Even at the moment of Borussia Dortmund’s greatest ecstasy, Hans-Joachim Watzke saw what was coming. It was May 2012 at the Olympiastadion in Berlin and Dortmund were blissfully tearing apart their rivals Bayern Munich 5-2 to seal their first league and cup double.
Robert Lewandowski scored a scintillating hat-trick. Jürgen Klopp got so drunk during the celebrations that he later claimed to have no recollection of them. But their famously pessimistic chief executive was more worried about what might follow. “The echo,” Watzke told his colleagues, “will be dramatic.”
A decade on, the echo is still reverberating. Even Watzke could scarcely have foreseen just how accurate his prediction would be. On Saturday, Bayern face Dortmund at the Allianz Arena. Win and they will clinch their 10th consecutive Bundesliga title. No other major European club can match that feat.
Bayern’s humiliation, as it turned out, set off a reaction that would lead to them becoming not only the most dominant side in the history of German football, but one of the most dominant seen in the sport. Their combined margin of victory over the past 10 campaigns has been 137 points.
They have beaten Dortmund in their past seven meetings in all competitions, another record. “Dortmund’s biggest mistake,” Watzke would later admit, “was to irritate FC Bayern too much in 2012.”
For all the impressive feats and imposing numbers Bayern have accumulated over the past decade there is also a cold weirdness to their dominance, the sort of surrealness that arises when conventions have been bent and warped to the extent you are no longer really sure what they mean. On the one hand, winning 10 Bundesliga titles in a row is a genuinely staggering achievement. But the flip side of the argument goes: if a club can win 10 titles in a row, can it have been that hard to begin with?
Even the Bayern coach, Julian Nagelsmann, occasionally senses that curious and restless feeling of ennui, often from within his own camp. This will be his first league title, a landmark for one of Europe’s most exciting young coaches. Thomas Müller, by contrast, is about to win his 11th. “I know that the league is a little bit less important in Munich,” Nagelsmann said on Thursday. “Still, it’s a very good achievement.”
Beyond Bavaria, Bayern’s success often inspires much simpler feelings: from outrage to derision. To some, the case of Bayern is irrefutable evidence that football needs more protections against unfettered wealth. To others, it is irrefutable evidence of the opposite: that German football’s resistance to outsized investment, via its 50+1 ownership rule, has helped to entrench Bayern in their supremacy.
The truth, as ever, is a good deal more complex. It’s easy to say Bayern winning 10 titles in a row is bad for the game. But then, how many is too many? What is the correct number of teams that should be allowed to hold sway over a league? Two, as in Spain and England? Three or four, as in Italy? Half of them? Ideally, should a different club be winning the title every season?
Klopp addressed the issue in an interview with the German magazine Bild this month. “There are two reasons for Bayern’s dominance,” he said. “One, of course, is simply the quality they have. The other is that the pursuers steal points from each other. The other teams are probably too close.”
What Klopp is saying, in essence, is the scrap to finish second – which in a typical year might involve Dortmund, RB Leipzig, Bayer Leverkusen and often an outsider or two – is so fierce and attritional that no one of them can sustain a genuine title challenge.
The numbers tend to bear this out. On a simple points-per-game basis, Bayern are roughly on the same level as other title winners. Their form this season would translate to 91 points over 38 games. Manchester City are on course for 91, Real Madrid for 90, Paris Saint-Germain for 89. The big difference, however, is in the level of their competitors. Over the past five seasons, the average gap between the second- and fifth-placed teams in the Bundesliga has been 10 points. In England and Spain, the average gap is 17 points. In a way, Germany has traded an interesting title race for more and closer rivalries further down the league.
The other point to make is that there are already early signs things may be changing. One of Bayern’s deadliest weapons in its search for domestic dominance has been its ability to pick off its rivals’ best players. A decade ago, it ransacked Dortmund for Lewandowski, Mario Götze and Mats Hummels. More recently, Marcel Sabitzer and Dayot Upamecano have been poached from the upstart RB Leipzig. But the influx of Premier League money has made it a tougher tactic to employ.
Bayern are highly unlikely to challenge Europe’s giants for an Erling Haaland or a Jude Bellingham. Liverpool look better placed to sign the Leverkusen prodigy Florian Wirtz. Meanwhile, Bayern’s summer shopping list – which, according to various accounts, includes players such as Ajax’s Noussair Mazraoui and Antony, Benfica’s Darwin Núñez and the Leeds winger Raphinha – suggests Bayern are no longer shopping at the very top table. As Kai Havertz put it when spurning Bayern for the Premier League in 2020: “A title with Chelsea is worth a lot more.”
Perhaps this is the logical upshot of essentially hobbling your own domestic league: it makes the whole much more vulnerable to predators. Already the great Lewandowski is stalling over a new contract, with Barcelona circling. The Champions League defeat to Villarreal demonstrated Bayern are no longer the team which once inspired fear across the continent.
This month, the Bundesliga revealed its revenue had fallen 10% compared with the previous year, a product not just of empty stadiums but a decline in marketing rights as viewers begin to turn off the product. If Bayern’s rivals do not manage to put a dent in them, perhaps the market soon will.