Bayern's World Cup hangover won't stop them winning the Bundesliga again
After a preseason that neatly encapsulated FC Bayern's dual brand message -- travelling to the U.S. in search of a global audience, then returning to the Lake Tegernsee training camp where the club used to prepare throughout the 1980s, 90s and early 2000s -- the first two competitive games showed that new coach Niko Kovac will take his time to usher out the old stalwarts.
Bayern lined-up in a familiar 4-1-4-1 system in the 5-0 win over Eintracht Frankfurt in the German Super Cup, and also in the less impressive 1-0 win at fourth division Drochtersen/Assel, with Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery on the flanks, Javi Martinez in defensive midfield behind Thiago and Thomas Muller, and Robert Lewandowski up front.
Kovac, who describes himself as a pragmatist, has seen no need to change last season's winning team just yet. The revolution will have to wait.
Bayern's competitors -- if they are still worthy of the name, given the Munich side have picked up the last six league titles in succession -- will have watched Kovac's conservative approach with mixed feelings.
On the one hand, the continued reliance on the old guard can be read as recognition that Kingsley Coman, Serge Gnabry and new boy Leon Goretzka are not quite ready to take over the mantle from players who have mostly seen better days. Bayern's German contingent at the World Cup -- Muller, Jerome Boateng, Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels, Joshua Kimmich, Sebastian Rudy and Niklas Sule -- didn't exactly cover themselves in glory. Neither did Robert Lewandowski for Poland. The striker declared that "my heart beats for Bayern, once more" following a failed attempt to engineer a move, but his relationship with the club bosses (and many teammates) remains low on love.
Kovacs' unspectacular tactics and an admission from president Uli Hoeness that the club is effectively in a holding pattern this summer ahead of renewed investment -- "We are collecting money to spend it next year," he told Sky -- add to rivals' hopes that the champions could be hampered by staleness.
But there's a flip side, too. As Bayern's demolition of Frankfurt showed, a veteran team of class players and winners, out to prove a point, is a very dangerous combination.
Last year's runners-up in the German Cup were desperate to settle the account against Kovac's former team and, with no reinforcements needed, the starting XI is still so strong as to leave the rest of the league somewhat demoralised.
Talking to the press on Wednesday, Kimmich explained that the disastrous World Cup campaign actually made it easier to find motivation for the months ahead.
"I'm really up for it," he said. "If you look at the way the last season ended, with the defeat in the DFB Cup final and the exit from the World Cup -- it pushes you forward, again. It makes you appreciate having success a lot more."
There's another, related factor in Bayern's favour: a renewed focus on fitness and stamina. Kovac has worked his men so hard in preseason that comparisons have been made to Felix Magath's notoriously torturous regime.
Magath might have been short on tactical ideas but his Bayern team were physically so overpowering that the embarrassment Oliver Kahn, Michael Ballack and Bastian Schweinsteiger had suffered at Euro 2004 quickly gave way to utter domestic dominance. History could well repeat itself.
Lastly, it shouldn't be forgotten that Bayern's inability to countenance failure -- in the form of coming second in the Bundesliga -- is one of the main reasons they haven't done so in recent years. Muller hinted at the board's zero tolerance for underachievement when he jokingly added "see you in October, coach" to a memento for departing caretaker boss Jupp Heynckes in May.
Should Bayern's title defence appear in jeopardy a few months into the new campaign, the club's bosses will ruthlessly axe Kovac and/or bring in expensive reinforcements in January.
Any chances of an upset in the Bundesliga this season are therefore unlikely to last long beyond the opening round of fixtures this weekend, let alone into the new year.