Bayern Munich may be the most in-form club in European football at the moment, but that does not mean everything was rosy for the German giants heading into the international break.
Two of the club’s biggest superstars, Robert Lewandowski and Arjen Robben, apparently had a row during the Bavarians’ recent 4-0 win against Stuttgart, and Sport Bild (h/t ESPN’s Stephan Uersfeld) reported that "it is no secret in the team that Lewandowski and Robben avoid each other in the dressing room.”
The tension between the star attackers allegedly stemmed from Lewandowski’s complaints that Robben opted not to pass to him on multiple occasions in the second half. The player refused to comment to the press but was visibly frustrated during the game.
For his part, Robben said: “There were a few situations in the first half where he could have passed the ball too.”
Many fans will hold their heads in their hands as “FC Hollywood” will likely return to the fore in headlines surrounding Bayern.
It’s a term that has come up on occasion since its origin in the 1990s, when Jurgen Klinsmann and Lothar Matthaus in particular made news for outrageous comments. At the time, the club was in a dark period in its history in terms of performance, and there seemed to always be one scandal or another about their players in the papers.
Since then, elements of “FC Hollywood” have returned from time to time. And now, Pep Guardiola will have to handle the current rift between Robben and Lewandowski.
The key for Guardiola is to address the issue, to draw a line in the sand and make it clear that any violations will be punished.
Allowing the problem to fester is asking for trouble, especially as Lewandowski chases individual records and the notoriously egotistical Robben tries to gather form following injury and perhaps make one last push for the Ballon d’Or. He will, after all, turn 32 by the end of the winter break, and it’s easy to understand how tempted he might be to pursue personal glory.
Given Bayern’s current form, especially compared to that of many of Europe’s other top clubs, a second treble in three years is entirely possible. And to some of their players, perhaps it’s even probable.
At the very least, it’s easy to see how players ambitious enough to make their way at Bayern and successful enough to be key figures in the team might be moved to be the definitive hero of the side that wins every title possible. Yet that individual pursuit is exactly what could get in the way of the club’s success.
Consider the notoriously egotistical Cristiano Ronaldo. When he was just another star at Manchester United, he reached the Champions League final twice and won it once by the age of 24. Then he became the €100 million man at a Real Madrid side that became the most expensive assembled in football history.
Yet despite their abundant resources, Real during the prime of Ronaldo’s career have only reached the final once, despite having one of the most prolific scorers in football history in their ranks. And when they did win their long-awaited 10th Champions League title, the key players were Sergio Ramos, Angel Di Maria and Luka Modric. Individualism just isn’t a reliable way to win titles. Team effort is.
In the spring of 2012, Robben had a rude awakening to the fact that he could not do it all on his own. He missed two critical penalties: one that essentially gave up any hope of Bayern winning the Bundesliga, and another that would have put his side in front during extra time in the Champions League final.
He missed some sitters and simply didn’t show up in the games that mattered most. The pressure, it seemed, got the better of him.
Then-coach Jupp Heynckes handled Robben’s ego brilliantly the following season, excluding him from the starting lineup in some key games. In the first legs of Champions League knockout ties against Arsenal and Juventus, the Dutchman was benched.
For his part, Robben reacted well. He was patient, and when an injury ended Toni Kroos’ season early, he became a key figure once again.
But it was a new Robben that we saw, one who after Kroos’ injury assisted nearly as many goals (four) as he scored (five) in all competitions. Yes, he ultimately netted the winner in the Champions League final, but Robben also was the man who squared the ball for Mario Mandzukic for the opener.
If Guardiola is to manage the current rift between Robben and Lewandowski, the best way is to reframe Bayern’s situation for his star players. The fact is that for all their good performances, they have won nothing yet, and nothing is guaranteed.
Form can change drastically between November and May, and in order to beat the best, Bayern will have to be at their best. That can only happen with a team effort, with 11 men on the pitch willing to do anything needed to win games. That means not only scoring, but passing, pressing, defending, making the right runs off the ball and so on.
If any player is unwilling to comply, he will need to be benched. It’s a policy that has worked before, and something that Robben in particular understands quite well. The whole Bayern team respects Guardiola and will listen. He just needs to draw a line in the sand as a reminder.