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Building Bayern — Part I: Understanding Bayern Munich’s transfer strategy

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Bayern Munich follows a Best Player Available transfer philosophy, and the roster dilemma between Philippe Coutinho and Thomas Müller is a perfect example.

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FC Bayern Erlebniswelt Museum Photo by Alexandra Beier/Getty Images

Sporting franchises that enjoy long-term success are built around central philosophies for both on-the-field and off-the-field decisions. Bayern Munich is no exception. There is a consistent rhyme-and-reason behind their decisions on how to better the club. This series of articles will dig down to discover those policies, how they have guided our team to where it is now, and what they might say about where it will be tomorrow.

Best Player Available vs Position of Need

Talent acquisition is one of the most heated discussions amongst students of sports organization. If you want to start a good fight, just put a bunch of scouts/managers/experts in a room and ask them whether Best Player Available (BPA) or Position of Need (PON) is the better approach to building a team and watch the sparks fly. While no successful club embraces either of those approaches in an unbending fashion, management teams consciously make decisions about how to build their squad over the long haul. Bayern is no different.

In a recent interview with Ralph Honigstein at The Athletic, Bayern’s sporting director, Hasan Salihamidzic, clearly articulated the modern Bayern approach:

There are only a handful of players capable of improving this team and we watch them very closely, some of them for many years.

Honigstein expands on Bayern’s philosophy on player acquisition:

Bayern … start from a potential target’s ability and then work back to their availability rather than the other way around, which in turn demands patience at times… tactical concerns as well as a manager’s personal wishes often take a backseat to the club’s unshakable belief that truly gifted players will always find a way to perform and strengthen the team.

Bayern identify the small body of players that they believe can improve the squad and track them over the years in the hope that at some stage that player becomes available; then they take action. It is a classic BPA approach, often eschewing PON players who may seem to have value but fall short of management’s standard of “truly gifted players.”

Analyzing Bayern’s BPA approach

There are pros and cons to both the BPA and PON approach, but understanding the philosophy Bayern brings to player acquisition allows us to better understand the team’s personnel decisions.

To embrace the BPA approach risks an over-abundance at certain positions and/or a lack of depth on other parts of the team. An over-abundance of talent at one position can lead to problems keeping players (and fans) happy with playing time at that position. It can also force the coach to play some of those talented players in positions other than their normal spot. All of these side effects of the BPA philosophy can hurt team performance.

The positive trade-off is the belief that putting the most exceptional talent on the field will give you the best results even in the face of positional imbalance. This philosophy grows out of the idea that great players are rare and you should acquire them whenever you can virtually regardless of positional considerations. It is an approach that says “it is okay to acquire a great player at a position we are deep at this year, because we can acquire a great player at our position of weakness next year or the year after, and then we will have greatness at both spots.” Patience and resolve are required to execute this strategy, which Bayern’s leadership display in abundance.

Bayern’s transfers through the BPA lens

So from a fan’s view, is this just babble, or does it help us understand our team? Does the theory fit the historic or current evidence? Does it help us predict what Bayern will do in the future? Let’s have a look at some of the past and current personnel decisions Bayern have made with this tool and see if the deeds match the rhetoric.

Ever wonder how we ended up with Mario Gomez, Mario Mandzukic and Claudio Pizarro (much to Gomez and Mandy’s annoyance) on the same roster? Classic BPA. Have you ever seen the expression “midfield logjam” used on a Bayern fansite? BPA. The late opportunistic signings of both Arjen Robben and Xabi Alonso were products of this philosophy.

BPA also explains why Bayern turned to Philippe Coutinho after the Leroy Sané deal fell apart. They had coveted Coutinho as a player for quite some time and decided to move in that direction once Sané was not available, despite the fact that they are not similar players at similar positions. What Coutinho and Sané had in common was Bayern management’s belief that they were good enough to make the team better. It explains why Bayern didn’t snap up Marc Roca or any other alternative when Rodri chose to go to Man City. Management simply believed that they were not at the level that would make the team better.

FC Bayern Muenchen v Sport-Club Freiburg - Bundesliga Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images

At the risk of stepping on a land mine, the BPA lens also gives deeper insight into the acquisition of James Rodriguez and Couthino when Thomas Müller was already on the roster. Rather than reflecting a desire to force Müller out, it reflects a desire to add players who were identified as gifted difference-makers.

With respect to the future, this approach to player acquisition suggests that, having identified Sane as the kind of player who can help Bayern make strides forward, they will continue to pursue him — as long as his recovery goes well — despite his long hesitation before deciding to come to Bayern.

The BPA philosophy also explains some of the disconnect between fan expectations and Bayern’s actions. When Sané went down many fans immediately gravitated to a PON approach and cast around to create a position-focussed list of wingers who were available. This is not Bayern’s standard operating procedure and, in fact, runs contrary to what we know about their talent acquisition philosophy. Instead of looking for available wingers, they went back to their list of pre-qualified talent and picked up Couthino and Perisic. If Hakim Ziyech or Nicholas Pepe or [insert winger de jour here] had not been historically identified as players good enough to improve the team, they were never in the running.