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Reflections on Bayern Munich’s 2020/2021 UEFA Champions League campaign

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Bayern Munich ended the 2020/2021 Champions League campaign with an away-goals loss; what can the club take away for the future from this campaign?

Thomas Müller had a very good 2020-2021 Champions League campaign.
Photo by CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP via Getty Images

“PSG Eliminates the Champions” was the headline of a video on my YouTube feed today; a part of me felt absolutely shattered as my brain recalled all of the near misses over the two legs and how, easily, the Champions, our very own Bayern Munich, might have been in the last four. However, it was not to be — you cannot win the UEFA Champions League every year, unless you are Real Madrid of course.

However, this campaign, on closer inspection, was quite special. Although a quarterfinal exit might remind some fans of the 2000s (barring 2001 and 2010) when Bayern was virtually irrelevant in Europe, at least at the highest level, this campaign showed plenty of promise and, at the same time, demonstrated plenty of long-standing problems.

Stability over chaos, please!

In all my years as a Bayern supporter, I cannot recall a single season which passed by without off-the-pitch matters making headlines. Perhaps, the Pep Guardiola years were on the quieter side; however, the nickname “FC Hollywood” is well earned.

Bayern finally seemed to have found a manager in Hansi Flick who got along with the players and who understood the value of Thomas Müller last season. Quite a few Bayern managers have failed to do so. I don’t think Pep Guardiola fully appreciated Müller until the end of his reign. In fact, the coaches who understood the German best went on to produce the best results with this team; in 2010, Louis Van Gaal made Thomas Müller a feature of his side and took Bayern to their first Champions League final in nine years while Hansi Flick and Jupp Heynckes did not question him for a moment and went on to win trebles. On the other hand, coaches like Niko Kovac and Jürgen Klinsmann lost their jobs; both managers did not put their faith in Bayern’s vice-captain. In fact, Klinsmann wanted to sell Müller!

Paris Saint-Germain v FC Bayern Munich - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final 3: Leg Two
Bayern Munich sporting director Hasan “Brazzo” Salihamidzic is in the middle of the front office drama.
Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

The longest manager for Bayern in the past decade has been Guardiola; if you add up all of Heynckes’ stints, including the one from 1987 to 1991, he stands as Bayern’s longest serving manager from the past decade. While having a coach who lasts three to four seasons would be nice, having a coach see out his contract would be the ideal situation. Flick was supposed to be around till 2023; yet, boardroom drama means that this is highly unlikely to be the case.

While Flick may have always wanted the Germany national team manager job, the issues with Hasan “Brazzo” Salihamidzic did not exactly start yesterday. Flick’s frustrations with the sporting director were visible when he publicly aired his thoughts about Bayern not making any signings at the beginning of the season.

Salihamidzic is not the only treble winning sporting director who has ruffled feathers; Matthias Sammer did much the same in 2012 and 2013, leading to comments from both Oliver Kahn and Philipp Lahm; he interfered in matters he shouldn’t have and he spoke when he shouldn’t have.

While a sporting director causing issues is not new, this does not mean it is right. Perhaps Bayern should hire Max Eberl and let go of Salihamidzic (I do not want to upset Borussia Mönchengladbach fans here but Eberl was a product of Bayern’s youth academy); perhaps Bayern should try to light out the fires and find a way to keep both Flick and Brazzo.

This past decade, Bayern has been blessed with a plethora of talent. This team, I believe had the talent to win more than two UEFA Champions League crowns between 2010 and 2020; the boardroom produces results but the drama creates an air of instability which filtered into this season’s Champions League. I keep pushing home this point but I am going to do it again: had Philipp Lahm not decided to air his frustrations publicly in 2009, Bayern might not have been as successful in Europe as they were in the past decade.

