It is no secret that part of what ails Bayern Munich this season is a general unhappiness on the roster with playing time. Players simply won’t perform if they aren’t happy and no amount of money can replace the joy players get from consistently being on the pitch.
Specifically, on a team with a roster so many proven veterans and depth, many players don’t feel as if they are getting the requisite playing time they deserve. It’s all a no-win situation for Niko Kovač. Have a stacked bench and you have a better chance of making an impact in the long run for the Champions League or keep a young, inexperienced bench — but keep your stars happy — and hope for no key injuries. This was the dilemma facing Bayern as it planned for 2018-2019. It chose a veteran-laden bench and is now dealing with the fallout of having too much established, entitled talent.
There was no easy way to make the call for Bayern’s front office, but the decision to keep a “loaded” (at least in terms of how the players view themselves) bench is starting to undermine the young coaching tenure of Kovač.
Could this have all been avoided? Yes, by developing players from within rather than a reliance on buy established or near-established talent from elsewhere; the kind of talent that always feels entitled to time on the pitch.
Assessing the discord
If it was one player who was griping, it would be an anomaly. With two, it starts to make the complaints louder, but when it grows to more than that, it is a major issue.
So far this season, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Sandro Wagner, Mats Hummels, Niklas Süle, Leon Goretzka, Renato Sanches and James Rodriguez have all had issues with their playing time — or lack thereof. Okay, maybe some have not outright complained, but have at least publicly stated that they want more time on the pitch. And that is fine...except that is just the precursor to discontent if the situation does not become more favorable for said player.
It would almost be easier to state who is happy, although some players certainly have opted not to speak out publicly, so could be even more players who want more time on the field. Granted, this should be expected. How else did anyone think it would play out when you assembled a core group of roughly 14 players that could start - or at least feature regularly - for nearly any team on the planet?
This is not a problem Kovač created, but the fallout from a lack of youth stars being able to make it to the first team. I would staunchly argue that Kovač was set up to fail in some ways with this roster. Not because of a lack of talent, but because of a surplus. There is no possible way to keep the roster happy even with potential playing time freed up by a season ending injury to Corentin Tolisso and significant injuries to Kingsley Coman and Rafinha.
How this could have been avoided
Bayern’s youth academy has not exactly been producing international-level stars over the past five years. David Alaba came to Bayern as a 16-year old and progressed through the upper ranks of the academy to become a first team starter, but since that point, Bayern has not produced a regular starter or even a contributing substitute.
With a handful of exceptions, most players on Bayern’s roster came via acquisition, which is the primary issue with the composition of Die Roten.
Youth players who come through the system are more inclined to wait their turn so to speak. They are more accepting of a role where they can gain experience in a top notch training environment, while learning from top level professionals from the bench. Purchased, game-ready talent, however, is not nearly as likely to take a back seat to anyone.
Hope for the future...or is there?
It seems like Bayern is making an effort to put more focus on its developmental talent Whether that means building a player from the grass roots level or integrating a talented prospect while still at the junior levels, producing the next Bayern stars in a developmental fashion is exactly what this team needs.
Just using center back as a positional example, maybe players like Chris Richards (brought in while still a developmental talent, but who also could return to FC Dallas in 2019) and Lars Lukas Mai can provide the next layer of center back depth for Bayern. But even in an area of what looks like quality in the youth system, Bayern may eschew it for, again, established talent. Whether it is Benjamin Pavard, Kevin Vogt, Matthijs de Ligt, or Milan Škriniar, Bayern is already rumored to be looking at ways to push its youth further down the ranks.
This is not to say the aforementioned outside talent is not worthy of a purchase, but with Hummels, Boateng, and Süle already in the fold, there would need to be a massive overhaul to find a way to keep those players happy, let alone bringing in a youth player to develop while in an apprentice role. Given the rumors surrounding Hummels’ lack of belief in his role under Kovač and also Boateng’s eagerness to leave last summer, perhaps a massive overhaul is just what is needed at center back.
Or maybe not. It is that kind of debate that is surely being held internally.
We’ve got a whole series dedicated to the club’s “wunderkinds,” but will any of them ever make a material impact? It’s hard to say “yes” with any confidence at this stage. Regardless, how Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge approach the next two transfer windows will certainly play a key role in how the team transform on the field and in the locker room.
Kovač might be failing his biggest test
Kovač’s biggest issue entering the season was how effectively he could manage the egos on the roster. Maybe it’s more of a psychology issue than a coaching issue, but Kovač has not found a way to keep everyone happy and engaged. It was never going to be an easy task with so much talent on the roster. It was easy to foresee this coming down the road; but just how severe the problem has become is even far greater than anyone could have anticipated.
Unfortunately for Bayern, this has the potential to become a consistent theme. If the club wants great depth, it will continue to purchase game-ready talent, but it always comes with a price. And the cost, at least for this season, is potentially a roster full of malcontents and a lack of cohesion on the pitch.
Can it change for the better? Absolutely, but it will require some buy-in from the egos who have already voiced their desire for more field time to buy in. Does Kovač have the caché to make that happen? We’ll soon find out.