Bayern Munich were knocked out of the Champions League on Tuesday night by Paris Saint-Germain. It was 3-3 on aggregate, meaning it came down to the away goals rule, and if you caught the two legs, you will appreciate how this tie could have easily gone either way, and by a sizable margin to either club. Bayern created far more in the first leg… and lost. PSG created more in the return leg… and lost.
That’s the nature of this screwy, wacky sport. It gets even screwier and wackier when, at the tail-end of a congested, grueling pandemic-conditioned season, the list of unfit and unavailable threatens to exceed that of the able-bodied. Bayern took the pitch without Niklas Sule, Corentin Tolisso, Douglas Costa, Leon Goretzka and, above all, Robert Lewandowski. PSG walked out without Marquinhos, Mauro Icardi, Layvin Kurzawa, Marco Verratti and Alessandro Florenzi. (The latter two, just recovered from COVID-19, were on the bench, but in no condition to play.)
So let’s pump the brakes on those sweeping conclusions one way or another, shall we?
Still, folks in Bavaria woke up Wednesday to reports that manager Hansi Flick — who delivered a Treble less than a year ago and is on track for another Bundesliga title, as Bayern are five points clear at the top, with six games to go — will depart in the summer, possibly to take the Germany job after the Euros. (Lothar Matthaus said Wednesday that it’s happening.) Among the reasons cited is an “incompatibility” with sporting director Hasan “Brazzo” Salihamidzic.
Inevitably, Bayern are already linked with Julian Nagelsmann, who happens to coach Leipzig, their main contenders for the German title. (In other leagues, there’d be some consternation at the possibility of the biggest, richest team making overtures to a direct rival during the season; they’re used to it in the Bundesliga.)
But the fact is that, as far as Bayern are concerned, there will be a necessary rebuild in the next 12 months. And this time, it might make sense for the club not to believe their own hype and ask themselves whether, despite impressive achievements on and off the pitch — eight league titles, five German Cups and two Champions League titles, all while operating at break-even or in profit — they’re actually getting the most bang for their considerable buck.
Whoever replaces Flick will become their fifth manager in the past four years. Nobody has lasted more than three seasons since Ottmar Hitzfeld two decades ago. (Admittedly, Pep Guardiola could have stuck around longer, but chose not to. Hey, he’s Pep.) Bayern’s ability to weather the revolving managerial door and still win was often put down to the club’s solidity and the enlightened guidance of Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Uli Hoeness (when not serving time in prison) in the club’s executive branch.
Maybe so. But then you’re left to imagine what they might have achieved with better decision-making, particularly on the recruitment side.
You can take this season as an example. In late-September, Flick himself was sounding the alarm, noting how they were short on players and depth. Salihamidzic addressed it with a Supermarket Sweep just before the transfer window closed that brought in Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting, Bouna Sarr, Marc Roca and Costa. The point isn’t that the quartet haven’t been particularly good (though, as a group, they haven’t) — it’s that Flick had to beg and wait until the final hours of the window to address the issue.
Yes, global pandemic and all that. But this is, supposedly, the richest, best-run club in Germany, nein?
Flick himself commented that this Bayern side were nowhere near as good last season’s version. The remarks may have struck some as odd — other than Thiago Alcantara, it was largely the same players — but was undeniably true. Heroics from Lewandowski, Thomas Muller, Manuel Neuer and Joshua Kimmich (when fit) were papering over cracks. It might still have been enough to win the Champions League and Bundesliga this year, but it wouldn’t have changed the underlying facts: there’s some major planning to do.
Up front, Muller turns 32 in September and Lewandowski 33 in August. They will need to find replacements in the very near future. Muller is such a unique player that his replacement will likely be a totally different sort of footballer. Unless they sign Erling Haaland or Kylian Mbappe (and they won’t), Lewandowski will be replaced by somebody substantially worse. Both replacements will be pricey.
Craig Burley breaks down why Bayern were unable to overcome PSG without Robert Lewandowski and Serge Gnabry.
At the back, David Alaba and Jerome Boateng become free agents in June and here, you have some sympathy for the club. Alaba, having come through the ranks (and therefore having been somewhat underpaid) and turning 29 in June, is looking for one last pay day. (This explains why he’s being advised by super agent Pini Zahavi). Boateng turns 33 in September and, while he’s been generally fit and productive this year, has had injury woes in the past.
The club don’t want to lock themselves into onerous long-term deals for older players: fine. Dayot Upamecano is on his way from RB Leipzig to fill one of the slots at the back: great. But there is little question that the way both their exits have been handled — with Hoeness labelling Zahavi a “greedy piranha” and Boateng treated like some stiff, despite Flick openly lobbying on his behalf — hasn’t helped matters.
The question then becomes how much faith you have in Bayern’s ability to reload and here, the track record isn’t great, particularly when they’ve spent big, as a look at their record signings suggest.
Lucas Hernandez — whose transfer cost €80 million from Atletico Madrid — is the third-most expensive central defender in the history of the game. He has started barely a third of Bayern’s games since arriving in 2019 and, in fact, has made more than 13 top-flight starts in a season just once in his career. (He’s 25 years old.)
Next up is Leroy Sane: €45m rising to a possible €60m with bonuses, which might not sound like a lot until you consider he was a year away from free agency when he arrived from Manchester City last summer. The issue with Sane is consistency — when’s he good, he’s virtually unplayable, but when he’s off his game, he’s a passenger — and durability. He has started more than 23 league games just once in his career (he too is 25) and even this year, when he’s been mostly fit, he managed just 15 league starts.
Want more? How about Corentin Tolisso, who cost €41.5m, rising to €47.5m, from Lyon in 2017. He’s 26. In the past three years, injuries have limited him to 15 league starts combined. Or, indeed, Javi Martinez. He cost €40m back in 2012, but averages less than 13 league starts a season over nearly nine years.
Keep going down Bayern’s top 10 list of most expensive signings in the past eight seasons and you’ll bump into the likes of Mario Gotze and Renato Sanches, too. Arguably, the only ones who lived up to their fee were Arturo Vidal and Mats Hummels. Sure, it’s nobody’s fault (usually) if players get injured, and maybe Tolisso, Hernandez and Sane will all stay fit next year and be among the best in the world at their positions. But the track record isn’t great. Somewhere along the line, things aren’t quite what they should be.
The principle, incidentally, applies to loans too: witness the acquisitions of Philippe Coutinho and Alvaro Odriozola last season. Indeed, Bayern have often done better when acquiring very young players (Alaba, Kimmich, Serge Gnabry, Alphonso Davies, Kingsley Coman) for manageable fees or promoting from within (Muller, Jamal Musiala). In fact, you can make the case that the last big-name signing to really move the needle at Bayern was Hummels, back in 2016… and that did not end well.
That has to be fresh in the mind of Flick — and help explain, at least in part, why he’s considering going back to the German national team. Whether it’s Nagelsmann next or somebody else, it will likely be one of the first questions asked by his potential successor.
How does a club that is so successful and enjoys such a massive economic advantage fail to drive that edge home? And how much of their recent trophy haul is simply down to Guardiola’s legacy and a trio of generational talents — Neuer (35), Lewandowski (32) and Mueller (31) — who are now very much on the clock?