How quickly things change.
Just a little under two months ago, everything looked about as rosy as it could possibly get for a stony-faced Amsterdammer residing in a leafy suburb in Munich.
Louis van Gaal had just guided German giants Bayern Munich to a 1-0 win over Inter Milan in Italy, going part of the way to avenge their loss to the same opposition in the 2010 Champions League final.
It was a different Bayern to the one who had nervously scratched their way about top-class opposition in Europe over the last ten years. Van Gaal’s Bayern side exuded the kind of passing, movement and control over the game, which had all been glimpsed fleetingly in their run to the final last season.
So it was no wonder that after the win, Van Gaal proudly proclaimed that this was definitive proof of the progress Bayern had made in their year and a half under the Dutchman.
And who would disagree?
Surprisingly though, just a few short weeks after that high water mark at the San Siro, Van Gaal and the Bayern board ‘mutually’ decided to part company at the end of the season. And just a short few weeks after that, Bayern deemed it necessary to sack the Dutchman from the post with immediate affect.
In a tirade against the departing manager, that also included a few choice swear words, Bayern president Uli Hoeness took the Dutchman to task for repressing team spirit, vetoing moves and being dogmatic in his approach.
Hoeness’ expletives should not take away from the fact, that he did have a point. Van Gaal is a prickly character in the best of times; one who believes it is his way or the highway. He is brutally honest, with zero diplomacy and this does not stand well with everyone.
He is widely loathed; Inter Milan defender Lucio spoke of how Van Gaal was the man who had hurt him the most in football. Luca Toni spoke of his amazing pants-dropping act to illustrate a point. Even Xavi, a former protégé admitted that Van Gaal was a difficult man to work with.
But despite this, Van Gaal’s work is also widely appreciated, if somewhat begrudgingly, by even his wildest detractors. His ability to spot talent is like no other; it was he who gave two of three best players in the world their break during his time in Barcelona. It was he who led a team of Ajax youngsters to Champions League glory and it was he who turned Bastian Schweinsteiger from an erratic winger to a world-class central midfielder, while at the same time converting Thomas Muller into an all-around attacking talent. But most of all, and this is his biggest selling point; he brings with himself an irrefutable attacking philosophy that has proved increasingly successful in modern times; an undying devotion to develop a culture of passing.
The unique Van Gaal trait is simple. Nothing is more important that to have the ability to pass the ball. Wherever you may be in the football pitch, whatever role you may be playing, to Van Gaal, football is about making swift passing triangles, over and over again.
It was this devotion to his ideology that first convinced Uli Hoeness and the powers that be at Bayern Munich to make the bid to bring the ‘football teacher’ Van Gaal to the club. To understand the situation at Bayern during that time, one has to rewind the clock a few years. The preceding years to Van Gaal’s takeover had not been kind to the Bavarians.
Ever since Ottmar Hitzfeld had led Bayern to Champions League glory in 2001, the focus had always been for a repeat assault on Europe’s premier trophy. But with Ottmar failing to deliver the same in the three following years, the club and him decided to part company. The choice for a successor was underway but Bayern (and this would become a trend) did not look long. Felix Magath, a man who was previously more renowned for saving clubs from relegation, took over the mantle, thanks to his exceptional work with a young VfB Stuttgart side in the preceding years.
There was a lot of circumspection but Magath’s tenure was largely successful with two consecutive league and Cup doubles. But despite players like Michael Ballack and Ze Roberto and Roy Makaay, the Champions League still proved elusive. Magath’s tenure ended after he put Champions League qualification at risk and the man they called Gottmar was persuaded to come back. But even Hitzfeld’s golden touch proved unable to revive the Bavarians who went into what they had once called the Losers Cup.
A massive overhaul followed, with Hoeness delegating the revolution to the hands of a man he trusted. Thus with players like Franck Ribery and Luca Toni drafted in at high prices, Hitzfeld ended his ‘care-taker’ tenure at Bayern with another league and cup double.
But Bayern were still not happy. Hitzfeld, part deux was strictly a safety move that ended in the bare minimums of what the club could be satisfied with. What Hoeness wanted was a philosophy and a man who would be able to deliver it.
And he wanted it so much that he was prepared to overlook his differences with the man he believed could deliver it.
So in came Jurgen Klinsmann. His appointment was a surprise choice but the Bayern FO had been seduced by the Germany side playing enthralling, attacking football in the World Cup. So enamoured were they, that the FO was prepared to overlook their underlying differences with Klinsmann along with his absolutely untested credentials as a club manager. Yet, again Hoeness and company failed to research properly, sticking to a ‘this man and this man only’ mode of philosophy.
Klinsmann’s revolution of vertical football, personal development, rattan furniture and Buddha statues that supposedly emanated positive energy ended the only way it could; in abject failure.
But by that time, the Bayern board had already been seduced by a different philosophy.
For even as Barcelona took the Bavarians apart, piece by little piece, in a Champions League knockout tie at the Camp Nou, Hoeness, Kalle Rummenigge and company were already contemplating a divorce from Klinsmann.
Hoeness would later say that they had overlooked the fact that it was Joachim Loew, and not Klinsmann who was doing all the work for the Germany team. It was a petty argument, but even on face value, any generous football commentator would have been able to tell you that it was a massive folly to leave the team in a hand of someone you had then not researched properly.
So with Klinsmann’s demise, Bayern were left in a predicament.
