Only three weeks ago, Bayern look set to break every record in the book. Now all the talk is about motivational issues. But it's unlikely that mentality the only reason behind Munich’s current dip in form.
Bayern bosses were singing from the same hymnal after their team’s historic 3-0 defeat at home to their only German rivals, Dortmund, on Saturday.
"I think the problem is that we’ve won the Bundesliga," coach Pep Guardiola told reporters. "If you’ve already won, your energy declines. That happened to me in Barcelona. After winning the league, we had huge problems getting back up for it."
Bayern's director of sport offered a variation on the we're-too-darn-successful-and-good-to-be-playing-well theme.
"It’s not unproblematic , but on the other hand, we have to realize that the players aren’t robots," Matthias Sammer said. "You see that when you’re lacking two or three percent mentally, it’s not enough at this level."
Admittedly it must be a curious feeling to have to play out six rounds of top-class football having already achieved your main goal of winning the league. Yet while that might explain Bayern's dropping points against Hoffenheim and Augsburg, opponents they failed to take seriously, a match against Dortmund is another kettle of fish - even when silverware isn't on the line.
Indeed, reasonable arguments can be made that Bayern's problems are as much tactical as mental.
Winning the battles, losing the match
The statistics from the match in Munich make for vaguely surreal reading. Bayern had more than 70 percent possession, completed 85 percent of their passes, won 52 percent of their challenges and got off 14 shots on goal to Dortmund's 9. Yet they still suffered their clearest defeat since Dortmund beat them 5-2 in the 2012 German Cup final.
Analyzing the match, a number of pundits pointed out how high Dortmund's defensive midfielders Nuri Sahin and Sebastian Kehl pressed Bayern players with the ball. That's true, but it's also the way Dortmund play, and pressing didn't prevent Bayern from winning 3-0 in Dortmund in the reverse fixture.
What Dortmund did differently this time around was getting players back to pack the box when Bayern had the ball in the visitors' half. As a result, Munich's massive possession advantage seldom yielded more than handball-style ball circulation outside the Dortmund penalty area, with the occasional back pass to Dante thrown in as well. Hardly a recipe for success.
Wingers Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Jonas Hofmann were also very physical with Bayern's left and right backs. It was no accident that Rafinha was so frustrated by the end of the match that he was sent off for clawing at Mkhiraryan's face. Bayern weren't able to generate much of a threat at all from the flanks.
Not enough forward thrust
Even more "not unproblematic" for Bayern is the fact that Dortmund aren't the only club that has had success forcing them into the middle, where there's a mass of defenders. Manchester United, who are having a shockingly bad season, were able to park the bus against Guardiola's troops for almost 150 minutes. Had Wayne Rooney been fit and able to exploit his chances, Bayern might well have gone out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals. That should give Guardiola and Sammer pause for thought.
Dortmund were able to make their opportunities count with three very different sorts of goals. The first came after a throw-in, the second was a short-passing counter attack, and the third happened after Dortmund lobbed a long ball over Bayern's back four.
"We're a very good defensive team," Guardiola told reporters on Saturday. "But we weren't able to show that today."
Long balls were a crucial element that helped Bayern beat Dortmund so convincingly in their first clash this season. Munich had less possession and won fewer challenges in that match, but nonetheless they were the ones playing direct attacking football. It seems the more Bayern have internalized Guardiola's tiki-taka style of play, the more inclined they've become to default to non-threatening short passes when the path to goal is blocked.
Bayern's quality and variety in terms of players filling different roles are enough to best almost all teams in Germany and most in Europe. But will the sort of set-up Munich used on Saturday work against Real Madrid - their opponents in the Champions League semis? Or hard-nosed Chelsea - a potential foe in the CL final? Or against Dortmund with their renewed self-belief, should the two teams meet again in the German Cup final?
Saturday's result was by no means meaningless - which is why Guardiola fielded an A team. Bayern had the chance to put another dent in their main German rivals' confidence. The fact that they failed in that aim so conclusively suggests that the 2013-14 champs need an adjustment that goes beyond mentality alone.