Reigning champions of Germany, Europe and the world, Bayern Munich currently stand at the very pinnacle of club football. And unlike many one-offs in recent memory, the German giants are well-positioned to defend their status for years to come.
It's extremely difficult to become the best club in the world, and maintaining that level is harder still. Barcelona did exceptionally well, winning the Champions League under Frank Rijkaard in 2006 and then in 2009 and 2011 under Pep Guardiola. Even when they didn't lift Europe's most coveted club trophy, the Catalans were widely regarded as the team to beat.
Despite Barca's stellar squad and exceptional academy, however, it's hard to deny that Barca are now below their peak. Their story is a warning to Bayern of just how fragile greatness can be.
Still, Bayern have every chance to maintain their status as Europe's best club in the years to come. They took a risk in signing Guardiola to reinvent the perfect wheel Jupp Heynckes constructed over the course of several seasons, but the new trainer has quickly learned from his few mistakes and adjusted the team to a playing style that, despite being different, is suitable to his players. And critically, this adjustment has kept the players hungry for more success.
Bayern also recently managed to sign one of the few players who could improve their squad, Robert Lewandowski. The Poland international is one of the best and most coveted strikers on the planet. He offers not only more goal-scoring ability than Mario Mandzukic but also a different style of play in the striker position. For this incredibly deep Bayern team, it's fast becoming less a question of what their best XI is and more a question of what way they would like to beat their opponents.
Although things at Bayern are all rosy right now, greatness is often fleeting. It would be a mistake for the club to assume prolonged dominance without continued adjustment. Continue reading for a look at what the club must do to remain the world's best football club for years to come.
As previously mentioned, Bayern recently managed to improve their squad in one of the few areas that could indeed experience substantial improvement, and Lewandowski's signing will add a new dimension to the Bavarians' attack.
There is one other area in rather dire need of at least one signing: central defense. A previous article addresses this need in more depth, but by way of brief summary, it's a problem that as of now the only natural centre-backs Bayern will have in their squad ahead of next season are Jerome Boateng, Dante and Holger Badstuber.
Dante is on the wrong side of 30 years of age and will need to be replaced within the next couple of years. Badstuber will not have played for 20 months before next season begins, and it would be foolish to assume he will be ready to play at the highest level next season. Accordingly, more depth, if not more quality, is needed in the interior of defense. Guardiola should be well aware of the dangers of neglecting the defense, as his former Barcelona have done just that for years and have seen their status as the world's best club slip away.
Perhaps the hardest part of sustaining a great team is keeping all its players satisfied. Because of schedule congestion and the blistering pace of the modern game, injuries and fatigue are common and require an ambitious club to have many more than 11 top-class players in their ranks.
The trouble is, only 11 players can be on the pitch at any given time. World-class players will not want to ride the bench and win titles while playing a minimal role; they'll want play and be the stars—especially if they are in their prime. With Mario Gomez and Luiz Gustavo as prime examples of precedents, it therefore will be tricky for Bayern to convince the likes of Mario Mandzukic and Xherdan Shaqiri to stay. Unless they somehow become key figures, both are likely to leave eventually, be it in six or 18 months.
Possible replacements can come from the academy, but more mature, reliable players will be required for competing at the highest level. It simply is not acceptable for the best team in the world to blood an 18-year-old in a high-stakes Champions League match. To this end, excellent scouting is needed.
Shaqiri, at a rather modest €11.8 million, is a perfect example of an affordable player who was ready to make the jump to the big stage when he moved to Munich. The good thing for Bayern is that they play in the Bundesliga, home of dozens upon dozens of very talented, young players who have several years of experience even in their early 20s. Scouting should not be difficult.
Bayern have a large contingent of players in the early half of their 20s and are generally a young team. However, Arjen Robben and Bastian Schweinsteiger turn 30 this year, and Franck Ribery, Dante, and Philipp Lahm will all be 31 before 2014 is over. Although all are beloved by fans and revered as heroes of the club, Bayern will need to replace them sooner than later.
The last great dynasty, Barcelona, had trouble replacing aging stars, and it cost them on the highest level. As he approaches his 36th birthday, Carles Puyol still is yet to be adequately replaced. Aging, painful knees have caused him trouble ever since 2010, and it's been a long time since he was a world-class player. Barcelona's Achilles' heel in recent years has been a defense that simply is not the same without him.
Xavi has also proved extremely difficult to replace. Arguably the best player in the world in 2009, his long decline began not long after he turned 30. Once nearly always under 15 meters from the ball, he began to run less and suffered in the defensive areas. He will turn 34 later this month, with no heir anywhere near the level at which he played in his prime.
One of the biggest problems for Barca was that the club relied on academy players to fill the shoes of world-class stars. But as the club learned, the likes of Marc Bartra and Thiago Alcantara could not be prepared for the big stage after competing with the club's reserves.
Bayern must be wary not to wait for their stars to decline to sub-world-class level before they look for replacements. And they must not rely on teenagers who only have experience in the lower leagues.
An alternative for Bayern is to use their treatment of Emre Can and Jan Kirchhoff as examples. Even though there was no foreseeable room for him in the squad, Kirchhoff was signed on a free transfer last summer. To precisely no one's great surprise, he was not used very much in the fall, and Bayern sent him off on an 18-month loan to Schalke with a buy-out clause. Schalke could act as Bayern's feeder or, at the very least, will be forced to pay a transfer fee for Kirchhoff. It's a win-win situation for Bayern.
The Bavarians may be able to take a similar approach with Sebastian Rode, whom Frankfurt CEO Heribert Bruchhagen has said for the majority of the year (and most recently on Thursday) is set to join Bayern on a free transfer when his contract expires this summer.
As for Can, although their handling of the 19-year-old's situation was not exactly ideal (The player said last May that he could not accept another year playing against local clubs in the reserves.), their sale of him to Leverkusen was a particularly inspired bit of business.
Rather than sending Emre on a long-term loan, which would decrease his future sale value as his contract expiration drew nearer, Bayern sold the player with a buyback clause for the same €5 million they claimed from Leverkusen in the summer. At any time before 2017, when the player is 23 and entering the prime of his career, Bayern can offer him a long-term contract and sign him back on the cheap.
The way Emre was sold, he is still as much a Bayern player as he ever was. But his sale leaves the Bavarians in better financial standing and with more sway over his long-term future. A similar model could be followed with players from Bayern's academy or even with young signings from other clubs. It's a policy that would be unpopular around the league and would reduce other clubs to feeder teams, but Bayern have never allowed the villain's tag to stop them from taking advantage of opportunities as they arise.
A fundamental law of the universe is that all good things must eventually end. Just as there will come a time that Ribery, Schweinsteiger and Lahm will no longer be able to carry on as first-teamers, Pep Guardiola will one day leave Bayern Munich.
Guardiola's deal of €17 million per year essentially marries him to the club for the three years of its duration. Even if Bayern were to have a cataclysmic capitulation, the club could hardly terminate his contract and continue to pay his salary in addition to that of a replacement.
The magnitude of Guardiola's contract also means that should the trainer decide to leave, Bayern won't be able to extend his stay simply by offering him more money. He already earns nearly double the salary of the second-highest-paid coach in the world, Jose Mourinho (€10 million/year), and wages are unlikely to be a critical barrier for negotiations.
Guardiola left Barcelona after winning 14 trophies in four seasons. He said he needed to "recharge [his] batteries," the pressure, regardless of all his success, having taken its toll. Bayern can expect 100 percent from him for two-and-a-half more years, but if he chooses to take another sabbatical or try his hand at a new challenge, they will need to be prepared to move on.