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Thomas Tuchel, Bayern Munich catch a glimpse of rock bottom

Is this the nadir — or is the free-fall only beginning?

Training FC Bayern Munich Photo by Christian Kolbert/picture alliance via Getty Images

Sometimes it just doesn't work out. The individual pieces at a football club might be great — elite players, a stellar tactician — but the harmony in the constellation is gone, the stars no longer aligned. A change of direction starts to feel inevitable.

Except surely Bayern Munich can't fire Thomas Tuchel now. They've only just hired him.

Brought in only a month ago to jolt Germany’s record champions out of a slump, Tuchel and the club now find themselves staring into the abyss. All manner of things unthinkable, from cleaning house in the squad and the board room, now seem on the table.

Can Bayern pull themselves out of this mess?

“Everyone can feel it. It was a mistake. And a big one.”

As Bayern slumped to a 3-1 defeat to Mainz on April 22, ESPN color commentator Steffen Freund delivered his verdict on the sensational coaching change in Bavaria. “I think you can say it now,” he summarized.

Just weeks ago, Bayern had been the embodiment of togetherness in a second leg demolition of Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League Round of 16. The victors basked in front of their home fans, ebullient and indomitable.

CBS studio analyst Jamie Carragher blasted PSG’s display.

“I’m delighted PSG have gone out,” Carragher declared in the aftermath. “They spend more money than anyone, they’ve got the best players in the world. And you know what? It’s brilliant because it just tells you how important it is to be a team.”

That was March 8. On March 24, Bayern sacked manager Julian Nagelsmann in the wake of a defeat to Xabi Alonso’s resurgent Leverkusen. Tuchel was tapped to salvage the situation — but first, it had to be explained why the situation needed salvaging.

It was suggest that Bayern’s Champions League exploits had given them an image of strength that was only illusory. The season's treble ambitions were in jeopardy; so, too, the long-term outlook. An analysis of the team’s sporting development had uncovered serious signs of trouble. The squad were in need of a jolt.

Bayern players accepted the charges solemnly. Though they bristled at suggestions that Nagelsmann had lost the dressing room — several coming out in support of their axed coach — everyone accepted responsibility for their failings.

“A coaching change is always disappointing because it means we players screwed up, didn’t perform consistently, and didn’t bring results,” lamented one of the co-captains, Joshua Kimmich. “If we did, the change of coach wouldn’t have happened”.

Nobody is under any illusion now.

After a rip-roaring start to the Tuchel era — a charged Der Klassiker kicked off by Borussia Dortmund keeper Gregor Kobel’s howler and his team’s subsequent collapse — Bayern have trudged to a 1-2-3 record. One win, two draws, three losses. Two tournament exits.

Bayern’s performances have been those of a shaken and shell-shocked bunch: devoid of self-belief, grasping for ideas, always looking liable to concede. Like a group that had been told they were terrible and were starting to believe it.

“They don’t look like a team, actually,” remarked 11Freunde’s Christoph Biermann after the Mainz debacle. “They look like a lot of single pieces that are loosely arranged together, but not connected.”

What a difference a few weeks had made.

Tuchel’s early showings have earned him little confidence

If the new era was a change to right old wrongs, fans have so far been kept waiting.

Struggling vets from Sadio Mané to Serge Gnabry have continued their poor vein of recent form, while disgruntled backups are still riding the bench and airing their grievances publicly. Ballyhooed midfield recruit Ryan Gravenberch looks closer to a summer exit than ever, while teenage winger/striker Mathys Tel — whom Nagelsmann raved over — is a loan candidate. Formation experiments have continued apace; the back three-iest back three of the season (with wing-backs in place of wingers) selected for the disaster at Mainz. All of a sudden, the squad looks chock full of serious holes.

Bayern need a striker, there’s little doubt. Likely they will seek an upgrade in the summer over this season’s revelation, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting. Oh, and maybe a proper defensive mid as well.

Nevertheless, Nagelsmann had made hay out of his assortment of experiments in attack. At the time he was let go, Bayern had 72 goals from 25 matches, on pace for 98 —compared to 92, 99, and 100 in the three seasons prior. They were on pace to concede 37 — compared to 37, 44, and 32. The unusually high number of draws this season belied Bayern’s typically workmanlike output.

