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Bayern back on top in the Bundesliga: Can any of their challengers go the distance?

February 4, 2020January 6th, 2022

THE return of the Bundesliga from its mid-season break has brought a resumption of normal service – just three games after the interval, Bayern Munich are back on top.

After winning the title in each of the last seven seasons, it seemed as though the Bavarian giants’ dominion over the German top flight might finally have been interrupted this term when Borussia Monchengladbach and RB Leipzig emerged as frontrunners while Bayern were uncharacteristically inconsistent at the beginning of the campaign.

But Bayern’s typically ruthless, rampaging form was restored following the sacking of Niko Kovac in November and his subsequent replacing by Hansi Flick in the Allianz Arena dugout. And as Leipzig and Gladbach drew 2-2 last weekend, Bayern cruised past Mainz 3-1 to sneak back to the top of the table.

As things stand, Bayern’s season is perfectly bisected by Kovac’s dismissal – they played 10 games under the Croat’s tutelage; they have now played 10 league matches since his departure. The improvement in the 29-time champions’ performances is stark, and ominous for those hoping to instigate a rare title challenge.

Kovac was sacked after overseeing an embarrassing 5-1 defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt, his former club, with Bayern fourth in the Bundesliga on 18 points, four points behind league-leading Gladbach.

In the 10 games since that point, Bayern have collected 24 points from a possible 30 and are currently riding a wave of seven straight victories in all competitions. Under Flick, they’ve scored 33 goals and conceded only seven, a vast improvement at both ends of the pitch when compared with the 25 scored and 16 conceded under Kovac.

Bayern’s uptick is borne out in the underlying statistics, too. Their greater attacking efficacy is evidenced by their expected goals total of 31.95 under Flick – indicating that their current average of three goals per game is sustainable – compared to 24.29 under Kovac. And the shoring-up of their rear guard is no matter of luck either, with their expected goals conceded down at 8.76 from 13.55 in the 10 games Kovac presided over.

One Bayern player who has remained consistently outstanding under both managers is Robert Lewandowski. The Pole has already racked up a frankly ridiculous 33 all-competitions goals in just 28 games this term, proving just as effective with Flick in charge as he was when Kovac was still boss.

But there are other key figures at Bayern who have upped their game in recent weeks. Most notably Philippe Coutinho, on loan from Barcelona, rediscovered his best form prior to the winter break, peaking with a hat-trick and two assists in December’s 6-1 win over Werder Bremen.

Flick is also getting the best out of two of the stalwarts of Bayern’s recent success. Versatile Austrian defender David Alaba has been back to his unflappable best since the former Hoffenheim manager took charge, and veteran centre-back Jerome Boateng, who was sent off in Kovac’s final game, has returned to the fold and looked his steadiest in some time.

The disparity of resources, both financial and in terms of playing personnel, between Bayern and the rest of the Bundesliga is such that the Bavarians need only perform to close to the sum of their individual parts in order to claim yet another title with relative ease. Standards had slipped under Kovac; Flick has righted the ship.

With Gladbach (two wins from their last six Bundesliga fixtures) and Leipzig (two wins in five) stumbling slightly, it’s looking increasingly likely that Borussia Dortmund will once again emerge as Bayern’s main challengers as the season progresses. BVB have won their last three games, scoring five each time. And Jadon Sancho, for whom a January move looked a distinct possibility amid disciplinary issues at the club just a couple of months ago, is in the form of his nascent career, with 11 goals and eight assists in his last 11 appearances.

Bayern face second-placed Leipzig on Saturday, the two sides separated by just one point. "Of all our rivals, Leipzig have the biggest potential and most options,” Flick said in December of his upcoming opponents. “RB have a good, well-balanced squad. It's important that the second- or third-choice players have the same quality.

“Leipzig have the advantage at the moment, but teams like Borussia Dortmund, Borussia Monchengladbach, Schalke and Bayer Leverkusen mustn't be underestimated."

Bayern’s lead is slender and Flick is right to preach caution at this stage. But if recent history is any indicator, with their momentum restored and key players firing again, there’s a feeling of inevitability about an eight successive title.