Rudy, Sule prove that you don't have to be a superstar to shine at Bayern
Sebastian Rudy? Supporters weren't exactly dancing in the streets of Munich when Bayern announced the signing of the TSG Hoffenheim midfielder in January. The 27-year-old had been on the fringes on the Germany national team for a couple of years, mostly as a make-shift full-back, but he had done little to suggest he'd be good enough to fill the Xabi Alonso-shaped void in front of the champions' defence in the coming season.
The double zero on the free agent's price tag further didn't much work in his favour either. Fans and reporters felt that Bayern were simply rolling the dice here, taking an inexpensive punt on a useful all-rounder and low maintenance, no-ego squad player. Privately, one key official involved in Rudy's signing admitted back then that the Bavarians viewed the man from the Black Forest town of Villingen-Schwenningen as "capable of doing a job" in the Bundesliga and the Premier League, but perhaps not as a starter and perhaps not all that often.
Crucially, Rudy's free transfer kept Bayern's powder dry for a shot at more high-profile reinforcements for the centre. Paris Saint-Germain's Marco Verratti and Adrien Rabiot were both unsuccessfully targeted before the Germans settled on Corentin Tolisso of Olympique Lyon for €40 million.
Yet perceptions have since shifted quite radically. During the second half of the 2016-17 season, when Hoffenheim's superb league run culminated in a fourth-place finish, Rudy's quietly influential role at the heart of Julian Nagelsmann's side became more and more widely recognised. National team coach Joachim Löw raised the deep-lying playmaker's profile even further by installing him in the heart of his Confederations Cup-winning team this summer. Three starts in four competitive games in the new campaign for the Reds later, Rudy has made himself almost un-droppable with unflustered, controlled performances of real authority. He might not have been the fans nor Carlo Ancelotti really wanted but he's certainly the player that this team's rather individualistic game really needed: a giver of structure and keeper of the ball.
"I thought he might take longer to settle but he's doing really well at Bayern," said his former coach Nagelsmann ahead of Bayern's trip to the Wirsol Rhein-Neckar-Arena on Saturday. "He simply plays his game."
TSG striker Mark Uth was equally effusive about his former colleague. "I said from the beginning that Rudy will surprise everyone, it's exactly what I expected," the 26-year-old told Kicker. "Bayern's [possession] game really suits him. He does it better than almost anybody else."
Ahead of his return to the Kraichgau region, Rudy was characteristically modest. "I'm happy that things are going well but I want to become even clearer and calmer on the ball," he told reporters at a press conference in Munich on Thursday. "I want to be consistent, 100 percent." Already, his signing looks like it might turn out the bargain of the year -- an accidental masterstroke.
Rudy switching sides is one reason why Carlo Ancelotti stands to register his first competitive win over the Bundesliga's youngest manager at his third attempt. After a 1-1 draw in Munich and a 1-0 defeat in Hoffenheim last season, Bayern will be "better prepared" this time around, Nagelsmann fears. In addition, his squad has been hit by a wave of injuries. Forward Serge Gnabry, on loan from Bayern, is unable to play with an ankle injury, as is Hungarian striker Adam Szalai (groin). Most keenly felt, however, should be centre-back Kevin Vogt's absence (knee ligament) as Ermin Bicakcic and Harvard Nordveit, his possible replacements in central defence, are both rather immobile.
Nagelsmann's defensive worries are not helped by old boy Nicklas Sule lining up for the opposition, too. The Germany international has had an equally good start to life as Rudy at the Allianz Arena since making moving from Hoffenheim alongside him. A tried-and-trusted free-kick routine of the duo, which sees the midfielder loft the ball towards the far post for Sule to attack with a late run, has already resulted in two goals.
The 22-year-old, a big, physical defender who very nearly signed for Antonio Conte's Chelsea before opting for another Italian manager instead, has enabled Bayern to make do without the much more experienced Jerome Boateng and Javi Martínez in the early weeks of the season. Now, neither can expect to walk straight back into the side after returning to full fitness. As if Ancelotti wasn't tired enough of the (somewhat overblown) furore about Thomas Muller's occasional non-start, he will have to deal with more stars on the bench in the light of his squad's sudden depth.
The increased competition for places might create friction and headlines but is a big part of Bayern's strategy for this season. The manager's soft approach to man-management has convinced the board that pressure on the players to perform must be exerted in a different way, namely through internal competition. With that in mind, Sule and Rudy have already succeeded, and in more ways than one. They have shown that even smaller names can have a chance to make a big impact at Sabener Strasse.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and author of "Bring the Noise: The Jurgen Klopp Story." Follow: @honigstein