Comment: What FC Bayern now need is patience – and no sacking of Nagelsmann
On Friday, I deactivated my Twitter account. Not for good, but for the time being. Besides several personal reasons that are irrelevant for this article, it also had a special relationship to the issue at hand. Hardly any analysis, hardly any personal comment, hardly any article currently published about FC Bayern has a use by date of more than one, at most two weeks.
I explicitly do not exclude myself from this. Tweets and analyses of mine have also had their highs and lows, sometimes more so and sometimes less. That will probably remain the same, and that is completely legitimate, normal and human.
However, what I regularly observe on Twitter on many issues is a kind of mutually fulled descent into a vortex of negativity. The more tweets I’ve read on Nagelsmann and Bayern in the past few days, the worse the general assessment of the situation has become.
Specifically, I would like to talk about the some of the issues discussed in the context of Julian Nagelsmann. Revered and celebrated for the team’s new dynamic after the first few games, within a few weeks he has reached a point where it is being seriously discussed whether FC Bayern should sack him straight away.
What happened? For the first time since 2001, the record champions have failed to win four Bundesliga games in a row. Three draws and now the defeat in Augsburg. The development of the narrative around the individual performances in the games has been exciting to watch. First the performances were fine, then most of it was bad.
Results dominate the assessment. If you read too much about the four games, you will quickly get the impression that Bayern were always outclassed. From a purely statistical point of view, however, there were plenty of opportunities to come away victorious in each of these games.
This does not mean that the Bayern team was good in each of these matches. At best, that is true for the game against Gladbach and long phases against Union. Nevertheless, there was also enough evidence in the matches against Stuttgart and Augsburg to show that Bayern have not forgotten how to play football. 92 shots, eleven big chances – but only four goals. The fact that the Bayern team creates so many chances is a fundamentally good sign. Especially as they even allowed very few in most phases.
Even if this assessment seems absurd in view of the harsh criticism: Tactically, Bayern are still at least well set-up. The absurd effect comes from the impression of defeat – and a draw is considered as one in Munich. Three in a row even more so. But what is particularly striking is the lack of precision, the sometimes inexplicable misplaced passes over a few metres. It is difficult to find the cause. It seems to be a mental problem above all.
There are three main reasons why Julian Nagelsmann is now being criticised so stridently: First, a lot of money was spent in the summer. Second, the start of the season raised expectations to unhealthily high levels. Thirdly, the results are clouding senses. The simplest evidence of this is the post match grades German football outlets hand out. It is rare for Bayern to get a good grade when they don’t win a game. And if they still do, it has to be a very obviously superior performance.
The logic is that (a top team) must automatically have been weak if it doesn’t win. Subconsciously, this logic probably guides the marking more often than the graders would like.
And so, for example, if Nagelsmann were to receive a grade, he would get at best a D or E for the last few weeks. But is that really fair?
There are certainly many things that one can, perhaps must rightly criticise. Why did he change the working 4-2-2 system back to a 4-2-3-1? Why are some players suddenly playing in different roles? Or why does the team seem so unsettled after an outstanding start to the season? His squad management also raises some questions. This applies above all to many a substitution, some of which fizzled out with announcement. It is right to hold the coach responsible when successes fail to materialise.
But such issues rarely determine the flow of opinion. Instead, a coach is suspiciously often threatened with losing the dressing room if things go badly for a few weeks. All of a sudden, things from private life that previously played no role at all are brought into the discussion. Some aspects that were strengths of his before (communication) are now said to be very negative. Everything turns upside down in a few days, sometimes hours. It is perfectly reasonable to suppose that at such a big club, there is always someone who is unhappy and willing to publicly protest his misery and leak juicy tidbits of information.
Even within the squad, it is not unlikely that one or two players are unhappy with their current role. If the results are not positive, this presents an opportunity to take a stand and make it an issue – internally, but sometimes also anonymously to the media. Seen often enough.
Nagelsmann is the coach of FC Bayern München. He must be able to deal with that. At the same time, not everything that is currently being written, said or speculated about the record champion’s dressing room should be taken for a fact and used to debate the quality of the coach.
