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Infighting threatens Bayern Munich's long Bundesliga dominance

For the last five years Bayern Munich has viewed its competition the same way Joey Chestnut views a hot dog: as something to be devoured as quickly and completely as possible.

Over that time Bayern has lost just 12 of 170 Bundesliga games, outscoring opponents by more than 52 goals a season. It won three domestic titles and a Champions League crown, a level of dominance unmatched in German soccer history. And it did so with a roster that read as much like a Hall of Fame ballot as a starting lineup.

But four games into this season that dynasty is beginning to show signs of crumbling, something even Saturday’s 4-0 demolition of Mainz can’t hide.

In recent weeks some of the team’s top stars have engaged in open rebellion against both management and the lax leadership of coach Carlo Ancelotti. And the incidents have so embarrassed the club, long held up as a model of professionalism and success, that former Bayern legend Lothar Matthaus warned the team is close to “total chaos.”

“It has been a long time,” Matthaus told the German newspaper Bild, “since there was this much unrest at FC Bayern.”

Warning bells began sounding late last month when forward Thomas Muller lashed out at Ancelotti over a lack of playing time.

“I don’t know what qualities the coach wants his players to have. I just know that mine aren’t on the list,” Muller said after spending the first 73 minutes of a win over Werder Bremen on the bench.

Then last weekend star striker Robert Lewandowski shared his dissatisfaction over a number of issues in an “unauthorized” interview with Spiegel Online.

Both players put their troubles aside Saturday, with Muller scoring the first goal and Lewandowski adding two more in the win over Mainz.

Lewandowski has a record 83 goals in 100 appearances, but it was likely a bittersweet performance. Not only is the player rumored to be seeking a move to Real Madrid, but he’s in the midst of a feud with Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, one touched off by Lewandowski’s criticism of Bayern’s approach to both the transfer market and its globetrotting summer exhibition tours, which have become de rigueur for European clubs competing to grab the allegiance and cash of foreign fans.

“He is employed by us as a footballer, he earns a lot of money and I regret his statements," Rummenigge said, according to Agence France-Presse. “If you publicly criticize the coach, the club or the other players, you will get stress from me personally.

“It must not be harmful to the club. We need to be more efficient and serious. … Arrogance is not appropriate; the league title is not in our lap.”

As if that wasn’t enough, while those controversies were brewing thousands of Bayern supporters turned their backs on the team, either selling or giving up their tickets to last week’s sold-out Champions League game with Anderlecht. Then winger Kingsley Coman was excused from practice Thursday to return to France and answer charges of domestic violence against his former girlfriend. (He pleaded guilty and was fined roughly $6,000).

None of these incidents is enough to topple Bayern on its own, but together they have the potential to open wide chasms in the club’s tight-knit team fabric — something midfielder Arjen Robben picked up on last week when he repeatedly expressed concern over the team’s lack of “togetherness.”

At the center of the maelstrom is Ancelotti, one of only two managers to win three Champions League titles and a coach universally praised for his skills at managing big personalities.

Ancelotti, who favors a hands-off managing style, reportedly has not reprimanded players for transgressions such as late arrival for practice or bad body language on the bench. That, in turn, has led to an erosion in discipline.

So when Franck Ribery — at 34 the oldest player on the roster — was subbed out near the end of the win over Anderlecht, the midfielder walked slowly off the field, avoided the obligatory handshake with his manager, then threw his jersey into the bench.

Success, ironically, could be at the root of Bayern’s turmoil: The team is so good, so dominant, it may be turning on itself in search of a challenge. And given recent results, it’s not absurd to conclude the only German team strong enough to topple Bayern Munich is Bayern Munich itself.

Still, the split between the locker room and the coaching staff — and, by extension, team management — is real. And it’s growing deeper, likely exacerbated by the instability of having three big-name coaches — with fundamentally different styles — running the show over the last five seasons.

Bayern has been through this before, of course. Midway through Pep Guardiola’s lame-duck season in 2016, after talk of an unhappy locker room and a brewing mutiny went public, Bayern lost only one of its final 19 games en route to a league title and a semifinal appearance in the Champions League.

It’s early, in both the mutiny and the season, this time around. And despite its wobbles, Bayern entered Sunday just a point off the top of the Bundesliga table after four games while Lewandowski leads all scorers with five goals. That gives Ancelotti and his deep, veteran team some breathing room as they search for common ground.

“The processes on the pitch are not working and you can't be satisfied with the performances this season,” Matthaus said. "Ancelotti must be hard now. Harder than he has been over the last one and a half years.”

There are still nine months to find out whether or not he will succeed.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11

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