Bayern Munich celebrated the final day of Oktoberfest on Sunday as they hammered Borussia Dortmund 5-1, their biggest victory over the Ruhr club since before BVB’s back-to-back title-winning seasons in 2011 and 2012.
Many have called the emphatic result the end of the 2015-16 season, with Bayern having wrapped up the title within two months. And there’s good reason to believe it.
The defeat left Dortmund seven points behind the league leaders. Schalke, who lost 3-0 to Koln earlier in the day, are a further point back. Last year’s runners-up, Wolfsburg, trail by 12 points in ninth place after losing to Bayern in September by the same 5-1 margin as BVB did on Sunday.
Bayern have won every game in all competitions since the DFL Superpokal, their competitive opener, and there now looks to be no club in Europe—let alone Germany—that can compete on their level.
There are several causes for Bayern’s recent results and re-emergence as Europe’s most-dominant club.
One is the otherworldly form of Robert Lewandowski, who has scored 12 goals in his last four games. Another is the brilliance of new signing Douglas Costa, who assisted at least one goal in each Bundesliga game prior to the BVB match.
And it helps to have world-class stars like the aforementioned pair, plus Thomas Muller and Jerome Boateng, all in the range of 25 to 27, experienced and in the very prime years of their careers.
Beyond the individual brilliance of his players, however, Pep Guardiola deserves enormous credit for his tactical evolution. He finally seems to have found the formula to not only win, but to get the very most from his players and the team as a whole.
In his first two seasons at Bayern, Guardiola’s success in the Bundesliga served perhaps as a false validation of his tactics.
Winning the league in record time in 2014 may have suggested his side were playing at their very best level, yet the team that competed in the Champions League was not on a par with what their domestic record suggested.
And despite another league cakewalk overall in 2015, Bayern had major problems in big games. They struggled before being knocked out of the DFB-Pokal and Champions League, and even in the Bundesliga had the worst head-to-head record among the top-six finishers.
Bayern this season have been the exact opposite. They’ve blown out more competitive sides like Dortmund, Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen, while any close calls have come against lesser sides like Hoffenheim and Augsburg. And much of it has to do with a change to more-pragmatic tactics from Guardiola.
Against Dortmund, Philipp Lahm and David Alaba were back in their natural positions as full-backs. Both have featured prominently in defence this season, a change from when the trainer used both in midfield. Bayern took on BVB with four-man defence and a classic striker whose support came primarily from the wings.
In the past, Guardiola often experimented with a 'false-nine' system, with Muller or Mario Gotze up front. Lewandowski’s brilliance has left the coach with no choice but to play the classic centre-forward in the striker role.
And rather than playing more narrowly as in yesteryear, the trainer seems to have embraced more wide play, especially with the reintroduction of full-backs to support wingers.
Previously, Bayern’s failures were often due to foreseeable tactical mistakes by Guardiola: Using players out of their natural positions, playing a suicidal high offside trap or focusing too much on ball retention and lacking pace and use of width in attack.
Against poor teams, Guardiola’s odd moves worked: Even at centre-back, Lahm would probably still be better than most in that position, but that fact does not mean he should have been used anywhere other than at right-back.
Boateng’s pace and strength were too much for most strikers even if they managed to receive the ball between the back line and goalkeeper.
However, man-marking the world’s deadliest front attacking trio with a three-man defence positioned on the midfield line was never going to work, and there simply is no case to be made that that strategy was the best approach Guardiola could have taken against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final earlier in 2015.
Guardiola inherited a treble-winning Bayern team and perhaps felt pressured to reinvent the wheel. It came to the point where he was being tactically innovative for the sake of tactical innovation, a touch of hubris and vanity included with an apparent need to make a personal statement.
Something changed over the summer, though, and Guardiola has since moved on to strategies more conventional but much, much more effective.
His players are either the same as those who won the treble in 2013 or newcomers of similar attributes, and the style in which Bayern are playing now is more reminiscent of Jupp Heynckes’ side than ever before.
The need for possession is lesser (they had just 55.7 percent of the touches against BVB, according to the Bundesliga live ticker); There’s a much greater emphasis on quickness in transitioning from defense to attack, while containment is the primary focus at the back. And long balls aren't frowned upon.
In fact, route-one football led to two goals against Dortmund as Boateng supplied Muller and Lewandowski for Bayern's first and third. To be clear, it's still Guardiola's team with his tactics, just a less-revolutionary (and more-effective) team than we've seen in the last couple years.
Perhaps Guardiola has compromised his values, perhaps he has simply evolved and come to accept pragmatism and more conventional football isn't such a bad thing after all. Whatever the case, it's working.
Bayern made another big statement on Sunday and are looking to be the best team in Europe. If they can maintain this level through May next year, another treble is more than possible.