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Julian Nagelsmann learned of his imminent dismissal as Bayern Munich manager via social media on Thursday night, as did his players.
The timing of the move, just over a week before a crucial phase in the season with games against league leaders Borussia Dortmund, Freiburg (DFB Pokal) and Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in the Champions League, caught most of the club by surprise. It wasn’t planned that way by those in charge, either. For one last time in Nagelsmann’s short reign, things had quickly taken a turn for the worse and delivered unexpected consequences.
Bayern had held talks with Thomas Tuchel over the 49-year-old taking over at the start of next season, but the German champions were forced into pulling the trigger earlier by unforeseen events over the weekend.
To the shock of executive chairman Oliver Kahn and sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic, Bayern were an abject mess in the 2-1 defeat at Bayer Leverkusen, a collection of individuals with no discernible common purpose on the pitch. The worst showing in a season that had already seen its fair share of poor results — Bayern haven’t been this bad for 11 years in the league — stoked fears the entire campaign might disintegrate next month.
Leverkusen revived under Alonso, dishevelled Bayern and Dortmund dreaming
Three defeats in those games mentioned above would have left Bayern without much chance of silverware, a worse outcome than in Nagelsmann’s debut season, when they were knocked out by Villarreal in the Champions League quarter-finals, crashed to a 5-0 defeat at Borussia Monchengladbach in the cup and only won the by-now-regulation Bundesliga title in underwhelming fashion. Bayern couldn’t contemplate a similar or even more disappointing outcome.
Still, not everybody was convinced the situation was unsalvageable, at least in the short term. Bayern’s excellent results in the Champions League, where they have eight wins from eight games, had stoked optimism that the team and Nagelsmann, whatever their problems, could raise their game when it really mattered.
Until a few days ago, the club’s preference was to leave Nagelsmann in situ and then make a clean break in the summer. But Tuchel, who has been living in Munich for a few weeks and could regularly be seen walking his dog in the leafy Bogenhausen quarter, wasn’t prepared to wait. Bayern were told in no uncertain terms they had to move now or risk him signing for other suitors.
Thomas Tuchel wanted the Bayern Munich job straight away, which forced the club’s hand (Photo: Graham Denholm/Getty Images)
History taught them to take that threat seriously. In spring of 2018, they had approached Tuchel with a view of installing him as Jupp Heynckes’ successor. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, then the club’s CEO, was the former Mainz coach’s champion on the board, but president Uli Hoeness was unconvinced: he feared Tuchel’s stubborn, irascible style wouldn’t be a good fit for the “big family” ethos at Bayern. The board pleaded for more time, but Tuchel decamped to Paris Saint-Germain rather than wait for them to make up their minds.
The fear of missing out on the proven winner and most successful German coach after Jurgen Klopp in recent years for a second time, five years later, had Bayern bring his appointment forward. Nagelsmann was supposed to learn of his fate in a face-to-face meeting on Friday, but the story leaked via a third party before he was contacted.
There is plenty of embarrassment and regret in Munich over the manner of the 35-year-old’s departure, but not about the decision itself. Nagelsmann, they had hoped, would learn from his mistakes of the second half of last season, when a flurry of tactical and personnel changes saw Bayern lose their rhythm to the point of coming to a “standstill”, as Leroy Sane told The Athletic last summer.
Players had complained the coach was overcomplicating things in training, making too many changes during games and not communicating enough with them. Nagelsmann vowed to listen more and adopt a steadier approach to selection but had to abandon his 4-2-2-2 formation after a run of poor games in September.
Bayer Leverkusen’s win over Bayern Munich last weekend was the final straw for the club’s board (Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
He recently re-introduced a 4-2-3-1/3-2-4-1 hybrid system that was sometimes the best of both worlds but more often a confusing compromise. In addition, there was a latent tension between his preferred possession game and a more direct style favoured by some influential members of the dressing room. Like his idol Pep Guardiola, he asked a tremendous amount of his team; unlike the Catalan, he didn’t manage to instil total confidence in his methods.
Bayern’s build-up play through the centre-backs was a particular problem against high-pressing sides in recent weeks, but Nagelsmann resisted attempts by seasoned players to modify the setup. New signing Cancelo not realising he was supposed to leave his wing-back position to play as a second No 10 just 10 minutes into the Leverkusen defeat summed up the constant, low-level misalignment between Bayern’s game and the manager’s ideas.
While some players who had experienced Pep’s exacting standards and his constant adjustment to the opposition were at ease with Nagelsmann’s attempts at micro-management, a sizeable contingent found him overbearing. “He puts the system over the needs of the players,” was an oft-repeated complaint in club HQ corridors.
One example was the 3-1 loss at Gladbach when Dayot Upamecano was sent off after less than 10 minutes. The team were surprised to hear Nagelsmann castigating them for not pressing harder at half-time even though they were a man down.
