Through the highs and lows of Bayern Munich’s season, the sniping and the setbacks and scintillating form of Bayer Leverkusen, one basic principle has gone largely unchallenged.
That once Thomas Tuchel’s side got a whiff of their twelfth consecutive Bundesliga title, the old muscle memory would kick in. That they would ultimately show their true selves when it mattered most, in matches like this. And they did; just not remotely in the way anyone expected.
Because this was not simply a defeat, but a humiliation, not just three crucial points in the title race, but an attack on the very identity of Bayern. Bayern were outclassed by a faster, hungrier and more creative Bayer Leverkusen team.
Meanwhile, Tuchel was outmaneuvered by Xabi Alonso, who cemented his status as the sport’s most promising young coach with a dazzlingly imaginative squad, sweet tactical touches and clever use of the bench.
The gap at the top of the league now stands at five points, and yet in the coming days and weeks the majority of talk in Germany will be about Bayern’s implosion, the Bayern crisis and the Bayern vapor.
“To be honest, I’m pissed,” Thomas Müller fumed in an angry television interview after the match. “To quote Oliver Kahn: what is missing is his balls. It’s okay to feel pressure, but there needs to be energy and freedom. It’s not just about the coach. Sometimes we have to talk about the players.”
And if Bayer Leverkusen always believed in it, then perhaps this was the moment when the rest of us could do the same. Josip Stanisic opened the scoring, Álex Grimaldo scored the game-clincher early in the second half, Florian Wirtz and Granit Xhaka were sensational in midfield and Jeremy Frimpong sealed the points in spectacular fashion in stoppage time. But what sets this Leverkusen team apart is how little they rely on moments of individual quality.
They defend and attack as a unit, with interchangeable pieces having wayward angles with relentless pressure. Here Alonso went without a recognized striker. Amine Adli played as a false nine, supplemented by Nathan Tella on the right. Stanisic over Frimpong was another surprising decision. Alonso talks a lot about flexibility, and this performance – artistic and elusive, rehearsed and resilient in all the right places – is the reason.
The result was a game with all the textural quality of a David Lynch film: packed with intrigue and diversions, strange motifs and hidden layers of meaning. Why did fans throw candy on the field? Why was Stanisic the only player in his team who didn’t celebrate his goal? Why did Bayern’s full-backs play on either side? And why was there a home fan dressed as a Pope?
Some of these questions were easier to answer than others. The sweets, which delayed kick-off by eight minutes, were part of a long-running protest by fans across Germany against a proposed deal to sell a stake in the Bundesliga’s media rights to private investment. The costumes were for the Karneval weekend. Stanisic is currently on loan from Bayern. And perhaps Tuchel’s decision to play Sacha Boey at left back was an attempt to counter the pace of Frimpong, who ultimately did not start.
And so Bayern was defeated not only in practice, but also in theory. Perhaps one of the reasons their defense looked so uncertain was that it was never quite clear what they were trying to defend. Perhaps one of the reasons why Harry Kane was so anonymous was that Bayern had no idea how to involve him in the game. The result was three goals with varying head losses.
The first for Stanisic came when Bayern went completely to sleep for the second phase of play after a save from Manuel Neuer. The second for Grimaldo came from a simple give-and-go, with Aleksandar Pavlovic failing to follow through. The third came deep into stoppage time, with Neuer still in the corner for a corner (why?) and Frimpong brilliantly curling the ball in from about 30 yards.
Frankly, the margin could have been even greater. Bayern barely produced a decent chance all evening. And of course, this is only February and Leverkusen has never won a title in its history, and nothing has been sealed yet. But if it’s too early to spend time on Bayern’s era of dominance, things have never felt more precarious.