After they swept to an unprecedented UEFA Champions League, Bundesliga and German Cup treble last season, the big question regarding FC Bayern München over the summer was: Where do they go from here?
Nobody doubted that the German heavyweights would remain among Europe's elite for the foreseeable future, especially after Josep Guardiola – perhaps the only possible choice to take over from the all-conquering Jupp Heynckes – was installed as coach. However, it appeared that the Spaniard had undertaken a thankless task in trying to top a 'perfect' 2012/13 campaign.
Admittedly, it was not perfect in the strictest sense of the word. Bayern could always score more goals, concede fewer, break even more records. They may look like trivial aims to some, but not in the eyes of Matthias Sammer, the club's seemingly impossible-to-please sporting director.
As soon as the summer celebrations were out of the way and the new term had begun, Sammer was back in his element. On paper, Bayern started swimmingly with four wins from their first five matches, not to mention a thrilling victory against their 2012 UEFA Champions League final conquerors Chelsea FC in the UEFA Super Cup. Yet Sammer accused the squad of "going through the motions".
His comments were met with apathy and bemusement in the media, but the former Germany stalwart did have a point. Bayern looked anything but watertight in their opening 3-1 Bundesliga success against VfL Borussia Mönchengladbach and were somewhat sloppy as an albeit weakened team dropped points at lowly SC Freiburg, leaving them chasing Borussia Dortmund in the early title race.
Sammer was furious after that particular 1-1 draw and demanded immediate improvement. A 2-0 victory against Hannover 96 did little to appease the EURO '96 player of the tournament: "We're too lethargic, we're not showing any emotion," he said. At the very least, Sammer's complaints boosted team morale. "Emotionless" became something of a buzzword in the days that followed. Supposedly, any player caught daydreaming in the club canteen would be ribbed by the rest for "not eating with the necessary emotion".
Whether the players took the criticism with humour or defiance, it appeared to do the trick. Bayern were brilliant in their next match, the UEFA Champions League Group D curtain-raiser against PFC CSKA Moskva. The game was won in the first half thanks to goals from David Alaba and Mario Mandžukić and, even though the Bavarians eased off after Arjen Robben added a third in the second period, their dominance was mightily impressive.
For anyone who had not seen Bayern in action until then, their 65% possession, 20 attempts on goal and pass completion rate of 87% – better than any other side on matchday one – bore eloquent testimony to their status as the continent's finest. Even Sammer was satisfied – quietly, it should be added. Soundbites from the former sweeper were hard to come by after that fixture and again four days later as Bayern flexed their Bundesliga muscles with a 4-0 triumph at fellow UEFA Champions League participants, in-form FC Schalke 04.
To say Bayern had silenced their critics (or critic), would be to do Sammer a disservice. Far more likely is that he was sitting back proud of a job well done. While everyone else was wondering "what next?" over the summer, he had been plotting the club's next mission – to become the first team to retain the UEFA Champions League crown. With the extra "2–3%" squeezed out of them by Sammer, as Bastian Schweinsteiger put it, Bayern have to be among the favourites.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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