There is no Lahm around to air his thoughts in public anymore. Injuries, a small squad, players the coach does not trust and lack of equivalent replacements for departing players (Thiago, Ivan Perisic, Philippe Coutinho) eventually led to an incredibly tired and depleted Bayern taking the pitch against PSG in the second leg; I understand that the team was unlucky with injuries — however, better decisions, such as keeping Perisic might have produced a different outcome in an incredibly close tie.

Overall, perhaps, for once, especially in light of the end of Karl-Heinz Rummenigge’s tenure as chairman, Bayern needs to look for more stability in the hierarchy moving forward. That means trying to hold on to a coach who has won a sextuple; that means trying to make sure the sporting director’s actions are authorized by his bosses; that means trying to make sure that a treble winning squad has proper reinforcements; that means trying to ensure that the next step is not a return to FC Hollywood but toward a more stable future.

Hire the right manager!

Bayern has a playing style that they do not change for anyone; a high defensive line and a goalkeeper who can pass like an outfield player are synonymous with the Bavarians. Niko Kovac’s Bayern did not play out and out attacking soccer; Hansi Flick, with the same players, found a winning philosophy. This does not mean he does not change his plans. In some matches, the line is not as high; in some games, Bayern plays a 4-1-4-1 formation as opposed to a 4-2-3-1. Tweaks are allowed; an overhaul is not. Even with a weakened squad, Bayern almost got the job done in the quarterfinals. This shows that the current style of play is a winning philosophy. The problem, of course, is that incessant pressing can tire out players; however, thanks to the days of Louis Van Gaal, Bayern can also play a possession-based game and win when they need to do so.

FC Bayern Muenchen v 1. FC Union Berlin - Bundesliga
Replacing Hansi Flick will not be easy of the manager leaves Bayern Munich.
Photo by Roland Krivec/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern could play a different way; they could play counterattacking soccer when necessary. Flick’s Bayern can also play on the counter. Playing attractive, eye-catching soccer has been a tenet at Bayern ever since Van Gaal took over. Klinsmann was supposed to be the one to bring attacking fervor to Bayern; things did not quite work out there.

If Flick leaves, Bayern should absolutely not hire managers who do not play an all-out attacking game. This means the likes of Massimiliano Allegri should not be in the conversation. This means Niko Kovac should never have been in the conversation. The list of big managers is a short one, especially with the departure of Marco Rose to Borussia Dortmund and the departure of Adi Hütter to Borussia Mönchengladbach. Julian Nagelsmann, whose team selection is a guessing game from one week to the next at RB Leipzig, seems to be the touted candidate. (I wonder how this will go down with the Bayern ultras once they return, considering Nagelsmann’s Red Bull connections.)

Before they decide to sign Nagelsmann or any other manager, Bayern needs to make sure the philosophy matches the manager and not entirely institute the manager’s philosophy on the team. Also, the coach should be able to adapt to the game as it changes; however, the coach’s mindset must not be the antithesis of Bayern’s playing philosophy.

If necessary, promote from within. Perhaps, Miroslav Klose maybe a better choice than any other candidate, due to his time as Flick’s assistant.

In defense of Lucas Hernández and Leroy Sané

I have come across arguments stating that Lucas was not worth his hefty price tag; I think he was worth every penny. He is head and shoulders above every other defender Bayern has, based on individual defending skills; he is not one of Flick’s favorites and has thus not seen as much playing time as he should. If anything, Bayern’s final Champions League game of the campaign proved Lucas’ class and why the club was right to sign him. He will prove his worth in the future.

Sané has taken so much stick this season; he works hard, runs all over the pitch, has played countless matches and yet, is criticized for being lazy. Sometimes, when players are left out of the play, they decide to walk instead of run; when others do it, this is normal — when Sané does so, this seems to be another point of criticism. His decision making wasn’t excellent and might have cost Bayern the tie. But, from where I stand, he is the most gifted of Bayern’s three wingers and has had a fine first season. He was hitting his stride before the international break; however, overuse by Joachim Löw left him tired ahead of the PSG matches and short of his best. The tiredness of all the players was visible.

