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April 13, 2024

Inside Bayern and Tuchel’s decision to part ways

Inside Bayern and Tuchel’s decision to part ways

On the flight back to Munich from Bochum, club officials noticed a change of demeanour in Thomas Tuchel. The 50-year-old was often withdrawn after defeats, keeping himself to himself with his baseball cap pulled down as low as possible. On one occasion, he even wore sunglasses late at night — not so much to block out the light but to ward off any attempts by the bosses to talk to him.

But after the 3-2 defeat in Bochum, Bayern Munich’s third loss in a row, Tuchel suddenly cut a relaxed, smiling figure. Staffers overheard him cracking a few sarcastic jokes. “He knew it was over,” said one of the passengers on board the plane, who, like all sources in this article, spoke to The Athletic on condition of anonymity to protect relationships. “The pressure was off.”

Bayern’s board deliberated the next steps on Monday and Tuesday, bringing in supervisory board members Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge for advice. Hoeness and Rummenigge, both former players, had led the club for 30 years and reassumed positions of power after firing chief executive Oliver Kahn and board member for sport Hasan Salihamidzic in May.

Everyone agreed that the team’s desperately poor performances necessitated a change, but in the absence of a suitable interim coach, it was decided to announce the separation without finalising it. The manager was gone but not quite. After a “constructive discussion between Tuchel and Jan-Christian Dreesen (Kahn’s successor as CEO)”, said the club in a statement on Wednesday morning, Tuchel would leave one year earlier than his contract stipulated, at the end of this season.

Where did it all go wrong? Right at the very start, if members of Tuchel’s camp are to be believed. “It was probably a mistake to take over in the middle of last season,” a source close to him told The Athletic. The former Chelsea manager is not one to come in and charm the socks off his players. His approach is methodical, detail-heavy and business-like.

Without the time to properly prepare for the job, Tuchel concentrated on a few basics but soon felt that the team’s ills — defensive instability and a mysterious habit of falling apart during matches — needed much more drastic intervention.

However, Kahn and Salihamidzic, the men who had hired Tuchel with a view of rebuilding the squad, were gone a few seconds after Bayern had secured a dramatic last-minute-of-the-last-day title. Dreesen, a former finance director without football expertise, replaced Kahn, but there was no new sporting director in time for the summer window.

Instead, a transfer committee of Tuchel, key board members, and the ‘ancien regime’ duo of Hoeness and Rummenigge was set up, with mixed success.

Tuchel being unveiled alongside Kahn, left, and Salihamidzic, right (Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

Bayern signed Harry Kane but were left short in defence after Tuchel had allowed right-back Josip Stanisic to go on loan to Bayer Leverkusen. Most importantly, the manager’s wish for a new defensive specialist — a “holding six”, in his words — went unheeded.

Arsenal-bound Declan Rice was too expensive. To make room in midfield, Tuchel proposed selling either Leon Goretzka or Joshua Kimmich — both of whom had, incidentally, criticised the club for firing Julian Nagelsmann — but the powerbrokers resisted. The €60million (£51m; $65m at current rates) price tag for Joao Palhinha was also initially seen as too dear and by the time the manager got his way, Fulham could not bring in a replacement, so the deal fell through at the last second.

Instead, Tuchel ended up with the very Goretzka-Kimmich combination he had considered unworkable. “He was like a doctor who saw the patient needed urgent surgery but was only allowed to prescribe a bit of therapy,” the source close to Tuchel said.

Limited influence on squad composition is one of the quirks of the job in Munich, as every manager in modern times has found. In case opinions are divided, the board has always erred on the side of backing the existing roster and repelled costly upheaval. This has led to a paradox: Bayern want managers with a clearly defined footballing philosophy but won’t give them the means to implement them on their terms.

When things don’t work out subsequently, both sides can claim that they were right all along. Managers can say results would have been much better if only the board had listened. Board members can say they were right to restrict the coach’s transfer dealings because the next man might have very different views and the club cannot afford a complete overhaul of playing personnel every two or three years.

