Bayern’s quest to win what would be a record fourth straight Bundesliga title this season looks near a formality already, particularly after the German champion dispatched its chief challenger last Sunday, 5-1, when second-place Borussia Dortmund left the Allianz Arena with its tail between its legs, and seven points behind Bayern, now perfect after eight league games.
It was Bayern’s seventh win in a row without its two biggest offensive stars of recent years. Ribery, who turns 33 in April, has been out all season with an ankle injury, and Robben, who turns 32 in January, has been out since suffering a hamstring injury during a European qualifier with the Netherlands on Sept. 3. In the seven games since Robben’s injury, five in the Bundesliga and two in the Champions League, Bayern scored 26 goals and allowed just two. Yikes.
Is Bayern better without Ribery? While there’s little doubt Ribery, when healthy, will still have a role to play, the answer is fairly obvious, and it’s yes, Bayern is currently better without Ribery in its starting XI.
Ribery arrived at Bayern in 2007, since then he’s won five Bundesliga crowns, a Champions League title and countless individual honors, including the UEFA Best Player In Europe Award as recently as 2012-13. However, accommodating Ribery’s injuries has become an annual event in Munich. He made only 15 Bundesliga appearances last season and hasn’t played a game since March; there’s still no timetable for his return. The biggest reason the Frenchman’s absence has gone nearly unnoticed is the Brazilian who appears to have usurped his spot on Bayern’s left wing, whether Ribery is healthy or not.
Douglas Costa has been an absolute beast since arriving this summer from Shakhtar Donetsk, with speed to burn and often (easily) overpowering defenders who appear to be in good position. A more traditional winger whose strong left foot is ever eager to put in crosses, Costa does much of his damage out wide, leaving more space for Thomas Mueller and the currently incandescent Robert Lewandowski to operate. Groomed at Gremio in Brazil from the tender age of 11, Costa turned 25 in September, and he’s already notched two goals and six assists in 10 games of Champions League and Bundesliga action thus far.
The old guard weighs in. Every big club has former greats or influential figures who are prone to chiming in on current goings on, Bayern simply has more of them, and they don’t come much bigger than Franz Beckenbauer. Currently chairman of Bayern’s advisory board, Beckenbauer was only too happy to offer his two cents on the subject, just in case Pep Guardiola needed another opinion on Die Roten, and what is likely the world’s deepest roster.
"Lewandowski is getting much more involved than before. Robben and Ribery always dribbled and then went for a shot," Beckenbauer told Sky Deutschland. "They only went looking for Lewandowski when they did not know where to go. He is much more integrated into the team now. ... Ribery will have to get back to his former best if he is to displace Douglas Costa. But he is already in his 30s and has been injured for a long time."
Lewandowski has scored a mind-boggling 13 goals during his six appearances since Robben’s injury, and while Bayern still features possession soccer in the back, and in the final third if the defense is set, its preferred attack is now far more direct with Mueller, who has eight goals in eight league games himself, Costa and Mario Goetze helping the Polish striker thrive as the focal point.
Expected to return soon after the international break, Guardiola can’t possibly keep Robben, who has a strong argument as the third best soccer player on the planet over the last couple years, out of his lineup.
So what to do with the flying Dutchman? It’s important to note, the German champions were playing great before Robben’s injury --- the only game Die Bayern lost this season was their first, on penalties, in the Supercup to Wolfsburg -- Bayern has in no way struggled like some of Europe’s other champions (hello Juventus, Chelsea and Barcelona). Yet it’s still abundantly clear to those who’ve seen both versions, the offense has been far more lethal when revolving around the movement and finishing of Mueller and Lewandowski, instead of Robben’s incisive dribbling.
Guardiola comfortably collected a pair of league titles during his first two years in Munich, but loud grumblings were heard about Champions League shortcomings, the club’s plethora of new Spanish players, as well as considerable consternation over his predilection for possession soccer. When those teams lacked for answers they often relied upon the magic provided by the left-footed Dutchman as a ball-dominant creative force on the right wing. At times, the German club’s struggles bore an eerie resemblance to recent Barcelona clubs short on solutions that asked Lionel Messi to bail them out when teams committed 10 men behind the ball and defended narrow, but of course, as great as he is, Robben is no Leo Messi.
Bayern added Arturo Vidal this summer to bolster the midfield, David Alaba and Philipp Lahm have spent more time in their natural roles as outside backs, but it is Costa more than anyone who seems to have changed Bayern’s philosophy, adding aggression and his direct offensive mentality. Mueller, capable of flourishing anywhere in unorthodox fashion, slid over to Robben’s spot on the right, and, given space to operate and terrific service -- Lewandowski has simply been the world’s best player since Robben got injured.
In a word, Bayern’s offense without Robben and Ribery has looked, perfect.
Winning the Bundesliga seems inevitable once more, but winning the Champions League may come down to Guardiola’s ability to reduce the roles of a pair of prickly club legends while keeping them happy. With Ribery likely coming off the bench, and the Spaniard seeking to satisfy Robben’s thirst for touches while convincing the Dutchman of the importance of staying out wide, which will allow the club’s younger stars room to dominate -- as the future is clearly now in Munich.
You won’t find many outside Munich crying in their beer over the "problems" of Pep Guardiola, a man whose most pressing matters include incorporating two of the greatest players of their generation into what is currently the world’s best team, and procuring refills for his stars' steins at Oktoberfest.