The inner tensions of a top club
If a player like Leroy Sané is linked with a move to FC Bayern, this is usually a sign of strength. But when the news broke that his transfer was imminent, the prevailing mood at Bayern was one of relief rather than excitement. This is not least due to the fact that the superficial cracks have long since started to penetrate through to the core. A lot of fans are increasingly annoyed by the enormously public nature of every little turn in the Sané story. Or rather: by their club’s role in it.
According to a number of different sources, the atmosphere at the club has become increasingly tense in recent months, rifts between the parties have opened up. The situation is anything but “deeply relaxed”, as Karl-Heinz Rummenige called his state of mind not long ago. Every worrying development of recent years seems to culminate this summer.
It is hard to tell exactly when all of this started. But even as early as Matthias Sammer left and the club began looking for his successor, their handling of the matter showed first signs that the club might be about to enter a stage of decline. Names like Oliver Kahn, Max Eberl or Philipp Lahm were mentioned in quick succession. They all turned the club down, each one reportedly for a different reason.
One of the crucial issues in the negotiations was the distribution of decision making power at the club. Philipp Lahm in particular supposedly had clear ideas about his role in his head when he approached the club. But neither Hoeneß nor Rummenige were apparently prepared to hand over greater parts of their power to, as they saw it, an inexperienced managerial newcomer.
Subsequently, for a year a position lay fallow whose importance for the club could hardly be overestimated. Then, in the summer of 2017, Hasan Salihamidžić got the job. An odd choice, to put it mildly. Because with him a man was appointed who had no job-related qualification or experience to show for whatsoever, even compared to Lahm. But he was much easier to handle.
For fairness’s sake it should be added that Bayern might have seen something in him that the general public was unaware of. From today’s perspective, however, this supposition seems questionable. After his appointment, it did not take long for first people to suggest that Salihamidžić’s primary function at the club was that of a go-between for Hoeneß and Rummenige. This, now, seems much more likely.
From this time on, the signs kept mounting that the relationship between the two patriarchs was edging towards a state of total breakdown. Not least the decisions about Bayern’s coaching appointments from Ancelotti onwards were the source of many a protracted and bitter dispute between them. And in fact, it did not take long for the tensions in their relationship to become a matter of public record.
In April 2019 at the latest it should have become obvious to everyone that there was not much collaboration left to speak of between the two. This time’s bone of contention? Niko Kovač once again. While Rummenige put the coach under pressure (“there is no job guarantee for anybody”), Hoeneß tried to protect him.
But the circumstances of the appointment of Kovač long before this time that had already shown what has been going wrong at FC Bayern. Both the timing of his move from Frankfurt to Bayern and its announcement were poorly handled by the club. According to several and usually reliable sources, Thomas Tuchel was slated for the job first, before he declined the offer in person. The reasons for this are unknown but Bayern tried to put the spin on the story that they themselves had eventually come to the conclusion that Tuchel was not the right man for the job after all. This did not work out all too well.
So far, so… okay. But instead of taking the initiative and start looking for other candidates now, Hoeneß became increasingly obsessed by the idea that Jupp Heynckes, who had taken over as a caretaker coach from Carlo Ancelotti in mid-season earlier, would stay on for another year.
It is hard to imagine Hoeneß’s state of mind at the time that he could have been so obsessed by this desire that he clung to it even in the face of Heynckes’s repeated announcements in private and in public that he would not continue in the job under any circumstances. Rummenige’s insistence that they should be looking for another candidate was no use. And all of this became public of course, as it was bound to do, not just because people close to the club kept furtively passing on bits of information to the outside, but also because Hoeneß could not contain himself whenever he was asked before Rummenige usually contradicted him.
The outcome of this story? Kovač could never be sold as the club’s first choice for the coaching job. He was already a weakened man the moment he stepped through the door. As soon as the first footballing crisis occurred in the fall of 2018, it became clear that the players had sensed this too. Only after the bosses intervened and asked Kovač to end the practice of constantly rotating a good deal of the squad before each match, the situation somewhat improved. There are rumours that they might have given the team a stern talking-to as well, but that is speculation.
