Despite Bundesliga title, was Bayern Munich's 2016-17 season a failure?

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/players/arjen-robben" data-ylk="slk:Arjen Robben">Arjen Robben</a> rues Bayern Munich’s cup loss to <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/teams/borussia-dortmund/" data-ylk="slk:Borussia Dortmund">Borussia Dortmund</a>. (Getty)
Arjen Robben rues Bayern Munich’s cup loss to Borussia Dortmund. (Getty)

If you’d have sampled the headlines, from Bild to the Associated Press to the blogosphere, you’d have envisioned a club in crisis. You’d have envisioned trouble. You’d have envisioned failure. And no, you wouldn’t have been hallucinating. Just reading.

“Carlo Ancelotti completely wasted Bayern Munich’s 2016-17 season,” read one. “Bundesliga title won’t make up for Bayern disappointment,” read another. And then there was “Carlo Ancelotti rubbishes rumors of unrest in Bayern Munich camp.” And “Dreaded vote of confidence for under-fire Bayern coach Carlo Ancelotti.”

Roughly 24 hours after the last of those four was published, Ancelotti and his players celebrated a Bundesliga title. That’s right, they partied after winning the biggest sporting prize in Germany.

The dissonance between the headlines and celebratory scenes is difficult for an outsider to comprehend. But such is life at Bayern Munich, where success has become mundane and excessive success has become the expectation. Bayern only won one trophy this season. It only advanced to the Champions League quarterfinals, and only to the DFB Pokal semis. Fans were frustrated. According to some reports, players were too. Ancelotti even admitted his disappointment.

Bayern Munich’s 2016-17 season, some have said, was a failure.

And that’s one of two things. It’s either ludicrous. Or it’s a glowing compliment.

It’s also definitely another thing: It’s football. It’s soccer. It’s fußball. It’s whatever you want to call the game that depends so heavily on chance and a few momentous occasions that it turns the reasonable into the mad just as quick as it turns impending success into supposed outright failure.

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The idea that Bayern’s campaign was a failure is buried in expectations. And the expectations themselves aren’t irrational. Munich fans expected a Bundesliga title, and they got it. But it wasn’t enough. With the title, they “have only fulfilled their duty,” wrote the popular German magazine Kicker. It was merely a “consolation prize.”

Fans wanted more. They wanted a Champions League trophy, which they hadn’t laid hands on in four years. They at least craved a domestic double, with a DFB Pokal title complementing the Bundesliga crown. The double not only seemed plausible, and thus the expectation sensible; for some fans it might have even seemed probable.

But it’s the expectation for the expectations that is irrational. Which admittedly makes no sense. So allow me to explain.

The thought that expectations can and should be fulfilled every season is illogical. The very definition of competition and sport suggests the possibility of other winners. The coming to fruition of those other possibilities does not necessarily signify failure. If shortcomings are repeated year after year, beyond what chance would predict, then sure, “failure.” But Bayern’s shortcomings do not qualify.

The Bavarians have won league-cup doubles in three of the four previous campaigns. They are only four years removed from a treble. Every season that doesn’t match the remarkable success of 2012-13, or even the slightly-less-but-still-very remarkable success of 2013-14 and 2015-16, cannot be labeled a failure. That’s not how realistic expectations work. That’s not how probability works.

Let’s say that Bayern fans expect a Champions League title every other year — which, by the way, is not the case; they expect one every year. Heck, let’s say they expect one every three years. Well then you know who else expects one at least every three years? Barcelona fans. And Real Madrid fans. And maybe Juventus, PSG, Chelsea and Manchester United fans hope for one every four years. And Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, and a host of others every five or six. Unless we’re suddenly handing out two Champions League trophies per year, there aren’t enough to go around.

So maybe the problem is with the expectations, not the performance relative to them. Or rather the expectation for the expectations. Bayern didn’t give its fans what they craved this year. This Bayern team didn’t live up to Bayern teams of the recent past. Is it OK to be disappointed by that? Absolutely. Fans’ emotional sides don’t have to be satisfied with just one trophy. But when the emotions turn into something more — when the rhetoric dips to “failure,” and the manager’s seat heats up, when the fans demand change — that’s wrong.

Emotion can’t infringe upon analysis, and the analysis is this: Every year, stuff happens. Different stuff. Inexplicable stuff. And sometimes that stuff ruins a run at a trophy. That’s what happened for Bayern Munich in 2016-17. In the case of the Champions League, bad luck happened. A dubious red card happened. A linesman’s flag got stuck to his shorts. Arturo Vidal skied a penalty. Javi Martinez made a rash decision. Robert Lewandowski injured his shoulder.

“Things have happened that we cannot influence,” said Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. “Injuries, refereeing decisions and sometimes the necessary luck was also missing.”

“I said before the little details are important to win the Champions League,” Ancelotti said last week. “Injuries, refereeing decisions and having a fit team in this period. Honestly, I’m a prophet.”

Both CEO and manager are correct. These things happen. They don’t always. But they can. And they did. On a micro level, criticizing this Bayern team for the Champions League loss to Madrid in which it twice went down to 10 men is harsh. On a macro level, assigning failure to every loss influenced by these “little details” is foolish. That’s football. Or soccer. Or fußball. But it’s not failure. A dominant season hindered by two critical losses isn’t failure.

Or maybe it is. Maybe the expectations aren’t a problem at all. Maybe they are one of the greatest emblems of the club’s success.

Bayern’s Bundesliga crown was its fifth in a row. It was its 10th title in the last 15 years, 14th in the last 21, and 26th since the inception of the Bundesliga in 1963. The magnificence of those numbers can get lost in the monotony of Bayern’s domestic success. Or maybe the monotony is the magnificence. Maybe the perceived inevitability of each successive title is the magnificence. The numbers are unparalleled around Europe over the past two decades. They’ve not been matched in England, not in Spain, not in Italy. Not in France, not in Portugal, not in any other comparable league. That’s why expectations for Bayern are unparalleled too. So maybe the expectations, and the supposed failure, are merely a badge of prosperity.

But no. This was not failure. It was not a season that should incite sweeping changes at the club. Bayern was one of the best teams in the world in 2016-17. Maybe not the best, but certainly one of the top five. It’s just that fußball is fickle, and not every top-five team can win all the time. Disappointing seasons that only bring home one of three major trophies are part of the nature of the sport. Not every one of those seasons, even at the biggest of clubs, can be dubbed a failure.

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