Bayern Munich's title defense wasn't meant to begin with a score draw at home to Hertha Berlin. The performance of Niko Kovac's side might leave Borussia Dortmund feeling very optimistic about their chances this season.
If there was one way Niko Kovac did not want to start his second season at Bayern Munich, this was it. This was a performance from Bayern that sent an untimely but a familiar reminder that the ruthlessness of the Pep Guardiola days is still very much noticeable in its absence. Such a start by Bayern is more liable to prolong some supporters' summer of discontent than to banish it.
It was not what Bayern Munich fans had spent the off-season waiting for. As the sun set on Friday evening, a packed U6 underground line was full of smiles. Bayern jerseys, new and old, lined the road from Munich's Karlsplatz down to Marienplatz. Fans were loud, happy to be back in their seats, shouting the surnames of their favorite players. The wait was finally over. Football was back. Ninety minutes later, Bayern's fans must have felt as if they were still waiting.
Serge Gnabry was perhaps the only bright spark for Bayern. The 24-year-old picked up where he left off last season, leaving defenders in his dust. He fittingly set up Robert Lewandowski to score Bayern's and the Bundesliga's first goal of the new season, sliding in at the back post like he has done many, many times before.
Robert Lewandowski has two goals to his name already, but he may welcome more support from the likes of Philippe Coutinho
Lewandowski's second-half penalty made sure Bayern came away with at least a point, but the damage was already done. Dodi Lukebakio's deflected strike and Mark Grujic's composed finish left Bayern embarrassed at the break. It was Lukebakio who exposed Bayern's defensive line last season, scoring three for Fortuna Düsseldorf. After that game, Kovac described his mood as "worse than mere discontent," while Uli Hoeness labeled Bayern's defensive efforts a "slapstick" showing.
This wasn't quite as bad, but it wasn't much better. If Bayern were disjointed in attack, they looked, whisper it quietly, vulnerable in defense. Manuel Neuer no longer possess the same aura of invincibility, and the defensive line in front of him is changing often enough to cause disruption. They looked hurried, anxious and lacking the composure of old. Quick, transitional football — often in the form of one direct pass — was their undoing. Hertha's head coach Ante Covic made sure that plan was delivered in his first Bundesliga game in charge.
"Bayern obviously take a lot of risks. They have a lot of possession and put a lot of numbers forward," Hertha's Mathew Leckie told DW after the game. "They have the quality to keep the ball and take those risks. But obviously, one, two, three times in a game, everyone can make a mistake — they're human as well. We took those chances. We know they stood really high and also they often play man-against-man at the back, so we tried to use that to our advantage and, for the second goal, it worked really well."
Though Leckie conceded the spoils were hard-earned: "I think we ran more today than we did all season last year in one game. It was a real good team effort."
Bayern's defense weren't picked apart all that often, but were occasionally flummoxed with far too much ease
Normally there would have been time for Bayern to bring on Arjen Robben or Franck Ribery, but neither play for the club anymore. As the game entered its final quarter of an hour, their absence and Bayern's lack of truly dangerous attacking alternatives on the bench were reminders that things are changing at Bayern. It's clear that this is not the change Kovac, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge or Uli Hoeness were looking for.
One timely consolation that the club's management could share, however, was news that a year-long loan of Philippe Coutinho from Barcelona with an option to buy was all but a done deal.
Borussia Dortmund's summer of spending has changed the mood going into this Bundesliga season. There's a genuine belief that Dortmund have done enough in the off-season to end Bayern's run of league dominance. "It's good for Bayern that they're not really in the same favorite role as before," one Bayern fan said to another on the train to Munich earlier in the day. "It should make it more exciting." The opening game of the 2019-20 Bundesliga season was certainly entertaining, but probably not if you ask Bayern Munich fans. If this is the season that decides whether Kovac can take Bayern forward or whether he's gone by Christmas, the tide already seems to be working against him.