Five pressing issues for Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich as they prepare for the new season in China and Singapore.
1. Stick or twist with Renato Sanches?
Sanches, 19, winner of the 2016 Golden Boy award and Young Player of the Tournament at the 2016 Euros, arrived with the loftiest of expectations but he has struggled to deliver since his move last summer from Benfica. Indeed, after a woefully disappointing opening campaign, Sanches was declared “one of the flops of the season” by former Bayern legend Lothar Matthaus.
The Portuguese midfielder started only six Bundesliga games, failing to score or even provide an assist in 25 appearances in all competitions — completing 90 minutes on just a single occasion.
However, despite struggling in his debut season, president Uli Hoeness has pleaded for Sanches to be given another year to make a breakthrough with the Bundesliga champions.
But CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge hinted that Bayern would be prepared to let Sanches go provided they can recoup the money paid to Benfica last summer (€35 million + add-ons). Conveniently, big-spending AC Milan are interested in signing the Portuguese prodigy as part of their massive rebuild. As yet, though, the former Italian champions haven’t met Bayern’s demands for the player, but their interest could coax a few other clubs out of the woodwork and into the transfer merry-go-round.
Currently part of the Bayern squad in Asia, Sanches will want to put in a good audition for prospective employers in China and Singapore. Interestingly, Bayern meet Milan in Shenzhen on Saturday.
2. Tempting fate once again on Robert Lewandowski
Following the prized addition of James Rodriguez, Rummenigge confirmed before the flight to Asia that Bayern won’t be signing another attacker. This means that once again Bayern will go into the season without a recognized back-up striker for Lewandowski. Admittedly, the Poland captain is normally as tough as teak, but it still appears almost negligent of a club of Bayern’s stature not to have a replacement for their top scorer — however durable he may be. United States international Julian Green was offloaded last winter and, though youngster Franck Elvina has started the season with a couple of braces against lowly amateur opposition, the 17-year-old Cameroonian is clearly not yet ready for the highest level. Bayern are the only one of the top teams in Europe to consistently refuse the luxury of a solid, reliable back-up striker.
Obviously, the Bavarians can normally get away with this in the Bundesliga, but it definitely came back to bite them when Lewandowski succumbed to a shoulder injury in the lead up to their Champions League quarterfinal tie against Real Madrid last season. Unfit for the first leg in Munich, Bayern had to make do with a horribly out-of-form Thomas Muller up front. Lewandowski wasn’t over his injury either for the return at the Bernabeu and had to be hooked off shortly before the thriller headed to extra time. In my opinion, Bayern have already dropped the ball before the new season, tempting fate once again by over-relying on Lewandowski’s resilience. This could come back to bite them later on in the season, towards the business end of the Champions League.
3. Doubting Thomas (Muller)
The Bayern hierarchy have been at pains to stress that new boy James is not a replacement for Muller. That being said, the Colombian’s arrival has to be another kick in the teeth for Muller. Rummenigge has already unnecessarily cranked up the pressure on Muller ahead of the new season, saying the Bavarian needs an improved season after bagging a paltry five league goals last term. And by insisting on signing his tried and trusted pupil James, Carlo Ancelotti is hardly giving Muller a big vote of confidence ahead of the new season.
As the only real Bavarian remaining in the first-team squad, Muller would also have been a leading candidate to assume the captaincy from retired statesman Philipp Lahm. But having slipped down the pecking order, first under Pep Guardiola and now languishing on the bench under Ancelotti for key games, Muller’s situation isn’t likely to improve in the short-term with the arrival of one of Ancelotti’s favourite sons. James is likely to get every opportunity to prove himself in the first half of the season — to the detriment of Muller. And you can hardly give the armband to someone not guaranteed a regular spot. No doubt, Muller will captain the side on the marketing tour of Asia, but goalkeeper Manuel Neuer will probably be Bayern’s captain when the season starts in earnest next month.
4. James. Is he all that?
But another question entirely is whether Ancelotti can restore James to former glory.
He did manage to get some value out of James in his debut season at Real Madrid in 2014-15, when the Colombia international notched 17 goals and laid on 18 more in 46 appearances. However, in three largely disappointing seasons in Spain, James was completely outshone by Toni Kroos, who arrived in Madrid from Bayern that same summer. Real certainly expected more bang for the €80m they paid Monaco soon after his impressive 2014 World Cup campaign.
However, in similar fashion to his new teammate Muller, James has suffered an alarming fall from grace under Rafa Benitez and Zinedine Zidane, languishing on the bench for long periods. Last season, he managed only 22 appearances in La Liga — with only 13 starts and completing a mere five games over the full 90 minutes against mighty (no disrespect) Villarreal, Deportivo La Coruna (twice), Sporting Gijon and Granada,
He arrived to much fanfare last week from Real Madrid. But have Bayern really strengthened by signing James Rodriguez or is it merely boosting their social media following in South America?
On the face of it, Bayern have signed a Real reserve who had no future in Spain. He had become the proverbial bit-part player under Zidane, banished to the fringes, suffering the ultimate humiliation when left out of Real’s Champions League Final winning squad.
Bayern would win the Bundesliga without the Colombian and, while he will enjoy a honeymoon period at the club, he needs to deliver quickly to pacify the home fans — especially if local favourite Muller is on the bench for any length of time.
5. Lahm’s retirement leaves a massive void
Not just the captaincy but at right-back, where Joshua Kimmich, Rafinha and new signing Sebastian Rudy will all get a chance to assume Lahm’s defensive role.
Wunderkind Kimmich has been outstanding at international level, though he claims to prefer to play in midfield. He is a marvelous attacking right-back but an average defender and is prone to mistakes in the big games. Brazilian Rafinha is solid enough at Bundesliga level, but has fallen short before in the Champions League. The underrated free transfer Rudy can help out at right-back in an emergency but is more adept in midfield. Bayern did look at entering the transfer market to attempt to fill Lahm’s massive boots, but decided that Kimmich and Rafinha — with Rudy as a last resort — would suffice. With Manchester City spending 50 million quid on Kyle Walker, you can perhaps understand Bayern’s caution.
Mark Lovell covers Bayern Munich for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @LovellLowdown.