Even after the Barcelona game, Leon Goretzka said on Amazon Prime that it had annoyed him how much was currently being “constructed” around the mood in the squad. Goretzka also has interests that, in the best case, are congruent with FC Bayern’s. One could just as easily assume that his are tactical statements in order to put an end to the public discussion. But as long as these two positions exist, this is Schrödinger’s dressing room – both lost and behind the coach.
The mood at FC Bayern will, of course, be anything but positive. But a team that no longer follows the coach plays differently than Bayern did in Augsburg and the previous games. It is noticeable about the players that they want to win the games and that they work for each other. But it’s probably difficult to answer exactly what the reason is, even if you are part of the team. And that’s what makes the situation so complicated and so simple at the same time.
The team’s insecurity is palpable. The German record champions have created enough chances to win all their games easily. Nagelsmann has little influence on whether his players finish these opportunities. Simple misplaced passes over a few metres are also on the list of things that, above all, are be stopped by the players themselves.
But it is Nagelsmann who now has to consider how to get the players out of this seeming cul-de-sac again and why the easy flow of success has been lost. Perhaps the issue is primarily a mental one. The more negative experiences accumulate, the less the players believe in themselves. Even the great FC Bayern with its mia-san-mia self-confidence is not immune to this. There have been situations like this even during times of greatest success – and at every club.
“Alarming”, “worrying”, “not Bayern-like” – the descriptions of recent performances know no limits in their level of alarm. In the cosmos of FC Bayern, this is a normal occurrence, but it also often fails to reflect sober reality.
It is fortunate for Nagelsmann and Bayern that there is now an international break. Time to reflect, time to come to terms – without the hurried pace of everyday life. And it is good that FC Bayern are giving Nagelsmann this time. Because it would be shortsighted overreacting to dismiss Nagelsmann now or to put him under pressure. Too little has happened for that.
If anything, the start of the season has hurt FC Bayern. It suggested that the change from a system with Robert Lewandowski to a system without him would work immediately and that the team would even be better right away.
It was foreseeable that this theory would not hold. Losing such a player means that the entire offensive changes from the ground up. And disruptive change means that it takes time to adjust. Adjustment involves mistakes and mistakes cost time. Time that FC Bayern usually doesn’t have.
But time that had to be planned for from the start – regardless of how the first games went. It’s not about functioning at 100% immediately without Lewandowski, but about building something in the medium to long term that is at least as successful. Incidentally, this approach also applies to the new arrivals. Even for a top player like Sadio Mané, it is anything but easy to settle immediately in a team that is looking for its new offensive identity.
Somewhere in the middle ground between the panic that is currently running amok in the reports about FC Bayern and a complacent stance that ignores the problems would involve an appropriate assessment of the situation. It is far from dramatic. However, it is also clear that Nagelsmann now needs results in order to buy himself additional time for the change process he needs to drive.
A tough run of games now awaits with Leverkusen, Dortmund, Freiburg and Hoffenheim in the next four Bundesliga matches. In between, Bayern have to secure the ticket to a the round of 16 against Pilsen in the Champions League. There are enough stumbling blocks here. In this respect, the situation is quite serious for the club and for Nagelsmann.
But the confidence that Bayern can hoist themselves out of their hole at this particular time seems to be there. Otherwise Oliver Kahn would not have got the back of the coach so unequivocally and called upon the players to react. Football hardly works without results, but assessing performances is often a little easier without stubbornly looking at numbers affected by many variables. Bayern were beyond simply good or bad. In a grey area that is simply unfamiliar, especially for the public that is used to success.
After deactivating my Twitter account on Friday, I set off on a 100-kilometre bike ride. Just me, my bike, nature and a delicious piece of cake for the halfway rest. I was able to take a deep breath, enjoy the peace and quiet and briefly escape from the fast pace of everyday life, which ironically is also part of my job. That did me good.
Maybe it’s also good for Bayern that the focus is now on the national team for a short time. In any case, the fact that they are continuing along the now rockier path with Nagelsmann is the only right decision.
At least for the moment. Even a club like FC Bayern has to exercise patience after the turnovers of the summer.