Matthijs de Ligt needed less than two minutes to score his first goal for Bayern Munich, finding the net from Joshua Kimmich’s corner immediately after coming on at halftime in the German champions’ pre-season opener against DC United in Washington.
But it’s not for his goals that Bayern have spent €67m ($68.6m) to prise the 22-year-old Dutch international away from Juventus; head coach Julian Nagelsmann has a plethora of defensive options at his disposal on paper, but a lack of strong voices organizing at the back became a cause for concern at all levels of the club last season – despite a tenth consecutive Bundesliga title.
And so while eyes will of course be on Sadio Mane’s competitive debut up front away at Eintracht Frankfurt on Friday night, De Ligt is expected to lead from the back.
In the last two Bundesliga seasons, the Bavarians shipped 81 goals, 44 in former head coach Hansi Flick’s last season in charge and 37 during Nagelsmann’s first.
Although Bayern’s propensity to press high up the pitch under Flick left them open to conceding on the break, and contributed to their unusually leaky defense, Nagelsmann sounded the alarm bells midway through last season in his desire to add a player of stature to shore up the back four.
“Nagelsmann expressed his concerns internally in the second half of last season, asking squad planners for another central defender,” Kicker magazine reported. “A potential boss, a powerful figure who can help build up play but also read opposition transitions, a communicator with leadership qualities.”
Chief executive Oliver Kahn, speaking in Washington at the start of Bayern’s preseason tour to the United States, concurred that defensive weaknesses were costing the team, adding: “If you look at the last two or three years, we’ve been very successful, but we’ve conceded one or two too many goals.”
Since the departure of David Alaba to Real Madrid last season, Bayern’s expensively assembled back line has lacked an experienced head, with neither Lucas Hernandez nor Dayot Upamecano managing to fill the void.
Hernandez, who signed for a club and Bundesliga record fee of €80 million ($82m) in July 2019, has suffered an injury-blighted three seasons while Upamecano (€42.5m from RB Leipzig) took time to adapt in his debut season.
Now, the addition of De Ligt has led Süddeutsche Zeitung to hail “the most expensive defense in the world” – before taking a swipe at “an extremely expensive defensive correction.”
In De Ligt, however, while still only 22, Bayern have a player molded in the shape of tough Italian taskmasters Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci – who he played alongside at Juventus. In Munich, he will likely partner Benjamin Pavard or Upamecano in central defense, while fellow new signing Noussair Mazraoui filling in on the right, and Alphonso Davies continuing at left-back.
Behind them, goalkeeper and captain Manuel Neuer seemed satisfied with the club’s recruitment, telling a press conference in Washington:
“[De Ligt] is a player who can also lead, a super defender with a strong aura. It’s important that we have vocal players in defense – not just verbally, but in terms of body language, too. It’s loud inside the stadium, so gestures count.
“We used to see that with David [Alaba]. He often spoke with his hands and showed presence with his body language. That always helps.”
Leadership: Manuel Neuer will be hoping for a more organized defense in front of him
The blame for Bayern’s underwhelming recent transfer activity in recent seasons has generally been laid at the feet of sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic, responsible for the less-than-successful signings of Michael Cuisance, Fiete Arp, Bouna Sarr and Marc Roca.
But “Brazzo,” as the former Bayern midfielder is nicknamed on Säbener Strasse, has done his reputation no harm this summer, playing a decisive role in wrapping up deals for Sadio Mané and now De Ligt.
Now, after two consecutive Champions League quarterfinal exits as well as back-to-back German Cup second round defeats, a new-look Bayern hierarchy under CEO Kahn and club president Herbert Hainer are spending big to launch a new era.
The De Ligt move could see Bayern’s summer spending surpass the €140m they spent in summer 2019, pre-pandemic, with reported moves for RB Leipzig midfielder Konrad Laimer and Rennes prodigy Mathys Tel also being lined up.
While the expenditure is partly offset by sales, including €50m from Barcelona for Robert Lewandowski, Bayern are still gambling on the Allianz Arena remaining at full capacity for the entire season, without any potential new COVID-19 restrictions.
Nevertheless, Kahn is not planning on any further high-profile departures.
“We’re not thinking about letting any players go at the moment,” he said. “We’re always looking at the [different] positions these players can play. There’s nothing better than having flexible players.
Or, as Munich’s local Abendzeitung tabloid put it: “It was ‘save, save, save’ at FC Bayern in recent years. But the saving spree is over.”
Edited by: Matt Ford