Bayern Munich hope teenage kicks can inspire their Bundesliga title charge
The German club have looked to youth to revitalise their hopes of catching Borussia Dortmund at top of the table
The defining duel at the summit of the Bundesliga, at least for most of the last decade, has followed a pattern.
When Borussia Dortmund start to master their league, Bayern respond with heavy investment, a never-say-die determination, and sometimes by simply making Dortmund’s best playing assets their own.
Now, something new: Bayern, six points behind their rivals as the season resumes after its winter break, appear to be mimicking the strategies that have given Dortmund their recent edge.
It has been an active January transfer window for the stuttering defending champions, with an emphasis on rejuvenating the squad, both for now and for the longer-term.
The most exciting arrival, a teenager who may make his Bundesliga debut on Friday at Hoffenheim, is Alphonso Davies, a senior Canada international since the age of 16, and now two months past his 18th birthday.
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The deal to bring Davies to Germany was agreed back in July, but he saw out the MLS season, which ended in October, for his previous club Vancouver Whitecaps.
A precocious North American to galvanise the campaign? There's an echo there. And it is heard loud and clear at Dortmund, who three years ago signed a 16-year-old United States prodigy named Christian Pulisic, and have seen him develop so thrillingly they have just accepted a €64 million (Dh267.9m) fee from Chelsea for him, a move Pulisic will make in the summer, after seeing out, via a six-month loan back to Dortmund, what he and Dortmund hop will be a title-winning Bundesliga campaign.
Davies is not the only teen on who Bayern are keen. They have also been talking to Chelsea this month about Callum Hudson-Odoi, who is 18 and yet to start a Premier League fixture.
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That sounds familiar: Dortmund did just that when they signed Jadon Sancho, a colleague of Hudson-Odoi’s in England’s under-17 World Cup-winning squad of 2017, two and half years ago.
Sancho, impatient for more game time at Manchester City, proved a good catch. He has had a major role, with his six goals and eight assists, in propelling Dortmund to the top of the table.
The offers, so far rebuffed, for Hudson-Odoi have been climbing towards €40m. “I am in no doubt about his talent,” Hasan Salihamidzic, the club’s sports director and former midfielder, told Bild-Zeitung.
Salihamidzic has been busy elsewhere, too, securing a deal with Stuttgart to bring Benjamin Pavard to Bayern as of June this year, and vigorously pursuing Lucas Hernandez, of Atletico Madrid. They were the pair of full-backs who won the last World Cup with France.
All of which suggests a radical refit, come the summer, with clear specifications: more zip up and down the flanks, where Bayern's twentysomethings Kingsley Coman and Serge Gnabry are already jousting strongly for the succession to long-term servants Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben.
Robben, 34, has announced he will move on this summer; Ribery, 35, seems likely to do the same.
Both those veterans miss the trip to Hoffenheim with injury, which opens the possibility of some time on the pitch for Davies. “We are looking for quality and that’s why he’s come here,” said Bayern’s manager Niko Kovac. “He has huge potential.”
There have purrs of approval, too, from Robert Lewandowski, the centre-forward Bayern snatched from Dortmund in 2014 after he had led the yellow-and-blacks to two league titles: “He makes good runs,” said the striker of the young winger.
Mats Hummels, the defender who Bayern recruited from Dortmund two and a half years ago, also praised Davies’s “great possibilities”.
Bayern will host Dortmund in early April and hope by then to have eroded the lead the pacesetters have built up at this, the halfway stage and three points tonight would put pressure on the leaders ahead of their testing trip, a day later, to RB Leipzig.
Kovac, who replaced Jupp Heynckes last summer, declared: “The second half of the season is there for us to correct things, and our goal is be champions. We are the hunters, Dortmund the hunted, and everybody knows that playing at 60 or 70 per cent of capacity will not be enough to catch up.”
Nor would it secure Kovac’s long-term future. And he wants to be the man in position, come July, to pilot a sleek, new-look Bayern already taking expensive shape.
Updated: January 18, 2019 08:32 AM