Bayern did not hunt like Man City v Arsenal but Dortmund were scared by average shadow anyway

Ian King
The scene at Signal Iduna Park after Borussia Dortmund lost to Mainz in the Bundesliga

Borussia Dortmund had it set up on a plate, but still failed to end Bayern Munich’s stranglehold on the Bundesliga. Will this grip ever be broken?


The Signal Iduna Park fell silent at the final whistle. Of course it did. What was there to actually say? An afternoon that started with a hint of celebration in the air, a level of joy which bordered on hubristic even though it surely couldn’t be avoided given the circumstances, had turned to dust. It was eerie, the way in which the increasingly feverish atmosphere, which had ebbed and flowed all afternoon, suddenly disappeared. A wall of sound replaced by a muted ripple of murmuring.

This wasn’t just a matter of losing the league title on the last day of the season. This wasn’t just a golden opportunity to wrest the Bundesliga crown back from Munich after a full decade away. Everything had been set up on a plate for them. Bayern had disintegrated in their last home match against RB Leipzig the week before. On the last day of the season, Borussia Dortmund were at home against against mid-table Mainz. A win would give them the league title. Even if they failed, they would still finish top if Bayern failed to win away to Koln. The stars had aligned. It was teed up for them.

And they froze. The signs were there early on, the misplaced passes and bad decisions hinting at a group of players who did not want the responsibility of being in possession of the ball – who did not want it to be their fault. The irony of that happening on an individual basis is that what ended up transpiring was ultimately their collective fault. You can’t blame refereeing conspiracies when you’re given a penalty which you then toe harmlessly back to the opposition goalkeeper. You can’t blame foul providence when you fall two goals behind in such an important match but continue to labour under a level of coordination more usually seen in all-star charity matches. You can’t blame the opposition when your destiny is in your hands and yours alone.

You can wince at those few minutes of brief hope that were offered, first when they finally, finally pulled a goal back, then – and most obviously – when news came through that Bayern had been pegged back to 1-1 in Koln, a result which would have made them the champions even in the event of losing. And then, with a final, desperate cry, almost six minutes into five of stoppage-time, after Bayern had done the most Bayern thing possible and restored their lead, when Dortmund brought themselves level at 2-2.

But they’d left it too late. At the full-time whistle the players sunk to their knees, most in tears. The crowd didn’t leave. The shock of it all appeared to freeze the whole scene almost still for a few minutes. The chance to end Bayern Munich’s absolute stranglehold on the Bundesliga, an opportunity served up to them on a golden platter, hadn’t so much been thrown away as desecrated, set on fire and cast out to sea on a longboat. The players seemed to attempt to apologise to the stunned and crestfallen supporters behind the goal. It barely seemed to even be recognised. It barely seemed over those agonising minutes after the final whistle as though anyone in yellow and black was capable of feeling anything.

Where do you go from a result like that? What does it say when a team that has won the league 10 times in a row acts in such a way as to make a reasonable person start to wonder whether Bayern Munich might even be self-sabotaging in an attempt to introduce a bit of jeopardy? After all, this season has not seen a vintage Bayern team. Arsenal’s lithe young gazelles getting hunted down by Manchester City’s apex predators, this is not.

Bayern Munich failed to replace Robert Lewandowski last summer and have been a bit of a mess all season, comfortably knocked out of the Champions League after a tie which reminded everybody of where the true power on the pitch is in 2023 and Bayern of just how much work they have to do to have any chance of closing that gap. They will strengthen in the summer. Thomas Tuchel is a good coach, and is as good a bet as any to ensure that Bayern don’t cut things as fine as they did this time around, and they’ve already reacted to their title win by sacking CEO Oliver Kahn and Sporting Director Hasan Salihamidzic.

But on the other hand, it now seems almost certain that Dortmund will lose Jude Bellingham to Real Madrid this summer, just a year after losing Erling Haaland to Manchester City. And that, perhaps, sums up the long-time gulf between the two clubs. There’s no question that Dortmund’s policies with regard to young players have in recent years reaped them considerable rewards, but they always seem to end up elsewhere. Lewandowski was once yet another world-class player sold on by Borussia Dortmund. There comes a point at which you start to wonder whether they’re set up to finish second, hamstrung from making that final step by the very methods that have brought so much talent to their club the first place.

It’s difficult to feel too much sympathy for any club which has just finished second, having already qualified for next season’s Champions League. There are worse consolation prizes in football. But in that moment, none of these long-term points matter. All that matters is that it was right there, that you could have had it, that you don’t have it, and that you only have yourselves to blame for this state of affairs, although it’s probably reasonable to excuse supporters from blame.

Bayern will be back next season because to beat them is what is required to reach the summit of German club football, and for the 11th year in a row Dortmund came up short. Dortmund will be back next season because that’s the cycle of football, but they may need a period of mourning first.