It was fitting that Bayern Munich should finish a week in which Philipp Lahm’s retirement plan became official with a touch of reverting to type. A dramatic late win? Check. Moving clear at the top of the Bundesliga? Also ticked off, with the teams placed in positions two to seven inclusive all losing on an extraordinary weekend, the upshot of which was Bayern creating a seven-point gap at the table's summit.
There can’t have been many contexts in which Bayern winning at Ingolstadt was in any way remarkable, but as it happened, it was remarkable in pretty much every way. "Wins are always something special, even for us," Lahm told the Bundesliga website after the match. “All the more so when you clinch them so late in the game."
Seeing the way the players celebrated, the galvanising effect of such a dramatic victory was clear—entering the 90th minute, Ingolstadt were still holding onto a point before Arturo Vidal struck.
From many different aspects, this could be one of the most vital goals of Bayern’s season, with the new gap at the top giving themselves breathing space to contemplate the Champions League, starting with this week’s last-16 first leg with Arsenal, as well as creating a moment, for want of a better word.
It has sometimes felt this season that Bayern have needed that. Whenever one strives to put their finger on the difference between the team under Carlo Ancelotti and the previous reign of Pep Guardiola, it usually comes down to one word. Intensity.
The absence of the feverishness with which Guardiola’s Bayern played has been a major adjustment for the Allianz Arena crowd this season. It has been so for opponents, too, with Manuel Neuer recently telling the Guardian's Raphael Honigstein that his team are not swarming over teams with quite the same insistence as before.
“Opponents in the league have become a bit more confident against us right now,” Neuer said. “They sense that they might get something from the game.” Ingolstadt did at the weekend, and there’s an argument to be made that the maintenance of the status quo in the Bundesliga top spot is as much to do with reconstructing Borussia Dortmund’s failings and Bayer Leverkusen’s struggles with consistency, as it has to do with Bayern’s own strengths.
The sheer visceral thrill of Guardiola’s approach is missed, and it’s not hard to see why. However unfairly, many will always define his tenure at Saebener Strasse by the lack of a Champions League title, having inherited Jupp Heynckes’ treble winners. Yet the imprint the Catalan left on the club was a greater one than can be measured in trophies.
As Marti Perarnau wrote in his scintillating season-in-the-life-of, Pep Confidential, Guardiola was considered as the third act in a trilogy starting with Louis van Gaal and prefacing Guardiola with Heynckes. Guardiola’s role was building on the Bayern brand by, for the first time, creating a Bayern brand of football.
Realigning for a less manic regime was always going to be tough for the players, and the crowd. Trying to second-guess Guardiola’s tactics was a mug’s game—it was impossible. In contrast, Ancelotti’s switch to a Christmas tree formation at Ingolstadt on Saturday was a rare diversion from a regular-as-clockwork 4-3-3.
It is now, rather than in plodding league performances that just about get the job done, that Ancelotti will be judged. He was not brought to Bavaria to retain the Bundesliga title, but to right the wrongs of the last three years in bringing back the Champions League.
So Bayern hope he will come into his own now, with the tie with Arsenal an inescapable theme around the club ever since the draw was made back in December. It is here that the end might begin to justify the means. Should Bayern have more left in the tank for the business end of the Champions League, it will cast a season of which they have spent the majority coasting into a different light.
This is where we should begin to find out if Guardiola’s intensity is what has cost Bayern on the European stage. That sense was perhaps most keenly felt in his middle season at the club, when they went down to Barcelona in the semi-final with a cast of walking wounded behind the scenes (though quite how Guardiola could be considered directly responsible for an injury list has always seemed curious).
That Bayern could play last season’s semi with Atletico Madrid another 100 times and probably win 99 of them doesn’t fit the received wisdom, either.
The big question is in which direction Ancelotti is taking Bayern. Is it really forward? In Owen Hargreaves’ 2015 BT Sport documentary Inside Bayern Munich, executive chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge talked about his desire to bring down the average age in a maturing team.
That seemed to have been well on the way to being achieved, with Douglas Costa and Arturo Vidal prominent signings in the last campaign, who both contributed heavily. Kingsley Coman, who weighed heavily against Juventus at this stage last season, seemed ready to do the same.
Costa, Coman and teenage new boy Renato Sanches have been less involved than we might have expected this season. Of Bayern’s outfield players, only Robert Lewandowski has started more Bundesliga games this term than 35-year-old Xabi Alonso, who has looked as if time is catching up with him on more than one occasion this season.
Throughout many of the highlights of Ancelotti’s coaching career, he has leaned heavily on 30-somethings, from the 2007 Champions League with Milan, through Chelsea’s 2010 league and cup double.
Elsewhere in this week’s Champions League fixtures, the reunion of Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona reminds us of the sides’ 2013 meeting, in which Ancelotti preferred to start David Beckham, some four weeks shy of his 38th birthday, in the sentinel role ahead of Marco Verratti.
In his defence, Thiago Alcantara has led the midfield with some aplomb this season, and he should be allowed to do so again vs. Arsenal. Nevertheless, it had seemed as if Bayern were moving bravely in one direction and now, with Arjen Robben once again prominent (as would Franck Ribery be, if he wasn’t injured for this game), we’re not so sure.
Maybe Ancelotti is moving towards a perfect synergy between young and old, and maybe it will click in the Champions League. There is, however, doubt, an emotion that Bayern have not been used to in recent years. A strong performance on their home patch against a familiar rival this week would be a big step towards eradicating that uncertainty.