Squad brought round, club brought down?
This text was first published on Tuesday, 23 October 2019 as part of our series of monthly opinion pieces that we publish exclusively for our Patreon subscribers.
Not long after Bayern’s Champions League triumph in 2013, first voices could be heard saying that the squad was in need of a major overhaul. The careers of Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Ribery, and Robben entered their twilight and there was a sense that rebuilding the squad would become one of the clubs major challenges of the following years.
Even though, technically speaking, the careers of the final two members of this gang of four ended only with the end of last season, the impact of their stepwise departure could be felt much earlier. The end of Philipp Lahm’s career left a vacuum in the team’s leadership, and Robben’s and Ribery’s more and more regular absences due to injuries made themselves felt on the pitch as soon as 2018.
Looking back now, the transition nevertheless seems to have been handled fairly smoothly and successfully on paper. Bastian Schweinsteiger’s qualities were compensated by Guardiola with a blend of Vidal’s, Thiago’s, and Alonso’s skills, and Joshua Kimmich soon stepped up to adopt not just Lahm’s position as right-back, but also his leadership role in his own way.
Even the departure of Bayern’s notorious duo on the wings could be more than adequately made up for by Gnabry and Coman. Manuel Neuer ist still a reliable quantity between the posts, Thiago Alcantara has reached his peak and Robert Lewandowski is in the form of his life. The current Bayern squad is still strong enough (or strong enough again?) to pose a threat to any team in the world on its day.
Any purported weaknesses in the squad are not severe enough to preclude even the highest ambitions for success. Measured by this standard, Bayern is undoubtedly going through a crisis. Doubts about the sustainability of good results are no longer just used as a strategic tool to keep the players focused. On the contrary. Intermittent victories serve only as brief respites between long phases of lament and criticism. While the transition of the squad has proceeded rather smoothly and showing good economic sense, something at the club seems to have been broken along the way.
Bayern have always been a very self-confident, some might say arrogant club, as their motto “Mia San Mia” (“we are who we are”) suggests. They have always acted as if they occupy a special place in German football. On the pitch, they demand and expect success as if it were a law of nature. But now there is a growing doubt that these high ambitions are not anymore borne out by the reality of what is happening at the club.
Or, to put it differently, the claim to being special has lost its foundation. But why are Bayern supporters afraid of “ordinary” football? You win some, you lose some? Because this would betray the fundamental link between the club’s self proclaimed special place and their performances on the pitch – their ambition to always be the best, their winning mentality. For Bayern, only the best has ever been good enough – just.
Against this backdrop, the statements and actions by the club over the last two years have to be seen as a serious cause for concern. To make it crystal clear: it is not the players’ fault, who do not manage to perform consistently for 90 minutes or fail to close out a game in the first 30 minutes. It is also not the coach’s fault, who seems to be satisfied with a draw at home against mediocre opposition. It is about the club’s mentality. And mentality has to be cultivated from the top down.
Do you still remember Matthias Sammer? The former sporting director whose nagging voice constantly reminded everyone of the club’s ambitions and that you have to work hard every day to live up to them? Everyone who joined Bayern, whether as a coach or as a player, was quickly immersed in this mentality. Victories were always expected but only counted in May, while every defeat was a disgrace. This kind of mentality, set by example from the top down, would have rendered impossible such lukewarm statements as we now hear from Salihamidžić and Kovač on a weekly basis in the first place.
Back then, the broken record of performances recurring at a level somewhere between listless and clueless would have been nipped in the bud. Today, the club keeps dithering. Since the sacking of Ancelotti, the club has been caught in a permanent state of short-termism that sacrifices long-term success on the altar of hoping for momentary peak performances.
It is a matter of speculation, no doubt, but because the club’s leading figures are still the same as ever, one might suspect that Uli Hoeneß and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge are either unwilling or unable to foster the same unconditional winning mentality that has been the hallmark of the club for such a long time. On a human level, who cloud blame them? Uli Hoeneß ist about to step down after 40 years of dedicated service to the club and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge will follow soon. For Bayern as a club, however, the result is a vacuum in leadership and mentality.
An FC Bayern side that is not prepared to do whatever it takes to win three points is only an also ran proposition. Domestically, the level of opposition has gained ground on Bayern in recent years. Meanwhile, they have become able to compete with a “mortal” Bayern – having lacked both capability and belief for years. Internationally, revenues from broadcasting rights and other sources are in a different league anyway.
The question of Kovač, which has been a latent issue at the club for more than a year now, is about more than just a criticism of his tactics or why his players cannot seem to maintain their focus for 90 minutes at a time. It is much rather a question about whether the club as a whole has lost its focus. At its core is not whether Kovač is the right man to win the next championship for Bayern, it is much rather about whether the club is still able to think long term and establish a winning mentality throughout all levels of the club.
It may seem like an exaggeration to adduce current sporting problems to elucidate long-term issues, but the club was in a very similar situation ten years ago. There had been recent changes to the squad on several important positions, there was a new coach with good presentational skills. The result was chaos on the pitch and a coach soon fired. But it was for Philipp Lahm to explain the strategic implications of this situation to his betters. And they listened. To the surprise of many, they ultimately left their comfort zone and ushered in a new era at the club. Now it is upon the club to take such a big step again, in whichever form that may be.
Aiming to be a club that lives and breathes a winning mentality is not a matter of course, as Manchester United will be most happy to to confirm. With or without Kovač: FC Bayern Munich urgently needs to start questioning themselves and what they do. To delay this until Oliver Kahn arrives would be risky at best.