Where We Are - The State of the Bayern Nation
If you’re anything like me, you were just demolished after yesterday’s match. I thought I had seen enough poor Bayern performances this year to prepare me for anything, but the second half yesterday was a new low. Not only did we blow a two-goal lead in a match to secure a spot in the Champions League quarter-final, but it actually felt like we were going to blow it, even when it was 3-1 on the aggregate count. As soon as Cesar saved that hard volley-shot at about 60 minutes (I think it was a Gomez shot), I was terrified. Less than three minutes later, Inter had pulled within one, and from then on you could tell that our confidence was shattered.
Nonetheless, I do believe that something positive can come from this loss. As inconsistent and uninspiring as the club has been all year, a win yesterday could have convinced the Board, CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, and even the players that things were OK. Over the weekend, van Gaal was even asked whether he would consider reversing his decision to resign if Bayern were to win the Champions League title (he said no … thankfully, I guess, not that it really matters now). In short, a win yesterday, especially if followed by a favorable match-up and a win in the next round, would have permitted the club to paper over the manifest problems that we are now faced with.
And the problems are serious, let’s be honest. Bayern are one of the 5 or 6 most talented clubs in the world, when considering the entire roster, top to bottom. But deep rosters of highly talented but disorganized and poorly-coached superstars don’t win trophies. It’s tempting to look down the line-up and say "Muller … Schweini … Ribéry … Robben … come on, we’re still great!" The numbers don’t lie, though, and seven months is too long a stretch to deem bad luck. And although I’ll be happy to see van Gaal gone, a new face won’t be enough by itself. Whoever comes in to replace him is going to have to bring in a new staff, a new system, and a new attitude.
How We Got Here - What Were the Accomplishments of the van Gaal Era?
A brief diversion, if you’ll indulge me: I saw a cable-TV biopic of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana some time ago. I can’t recall the network, and most of the program was forgettable, but one of the people being interviewed said something that I still remember to this day: he said that, when Smells Like Teen Spirit came out, it not only changed the kind of music people were making and listening to at the time, it even changed the way people thought about music that had already been made previously. Suddenly, not only were hair-metal bands like Poison no longer popular, but people wanted to forget that they had ever been popular. No one would admit that they had bought Poison albums and gone to their concerts. Nirvana turned the prior era into something that people could never look at the same way again.
What does that have to do with our beloved Bavarians? Well, after the past three weeks, I’m not only depressed and dissatisfied with the club’s performance this year. I’m starting re-think last year as well, and wondering whether the glorious accomplishments of 2009-2010 were really as amazing as they seemed at the time. Don’t get me wrong, last summer was the most fun I’ve ever had as a fan, and even after the loss in the final to Inter I was incredibly proud of the team. But thinking back on it now, you can’t help but remember how we struggled out of the gate, and didn’t really take control of the Bundesliga race until the middle of the season. After giving up three goals to Inter in yesterday’s second-leg match, you have to notice that we also gave up three goals in the second leg of the Fiorentina tie and three goals in the second leg of the Manchester United tie. You even might remember van Buyten getting shredded by Milito in last year’s Champions League final anytime you watch our defense struggle this year.
So, if this means anything, perhaps it means that the van Gaal era can’t be considered a success. Winning the domestic double and getting to the Champions League final was great, but we owe most of that to some brilliant offensive individual offensive performances over a stretch of about four months. For the most part, van Gaal’s tenure was marked by defensive lapses and by talented players generally performing below expectations, often failing to demonstrate the unselfishness and the mental strength that a championship team needs.
Where We’re Going - The Road Ahead
So that’s the bad news. The good news? Well, the good news is, we’re still FC Bayern Munich. With the caliber of players we have on our current line-up, the strength of our reserve team and youth system, and the resources we have available, everything can be turned around in short order. Even Poison eventually made a comeback.
Right now, the main priority is to finish in the top three in the Bundesliga. Top two would be even better, because it would give us a pass right into the Champions League group stage next year, without being forced through the qualifying round. We have eight matches left, including a vital game against Bayer Leverkusen (currently two spots and seven points above us on the table) on April 17.
After that, we need a new coach to lead a complete rebuild. This club needs a new system of player management in all aspects: training, tactics, on-field communication, physical fitness, and all of the other unseen but vitally important things that go into a team that wants to be the best in the world. It’s not enough to just say "we need to buy more defenders!" Championship-caliber teams are built, not bought; they need a combination of confidence and humility - the players have to have faith in their abilities on game day, but also know that even the most talented team can collapse if the commitment to winning is not displayed every day. Confidence to seize control of the game, combined with humility to know that being the star of the German (or French, or Dutch) national team isn’t enough. Louis van Gaal seemed to inspire just the opposite - they players often appeared smugly satisfied at how great they were, but then crumbled as soon as something went wrong.
Next time, we’ll get into what this new regime will need to do, and who might lead it. Tune in for that discussion and a preview of this Saturday’s game at SC Freiburg later this week. Thanks for reading.