen their Bundesliga challenge blown off course, Dortmund are still well-placed to get back into their expected runners-up spot, claiming an automatic return to the Champions League while continuing to mount a stout challenge in this year’s edition.
They have been victims of circumstance to a degree, too. Even with Bayern’s considerable current strength, even they couldn't have coped with the plague of defensive injuries to hit Dortmund in recent months.
Imagine Guardiola’s side shorn of David Alaba, Dante, Jerome Boateng and Philipp Lahm. Lewandowski’s 15 goals this season have tided Dortmund over in the meantime, protecting future revenue as much as anything.
Whether Lewandowski went last summer or next, there is no changing the fact that Bayern are almost impossible to match. Europe’s current greatest team are players in the continental transfer market now, operating in an entirely different stratosphere to any domestic peers.
The heavyweight backing of Adidas is important, with the sportswear giant’s clout (and financial contribution) helping to seal a complicated deal for Javi Martinez in 2012.
The fact remains that Lewandowski is a real prize. More than anything, Dortmund hesitated to sell because he was nigh-on irreplaceable, one of those rare players that is impossible to directly substitute, performing a variety of functions for the team.
His exit does not carry the shock value of Gotze’s, but Jurgen Klopp’s task in replacing him is akin to Manchester United’s when trying to cover for the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009. That, rather than rivaling the Bayern machine, is the priority. Good luck, Herr Klopp.