Where Tuchel differed in comparison to his predecessors — such as Nagelsmann, Hansi Flick, Niko Kovac, Carlo Ancelotti and Pep Guardiola, who all had limited sway over transfer dealings — was that he wasn’t willing to accept the hand he was being dealt.

Throughout the summer and beyond, Tuchel kept talking about the need for a defensive midfielder, openly questioning the credentials of Goretzka, Kimmich and new signing Konrad Laimer. Since the first two were part of the team’s leadership group, the effect was destabilising, especially for the two players. “He emasculated them,” a source close to the dressing room told The Athletic.

Tuchel had initially tried to sell Goretzka or Kimmich (Christian Kaspar-Bartke/Getty Images)

A few other players, including defender Matthijs de Ligt, felt unwanted, too. Tuchel’s technical style of coaching failed to hit any emotional chords with his team, but it’s wrong to say the dressing room was split between half a dozen of his supporters and just as many enemies, contrary to what some reports suggested. Sentiment towards him was far more diverse. Some liked the man and his ideas. Some liked one or the other. Some liked neither. Some were indifferent.

On the pitch, results were decent until last week, but Bayern’s games often lacked dominance and clarity. Whenever they failed to hit opponents in transition, they struggled to create openings.

Tuchel was more concerned with avoiding counter-attacks from opponents than with creating numerical advantages at the other end of the pitch, which left Bayern’s offensive play looking stodgy. “Players were afraid of losing the ball, knowing the coach would have a go at them if they tried slightly riskier passes over the top of defences or through the line,” the source close to the dressing room said.

It can’t have helped that Tuchel made no attempt to hide his displeasure on the touchline. Instead of the love and support some of these players needed, they were faced with a coach often shaking his head in despair or making dismissive gestures.

That discord still doesn’t quite explain why a coach of his undoubted quality couldn’t get more out of this team, footballing-wise. Members of his camp tell of many long meetings among the coaching staff in which they discussed adopting a more attacking approach but ultimately decided that the team’s defensive weaknesses would not allow it. Tuchel played cautiously because he felt he had to, not because he wanted to.

In his defence, even some members of the old guard in Munich have belatedly come to the view that the squad needs more fresh blood than anticipated. Inconsistent performances for the national team by many of the same players further suggest that those problems do not exclusively come down to the faults of the coaches who have taken charge of Bayern and Germany.

Whoever comes in next — ideally Xabi Alonso, in the club’s view — will be given the licence to build a new core on the pitch. One benefit of announcing the departure of Tuchel early is that it frees the club to pursue Alonso more aggressively. Bayern wouldn’t be Bayern if they didn’t feel they were in with a good chance to get their man.

Keeping Tuchel on as a lame duck for three more months and hoping for the best might feel like a strange move, but it was the only one Bayern had left. Unlike a year ago — when Kahn and Salihamidzic fired Nagelsmann because Tuchel, a Champions League winner, was available — no one can think of another suitable white knight at the moment. There’s no elder statesmen on the coaching staff ready to step in, no former manager who is universally revered.

Tuchel will leave Bayern at the end of the season (Filippo Monteforte via Getty Images)

Flick, who won the 2020 Champions League winner as manager of Bayern, is the closest there is to a Jupp Heynckes-type figure, but he isn’t prepared to help out as a caretaker for a second time. Regardless, the club are far from convinced he could replicate his positive impact either. After overseeing a disastrous World Cup in Qatar with half a dozen Bayern players in the national team, trust in Flick’s managerial acumen has suffered.

There is an expectation that the underperforming players will now step up, unable to hide behind the uncertainty surrounding the manager’s future any longer. Tuchel, the board like to think, will snap out of the morose mood that had gripped him in recent weeks and turn his hand at facilitating a happy ending, either by being more ruthless in his decisions or more accommodating of his team’s wishes. Both possibilities are considered plausible by the decision-makers at the club’s HQ at Sabener Strasse, which is a nice way of saying that nobody has much of an idea about which way this one will go.

If the disconnect between the manager and his players wasn’t so apparent, optimism would be more pronounced. The board might yet be forced to bring forward Tuchel’s departure.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t make it until the summer,” one official admitted to The Athletic.

(Top photo: Sascha Schuermann/AFP via Getty Images)

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