For a team that strives for perfection, an aging, paranoid Bayern Munich side is facing Borussia Dortmund at the worst possible moment says Uli Hesse
Three-weeks ago, the three men who run Bayern Munich gave a bizarre and almost embarrassing press conference, which club icon Paul Breitner later labelled “depressing”.
CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, director of football Hasan Salihamidzic and Uli Hoeness, the president of the parent club, had invited members of the media to tell them in no uncertain terms that they would no longer tolerate coverage they considered “disrespectful”.
The spectacle was bizarre because one of the most powerful clubs in the world came across as parochial, think-skinned and even amateurish, stooping so low as to lash out at writers who had dared to criticise the most recent performances by the team and by individual players.
But it was also unintentionally revealing on many levels. For instance, the fact that Salihamidzic looked, spoke and acted like the odd man out confirmed the impression, formed by most observers over his fifteen months on the job, that the former player’s position in the club’s hierarchy is nowhere near as strong as his role would command.
When at one point he was personally addressed but could not reply because Rummenigge did it for him, many people felt this would have never happened to Salihamidzic’s predecessor, the strong-willed and assertive Matthias Sammer. And there was another quite revealing moment during this press conference.
Bayern Munich living on past glories
When Rummenigge discussed the merits of Manuel Neuer and pointed out that the goalkeeper had been sidelined for many months, which could explain why he was struggling to regain his form, Uli Hoeness added: “It has always been a distinguishing feature of Bayern Munich that we act like a family. Being grateful for what a player has done for us in the past plays a huge role for us.”
He should have said “for me”, because it’s no secret that this aspect – the club as a family – is much more important to Hoeness than to the other movers and shakers at Bayern. And while his is certainly a laudable attitude, you can’t help but wonder if maybe Bayern are now paying the price for having taken loyalty too far.
Some of the problems that are troubling the club this season are beyond their control, such as an injury curse and the fact that many players seem tired after a World Cup that was draining in more ways than one. But others are self-inflicted, such as giving the coaching job to someone who is as untried at this level as Salihamidzic (but who is, like Salihamidzic, a former member of the Bayern family): Niko Kovac.
Then there is the matter of rebuilding. When Bayern travel to league leaders Dortmund on Saturday, trying to cut into their old rivals’ four-point lead, it will not just be a clash of Bundesliga titans, it will also be a clash of the generations.
Five-years ago, those two clubs contested the Champions League final. In Dortmund, only three players who saw action on that day are still important members of the squad (Lukasz Piszczek, Marcel Schmelzer and Marco Reus) and the team is much better known for exciting teenagers like Jadon Sancho or Christian Pulisic.
A lack of fresh faces in the Bayern team
But at Bayern, nine players, almost an entire team, are left over from 2013: Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, David Alaba, Javi Martinez, Arjen Robben, Thomas Müller, Franck Ribéry plus Mats Hummels and Robert Lewandowski, who wore Dortmund’s colours during the Wembley final.
Of course there are solid reasons for this discrepancy. Dortmund were and are often forced to overhaul their side because players leave for richer teams, just think of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Ousmane Dembélé. Bayern, on the other hand, are not a selling club and they were so successful in the wake of 2013 that there was little reason to remodel the team.
But there is also no denying that Dortmund have found a way of gently but forcefully pushing aging club heroes out of the door – Neven Subotic, Kevin Grosskreutz, Jakub Blaszczykowski and Nuri Sahin were all huge fan favourites but left without much fanfare – while Bayern somehow struggle to do this.
And Hoeness obviously plays a big role here. While he was in prison, serving a sentence for tax evasion, Bastian Schweinsteiger, whom the fans had dubbed their “football god”, was sold to Manchester United almost in the dead of night – and with good reason, as later events proved. But since Hoeness is back, it seems as if deserving heroes like Robben and Ribery are almost sacrosanct. It would take the combination of a very strong coach and a forceful director of football to set the overdue rebuilding of a once-great team into motion, but Bayern don’t have that combination at the moment.
All of which explains why Bayern are still the team to beat – but no longer quite as unbeatable as they used to be. A few days ago, I spoke with a former Bundesliga coach who once led a team into the Champions League and is now working at a lower level of the game.
“It used to be that Bayern would be winning games even though they played at only 80 per cent,” he said. “Right now, 80 per cent will no longer do. And opposing teams sense this. They sense they have a chance. And that changes everything.” I hope the Bayern bosses will not deem this “disrespectful”, but as far as the Bundesliga is concerned, it’s a change for the better.