Is it possible that arguably the best soccer team in the world is currently flying under the radar? I’d say yes and no. Yes in the sense that Bayern Munich competes in a relatively under-followed league, finds itself in a less-than-compelling Champions League group, and lacks one of those super-duper-stars whose fame transcends the pitch, so not as many people are as intimately familiar with the team’s superiority as they are with, for instance, Liverpool’s. No in the sense that, in spite of all that, there’s not a single person who knows anything about the sport who wouldn’t put Bayern right near the top of a ranking of the best teams. It’s a hallmark of just how good Bayern is right now. Even if you don’t see their clashes, you hear the booms.
Tuesday might have been a rare chance for you to actually watch Bayern play, seeing as their away match to Dynamo Kiev was one of the Champions League’s two early games yesterday. Then again, maybe you picked the other match, Villarreal vs. Manchester United, the latter being less good than Bayern but also more widely followed and featuring Cristiano Ronaldo. Either way, you probably heard about what Bayern did—or, more specifically, what Robert Lewandowski did. Which, if you missed it, was this:
That goal was the first of two for Die Roten, in what wound up an exceedingly comfortable 2–1 win. The performance itself wasn’t anything special. Bayern is the best team in the group; Dynamo is the worst. The game progressed pretty much exactly as everyone expected.
The vast talent gap between the two clubs, combined with the pitch stewards intently shoveling the falling snow off the grass right up until kickoff, meant that from the first minute you could tell that the match would likely be cooler to look at than to study closely. Sure enough, Bayern’s second goal, from Kingsley Coman, was quite possibly even prettier than Lewandowski’s—mostly just because of how his powerful shot rang the woodwork before finding the net, which sent a crossbar’s worth of accumulated snow pleasantly cascading to the ground:
But it’s not so much the win itself, which wasn’t particularly noteworthy, that showed how good Bayern is. It’s more about the trends the team maintained by winning.
Bayern came into the match with a spot in the knockout round already secured, and with first place all but mathematically assured. The victory sealed first place for good. With five wins out of five group stage games, and with a goal difference of plus-16, FCB has the best Champions League record in the competition.
Lewandowski’s overhead kick was his ninth goal of the campaign. Not his ninth goal across all competitions, mind, but his ninth just in the Champions League. Lest you think it a fluke—and how could you after how much he’s scored these past couple years?—the Polish striker as 14 goals in the Bundesliga, too. Ballon d’Or or not, Lewandowski is on an absolutely unreal run, and it deserves to be celebrated.
But this is Bayern, always one of the most team-oriented teams in Europe’s elite, so Lewandowski is by no means doing it alone. The previously mentioned goal from Coman, Bayern’s over-qualified rotation winger, put him at three goals and one assist between Bundesliga and Champions League play. Those stats might not sound impressive on their own, but he’s only played about 450 minutes. That’s just how deep this club is. It can bring in a guy like Coman, or one like Corentin Tolisso, to sub in for two members of the team’s anti-vaxx contingent (which includes Serge Gnabry, Joshua Kimmich, and Jamal Musiala, all of whom had to miss the Dynamo match due to quarantining; the latest news is that Gnabry and Musiala recently bit the bullet and have now gotten the shot), and the team doesn’t miss a beat. Taking into account the club’s financial constraints when compared to the game’s super-rich, there is no team more intelligently managed than Bayern.
Of the few relatively big-money swings the club has taken recently, Leroy Sané is one that is really starting to pay off. He was fantastic in a prominent but narrowly circumscribed role at Manchester City, and it was clear that both he and Bayern saw something more for him when he left England. Sané’s first season back in Germany was a bit of a disappointment in that respect. After spending years at Man City, where he was shackled to the left touchline and used almost exclusively as a one-v-one dribbler, a role something like a glorified wing back, it seemed to take Sané a while to remember what true prominence and freedom felt like.
This season has been much better. Rather than move Sané back to the right flank, where he first blossomed as a cut-inside-and-shoot inverted winger at Schalke, new manager Julian Naglesmann has Sané focusing his game on the inside-left channel. It’s a far more centralized and important position than the one he had in Manchester, and it allows him far more opportunities to influence the game in different ways, rather than just spamming his speed. Sané is coming into his own as a creator, he’s getting into better scoring positions, and he’s often the team’s main link between midfield and attack. (It helps that he can leave the entire left flank to Canadian left back Alphonso Davies.) In Kiev, Sané wasn’t necessarily at his best, but he was still a key contributor to how Bayern played, which had to be just what he and the club hoped would be the case when he signed.
I could go on. Kimmich is one of the five best midfielders on the planet. Thomas Müller is 32 years old—which somehow feels too old and too young for him at the same time—and is still killing it, chipping in five goals and 11 assists so far this season. Leon Goretzka has been great as a sort of Sami Khedira-type who does lots of dirty work but also gets his hands on a bunch of goals. And while it’s still early (especially for the second, who hasn’t played all that much yet), Dayot Upamecano and Marcel Sabitzer, the two players Bayern has come away with after its latest intra-Bundesliga raid, look like they fit in well.
Once again, it’s the same story for Bayern. The team is cruising in the Champions League, is already atop the Bundesliga (the one point that separates FCB from Borussia Dortmund in second tells one story; the 16 goals that separate their goal differences tell another), and looks like one of the favorites to win everything. Even if you haven’t seen much of Bayern yet this season, don’t worry. You will.