Who to turn to? Hitzfeld again seemed to be Uli’s choice. But Ottmar, long exhausted with his managerial career, declined, and Uli then turned to the only other man he trusted completely – Jupp Heynckes.
Heynckes came in and delivered the Champions League spot, but he was a recluse from management, and in his temporary period, Bayern turned to a man who they felt could be their silver bullet.
Most big European sides had steered clear of the enigmatic Van Gaal due to his abrasive nature but to Uli, Van Gaal was the seemingly perfect fit; a harsh disciplinarian who would set right the wrongs of the Klinsmann experiment.
It was a match questioned from the start, almost as much as the appointment of Klinsmann. Observers argued that Hoeness and he were too similar to really get along well. Opposites attracted, similarities destructed, they said. And Hoeness was definitely not a man you wanted to get on the wrong side of, especially if you harbored ambitions of coaching Bayern.
But this was a frantic Hoeness.
He was set to hang up his general manager boots at the end of the year and he was desperate for Bayern to be pointed in the right direction before he gave up his day to day duties and took over the largely ceremonial role of President.
Van Gaal was deemed the right guy.
The first season was rosy, as after teething issues, Bayern stormed to a domestic double and a spot in the final of Europe’s premier competition. It all unraveled in the second season and we all know how that story ended.
And so to complete a seemingly irreversible, vicious cycle, Bayern again turned to a man they trusted. Heynckes will take over the club next season, but it is easy to see that his will be a similar role to which Hitzfeld played in his second stint, and Heynckes himself played in his second stint, albeit for a shorter period.
The pattern that emerges from this elongated diatribe is easy to see. The Bayern FO has for years know been trying to capture a philosophy that will allow them to develop and cultivate an offensive and attractive way of playing football and combine it to the other aspects that stand for the club.
Yet ironically, the only thing that resembles a Bayern philosophy is a constant hire and fire of coaches that has been leading the club from one transitional phase to another.
At one point, in vogue was the ‘white ballet’ of Hitzfeld which was burned out and swiftly replaced by the ‘youth brigade’ of Magath, which again was followed by the ‘vertical football’ revolution of Klinsmann. That was followed by the next transition phase with Van Gaal and his ‘possession football’. In between there was the year long ‘setting the ship straight’ Hitzfeld tenure and a small fireman stint by Heynckes.
But what is more interesting is what such a short-sighted policy done for the players? In the end, each few years they have had to adapt and learn to a new tactical concept, each few years, players have had to play under coaches that have had little use for them and who had already been here before him. Surely it cannot have been good for them?
And sadly this is not a new phenomenon for Bayern. This cyclical pattern emerges as a flash-point even in the 90’s which was fraught with another similar search for philosophy as Bayern lurched from coach to coach before they found the one man who bought them the success they craved.
All this raises serious questions about the people in charge of running this club. Uli Hoeness and Kalle Rummenigge have been the constants in a board that has been populated by Karl Hopfner, Franz Beckenbauer and to a lesser extent, now, Christian Nerlinger.
But more than anyone, the proverbial finger of blame gets increasingly pointed to one man: Uli Hoeness.
It seems a folly to blame Hoeness because despite all the legends that Bayern have had playing for them, the one man they most closely resemble is Hoeness. Bayern have had much better players than the burlesque striker, having been graced by the likes of the Beckenbauer and Gerd Mueller, but ever since Hoeness took over general manager duties in 1980 the club’s fortunes had been linked inexorably to his own.
Hoeness had changed the club’s flagging fortunes from those early years and led them to their greatest glory. To gauge the impact of Hoeness at Bayern, just pure statistics are enough. When he took over, Bayern’s annual turnover was 6 million Euros. When he commenced to the role of President, Bayern announced a record turnover of 303 million Euros. From a sporting perspective, there were sixteen championships, nine cup titles, one UEFA Cup and the jewel in the crown; a the Champions League.
But if we extol the virtues of his force of will, Hoeness’ dogmatic approach should come in for some stick. His quench for an identifying philosophy is noble, but what is inexplicable is his indoctrination that seemingly believes work and success are immediately interlinked.
For Hoeness, there seems to be no scope for downs in a development procedure, despite the fact that Bayern have resources strong enough to withstand those. For him, it seems, it is win at all costs or go bust. There is no such thing as a middle ground, unless of course Uli finds his one in a million candidate like Hitzfeld.
And sadly, if this foresight is lacking from the front office, the only philosophy that Bayern will find themselves linked to is a constant fire and hire of coaches. It is scary when you see that no other big, historic European side bar Real Madrid have changed coaches so many times in such a short span of time.
It has gotten to the stage that it is almost inconceivable to imagine anyone other than Heynckes or Hitzfeld taking charge at Bayern, or leaving with their reputations intact. For Bayern fans, the press conference where Hoeness’ long simmering resentments explode has become an almost biennial event. There is never any acceptance of blame for hiring the wrong person or making the wrong moves from Hoeness himself. Under such circumstances, the question raises itself that why would someone like Jurgen Klopp or Robin Dutt would want to take over at Bayern. Of course, there is the honeypot of the prestige and financial rewards it offers, but which manager would like to work under the constant overhang of a board who will give you no time, and might even make snide attacks at you in the media every other week.
It is without question that Uli Hoeness is a man with the best of intentions. He truly is in search of the perfect philosophy, for his beloved club. Ironically, it might be something that Bayern never achieve, as long as his shadow hangs heavy over the club.
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