Ancelotti's Golden-Oldie Philosophy Keeps Bayern Munich Purring

Ian Holyman@@ian_holymanFeatured ColumnistOctober 30, 2016

Arjen Robben, 32, one of Bayern's high-performing elder statesmen
Arjen Robben, 32, one of Bayern's high-performing elder statesmenMatthias Schrader/Associated Press

Bayern's 3-1 victory over Augsburg in the Bundesliga on Saturday may not have raised many eyebrows: Robert Lewandowski got back to scoring ways after a five-game drought, but few could seriously have questioned how numbered his days at the top of the game were—the Poland captain had plundered five league goals before the weekend.

Bayern beat their regional rivals by the same scoreline in the DFB Cup in midweek, and they now boast a record of 18 wins from their 23 matches (link in German) against the team from Swabian Bavaria; Manuel Neuer became the club's third-most tenured goalkeeper after Sepp Maier and Oliver Kahn with his 269th appearance; Arjen Robben remains a threat from the wing if his deliciously delivered pair of assists and confidently taken goal are anything to go by.

Coach Carlo Ancelotti now boasts a balance of 23 points from his first nine league gamesan identical haul to that managed by Pep Guardiola in his maiden campaign at the Allianz Arena in 2013-14. Lewandowski, Neuer and Robben each played under Manchester City's Catalan coach three seasons ago. The more things change at Bayern, it would seem, the more they stay the same.

Yet that is precisely why Saturday's victory was something of note. An otherwise routine run-out against a team now two points from the relegation places was delivered by a side with an average age at kick-off of 29. Captain Philipp Lahm is, like Robben, 32. Xabi Alonso, the third-oldest outfield player in the division at 34 years and 11 months of age, covered 11.4 kilometres—more than any other Bayern player, according to the official Bundesliga website.

"Two games, two wins: This Bavarian derby week was very much to our taste," Lahm tweeted after the game. "And my extra session almost paid off today." The full-back, who found the net with a searing strike in midweek, was referring to a late chance that went begging, but extra sessions do indeed seem to be proving invaluable for the Reds' senior citizens.

Borussia Dortmund were Bayern's nearest challengers last season, finishing 10 points behind the champions. On the same day Bayern lined up with an average age of nearly 30 against Augsburg, Thomas Tuchel's young tyros—average age 24—were held to a goalless draw by their Revierderby rivals, Schalke, leaving the gap to leaders Bayern at eight points after only nine games played.

Conventional wisdom has it that a player begins to wither once he reaches his 30s. But that is an adage that Ancelotti, who himself played at the top of Serie A with AC Milan until he was 33, has long since disregarded with his teams throughout his career built on cornerstones of experience.

The Italian tactician was appointed to succeed Guardiola primarily on the strength of his European record. Guardiola may have overseen an unprecedented fourth consecutive Bundesliga title last term, but an elusive UEFA Champions League title remained just that—out of reach. Ancelotti arrived in the summer as the only coach in the history of the sport to have won Europe's top prize three times.

A look at the teams who have tasted glory under the now-57-year-old should fill the boardroom at the Allianz Arena with optimism. The first of Ancelotti's European triumphs as a coach came with AC Milan in 2003, when they beat Italian rivals Juventus on penalties after a goalless draw in Manchester. Captain Paolo Maldini was 34 that day, with defensive partner Alessandro Costacurta two years his senior. Filippo Inzaghi—who scored 10 goals on the way to the final—was 30 barely two months on from the competition's showpiece.

If that victory was impressive, Milan's triumph in the competition four years later with Maldini and Inzaghi still in the starting lineup was barely fathomable. The nearly 34-year-old Inzaghi scored a brace against Liverpool at the Olympic Stadium in Athens to overshadow Dirk Kuyt's late consolation, while Maldini became the oldest captain to lift the trophy at 37 years and 10 months of age. Lahm would appear to be in for a few more extra training sessions yet.

The Bayern captain has stated that he wants to end his career in 2018, when he will be 34, but Ancelotti has other ideas. "Wait! Lahm is very important for Bayern," the coach told Spox.com in August (in German). "Not only as a player but also as a personality. He is a role model for all the players. The longer he plays, the better! Maldini won the Champions League again at 39. I am sure Lahm can play until he is 39."

Iker Casillas may have been the only player to have already seen his 30th birthday when Real Madrid won their "Decima"—the club's 10th European Cup/Champions League—under Ancelotti's tutelage in 2014, but that Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired team serves as the exception to the rule, rather than disproving it.

Success at Europe's top table may have escaped Ancelotti in the two years at Chelsea which preceded his time at Paris Saint-Germain and then Real, but he still steered the London club to the double of English Premier League and FA Cup in 2010.

Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard each turned 32 that season. That didn't stop them combining for an incredible 51 league goals. Lampard added 18 assists to his 22-goal haul, Drogba teed up his team-mates 13 times alongside his league-high 29 strikes. Alongside them, Michael Ballack—a three-time Bundesliga champion with Bayern—played in 32 games at the age of 34. The 32-year-old Ricardo Carvalho also featured prominently from centre-back.

From Maldini and Inzaghi through Lampard to Lahm and Robben, Ancelotti has leaned on wise shoulders throughout his storied career. Each of the aforementioned players enjoy world-class ability in common. What few of them share is a position on the pitch. For Ancelotti, if a player is good enough he is young enough, regardless of where he lines up.

"We played really well from the get-go," Lewandowski was reported as saying by bundesliga.com after the two-goal salvo against Augsburg that took him to seven goals for the season. "We went for it and were determined to get the win. [Arjen Robben and I] played really well together. The combination play was great, but Arjen always plays like that."

Indeed, Robben has now had a direct hand in five goals from his 303 Bundesliga minutes this season. Fellow wing wizard Franck Ribery, 33, has scored two and assisted five in his 347 minutes. Last season the pair were injured for long periods, with Douglas Costa and Kingsley Coman making the wide positions their own. Ribery missed Saturday's match at the WWK Arena with a muscle strain, but there is little question that "Robbery" have stolen "CoCo's" thunder so far this term.

Renato Sanches was signed for €35 million in the summer after becoming the youngest player to win a European Championship, with Portugal. He spent Saturday on the bench, fully fit. It is a position he, alongside some of his youthful colleagues, may have to become accustomed to. For now, Ancelotti's evergreen trees are coping just fine with winter.

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