Some pros also found it hard to be constantly in and out of the team, especially without the manager taking the time to explain his decisions in great detail. He struck up a close relationship with Joshua Kimmich but failed to bring many other seasoned pros on board.
The Manuel Neuer affair — the axing of goalkeeper coach Toni Tapalovic in the absence of the injured World Cup winner — won him few friends in the squad, as did his decision to substitute talisman Thomas Muller a few minutes into the defeat at Gladbach. Nagelsmann later vowed not to repeat that mistake but subbed Muller again at half-time in Leverkusen. His predecessor Niko Kovac had also made the mistake of marginalising Muller.
At Hoffenheim and Leipzig, Nagelsmann made his name by always picking different line-ups tailored to the specific challenges of each game. But the complicated dynamics in Bayern’s dressing room demanded a less interventionist approach. Too many players felt undermined by the never-ending changes.
Looking back at Nagelsmann’s 22 months in charge, it’s easy to find some great games. But tellingly, no single player was able to play at their very best throughout that time. Neither were the team.
Bayern’s individual quality was such that they could still win most games, especially in the Champions League, where a combination of good fortune and extra effort brought top results. In more mundane engagements, however, Bayern lost control and shape with worrying regularity.
It didn’t help team morale that Salihamidzic and Kahn, determined to back Nagelsmann to the hilt, blamed the squad’s poor mentality after bad results instead of analysing the underlying reasons for Bayern’s diminished dominance. “I’ve rarely experienced such little drive, mentality, aggression and power,” Salihamidzic said after the Leverkusen defeat. “That’s not what Bayern Munich is all about.”
Some important members of the club’s hierarchy, too, were a little put out that Kahn and Salihamidzic continued to sing the praises of Nagelsmann for tactical reasons in meetings a few weeks ago, at a time when the duo had all but concluded a change at the helm was in order. Only on Monday had chairman Herbert Hainer told Kicker magazine that they were “planning with (Nagelsmann) for the long term”.
Nagelsmann didn’t help his cause by occasionally showing his inexperience. Eyebrows were raised when he arrived to training on a skateboard and drove a motorcycle in town, part of a pattern of behaviour more suited to an older brother than the father figure craved by the dressing room.
His relationship with Lena Wurzenberger, a former Bayern reporter for Bild, Germany’s biggest-selling tabloid newspaper, also did little to improve trust between him and his team.
Many players didn’t care about those distractions but others had a tough time relating to him. Highly engaging on tactics, he was often too outspoken in press conferences, inadvertently revealing private conversations in the process. Former Juventus defender Matthijs de Ligt had told him “today’s training session was the hardest in the last four years”, Nagelsmann said proudly in the summer, causing unwanted headlines in Italy for the Dutchman.
It was equally clumsy and unnecessary to talk at length about Serge Gnabry’s trip to Paris Fashion Week, putting explicit pressure on the Germany international to make up for his misstep in the game against Eintracht Frankfurt. The 27-year-old was poor in the second half in the 1-1 draw in January, a result that ushered in another mini-crisis. Bundesliga coaches are better served playing the “good cop” role, as other club leaders are prepared to utter public criticism. Nagelsmann didn’t so much lose the dressing room as never really connect with it in the first place.
Julian Nagelsmann’s relationship with former tabloid reporter Lena Wurzenberger caused some unease in Bayern’s squad (Photo: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images for Paulaner)
To be sure, all these misgivings would have dispersed had Bayern found consistency or a sense of progress, but neither have been forthcoming since the winter break. Instead, the team seemed to lurch from one extreme to another, not a conducive environment to foster young talent such as Paul Wanner (17) or former Ajax midfielder Ryan Gravenberch (20), who has been all but frozen out, much to the astonishment of many of his team-mates.
Nagelsmann was supposed to develop youngsters in Munich, as he had done to great effect before, but could not square their demands with that of a very deep squad full of personalities. Bayern are well aware that some of those challenges are structural and will be faced by Tuchel, too.
Nagelsmann will no doubt be a success again elsewhere (Photo: Alex Gottschalk/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)
A Bavarian and childhood Bayern fan, Nagelsmann seemed like the perfect fit. Perhaps he still will be in the future. There is no ill feeling towards him at the club. While the board would have liked him to listen more to their advice, they have worked with enough top coaches to accept their idiosyncrasies. He was generally well-liked and appreciated as one of Germany’s biggest coaching prospects.
But the time wasn’t quite right yet for him. If it’s true that teams eventually always resemble their managers, maybe Bayern were never truly at their best for a sustained period under him because he hasn’t yet figured out how to maximise his own considerable talents either.
Chances are his next club will be the beneficiaries of that maturing process. Bayern, though, can never wait. The only long-term strategy Germany’s most insatiable club have ever signed up to is their unequivocal demand for short-term success.
Tuchel will know the drill.
(Top photo: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)