The Bayern Munich contradiction: Vast, invulnerable, deeply troubled and fixable

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On Saturday night, at the end of a long week full of dark clouds, drizzle and reflection, Bayern Munich won for the first time in four games, beating RB Leipzig and ending their worst sequence since 2015.

Bayern’s decision to announce that Thomas Tuchel will be leaving the club in the summer was intended to quieten the noise and liberate the players. But while the form has changed, the page is yet to turn. They won late at the Allianz Arena, with the second of two ruthlessly well-taken Harry Kane goals giving them a 2-1 win, but it was a bloodless game, full of inaccuracy and nerves, and played in front of an agitated crowd.

The mood is yet to change, but clubs like Bayern have a strange sort of permanence. While Bayern have spent the last few days mired in turmoil, their context has hardly changed. On Saturday morning in Munich, the replica shirts were still being ripped from the shelves, the beers were still being poured and drank, and the red and white colours were still flowing from Marienplatz, down into the station, and out to the game.

Bayern are a vast club. Invulnerable, really. Nothing this week has changed that; the Bavarian ego does not bruise easily.

And yet there’s a metaphor for this team back within its own city. Munich’s main railway station is under renovation, reducing its arterial heart to a sprawling building site. In economically uncertain times, Germans tend to build and so the streets leading away from the station are full of construction projects, too. Walk anywhere in downtown Munich, between any of its monuments, cathedrals or spires, and you fall beneath the shadow of a tall crane.

The chaos between the beauty? It’s too obvious to ignore: Munich is a reflection of Tuchel’s muddled football team. In between its icons, there are a group of midfielders who do not fit together and a defence that does not really work. There’s chaos beneath the skyline.

But those tactical mechanics seem to be more of a media concern. In Munich itself, there’s an acceptance that the team needs a new No 6, probably a different type of centre-back, and now a new head coach, but the real emphasis is on re-tethering the team to its ideological mooring.

Tuchel will depart but Bayern will bounce back, right? (Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

‘Mia San Mia’. We Are What We Are. For Bayern, that refers to the web of strands that, together, define the club’s identity. Self-belief, humility, togetherness, history, family. ‘Niemals Aufgeben!’ (Never give up!). Fans from other clubs might sneer but ask some Bavarians about Mia San Mia and you can expect an earnest lecture. Their team has lost its way, but its DNA is also confused. One is a short-term worry. The other is a source of existential angst.

When Bayern were defeated by Bochum last weekend, it was the limp nature of the defeat was the truly intolerable aspect. When they lost in Leverkusen in a game likely to decide the Bundesliga title, the real grumble was over how little retaliation it inspired.

Losing happens, even at Bayern Munich. But, according to a group of fans The Athletic spoke to on Saturday morning, outside the club’s fan shop on Neuhauser Strasse, never in that way.

‘Niemals Aufgeben’.

This drift is years in the making. The accusatory fingers are pointed, evenly, at executive flux at the club, philosophical indecision and the poverty in recruitment over the past half-decade. Coaches have been and gone in 18-month cycles. Some of the players signed have either failed to assimilate into the team, the culture, or both. The result is a side with world-class players in nearly every position, but without the kind of personality that supporters embrace and take comfort in.

Part of Bayern’s decline was inevitable. Great players age, eras end. But if the departure of touchstones such as Bastian Schweinsteiger and Philipp Lahm was unavoidable, then the clumsy exit of others — such as David Alaba, who joined the club when he was 16, and whose image and achievements are painted on a wall at the club’s academy — made the problem worse.

There have been other antagonisms, too. The decision to sell Benjamin Pavard and then loan Josip Stanisic to Bayer Leverkusen within days. Or the rise of Angelo Stiller. Stiller joined the club when he was 10 but was released 11 years later, and has since re-emerged at Stuttgart, via Hoffenheim, becoming one of the best young midfielders in Germany.

His position? Inevitably — ironically — the fabled No 6 that Bayern have been searching for.

These things happen in football. They always will. But they seem much more significant than they otherwise might when the bigger picture is not quite so healthy.

But it is still easy to see the clouds clearing — and quickly. While Tuchel has been staging running battles with members of his team’s spine, “emasculating” players in the words of a dressing-room source who spoke on condition of anonymity to The Athletic in midweek, it’s not unthinkable that the next managerial appointment could quickly heal those rifts, unifying a strong group and realising the vast supply of latent talent in the squad.

Above the first team, the club have finalised their new technical structure. Christoph Freund has been their sporting director since September 2023. Max Eberl, the long-time Borussia Monchengladbach director of sport (2008-2022), who most recently spent an unhappy year at Leipzig, will begin work as Bayern’s board member for sport in the coming weeks.

The aim is continuity and alignment. Freund is adamant that the club should break the cycle of coaching boom and bust. Importantly, whoever the next appointment proves to be will have been identified by the members of staff he reports to and employed with their vision for what the club should be.

Changes like that do not produce instant results. Just as Bayern have taken a long, slow road down, with their decline disguised by weak domestic opponents, so their journey back might take a while. They should get better quickly come the summer. How long it takes for them to be at their best is really a different question.

But there does seem to be a recognition that there are problems to solve. It is damning for that to represent progress, but it is a positive nonetheless.

(Top photo: Getty Images)

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