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My Bad Take (or conspiracy?): Bayern Munich tried to force out Thomas Muller (and almost succeeded)

It may all be smiles and sunshine these days, but there was a time when Mr. Bayern himself looked like he would be removed by the bosses.

FC Bayern Muenchen Extends Contract With Thomas Mueller Until 2024 Photo by M. Donato/FC Bayern via Getty Images

These days, you’d be hard-pressed to find a player who embodies Bayern Munich as thoroughly as Thomas Muller. A Bavarian native hailing from the club’s youth system, Muller seems to be the epitome of Mia San Mia distilled and concentrated into a single footballer. With his contract extension in the middle of 2022, he’s set to stay at the club at least until 2024.

However, there was a time when relations between Bayern Munich and Thomas Muller were rather frosty. In the ancient pre-pandemic days of 2019, back when Niko Kovac was still the coach, Bayern had a major problem. Leroy Sane had just torn his ACL, which meant that the club could not close a deal with Manchester City for the superstar winger the fans had been promised. After an underwhelming 18/19 campaign that had seen the team eliminated by Liverpool in the Champions League Round of 16, the bosses were under pressure to bring in a new star player.

Surprisingly, the club managed to secure a deal to sign Philippe Coutinho on loan from FC Barcelona, for a fee of around 8.5m euros. Immediately, questions were asked about how the Brazilian would fit into the club’s plans, and what would happen to Thomas Muller’s role in the squad. The questions got so loud that even Uli Hoeness was forced to respond to them, saying the following:

A strange reaction, isn’t it? Note that Uli articulates the argument succinctly, which means he and the bosses weren’t oblivious to what they were doing. They just didn’t care.

Or maybe there’s another possibility. I posit that this move was deliberately planned, with an eye towards forcing Thomas Muller out of Bayern Munich. My reasoning is as follows ...

The motive

Thomas Muller is the mole.

There, I said it. Bayern Munich have had a locker room mole for years now, and it’s almost certainly Thomas Muller. That doesn’t mean it’s just him who’s leaking internal information to the press, but he’s almost certainly the major one.

Obviously this wouldn’t be in the “bad takes” series if I had anything more than circumstantial evidence for it, but consider the following:

  • Dressing room leaks ramp up when a coach Muller dislikes is on the team (Ancelotti, Kovac) compared to one he likes (Flick).
  • Back when James Rodriguez was threatening to take Muller’s position, there were always leaks about James’ unprofessionalism and lack of commitment to the team.
  • Thomas Muller rarely makes headlines the same way that other players do — his presence in the German media is remarkably clean, even compared to his relatively uncontroversial teammates.
  • The details of Muller’s most recent contract extensions were leaked rather accurately by the German media (mainly Bild) compared to those of other players. Insider info? Seems like it.
  • No details of Muller’s salary demands or negotiating positions ever make it to the press, compared to other players at Bayern Munich (Robert Lewandowski, David Alaba, Leon Goretzka, Joshua Kimmich, and even Manuel Neuer).

Again, there are ways to explain these phenomena that don’t involve Muller being the team mole, but the shoe fits. It wouldn’t be the first time a major player has been a press informant either — there were always rumors in Germany that Philipp Lahm was one of Bild’s major sources in the Bayern dressing room, and he was the captain at the time.

Back in 2019, the bosses were quite unhappy with the media and leaks, and they might’ve seen Muller’s small dip in form in 2018/19 as an opportunity to oust him from the dressing room and regain control. Hence the signing of Coutinho, and what happened next.

The method

To oust a fan favorite like Thomas Muller is no mean feat. You’d need a multi-pronged assault, and that’s exactly what Bayern’s bosses did. I’ve broken down their plan into five major steps:

