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Carlo Ancelotti and FC Hollywood: striking the balance between stability and results

Bayern’s studied avoidance of coaching drama bodes well for Carlo Ancelotti as he sets out on his second season with the German Champions, but expectations are high. What would it take for Bayern to send him packing?

FC Bayern Muenchen Training Session and Press Conference Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

This off-season has witnessed several dramatic coaching changes around the Bundesliga. At Bayern Munich, as Carlo Ancelotti heads into his second season with the Bavarian Rekordmeister, harmony seems to reign in the front office in his support. But after winning “only” the Bundesliga championship this past season, Ancelotti is under unprecedented pressure to produce results. How would Bayern respond, and how extreme would that response be, should Ancelotti falter again?

The answer to that question is wrapped up in Bayern’s preoccupation with drama, or rather with the suppression of drama. Bayern may project the image of a slick, carefully calibrated machine, but an undercurrent of dread lurks beneath the surface of its carefully cultivated corporate persona. It was not so long ago that Bayern’s scandal-ridden alter ego, “FC Hollywood,” re-emerged from its slumber in the Klinsmann and Van Gaal eras.

The unfitness of Klinsmann

Jürgen Klinsmann was hired to coach Bayern on the strength of his 2006 World Cup campaign, in which he (and Jogi Löw notably as his assistant) led Germany to a spectacular third place finish. The national team’s performance as Germany hosted the tournament was a “summer fairy tale” (Sommermärchen) that inspired the nation with newfound confidence.

FC Barcelona v Bayern Munich - UEFA Champions League Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

Klinsmann’s tenure at Bayern was anything but a fairy tale: the team was knocked out in the quarterfinals of both the Champions League and the DFB Pokal and suffered seven losses in the Bundesliga. After the seventh loss, with Champions League qualification in jeopardy, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Uli Hoeneß, and Karl Hopfner convened an emergency meeting and decided Klinsmann had to go – with five games left to play. Pictures of Klinsmann driving away in disgrace hit the tabloids.

Philipp Lahm later revealed that Klinsmann coached fitness, not tactics: the players took it upon themselves to meet before games to decide how to play. For Lahm and co, the season under Klinsmann amounted to “damage control.” Under Jupp Heynckes in the interim, Bayern climbed back into second place, qualifying for the Champions League after all.

Collapse under Van Gaal

Inter Milan v FC Bayern Muenchen - UEFA Champions League Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

Louis van Gaal took the reins in 2009. After flirting with a triple in his first season and winning a domestic double, Van Gaal imploded in his second season: Bayern crashed out of the Champions League in the round of 16, lost to Schalke in the DFB Pokal semifinal, and fell to fourth place in the Bundesliga. Van Gaal was fired in April – again with five games to play. Interim coach Andries Jonker secured third place and Champions League qualification.

In addition to the disasters on the pitch, Van Gaal’s dismissal brought further unwanted publicity in the form of bad blood between himself and Hoeneß. The two had traded barbs earlier in the season over Van Gaal’s Champions League missteps. After Van Gaal had been fired, Hoeneß claimed that not only was the team losing, but playing had ceased to be fun under the Dutchman. “That the players stand behind him is a myth,” Hoeneß declared. Thus the Van Gaal era came to an ignominious end.

Ancelotti’s long leash

When Bayern was eliminated from both the Champions League and the DFB Pokal last season, Rummenigge made the club’s position clear: “Carlo is a very good and experienced coach. The length of his contract [until 2019] is well known, and it is not up for discussion.” The blunt terms in which Rummenigge discussed Bayern’s Champions League elimination made it clear that the club saw responsibility for the premature exit elsewhere: “We were screwed over this evening.”

We fans, of course, are less forgiving: after a string of mediocre showings early in the season and a stubborn insistence on a relatively conservative 4-3-3 – which coincided with the worst season of Thomas Müller’s career – Ancelotti looked like a mistake. The team seemed to struggle for every victory, and then Dortmund beat Bayern 1-0 in November. But talk of firing Ancelotti proved wildly premature: Bayern stormed back up to first place and humiliated Leipzig in a 3-0 victory on the last matchday of the Hinrunde. Bayern did not lose another match until that ill-fated April – when everything went wrong.

Ancelotti now is embarking on his second season with a squad that is in the midst of transition. Philipp Lahm and Xabi Alonso have retired, and the club’s primary wingers, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, are entering the final stage of their careers. What are reasonable expectations on Ancelotti? Hoeneß pointedly told kicker, “If we are German champions, I will already be very satisfied.”

It would take a collapse on the scale of Klinsmann and Van Gaal to dislodge Ancelotti from his place at Bayern. It would take, in other words, the return of FC Hollywood to convince the board that the better option is to sever ties with the most stable part of the team (besides themselves): the coach. A treble would be ideal, but Ancelotti’s realistic goal is to steer the team successfully through this difficult transition.

Bayern and coaching carousel

Borussia Dortmund shocked the world this summer by firing Thomas Tuchel, the most successful coach they have ever had, over what might be called “unreconcilable differences” between himself and team management, Hans-Joachim Watzke in particular. Schalke dumped Markus Weinzierl a year into his three-year deal after a very disappointing season in order to sign Domenico Tedesco, whom they believe will turn into the next Julian Nagelsmann. The only thing one can say is, “Mal sehen” (“we’ll see”).

Nagelsmann menawhile, the coaching golden child himself, extended his contract with Hoffenheim until 2021. Hoffenheim are where Bayern wants to be. The club knows that players are volatile. It is impossible to anticipate scandals like Kinglsey Coman’s arrest for domestic violence. The coach, however, should be a source of stability: Tedesco is Schalke’s tenth coach since 2010. Coaching turnover like that is simply unthinkable at Bayern.

Bayern’s current management has perhaps never been as careful in its selection of coaches as it has been with Pep Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti. As Bayern strives to contend financially with the heavyweights of Europe, the stakes have never been higher. The club has insisted repeatedly that the primary goal is to win the league. That is not the whole truth: winning the league goes hand in hand with Champions League qualification. That is where the money lies, and that is also probably the real threshold for failure.

If the season goes well, Ancelotti will undoubtedly see out his contract with Bayern until 2019. The odds are in his favor, and Ancelotti’s record of success dispels most doubts. If, though, Ancelotti surprisingly fails to capture any titles, he still may be at the helm next year, provided Bayern’s qualification for the Champions League is not threatened. Bayern would move on from Ancelotti early only for the right replacement, only for an ace in the hole. Anything more than that would be too much drama.

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