Fast-forward mid February, with 22 games played, Bayern are back on top of the league, a whopping 18 points clear of second-placed RB Leipzig. Dortmund are third, closer to Mainz in the relegation playoff place than to the Bavarian giants.
Normal service has resumed: Bayern are asserting their dominance, just like they have in each of the last five seasons, when they’ve cruised to the title relatively unchallenged. Any interest remaining in the upper echelons of the Bundesliga table now surrounds the race for the three Champions League qualification places, where ten teams are separated by only eight points.
There is an acceptance that this is just the norm in the German top flight, that victory for Bayern is a forgone conclusion and a distant second is the best anyone else can hope for. This hasn’t always been the case, though.
Before Bayern’s current run of five – which will inevitably become six by the end of May, or sooner – titles in a row, no team had ever won more than three consecutive Bundesliga championships since the league’s formation in 1963.
And while Bayern are historically Germany’s most successful side, until their 2012/13 Treble-winning campaign, which sparked their monopolisation of the German top flight, the men from the Allianz Arena had only won two of the previous six titles.
Since the turn of the millennium, Werder Bremen, Stuttgart, Wolfsburg and Dortmund (three times) have risen from the chasing pack to claim the Bundesliga title. During each of these campaigns, the eventual champions were dwarfed by Bayern when it came to budget, appeal and support-base, yet through astute scouting, player development and careful tactical planning, these clubs built formidable sides worthy of the distinction they earned.
Thomas Schaaf’s double-winning Werder team of 2002/03 contained such talents as mercurial French playmaker Johan Micoud and the slightly portly, highly talented Brazilian striker Aílton, who topped the Bundesliga scoring charts with 28 goals that year. Stuttgart’s 2006/07 title winners launched prolific Germany international and future Bayern star Mario Gómez, with Tomas Hitzlsperger, Timo Hilderbrand and Cacau also among their standouts that season.
The 2008/09 Wolfsburg side, under the tutelage of the enigmatic Felix Magath, were powered by the irresistible strikeforce of Edin Džeko and Grafite, who combined for a staggering 54 league goals. And, of course, Jürgen Klopp‘s Dortmund side won back-to-back titles with their ‘heavy metal’ brand of football, as Mario Götze, Robert Lewandowki, Shinji Kagawa, İlkay Gündoğan, et al lit up Signal Iduna Park.
The financial and qualitative disparity between Bayern and the rest of the Bundesliga is perhaps wider than ever, while the Bavarian’s long-held method of cherry-picking the best talent from within the Bundesliga is maybe being implemented at and earlier stage these days, pinching players from the likes of Hoffenheim and Schalke before these sides can become contenders.
But Bayern should not be seen as immovable overlords by the rest of the Bundesliga. While Pep Guardiola’s Bayern attained unparalleled levels of domestic dominance, there have been chinks in their armour since the Catalan tactician’s departure for Manchester City. Just this season, Bayern, in what now looks like the footballing equivalent of a boxer lowering his hands to taunt an overmatched opponent, showed weakness in dropping points unexpectedly in the early weeks; the would-be contenders, resigned to defeat, barely even swung, much less land a blow.
Following Jupp Heynckes’ return to replace Carlo Ancelotti in the Allianz Arena dugout, the Bayern juggernaut has been back on track, crushing all in its path on the way to what could turn out to be the most one-sided title march in Bundesliga history. But such inequality is a collaborative effort: yes, Bayern have been imperious, but the rest of the German top flight have been complicit in widening the gap.
Since Dortmund’s initial hot streak was extinguished at the start of October, other than Bayern, only bottom-placed Cologne have managed to record more than two consecutive wins.
Dortmund, Schalke and Bayer Leverkusen have all shown signs of emerging from the pack at various times, yet none are able to sustain a run of results for long enough to separate themselves from those around them, let alone rise to challenge Bayern.
The next time Bayern leave the door ajar as they did earlier this season, someone has to be ready to burst through it, otherwise it will be a long time before the Bundesliga trophy resides anywhere other than the Allianz Arena.