  • Sign a competitor: After the departure of James, another South American superstar was ideal. Philippe Coutinho fit the bill perfectly, since he was available on short notice. Bayern even agreed to take on his entire salary to get the loan deal done — a curiously imprudent decision for a board that’s usually so conservative with spending.
  • Control the narrative: Since Muller is a fan-favorite, you can’t get rid of him without replacing him first. Hence, when Coutinho was signed, the heavy hand of Bayern’s board was felt in the German media reaction. Every single media personality was just repeating the Bayern exec’s talking points about Coutinho — about his “superstar” pedigree, how he could take Bayern to the “next level”, and even the notion that his arrival would “elevate” the Bundesliga as a whole.
  • Pressure the coach: You can’t get rid of a player without the coach’s cooperation. Whether Niko Kovac wanted to or not, he was in no position to refuse the bosses’ demands. Therefore, his behavior in the early part of the 19/20 season grew increasingly suspect. There was no token effort to find a way to get Thomas Muller and Philippe Coutinho on the pitch together. There was no competition between them. The team shape was changed to theoretically suit Coutinho whenever possible. Even when Muller played, he would be shifted out of his usual role behind the #9, with “experimentation” being the excuse.
  • Take away minutes: With the coach deliberately sabotaging Muller’s role in the team, his performances inevitably dropped. This is where he was effectively removed from the lineup altogether. From September to November, he started only four games in all competitions out of a possible twelve, playing less than 40% of available minutes. There was a period of two months where Muller didn’t start at all despite being fully fit. Kovac even admitted that Coutinho was fatigued at the time, but instead of trying to rotate, he blamed Brazil for playing him too much (what?). Muller was being deliberately ostracized from the lineup, with plausible deniability.
  • Force Muller out: If steps 1 through 5 had been successful, the final move would’ve been to force Muller to leave Bayern entirely. This would’ve been framed as his own personal decision, and obviously not the product of a concerted effort to remove his minutes and suppress his performances. It almost worked. Thomas Muller would later admit that he seriously considered leaving Bayern Munich at the time.

The outcome

Of course, as we all know, the bosses’ plan failed miserably. Philippe Coutinho was not half the player Thomas Muller could be, and Bayern’s performances were mediocre at best. Niko Kovac, perhaps fearing for his job, eventually returned the Raumdeuter to the lineup. However, by that point the damage was already done. While Muller saved Kovac from a humiliating second-round exit to Bochum in the DFB Pokal, he couldn’t prevent the shellacking from Frankfurt and the coach’s eventual sacking.

Hertha BSC vs FC Bayern Munich
Being forced to play Coutinho might’ve cost Kovac his job.
Photo by Soeren Stache/picture alliance via Getty Images

When Hansi Flick took over, he completely changed course. Now that Bayern were in crisis, Flick had the freedom to restore Muller to his original role in the lineup. By doing that, both he and the team immediately saw a massive resurgence in performances that eventually led to Bayern Munich steamrolling all comers en route to a historic treble. Muller personally ended 19/20 as Europe’s top assist provider, and went on to beat Kevin De Bruyne’s Bundesliga assist record the following year. By that point, the bosses were obliged to give him a new contract.

Coutinho, who was supposed to be Muller’s replacement that year, did not fare too well after Flick’s changes. He played a limited role in all subsequent games, but to his credit, at least he didn’t sulk or complain like James did. We sent him back to Barcelona with three shiny new medals, so at least he accomplished his dream of winning a Champions League with FCB. His career, however, never did recover.

As for the old board, Uli Hoeness eventually stepped down as President and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge left the helm as CEO. The new board seems distinctly wary of Thomas Muller the player — they give him all the respect he’s due, though it seems distinctly fake at times. Whenever Herbert Hainer says “Muller is as Bavarian as Oktoberfest” you feel that he’s reading from a script with a gun pointed to his head. In any case, it seems like the board and the player have a truce.

FC Bayern Muenchen v Borussia Dortmund - Bundesliga
The new board loves showering Muller with as many honors as they can.
Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images

Muller, for his part, shows no inclination to wield his immense media influence for anything nefarious. He seems to enjoy a good relationship with Nagelsmann, though you do get the impression that Nagelsmann is showing him a wide berth. On taking over, he copied Flick’s platitudes word-for-word, declaring the player his right hand on the team.

Of course, with age, it seems that Muller’s influence at Bayern is waning. Nagelsmann and the bosses will be content to just wait him out. With Jamal Musiala, the club already has a replacement in waiting who has that “superstar” quality Coutinho never did.

You do have to wonder though — what if the bosses were successful? What if Coutinho had played better, or what if they’d signed a better player (like Havertz maybe)? Would Thomas Muller have left Bayern Munich? Would Niko Kovac have kept his job? Would the treble even have happened?

It’s hard to say, but it is rare that a single player can take on the institutional behemoth that is Bayern Munich and come out on top.

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