After four league matches under Tuchel, the pace has already slipped to 93 for and 39 against. Bayern have gone three straight in the league with just one goal scored. In their last six overall — out of Tuchel’s seven matches in charge thus far — a player who isn’t a center-back has scored only once from open play (Sadio Mané against Mainz).

If these are early trends, they’re nonetheless a troubling reprise of Tuchel’s struggles at Chelsea, where he could never quite get his forwards firing. That may be a problem endemic to West London, though it’s Tuchel’s former Blues acquaintances, from Mason Mount to Matteo Kovačić, whose names keep popping up in the transfer rumor mill. Is Tuchel poised to remake Bayern in the image of those teams? If the club do splurge on a €100m striker as speculated, will it solve all their ills or be a repeat of the Romelu Lukaku situation?

Then there’s the delicate matter of Thomas Müller. Ever the Bavarian talisman, Tuchel dropped der Raumdeuter to the bench for both legs against Manchester City. In his return against Mainz, Müller looked like a fish out of water in the new manager’s setup — and he’s not the only one.

And finally there’s the results, which speak for themselves.

It’s surely, to a large extent, not Tuchel’s fault. He was thrown into a burning cauldron from the start, facing a gauntlet of high-stakes matches with little time to prepare or even to get to know his squad. And unlike his Champions League-winning year at Chelsea, he didn’t arrive in a disillusioned dressing room already yearning for new ideas.

If Tuchel is the man destined to renew Bayern’s old glories, though, he’ll need to demonstrate some semblance of a blueprint — and fast.

Bayern on the precipice

There’s a certain culture at FC Bayern that may have led, in part, to Nagelsmann’s sacking. It’s a brutal commitment to excellence that brooks no slips, shows of weakness, or ill-timed vacations. It’s a culture that demands constant self-evaluation.

But — especially if they drop the league — Bayern will have a lot of time to get lost in the labyrinth of their own thoughts. Even a win, at this point, will be down to yet another Dortmund collapse and be less than convincing.

Questions are abounding in too many corners all at once. A once-quiet forecast for the summer transfer window has given way to an expected opening of the purse strings. A significant overhaul of the roster and major outgoings are reportedly on the table. Even recently fired goalkeeping coach Toni Tapalović could return.

Yes, welcome to FC Hollywood. Between the backroom politics and media leaks, there's never a dull moment.

Amid the fallout from the Champions League and Pokal exits, a full clean out of the executive suite is reportedly not out of the question, either. CEO Oliver Kahn in particular has endured an avalanche of speculation, with names of potential successors (including predecessor Karl-Heinz Rummenigge) floated in the media.

Such a change would be an admission of staggering error, and one that would pose an early question to Tuchel’s job security for next year. But if it happens, the club may discover, as with the coaching change, that the grass isn’t uniformly greener. New people will bring their own preferences and brands of judgments — or misjudgments, as it were.

Destruction tends to beget a cycle. Look no further than Chelsea FC or Tottenham.

The awkward elephant in the room

Yet how do Bayern close out the season if, as Steffen Freund described, everyone now knows the coaching change was a mistake?

The best way forward may be the toughest row to hoe. Bayern would need to thread the needle: acknowledging, for their part, a giant miscalculation, never to be repeated — but holding firm against the urge to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

For all their stumbles, der Rekordmeister have a lot to hang their hat on. An assembly of talented footballers, an enviably healthy financial situation shepherded by (otherwise) capable executives, and, yes, a tactically elite coach.

Sure, they've brought crisis on themselves. But the road back to the mountaintop likely runs through well-trodden ground. Through steadfastly working to put the constellation back in order, and keep cool heads over short fuses. Through building forward rather than meting out judgment for which there may be no clear end.

They can start with a show of might on Sunday against Hertha BSC.

Looking for more analysis mixed with a bad-tempered rant? Then check out our postgame podcast! Explicit content warning because there’s swearing, it really was that kind of game. Listen to it below or on Spotify.

As always, we appreciate all the support.

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