Bayern Munich's big spending might not be as foolish as critics thought
Spending big on new players for the coming season has long been a tried and tested method to overcome disappointment in Bavaria. There's nothing like a bit of retail therapy to shift from introspection and frustration to optimism and looking forward to the next season.
Tuesday's double signing of Mats Hummels (from Borussia Dortmund) and Renato Sanches (from Benfica) for a combined fee of €70 million (plus possible add-ons) once again did the job. The post-Champions League exit doom at Säbener Strasse has been replaced by a sense of anticipation about Carlo Ancelotti's new starting XI. It's an easy enough trick, albeit a little expensive these days.
The media agenda has changed too. For the first time since Guardiola's arrival in June 2013, the Catalan has ceased being the main story. You can almost sense the relief among some commentators: They'll no longer have to discuss the finer points of possession play and counter-counterattacking measures. They can once again employ some classic Bayern tropes to rile supporters and enemies of the German champions alike.
Die Zeit, usually one of the more nuanced voices in German football, lamented Wednesday that the Bavarians were "forming their team by the chequebook" and "both transfers allow for great doubt as to whether the FC Bayern head buyers are investing the club's money wisely. Shopping is fun, but spending money is an art."
Both 18-year-old Sanches (transfer fee: €35 million with add-ons worth a maximum €45 million, in case he wins the Ballon d'Or, etc.) and Hummels did not represent value for money, the broadsheet argued, because the methodology behind the transfers was flawed and skewed by two classic Bayern (mis)behavioral patterns. Buying Hummels was "a demonstration of power" designed to reinforce the Bundesliga status quo and diminish a direct rival, whereas Sanches' capture was one of those cases in which the player had done so well against Bayern -- the midfielder shined in two games against the Germans in the Champions League quarterfinal -- that he elicited a bid from the Reds.
"You might as well throw the money out of the window," the clickbait headline read.
It's true, to a point: Over the past four decades, Bayern have done their best to undermine their own position as the richest team in the league by signing plenty of players for the wrong reasons mentioned and for the wrong fees. It's much harder to make that claim since Michael Reschke's arrival in 2014, however. The former Leverkusen technical director was hired to unearth better players in less obvious places for reasonable money. By and large, he has fulfilled that brief.
Bayern's scouting has become much more sophisticated. It's completely disingenuous to pretend, for example, that Brazilian Douglas Costa was bought from Ukraine on the back of two strong performances against Bayern in the previous season. The 25-year-old was in fact utterly anonymous on the ball in the 7-0 aggregate defeat of Shakhtar Donetsk in the last-16. The only column inches he created had come courtesy of some petty thuggery that should have resulted in dismissal.
Although it's eminently reasonable to question an outlay of €70 million on a single day, the notion of "value" has become incredibly complex. First, it's strictly relative. Mainz were over the moon to sell Shinji Okazaki to Leicester City for €11 million, but the fee delighted the Foxes just as much. One man's extortionate price is another one's bargain, especially if the player in question helps you achieve sporting ambitions.
Paying €35 million for the 27-year-old Hummels, who had only one year left on his contract and isn't the quickest of defenders, looks very expensive by most objective measures, but such measures don't really apply to Bayern. They see the World Cup winner as an upgrade on the injury-prone and unsettled Medhi Benatia (who'll be sold back to Italy for roughly €20 million), the perfect partner to Germany teammate Jérôme Boateng, a natural dressing room leader and, more importantly, a Munich-raised, Bayern-educated player who will ensure the starting XI doesn't become too cosmopolitan and devoid of local identity.
Over the course of a four-year deal at the Allianz Arena, the cost for all of that amounts to roughly €21 million per year in wages and transfer fee amortization. It is a gamble probably worth taking to win the Champions League, from Bayern's point of view, regardless of whether Dortmund end up weaker or stronger (as some sympathetic reporters believe) without their captain.
The Black and Yellows, incidentally, have played a bad hand masterfully. By going public with Hummels' wish to move south (ostensibly to adhere to stock market rules), insisting on an all-or-nothing fee and briefing that the player might yet be persuaded to stay, they forced Bayern to agree to a swift resolution strictly on BVB's terms. If recent history is anything to go by, sporting director Michael Zorc will make good use of the money.
The Sanches transfer also illustrates how the very concept of "value" is being reshaped by another factor: the Premier League TV deal. Last year, Bayern Munich were interested in Anthony Martial of AS Monaco and had intended to make the teenager an offer this summer. Manchester United scuppered that plan with a €50 million deal (plus add-ons) in August. The Germans feared that history could repeat itself and thus splashed on Sanches now, in May, wise to the fact that fees will reach only more astronomical levels later this summer (€50 million is the new going rate for a Champions League-level player), and young players will be almost impossible to sign once successfully installed at Premier League clubs.
Critics will say this course puts Bayern in danger of wildly overpaying, just like those English clubs we Germans love to belittle. "SEM: 'Stupid English Money,'" is how Der Spiegel referred to Premier League transfer policy in a recent piece. But in a hyper-inflationary world in which crazy is about to become the new normal, spending stupid money more quickly (and hopefully better) than the competition might be the only sensible option left.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.