Ken Early: Bayern Munich exit a part of wider German decline
Coaches have come and gone at German club without any apparent overall plan
New Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane during Saturday’s game against Celta Vigo. Madrid are reported to be willing to spend up to €300m this summer. Photograph: Reuters/Susana Vera
The last Champions League round was one to get you thinking about the cyclical nature of football. Four Premier League teams made the quarter-finals for the first time in a decade, while Real Madrid’s long European reign was ended by Ajax, and Bayern Munich were dominated at their own ground by Liverpool. One league nearing the peak, two great clubs on the downswing.
The image of a cycle makes it sound as though the alternating stages of decay and regeneration happen naturally or automatically, but that’s not really how it works. The fall happens of its own accord, but the rise takes a lot of effort and energy.
Madrid at least acted fast, firing Santiago Solari and reappointing Zinedine Zidane within five days. By persuading the most popular coach in the recent history of the club to return, the president Florentino Perez succeeded in distracting most of the crowd from their previously relentless demands for his resignation.
Zidane left last summer because he felt that the team had become stagnant and Perez had neglected to take the steps necessary to refresh the squad. If he has returned it is because Perez has at least promised to do what he asked, and Madrid are reported to be willing to spend up to €300 million this summer. They never find it difficult to attract top players and their regeneration could happen quickly.
At Bayern there is a sense that the downward swing of the cycle could be more protracted. No sooner had Jurgen Klopp departed the Allianz Arena after a series of triumphant fist-pumps than Franz Beckenbauer was praising Klopp and suggesting he could be a Bayern kind of guy, maybe the man to lead the regeneration.
But it is not easy to imagine Klopp working at Bayern because in each of his three jobs in management he has always been the biggest personality at the club, and at Bayern that role is already taken by the Statler and Waldorf duo of Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.
You seldom hear anything from Klopp’s bosses at Liverpool about Klopp except occasional updates on how delighted they are with him. If he coached Bayern then Hoeness would provide weekly commentary on his performance, whether it was good or bad, because that’s just his style and this is what anyone who agrees to coach Bayern must accept.
Passivity in defeat
A couple of days after the Liverpool game, Rummenigge was quoted in German media expressing his regret at Bayern’s passivity in defeat.
“I wish that we could have showed more courage, attacking spirit and dominance,” he said, noting that the Bayern fans had produced a wonderful atmosphere to which the team had failed to respond.
Rummenigge did not explain exactly how Bayern were supposed to display dominance against Liverpool, a team with a better coach, a more sophisticated playing style, and better players all over the pitch.
Bayern’s turnover is almost 40 per cent larger than Liverpool’s, but this is not reflected in the ambition of their recruitment. The most they have spent on a player in the last three seasons is £36 million on Corentin Tolisso; in that time Liverpool have spent similar or larger sums on Mané, Mohamed Salah, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Naby Keita, Fabinho, Alisson Becker and Virgil van Dijk.
Of course at Bayern it’s never just been about the spending; they’ve prided themselves on being a club that knew how to do things intelligently. But since Pep Guardiola left in 2016, Rummenigge and Hoeness have failed to find a new identity for the club, at least one beyond cliches like attacking spirit and dominance.
Coaches have come and gone without any apparent wider plan; the team has aged but new players appear to have been recruited almost at random.
Last Wednesday, as Liverpool bore down on them with menacing focus and clarity, Bayern looked forlornly for inspiration to Thiago Alcantara, a fish out of water since Guardiola departed taking the system of play within which Thiago was relevant, Franck Ribery, who was once a great player, and James Rodriguez, who wandered around like a lost soul.
Niko Kovac will surely not be the Bayern coach for much longer, but Hoeness and Rummenigge will still be running the board even though they are the ones who are ultimately responsible for the last three seasons of drift.
Bayern’s story is unfolding within a wider context of German decline. The world champions of five years ago have had their worst year since Jurgen Klinsmann took over as the national team coach in 2004. As Michael Ballack put it: “We crashed out of the World Cup early, have been relegated in the Nations League, and the Champions League ended in the round of 16 for all German sides. This is a hint that we’re not doing everything right. There’s no reason to sugarcoat things.”
The obvious irony is that the German football model has been held up for years as the best example for everyone else to follow. Germany’s failures in 2018-19 indicate that even well-designed and well-funded systems are vulnerable to cyclical decline.
The question is: how do you get back into the regeneration phase of the cycle?
The national team coach, Joachim Löw, knows that people want to see evidence of a fresh approach, which is why at the beginning of March he travelled to Munich to tell Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels and Thomas Müller that their international careers were over. None of the three took it very well, which might have been related to the perception that it is clearly Löw, rather than any of them, who should have been stepping aside to make way for the next generation.
It was Löw, after all, who won the 2017 Confederations Cup with a squad of young hopefuls, then reverted to selecting the old guard for the World Cup proper.
It was Löw who decided to leave Germany’s best young player, Leroy Sané, out of the 2018 World Cup squad. It was Löw who persisted throughout all three group matches with a possession style that would have been state-of-the-art in 2008 but by 2018 was looking jaded and predictable. Now the man who blocked the future is tasked with leading Germany into it.
The same people who presided over the decline, sticking around to lead the regeneration. Irish football knows all about that approach. That’s pretty much what we’ve been doing for the last 10 years, and you can see how it’s worked out for us.