What is no speculation though is that the club has been in reaction mode since 2017. It seems to have become a principle at the club to jump from one makeshift solution to the next. Salihamidžić and Kovač are but two of the most plainly visible examples of this. To find the next one, one does not need to look any further than the transfer situation. Here too the absence of a strategy is blatantly obvious. All the club’s recent efforts on the transfer market seem to have been reactive and not part of a bigger, consistent, and coherent plan. There is never the sense that the club has made any back-up plans in case their plan A should not succeed. The transfer of Ivan Perišić is a case in point. Ostensibly not deemed good enough only a month ago when Sané was still a likely prospect, he is now somehow good enough to be a useful alternative for him on the wing.
That a club like FC Bayern would drop everything when a player like Leroy Sané becomes available goes without saying. But giving the public a front row seat to the proceedings while managing to strengthen and irritate Manchester City at the same time, will be an unprecedented achievement even at FC Bayern. They have somehow managed to let the entire transfer game slip away so that Manchester City is now holding all the cards and Bayern are deprived of any alternatives.
All that Bayern could do in this position of weakness was to react. Who was still left available? And who could be a realistic alternative to Leroy Sané? The club really put itself under enormous pressure by not just fuelling the speculations about Sané, but also announcing that even more top class players were yet to come. Instead, Ivan Perišić came.
Instead of publicly talking up the current squad, the club has shot itself in the foot in this respect too. Should the Sané transfer ultimately fail, it will be exceedingly hard to sell any player coming in his stead as a transfer of choice, including Ivan Perišić. It is the Kovač problem put on repeat. In one way or another, Bayern always manages to set up and later trip over their own stumbling blocks, which would be funny if it were not so dramatic for the future of the club.
And the sporting director is least to blame for all of this, even though he is the personified manifestation of all of these problems. Salihamidžić is a miscast. He was the wrong choice for the job. After two years into his tenure, there cannot be any other conclusion. With every additional bit of responsibility he has been given, his performance has become worse.
His attempt to set down a marker with the transfer of Hudson-Odoi was a failure. Rhetorically and in relation to the requirements of his position Salihamidžić is not capable of representing the club appropriately. A few journalists asking inconsequential questions are enough to put him off his stride and make him start looking for words – which is by no means due to a supposed language barrier. How should he ever be capable of being a tough and credible negotiator not to be trifled with?
The transfer negotiations are carried out by the bosses anyway, the same bosses who are responsible for the Salihamidžić appointment in the first place. Instead of easing the club’s transition into the future, they are reasserting their hold on power now. Meanwhile, Salihamidžić puts up a brave front, probably knowing all too well that he is not more than but a pawn in the moves of the bosses. Unfortunately, as the person formally responsible for the sporting decisions, he is also the frequent target of public criticism and ridicule, a situation exacerbated by the internal pressures increasingly put on him by his betters. He is the lightning rod and whipping boy for all sorts of ridicule and derision just because he is officially responsible for decisions he de facto never takes and has never been properly equipped to take. Is this the new Bayern way? Hiring an unqualified and inexperienced sporting director and hanging him out to dry?
And now, after two years of inability and arguments have been wasted, the much heralded transition is finally supposed to happen. But it will certainly not simplify things should the two patriarchs keep putting their own interests before those of the club. Frictions produce potentially useful energy. But the relationship between the two has long moved past the state of simple frictions.
Should the situation continue as it is, Rummenige and Hoeneß will probably deal serious and lasting damage to the club. Thus, the impending resignation of the president is not a sign of transition. It is much more a sign that the rifts that have appeared at the club do not leave him cold. Hoeneß is not used to being personally attacked and deceived from within the club the way it has supposedly happened lately. Even the dissemination of the news of his stepping down did supposedly not happen at his behest.
But most of all, the internal tensions are paralysing the whole club. The aforementioned problems in external representation and management underline how dangerous the current situation is for Germany’s record champions. It is not about signing two or three star players and everything is back to normal again. It is about lining the club up for a successful future. This requires a fundamental reorganisation from top to bottom. Ideally Hoeneß and Rummenige finally start tackling this challenge in unity. Otherwise there is an incredibly high cliff for the two of them and the club to fall off of. The landing will be painful for all, but probably the club most of all.