Arjen Robben produced magic in his first season at Bayern in 2009-10 and won them a quarterfinal tie against Manchester United with an unforgettable goal. However, he needed Franck Ribéry to produce similar magic on the opposite flank. The presence of these two wingers did not lead to a major European trophy until 2013; Ribéry signed in 2007 while Robben in 2009. Robben missed two season-defining penalties in 2012; he was brought down to his knees and showed the strength to get back up and produce magic again in 2013.

Sané looks like a Bayern player; he is in sync with the team. He needs rest, especially after coming back from a long-term injury. His decision making will improve; and perhaps, at this time next season, he will prove that he is worthy of Robben’s jersey.

Saying goodbye to veterans

This campaign will most likely be the last at Bayern for the trio of Javier Martinez, David Alaba and Jerome Boateng. These three were part of the spine of the treble winning side in 2013. Both Alaba and Boateng were fixtures in the 2020 treble winning side.

FC Bayern Muenchen v 1. FC Union Berlin - Bundesliga
David Alaba is rounding out his tenure with Bayern Munich.
Photo by Roland Krivec/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Alaba in particular, is synonymous with Bayern. His rather publicly aired contract negotiations are not surprising considering the chaos that regularly surrounds Bayern. However, he joined FC Bayern II in 2009 and hasn’t looked back since. Van Gaal promoted him to the senior team and Alaba proved his worth. He had a fine outing in his last Champions League display and it does break my heart to see him leave. I identify Alaba with Bayern almost as much as I identify Müller with Bayern. He has done well as a center-back but he really was a fabulous left-back. I hope to get to see him play left-back one more time before he leaves the club.

Jerome Boateng joined the club in 2011 after a season in England with Manchester City, mostly at right-back. Unfortunately, on his Bundesliga debut, a mishap between him and Manuel Neuer led to a goal for Gladbach’s Igor de Camargo; Gladbach, as so often is the case, won that match, 0-1. However, that match proved to be a misstep; Boateng proved to be a world class defender for Bayern; I feel he does not get enough recognition for how well he has defended for a decade. He will surely be missed.

Finally, I was glad Javi Martinez, the man who wins UEFA Supercups for Bayern, was able to play as a striker for a few minutes in the Champions League against PSG; Flick was short of options but Martinez deserved to say goodbye on the pitch. Injuries have shortened his time on the pitch at Bayern. He was the catalyst for the treble win in 2013 after being signed in 2012. At the time, he was a record signing for Bayern. Jupp Heynckes pushed for Martinez to be signed and the Spaniard proved his worth.

When veterans leave, other players have to step up to fill the leadership void. Joshua Kimmich has proved to be a leader and Leon Goretzka quietly leads by example as well. Perhaps, at the back, Hernández will emerge as the leader. Perhaps, Benjamin Pavard might surprise us all and become a leading figure too.

In defense of breathtaking soccer

Bayern’s campaign this season provided some mesmerizing performances. Such performances make supporters giddy; an opening day victory over Atletico Madrid left fans asking for more and they got more, especially in a hard-fought 6-2 victory over RB Salzburg. The first leg against Lazio in the last 16 brought Jamal Musiala to the big stage; the first leg of the quarterfinal tie against PSG demonstrated what even a Robert Lewandowski-less Bayern can produce in attack.

Outside of the Champions League, Bayern has produced some remarkable comebacks, most notably, 5-2 against Mainz, 2-1 against Wolfsburg, 2-1 against Leverkusen and 4-2 against Borussia Dortmund.

Trophies matter, especially at a club like Bayern. However, soccer is referred to as “the beautiful game” for a reason. Flick’s Bayern has taken my breath away. Each attacking display has built on the previous one and this was clearly apparent in the Champions League.

Bayern has won the biggest trophies playing breathtaking soccer. May it long continue, whoever the manager is in 2020-2021.

What are your main takeaways from this season’s Champions League campaign? Let us know your thoughts below, and, as always, thank you so much for reading!