While Niko Kovac delivered a seventh straight Bundesliga title, as is a prerequisite for every Bayern Munich boss, the Bavarians’ faith in their manager was far from complete. It was against this backdrop that Hansi Flick was hired to be Kovac’s assistant last summer, the idea being that he would guide the relative novice when needed.
Flick had, after all, performed a similar role as Joachim Low’s assistant manager with the German national team for eight years. Low might not have needed much guidance, but Flick was an integral part of the staff that led Die Mannschaft to World Cup glory in 2014. Even after that, the 55-year-old held a position as sporting director at the German Football Association (DFB) until 2017. Flick was a familiar face to German soccer fans by the time he pitched up at the Allianz Arena, and he’s only become more familiar since.
Rather than guiding them from the shadows, Flick is now the one leading Bayern Munich after Kovac’s sacking in November. Initially hired on an interim basis, Flick made his permanent appointment unavoidable, winning 12 of 15 Bundesliga games before the coronavirus shutdown to take his team back to the top of the table. The outlook for the Bavarians is decidedly brighter than it was just a few months ago.
And yet while Flick has got Bayern Munich’s season back on track, with the 2019/20 Bundesliga campaign set to resume on May 16, the club finds itself at something of a crossroads. The Bavarians are in the middle of a generation transition between one era and another. Flick might have found a way to bridge the gap for the time being, but there’s still no guarantee that Bayern Munich will make the crossing safely.
Out with the old?
Many of the club’s Old Guard were left unhappy by Kovac’s treatment of them. Thomas Muller was benched by the Croatian, later admitting that he subsequently pondered leaving Bayern Munich. There were also rumbles of discontent from Robert Lewandowski and Manuel Neuer towards the end of his tenure, adding to the instability rarely seen at such a fine-tuned club.
Flick recognised the immediate need to get such influential dressing room figures back on side, with Muller in particular revitalised by the change in management. But the fundamental problem Kovac was tasked with addressing remains - Bayern Munich’s team is an aging one in need of an overhaul. After the recent contract extension for Muller through 2023, it appears the club is still struggling to decide how exactly to transition.
The retirement of Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben at the end of last season hinted at a squad renovation that never truly materialised. Leroy Sane seemed destined to make the move from Manchester City, with the winger identified as Bayern Munich’s next mega-money signing, but only Philippe Coutinho and Ivan Perisic arrived as short term loan additions.
Coutinho started strongly, but is no longer seen as part of Bayern Munich’s vision for the future according to recent reports. This leaves the Brazilian playmaker adrift with no place for him at Barcelona either, but it also puts the Bundesliga champions back to square one in their search for someone to build their next great team around.
Of positions on the pitch to shore up, the reigning champions are likely best prepared at the back. However, a slew of injuries has slowed any potential at a quick transition. The erstwhile Jerome Boateng continues to shows signs of aging even amidst a fine run of form, with nagging injuries over recent years proving that the 31-year-old can't play forever.
24-year-old Niklas Sule performed impressively at the start of the season, but a cruciate ligament tear means he's likely sidelined even for the rest of a protracted season, while the $88 million Lucas Hernandez has struggled to find form after an early-season ankle injury. David Alaba has been an admirable stand-in at the center, but Flick would surely prefer the Austrian in his usual left-back location.
Transfer market challenges
Despite their status as German soccer’s dominant force, Bayern Munich find themselves at the bottom of the hill looking up in the current transfer market landscape. They are generally incapable of shopping from the top shelf. Of course, it’s certainly not the case that the Bavarians have to scrimp, but when it comes to the sort of players that cost over €100 million, they are frequently priced out.
Before last summer, Bayern Munich’s transfer record stood at just €40 million. When compared to the transfer records of their European rivals, it’s a figure that illustrates the challenges they face in a grossly inflated marketplace. If the transfer market is to be depressed in a coronavirus world it could be to the benefit of Bayern Munich and German clubs in general.
Of course, there is already an emerging next generation at the Allianz Arena. Serge Gnabry is a one-man match-winner, as Tottenham Hotspur found to their cost in the Champions League earlier this season. Meanwhile, Canadian Alphonso Davies has become one of the best young full backs in the game and Joshua Kimmich is seen as a future leader for club and country.
But for all this promise and improvement in results under Flick, Bayern Munich struggle to find harmony between generations. This has been reflected in the contract standoff between the club and Neuer, with the veteran goalkeeper making public his disgruntlement at the terms being offered and the signing of Alexander Nubel from Schalke. The discourse has become so bitter that it’s not guaranteed Neuer will stay in Bavaria beyond the summer.
Big ships don’t turn easily or quickly, but Bayern Munich are turning slower than most. This is a club entwined with internal politics and egos that is perhaps–as with Germany's 2018 World Cup squad–still infatuated with a golden generation whose time has simply passed. While their philosophy of hiring former players and legends to executive positions provides continuity between eras, it also makes the manager’s job more difficult. There is always at least one legend peering over the shoulder. Flick better make sure what he produces is up to scratch.