The temptation, given Bayern Munich’s financial and sporting superiority over the rest of German soccer, might be to describe the Allianz Arena manager’s seat as one of the comfiest in the European game. Hansi Flick, and certainly not Niko Kovac before him, might say something very different.
There are few clubs as inherently political as Bayern Munich, with former club legends hired to executive roles. This maintains a thread of continuity between generations, but also ensures that someone who thinks they know better, who has been there before and got the t-shirt–or lifted the trophy–is peering over the shoulder of their successors.
But Flick finds himself steering Bayern Munich at a particularly challenging point in their recent history. He is charged with moving the Bavarians into a new generation, but there is, as Kovac discovered to his cost, no tolerance for any sort of drop-off. While other sides are, from time to time, afforded so-called ‘transitional seasons’ where temporary mediocrity is permitted (see Chelsea under Frank Lampard or Atletico Madrid this season), no such concession has been made at the Allianz Arena.
This is why the revitalisation of Bayern Munich’s ‘Old Guard’ was so crucial to Flick, initially an interim appointment, getting the job permanently. It’s the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Thomas Muller, Jerome Boateng and Thiago Alcantara who have been most central to the Bavarians’ resurgence since the departure of Kovac, who had unsettled many of the club’s established figures.
Flick must find the right balance between giving a platform to Bayern Munich’s next generation, with Alphonse Davies, Serge Gnabry and Leon Goretzka all important players, and embracing the aging superstars still capable of delivering championships. So far, he appears to have struck the right note, with the reigning seven-time German champions currently on a run of 12 wins from their last 13 league games.
In Borussia Dortmund, however, they will face a rival more assured of where they are at this point in their development as a team. The Black and Yellows have assembled a group of young players many consider to be, at this moment, the most exciting in European soccer. It’s an argument which has been backed up by some of their recent performances.
Indeed, Lucien Favre’s side have been in exceptional form of late, winning their last six Bundesliga games on the spin. Their demolition of Schalke in the Revierderby was especially eye-catching, sticking four goals past their rivals with Jadon Sancho only starting on the bench and Emre Can out injured.
The January addition of Erling Haaland has given Dortmund the cutting edge they were previously lacking, with the teenage Norwegian netting 10 goals in his first 10 Bundesliga appearances. Haaland has lifted the performances of everyone around him, with Julian Brandt, Thorgan Hazard and Sancho all thriving now that they have someone of the 19-year-old’s quality to link up with.
While Dortmund struggled for much of the first half of the season, with Favre even coming close to losing his job in December, there is a sense that the pieces have now fallen into place. That Dortmund might pose their biggest threat to Bayern Munich’s German soccer supremacy in years, maybe even since the Jurgen Klopp days.
This certainly isn’t to say Dortmund are necessarily a better side than Bayern Munich. They might not be burdened with the political baggage of their Bavarian rivals, nor might they be stuck between two different eras like Tuesday’s visitors to the Westfalenstadion, but the Bavarians have far greater squad depth and could feasibly win another Bundesliga title out of muscle memory.
Tuesday’s Der Klassiker isn’t just another episode in German soccer’s predominant rivalry, but a match which has the potential to point the Bundesliga in the direction of its next great team. A Borussia Dortmund win would turn the title race into a straight sprint to the finish, narrowing the gap between Favre’s side and Bayern Munich to just a single point. A Bayern Munich win, on the other hand, would all but add another trophy to the Bavarians’ haul and set them up for even more success in the years to come.
It would be too crude to frame this match-up as Old versus Young, Last Generation versus Next Generation, given the young talent currently at the Allianz Arena. But if Bayern Munich are to be knocked from their perch, it will be a group of eight young upstarts who do it. And if they are to stay on their perch, there’s a good chance it’ll be the proven winners–the Bayern veterans–who win again.