Bayern Munich have won seven consecutive games since Jupp Heynckes returned to the club on Oct. 6 for a fourth spell in charge.
What’s changed since the disappointing final days of Carlo Ancelotti? Here’s a look …
1. Javi Martinez defensive shield
Heynckes’ most important act of inspiration has been to restore Martinez to defensive midfield. Once Bayern and Heynckes’ record signing at €40 million from Athletic Bilbao in 2012, Martinez had been used predominantly in defence under predecessors Ancelotti and Pep Guardiola. The Spain international is far from the quickest, but his ferocious tackling and ball-winning skills provide Bayern with great solidity and a robust shield in front of what was a creaking defence.
Once again, in similar fashion to the 2013 treble-winning season when partnered with Bastian Schweinsteiger in midfield, Martinez has become one of the first names on the teamsheet.
2. Ulreich in form
When Heynckes took over, Bayern had their worst defensive record in seven seasons, but he soon steadied the ship. Buoyed by the form of backup goalkeeper Sven Ulreich, Bayern managed clean sheets in three successive Bundesliga games before Marc Bartra grabbed a late consolation for a Borussia Dortmund side beaten 3-1 on Nov. 4.
Heynckes had a massive headache when taking over as Ulreich had endured a series of horrible lapses after an injury to Manuel Neuer. He was shown up in a 3-0 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League in September and let in the softest of free kicks from long range against Wolfsburg as Bayern did the unthinkable — letting a two-goal lead slip at home to draw 2-2.
These high-profile mistakes helped seal Ancelotti’s fate. Combined with the loss of their captain and the world’s best goalkeeper Neuer until the New Year, Ulreich’s shakiness could have served a terminal blow to their hopes of silverware.
Nevertheless, Heynckes backed Ulreich as his No.1 and the ex-Stuttgart man has been revitalised. He produced a string of fine saves against Leipzig in the cup victory on penalties and his stop against Timo Werner in the shootout kept Bayern’s treble hopes alive last month.
3. A bit of luck
Undoubtedly, Bayern have enjoyed a bit of fortune with the fixture list along the way to secure those magnificent seven wins. They faced crisis-torn Borussia Dortmund at exactly the right time and beat them easily in the Bundesliga. Once cruising at the top, BVB are a shambles, collapsing from five points clear to six points behind in four matches. Bayern would have also expected to beat Scottish champions Celtic home and away in the Champions League while Bundesliga strugglers Freiburg and Hamburg (beaten 5-0 and 1-0 respectively) will face a long hard battle against relegation this season.
Elsewhere, while Naby Keita was sent off for RB Leipzig in Bayern’s eventual 5-4 win on penalties in the German Cup on Oct. 25, Arturo Vidal could easily have conceded a penalty. Leipzig also found themselves a man down after only 13 minutes three days later in the Bundesliga meeting in Munich, which Bayern won 2-0. Captain Willi Orban’s dismissal for a shove on Arjen Robben on the box led to much more leisurely win than the fiery cup thriller in the East.
4. Regained the dressing room
Ancelotti had reportedly lost the dressing room, but the players are now fighting for the boss, who has “instilled a new team spirit,” according to Hummels.
Heynckes has serenely restored that “Mia San Mia” team feeling, even getting the likes of Hummels playing through the pain barrier for the cause.
After looking a shadow of his former self under Ancelotti, Heynckes is also getting the best out of David Alaba while Robben has been leading from the front since the much-improved Thomas Muller’s injury.
5. Tightened up the boardroom
Heynckes has hinted he would not have come back if president Uli Hoeness and CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge had not agreed to a truce. Too many of their recent squabbles reached the media with a return to the days of FC Hollywood. Good for the media but potentially poison to a club in transition.
Heynckes, Hoeness’ best friend, has quickly ensured Bayern are unified off the pitch, weeding out the petty squabbles at boardroom level for the greater good of the club.
Mark Lovell covers Bayern Munich for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @LovellLowdown.