With Julian Nagelsmann set to join Bayern Munich this summer, the club finds itself in a familiar situation. The 33-year-old will be Bayern’s fifth coach in five years, a symptom of the worrying instability that has gripped the Bavarians since Pep Guardiola left the club in 2016.
While Bayern did manage to strike gold with Flick last year (and also convinced Heynckes to rescue the team from Ancelotti’s clutches) the last two permanent coaching hires left a lot to be desired. Both Carlo Ancelotti and Niko Kovac were brought in to make a fresh start at the club, rather than being made to serve a caretaker role for part of a season. Neither of them lasted 18 months in the job. Julian Nagelsmann now comes in with the same manifesto — but how can he avoid the failures of his predecessors?
This blog has already covered the Nagelsmann arrival extensively, so this won’t be a breakdown of his tactics or man management or anything like that. Honestly, both of those things should be relatively trivial for someone like him.
If the headline didn’t give it away, this article will be about why Nagelsmann’s success will depend on his relationship with a single player — Thomas Muller.
A high barrier of entry
Thomas Muller is not like other footballers. The word raumdeuter is his is self-coined descriptor, and it denotes a player who uses their incredible knowledge and reading of the game to find spaces to exploit. The Raumdeuter isn’t the fastest, strongest, or most technically gifted player — but he doesn’t need those attributes, because he has the footballing equivalent of a supercomputer in his head.
Naturally, using a player like this is not without its challenges. Muller will never give you highlight reel dribbles, nor will he make 100 silky-smooth passes per game. His playstyle is geared towards pure effectiveness — a low-fat, highly practical form of football that exists only to serve the team. This, unfortunately, makes him hard to use. You need a system that builds around him, covers his weaknesses and accentuates his strengths.
Hansi Flick understood this. In his first press conference in charge of Bayern, he was asked what he would change. His answer? Thomas Muller would return to the squad. Until then, Niko Kovac had preferred Philippe Coutinho to the Bavarian, and the squad had been suffering for it. Hansi cracked the code right away.
Once Muller was restored to his usual place in the lineup, performances immediately got better. Even under Carlo Ancelotti, James Rodriguez was starting to push the Raumdeuter out of the lineup. When the Italian got sacked and Jupp Heynckes came in, Muller was restored to his usual spot and Bayern started barreling along once more.
Some may point out that this is an oversimplification of events, and that is undoubtedly true. Tactics and man management were also at play. However, the fact is, two coaches did not set up their squad to use Muller properly, and they got fired for it.
The fact is, the things that Muller is good at — rapid decision making, vertical passing, spatial awareness, and gegenpressing — are all quintessential aspects of a modern football team. You cannot achieve the results demanded Bayern Munich without focusing on those principles. It may be okay at smaller clubs, but not here. If your tactics don’t use Muller, you’re leaving performance on the table. Bayern Munich does not have that luxury.
The man is a filter, separating the wheat from the chaff. At the level of the sport where Bayern competes, he determines who will succeed — as Ancelotti and Kovac found out. The same will happen to Nagelsmann, unless he knows what he’s doing.
The real captain
While Manuel Neuer may wear the armband for Bayern Munich, everyone knows that Thomas Muller is the real leader at the club. He’s been here for over a decade, is a youth academy player, and one of the most popular players on the team. He’s known to be one of the five players that directly caused Ancelotti’s sacking back in the day.
In short, Muller carries weight. He is the senior player, the face of Bayern, and the de-facto coach on the pitch. As a young coach, Nagelmann needs that weight to be on his side, not against him. Bayern is a team of superstars — controlling the egos in the dressing room is arguably just as important (or more important) than tactics.
With Jerome Boateng and David Alaba leaving this summer, Manuel Neuer and Thomas Muller are the most senior players left on the team. Neuer isn’t particularly outspoken (which is why Jogi Low kept him on the national team), so that leaves Thomas Muller as the man Nagelsmann has to convince.
If he gets the leader, the rest of the herd will fall in line. If he doesn’t, they will gore him to death. It’s really that simple sometimes.
Of course, it’s not like playing Thomas Muller doesn’t have obvious benefits to any coach. He has 14 goals and 21 assists at 0.88 G+A per 90 minutes, which is higher than Kevin De Bruyne (0.82 G+A per 90). He has been Bayern’s top assister for several years now, as well as its second top-scorer behind Robert Lewandowski.
Meanwhile, his game intelligence presents some unique benefits. Hansi Flick realized this, and used him as a second coach:
Flick on Müller: "He knows where to stand. He also coaches the team on the pitch. He played on the right side today, but he's still very, very important at the center of our game. You could say he's an extended arm for the coach"— Bayern & Germany (@iMiaSanMia) October 21, 2020
The last time Bayern faced Leipzig, it was practically a shouting match between Muller and Nagelsmann, both trying to orchestrate their respective teams. Imagine bringing those talents together. Gnabry, who has worked under Nagelsmann before, said it best:
Thomas Muller is a world class player, without a shadow of a doubt. Any team would be happy to have him. With all these factors in play, it’s impossible for Nagelsmann to ignore him and still succeed at Bayern Munich. Will he make the same mistake as his predecessors? Or will the 33-year-old “mini-Mourinho” get with the program? Coaches don’t last very long at Bayern Munich, so we won’t have to wait to find out.