Bayern Munich celebrated their fifth straight Bundesliga title this weekend, and like the previous four years, any hopes of a title race were squashed by Easter. Still, you won’t hear anyone in Munich hailing it a great season. In fact, after failing to make the Champions League semifinals for the first time in six years and losing to Dortmund in the German Cup semis, this was, statistically speaking, Bayern’s worst season since 2012, when Bayern failed to win a single title.
Of course, almost every club would kill for a season like the one Bayern just had. But this is Bayern, where “one title isn’t enough,” as club president Uli Hoeness recently reiterated. Another Bundesliga crown? That’s the minimum requirement around these parts.
To collect more silverware and meet their own lofty expectations next year, though, Bayern are in for a pivotal summer. For the first time in a long time, Bayern have to rebuild.
With captain Philipp Lahm and Xabi Alonso both retiring, Bayern lose two of their leaders and most dependable players. Lahm still performed at a world-class level at age 33, and while Alonso had clearly lost a step and faded down the stretch, Carlo Ancelotti still counted on the 35-year-old in every big game.
Ancelotti also leaned heavily on 33-year-old Arjen Robben and 34-year-old Franck Ribery, and though they were still two of Bayern’s best players this season, it’s fair to wonder how much longer their run will last, especially given their injury history.
That's four key players Bayern have to replace in the short and long term, and because wingplay has been integral to Bayern's style ever since “Robbery” became a thing in 2009, identifying and grooming their heirs becomes doubly important.
How Bayern and Ancelotti will approach this is where it gets tricky. Ten months ago, Bayern appeared to have their succession plan already in place. Kingsley Coman and Douglas Costa had filled in excellently for "Robbery" in their first season in Munich, even earning their own nickname – “CoCo.” Joshua Kimmich became Lahm’s anointed successor at right back after doing so with the German national team, and 19-year-old Renato Sanches was bought to learn under and eventually replace Alonso.
This season cast plenty of doubt on that plan. Under Ancelotti, who doesn't rotate his squad nearly as much as predecessor Pep Guardiola, Bayern's next generation saw their usage significantly reduced.
Sanches never looked comfortable in his first season in Germany and is more of a long-term project at this point. "Co-Co" cooled off considerably. Coman tallied just two goals and one assist this season after six and 12 a year ago. Even so, Bayern have exercised the option to make the Frenchman's loan deal permanent, which gives him a future at the club. The same can't be said of Costa, who looks on his way out amid questions about his effort.
And Kimmich? The youngster Pep Guardiola once said was "nearly his son" played a big part for Bayern early in the season, but made just seven starts from December through April and was consistently overlooked in favor of Rafinha when Lahm was rested. Weird, considering Ancelotti and his bosses had already agreed on Kimmich taking over for Lahm next season.
Does Ancelotti trust these kids to take on bigger roles next season? Is he really convinced of Kimmich at right back? The Italian’s overreliance on the same, veteran-heavy starting XI indicates he might have some reservations, even if his bosses don’t.
“The problem with the young kids is right now they don’t get many chances,” Hoeness told reporters recently, a clear directive at his manager for next season. “Their development has to happen now. We have to give our young players the chance to grow, so that they’re ready on the day the others stop.”
Hoeness knows that if Bayern want to remain one of the four or five best teams in Europe year after year, the club must build for the future. Ancelotti has thus been tasked to adopt a delicate double strategy. He has to usher in the next generation of stars, yet still maintain Bayern’s stranglehold in the Bundesliga and make a deeper run at the treble.
Bayern are going to be heavy favorites in the Bundesliga every year, but their odds to win the Champions League should be lower next year, at least at the roster's current construction. Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus aren’t going away, and Chelsea and Manchester City figure to be in the conversation next season as well.
For that reason, it’s hard to imagine Bayern not making at least one or two more major signings this summer. Hoffenheim midfielder Sebastian Rudy and defender Niklas Suele are already confirmed arrivals, but Bayern should still be in the market for a midfielder, backup striker and another option on the wings, especially if Costa leaves.
Alexis Sanchez – who could play either wing or spell Lewandowski – seems like a perfect fit and appears to be ready to move on from Arsenal. PSG’s Marco Verratti and Schalke’s 22-year-old midfield ace Leon Goretzka are rumored to be on top of Bayern’s wish list to pair with Arturo Vidal. German internationals Serge Gnabry and Julian Brandt have also been linked to Bayern, though they are reportedly being lined up for transfers in 2018, when the club figures to move on from Robben and Ribery.
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So which way will Bayern go? If the club were to make a big splash for the likes of Sanchez or Verratti this summer, it would contradict the club's plan to build up the young players that Bayern already pledged significant commitment to. At the same time, there's no doubt an Alexis Sanchez would greatly improve their chances to compete for a treble. And how much longer can Javi Martinez's $50 million transfer in 2010 really stand up as this powerful club's most expensive ever?
On the other hand, if the Bayern brass are content with what they have, Ancelotti will have to prove he's able to develop the youngsters who took a step back in his first season. That's something Ancelotti hasn't really had to do much before in his career, but you have to believe Bayern's preferred scenario involves Kimmich, Coman and Sanches all playing important roles sooner than later.
Bayern aren't in any sort of trouble. The framework of the team - Neuer, Boateng, Hummels, Martinez, Thomas Mueller, David Alaba, Thiago and Lewandowski -- are all signed through 2021. But beyond them Bayern’s future is a lot murkier today than it was at the start of the season, and how much of a makeover Ancelotti and Bayern are ultimately willing to undergo will be a key storyline to watch this summer.