This summer’s transfer season is already off and running. Bayern Munich dropped a cool 80 million euros to bring in Lucas Hernandez from Atlético Madrid. The left footed French center (and left) back is the second young defender Bayern have acquired, joining with Stuttgart’s Benjamin Pavard as a pair of young talented defensive reinforcements for Germany’s top team.
This is likely just the beginning for Bayern. Their squad is old. Up and down the pitch this is a team in need of good young players to take the reins from the next generation. There is, in fact, such need at other areas of the pitch that it raises the question of whether acquiring Hernandez is the best use of resources given that in addition to Pavard, Bayern also have Niklas Süle. Arguably the one place on the field Bayern were set was at center back, now they have a true embarrassment of riches.
But, given that Bayern have approximately infinity money, let’s assume that acquiring Hernandez won’t get in the way of doing a whole lot more work. Because this squad is going to need a lot of work.
This is the constant challenge for the best teams in the world. Competing at the highest levels means constantly finding the best players in the world at the height of their powers and then moving on from them quickly as they begin to decline. That means a constant churn as yesterday’s fresh faced 23-year-old babies become tomorrow’s 28-year-old grizzled veterans. Or, in the case of Bayern’s wingers, Arjen Robben is 35 and Franck Ribery is 36. The fact that those two stars are, at least in sporting terms, not just old, but rotting corpse old, has overshadowed that the rest of the first choice attacking unit is also past it’s prime. Robert Lewandowski is 30, Thomas Müller is 29, both of those guys are at the point where most players start getting worse, sometimes fast.
Bayern need to freshen up that unit in exactly the same way that acquiring Pavard and Hernandez freshened up the defence. Currently the heirs apparent are Kingsley Coman and Serge Gnabry. Coman is only 22 and has shown flashes of brilliance but optimism around him has to be tempered by a serious injury history and a consistent inability to make it to the field. Even if he has the ability to perform at an elite level on the field, relying on him week in and week out is a recipe for injury filled disaster.
Gnabry is a more difficult call. He’s 24 and just entering his prime. He does a lot of things well in and around the penalty area. He creates a respectable amount of average shots for himself, and does a wonderful job of creating great shots for his teammates. He’s also an able and willing defender. What he isn’t particularly proficient at is doing the work of moving the ball up the field. He wants to get the ball in advanced positions, not move it there himself. This has been challenging at times for Bayern who often look to suck teams into the middle before spraying it wide to advance the ball up the field and unsettle defences.
If Bayern believe in Gnabry, and expect him to start for them on a regular basis over the next three years they’ll need to make sure that he is part of a team that has lots of other players tasked with moving the ball forward and allowing Gnabry to create magic in the box. That player is unlikely to be a forward. As Lewandowski hits the wrong side of 30 his most likely replacement is rumoured to be Timo Werner. Werner is a lot of things. He’s great in space on the counterattack and perfectly proficient, although not as good as Lewandowski, at finding space in the penalty area (then again who is) but what he isn’t is a facilitator.
Bottom line for the attack is that it will require at minimum not just the purchase of Werner (or a similarly high profile, young, prolific striker) but additionally one very high quality winger to play the majority of minutes across from Gnabry.
One possible solution for a team looking to rely on its attackers to stay high and around the penalty area is to get a bunch of creativity from midfield. And Bayern is, of course, stacked with midfielders. But there too, they aren’t exactly young. James Rodriguez is in his prime at 27, and Thiago at 28 isn’t old, but won’t be around forever and is often hurt. While neither of them are immediate concerns this offseason (especially given the pressing need on the wings), they are both nearing the point where a succession plan needs to be considered.
And Bayern do have a lot of young midfielders floating around. The best of the bunch is Leon Goretzka who looks well up to the task of stepping into this midfield and starring for years to come combining unspectacular but necessary passing in possession with an ability to get forward into the box. Past him, Corentin Tolisso is entering his prime but also lost this entire season to injury. And in the defensive midfield spot, Javi Martinez might be a rock, but he’s a 30 year old rock.
This midfield unit wouldn’t be a concern if everything else on the team was settled. An attack brimming with creativity would balance out a midfield focused on getting and retaining the ball. A young and vibrant midfield could carry an attack focused on poaching in the box. The concern for Bayern is that both things could collapse at once. Fail to find a star on the left wing, and a creator in midfield to lighten the load on Thiago and the team could end up with a strike force that needs the ball delivered to them and a midfield incapable of providing it.
None of this is to say that Bayern doesn't have a lot of young prospects. They do. From Renato Sanches to Alphonso Davies to their rumoured interest in Chelsea's Callum Hudson-Odoi, Bayern are clearly interested in young talent. The challenge though is that when you're Bayern Munich prospects don't cut it. They need players who are young and great at the same time. Davies is only 18 and maybe by the time he's 22 he'll be good enough to be a regular, but Bayern can't afford to twiddle their thumbs while they wait. Talent development is important but it has to come along side fielding a team that's one of the best in the world right now.
These are all champagne problems of course. Wondering whether the clearly excellent Gnabry is good enough to shoulder a large load for Bayern, or wondering whether they have enough creativity should Thiago get hurt and Tolisso not recover is basically wondering whether Bayern is a top tier Champions League contender or a fringe Champions League contender. And they’re going to be favorites to win the Bundesliga either way. But that’s the challenge of being Bayern. When you have the gigantic resource advantage they do, you don’t get to rebuild, you have to reload, and you have to do it fast.
Bayern have a lot of work to do. In Hernandez they added further strength to the strongest part of their squad. It’s how they strengthen the weaker parts that will determine whether they’ll merely be great, or continue to contend at the very top of the European pyramid.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association