Ancelotti allays fears that Bayern Munich have grown too comfortable
MUNICH -- Some stories get told so often they become a mantra, a sacred utterance believed to have spiritual powers. A prayer. For Bayern Munich, the club who carry the self-referential, self-reverential "Mia san Mia" ("We are who we are") slogan stitched inside their team shirts, the endlessly repeated story of the past few weeks told of punctuality. Or, to put it in less technical terms, of their ability to be "there" when it really matters -- in the big games, against big teams.
"We said all along we would show up," Arjen Robben said after the final whistle at the Allianz Arena on Wednesday, following Bayern's 5-1 defeat of Arsenal. "In the seven-and-a-half years I've been here, we've always done that."
It's not entirely true, of course. No team can always play at their best when called upon. Even Robben's Bayern have had quite a few off days, ranging from a chaotic round-of-16 exit vs. Internazionale in 2011 to big-time, big-scoreline failures against Real Madrid (2014) and Barcelona (2015) in two Champions League semifinals under Pep Guardiola.
As much as the German champions have been able to play at a consistently high level in Europe, by and large, since Robben's arrival in 2009, the mere fact that many Bayern players talked about the pressing need to find a second gear, to go up a notch or two from a pretty humdrum Bundesliga campaign, tells you that they themselves had some residual doubts about Carlo Ancelotti's master plan.
Wednesday's emphatic 5-1 win against an embarrassingly inept Arsenal can be seen as "proof of concept," it allows the Italian to continue with his low-intensity regime, until the quarterfinals at least. But what it won't do is alleviate the more fundamental concerns of the board about the 57-year-old's methods.
Firstly, Arsenal's performance -- bar a decent, semi-coherent 20 minutes in the first half -- was so devastatingly poor for a Champions League knockout match that it was hard to think of it of a big game against a big team at all. The Gunners' game, a timid, anaemic showing devoid of concept and confidence, was more on par with visits of Shakhtar Donetsk and FC Basel to the Allianz Arena in recent years. Both games finished 7-0. Neither club bosses nor players will get carried away after knocking out Arsene Wenger's team with one game to spare. There were just about enough shaky moments at the back and passages of uninspired attacking at the other end to withhold judgement for another day.
Secondly, and more importantly still, the match offered glimpses of a more worrisome issue: This team is playing on borrowed time. Bayern's starting XI on Wednesday was the oldest side to start a Champions League tie since 2005, with an average age of more than 29 years. Yes, Ancelotti's preference for experienced pros is well documented. And yes, this wouldn't be the first time that a team slightly past their best succeeds in the Champions League. Ancelotti might well be the perfect manager for this bunch of veterans, keeping exertions during the week at a minimum and trusting them to come up with solutions on the pitch. Robben, Arturo Vidal, Philipp Lahm, Xabi Alonso, Robert Lewandowski; these guys don't need a motivator on the touchline shouting at them.
But Bayern want and crave more. They want not mere management of the squad but proactive coaching that furthers the development of the next generation -- Joshua Kimmich, Renato Sanches, Kingsley Coman, Niklas Sule, plus more new signings to come -- and their collective playing style. Bayern will have to reinvent themselves without Lahm and Xabi Alonso next season, and they're not entirely sure that Ancelotti's relaxed style is best suited to that momentous task ahead.
It's worth noting, in that context, that Ancelotti's decision not to appoint an experienced assistant coach after the departure of Paul Clement to Swansea raised eyebrows (no pun intended) at Sabener Strasse. Clement's duties are now shared by Hermann Gerland and Ancelotti's son Davide, 27.
It might seem churlish to question your manager's credentials after the results he's delivered so far, but Bayern have learned to look beyond the scoreline, at training, at ideas, at process, at all the things the man on the sideline can directly influence. That's why Guardiola survived the two aforementioned disastrous Champions League semifinals unscathed; that's why they would have liked to renew his contract, his "failure" to win the European Cup and his rather cold, complex behaviour notwithstanding.
With Ancelotti, by contrast, life's been easy for everyone concerned. The board's instincts about him were right; his genial manner has made for a less frantic and fraught environment, on an emotional level, he's been the ideal successor to Guardiola. The win over Arsenal will allay fears that the team has become too comfortable -- some players, too, were worried -- to challenge in Europe, the manager's standing inside and outside the dressing room has grown. Everyone believes in him and his story, that his Bayern will turn up when called upon, a little more.
But that doesn't change the fact that it's likely to be a different story next year, when simply turning up on time might well not be enough anymore.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert. Follow: @honigstein