In a recent interview, Bastian Schweinsteiger said of his club that “in Munich we play to win”. There has never been a culture of accepting second best at Bayern, which only goes further to emphasise how truly disastrous last May was for the club. The Bundesliga had been lost, yet again, to Borussia Dortmund, who were to play them in the DFB-Pokal final, with the Champions League final in their own stadium against Chelsea a week later. There is unlikely to have been a worse seven days in the modern history of the club. An unquestionable 5-2 battering in the former, and history’s biggest and luckiest heist in the latter and Bayern were left weeping into the spoils of their season.
The squad boasted magnificent talent across the pitch, but its flaws were fairly open. The clearest was the level of depth and quality at centre back. This, in the main, was addressed early, before the May collapse, with the €5m signing of Dante from Borussia Mönchengladbach (though some would argue that there is still another signing needed there). Another was the depth in the forward positions, especially with Ivica Olić’s impending departure. The re-signing of Claudio Pizzaro after five years away was confirmed at the season’s close and after an impressive Euro 2012, Mario Mandžukić was brought in.
With them was Xherdan Shaqiri, signed as the long-term replacement to Arjen Robben, for around €11m, which had announced the previous February. By June, there were at least two players of high quality in every position; there looked to be little need for upgrades.
Towards the end of the month, rumours emerged that they were chasing Javi Martínez from Athletic Bilbao. Barring a sale in the defensive midfield area, where they already had Luiz Gustavo and Anatoliy Tymoschuk, it just seemed somewhat unneeded, though it is not as if that has been a deterrent for Bayern before, especially for what Athletic were set to demand for their best player, and the excellent season Gustavo had just had. Bayern had hoped to get the deal done for around €25m, but such was their wish to get the 24 year old on board, they agreed – amid much controversy – to pay his €40m release clause.
To be the player for whom the club known as ‘FC Hollywood’ broke their transfer record is no mean feat. Some felt that €40million was too much to pay for a player who had never played in the Champions League, or even outside of Bilbao; others, including the chiefs at Bayern, took the view that someone of his talents and of his age could be a mainstay in the side for the next ten years. Thus far, he has more than justified his fee.
Gustavo is the more typical ‘destroyer’ defensive midfielder: he is an exceptional tackler and marker, as well as having a strong range of passing. He relies more on these than his reading of the game and anticipation which, although good, are simply not on the same level as Martínez’s. The same is also true for his passing and his ability to protect the ball and carry it forward. The Basque is much more of an all-rounder, and far stronger and faster in turning defence into attack.
The most apt stylistic comparison between Martínez and another, made by the 24-year-old himself, is with Patrick Vieira. A lazy man could characterise both as pure holding players, based on their physical power and defensive talents, but in reality they both epitomise the ideal box-to-box midfielder. It is extremely difficult to find that combination of supreme technical talent, unstoppable physique and extreme intelligence that the two both possess. Martínez has the same capability to burst forward, following Vieira’s example in using his strength and skill to do so, and has it within him to reach similar heights to those Vieira did in his brilliant career.
While deployed in the midfield anchor role, sitting slightly deeper than Schweinsteiger, Martínez shares more of the German’s characteristics than Gustavo, taking some of the creative and transitional onus from him. This can be seen as limiting Bayern’s vice-captain somewhat, but he remains the key figure of the whole side, on whom so much of their play hinges, and the presence of both makes Bayern a far more layered threat. With him more ‘limited’ they are a stronger collective defensively, and Martínez’s own quality mean they have not been hamstrung by losing some of his attacking influence. They are perfect midfield pivot.
With regard to their improvement as a defensive unit, the stats seemingly need little development, but any they get only makes them more impressive. The mere 13 goals they have conceded in the 28 league games they have played this season is impressive enough, but is made more so by the fact that only four of them have them have come in Martínez’s 1482 minutes on the pitch, meaning they average a goal conceded every 370.5 minutes with him there. By contrast, the average in the time he is off is a goal conceded every 105.3 minutes (nine goals in 948 minutes).
Within those four goals, one was a penalty, conceded via a mistake by Jérôme Boateng, which perhaps most impressively of all, have been kept to a minimum this year, in the 1-1 draw with Borussia Mönchengladbach; a goal by Mario Götze vs BVB after some poor marking at a corner and the two in the 9-2 müllering, pun intended, of Hamburg SV when they were already 7-0 and 9-1 up respectively last weekend. Martínez is still yet to meet with defeat in the Bundesliga, and has only been confronted with it twice since moving: in their shock 1-3 loss to BATE Borisov (although he was taken off at 0-1 down) and in Arsenal’s 0-2 triumph at the Allianz Arena, which was an uncharacteristically poor game for him, deployed further forward in the ‘Schweinsteiger role’.
The centre of midfield is the most important position in almost every top team. Around the fantastic plinth of the Martínez-Schweinsteiger axis, Bayern have one of Europe’s finest sides. If they are not the strongest team in Europe then they are certainly the strongest squad. For Arjen Robben, despite his many, many, many, many, many flaws, to only perhaps find a run of games in the team - if Xherdan Shaqiri does not manage make the space his own - now Toni Kroos has picked up an injury and Thomas Müller will move infield from the right hand side, is a huge testament to the phenomenal depth in their squad, and the talent within it.
Both have been reflected in their results this season. They have dropped points on just four occasions - three draws, one loss - and stand just days from potentially securing the Bundesliga title. The DFB-Pokal semi-final awaits them against Wolfsburg, with Dortmund already having been vanquished in the quarters. Meanwhile, they hold a 2-0 lead in the Champions League quarter final against Juventus.
It will take a lot for the ghosts of last May to be exorcised entirely - the scars from the latter final may never heal - but if they continue as they have, their pain could pull them over the line. The willingness to pay the full €40m for Martínez last summer has been reflective of their ruthlessness through the season. The constant reminder of their late switch-offs will keep them focussed and driven for the last six weeks of the season. And now it is time for their amends to be made.
This article originally appeared at The Roaming Libero