It had been a week heavy with a feeling of finality; first in Paris, then in Wolfsburg. Bayern Munich’s stride towards retaining the Champions League had come to a halt in the French capital, with Leon Goretzka’s withdrawal through injury perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back in a campaign beset with personnel issues. Everything, this time, wasn’t enough.
After everything that happened in the two legs with Paris Saint-Germain – the setbacks, the comebacks, the good-but-not-quite-ruthless-enough performances – it felt good to move on with a relative test against one of the Bundesliga’s surprise packages, and a likely Champions League qualifier, in Lower Saxony on Saturday. Bayern performed to type at Wolfsburg, both in terms of Paris and in the framework of the personality of the Hansi Flick era’s team as a whole. They were sometimes irresistible, sometimes extraordinarily careless and never less than totally engaging.
The 3-2 win, propelled by another two goals from their teenage sensation Jamal Musiala, was enough to bring a buzz to the post-match dressing room. Then Flick spoke and brought a hush to it all. When he told his players that he planned to leave Bayern at the end of the current campaign, they would not have been shocked. It still hit hard, though.
“It was very emotional for all of us,” Manuel Neuer told Sky. “We have to absorb this and process it as a team.” Thomas Müller, with all his experience, acknowledged the human cost of two unrelenting seasons rolled into one. “It was an intense time,” he said. “He didn’t exactly [try and] justify himself, but he didn’t have to explain it to us. As Bayern coach, you need to have thick skin.”
That last Müller gambit didn’t appear to be delivered as a criticism – Neuer, for one, expressed his appreciation that Flick had shared his thoughts with the players before letting the world know via Sky – but as a fact, as an understanding of a shared experience that has been lived vividly not just as a consequence of the condensed calendar, but by way of the personalities involved. The change of atmosphere from Niko Kovač to Flick from the start in November 2019 was astonishing – same players, different world. The new man who was already there was tactically astute but it was more than his footballing philosophy that liberated previously non-plussed players. There was a connection and a trust between Flick and the players, an uncommon mutual respect that was like gold dust.
Of course, his greatest strength became his greatest hindrance. Flick’s determination to defend his players to the hilt came at a price. Most recently sporting director Hasan Salihamidžić’s decision to move on from Jérôme Boateng, telling the centre-half that his contract would not be renewed at the season’s end, was seen as the potential final straw, but the relationship between Flick and Salihamidžić had reached the stage of untenable way before. The very public removal of Boateng, one of Flick’s pillars, from Bayern’s future was a symptom of the lack of empathy between the two, rather than its cause.
For now, the club is expressing its unhappiness with their head coach stepping up to make his thoughts heard, which he had already done far too much for the liking of some who believe that a Bayern coach should be seen but not heard on matters of substance. “FC Bayern disapproves of the unilateral communication by Hansi Flick,” read a club statement on Sunday, “and we will continue the talks as agreed after (next Saturday’s) game in Mainz.”
The confirmation of his exit is nevertheless little more than a formality but Bayern like to be in control, and the agenda has been snatched from them by their coach. Some might say that Flick has been forced to make this move, as the club had plenty of time to address the difficulties in his dealings with Salihamidźić, who occupies a key role at Bayern but has far from convinced thus far, and whose role in the departure of an enormously popular figure will heap even more pressure on him. Flick’s words thanking CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, former president Uli Hoeness and current incumbent Herbert Hainer – spot the deliberate omission – for their support was a final jab in Salihamidźić’s direction.
The hot early favourite for the succession is RB Leipzig’s Julian Nagelsmann – after his side’s goalless draw with Hoffenheim on Friday, in combination with the win at Wolfsburg, nudged Bayern closer to this season’s title – and he would certainly capture the imagination. Nagelsmann gave a flimsy, quasi-denial on Sunday. “I think it’s totally wrong to sit down somewhere and say what if,” he said. “I can’t sit here and say that I’m going to break up with Lena Gercke (the winner of Germany’s Next Top Model in 2006) because I’ve never been with her.”
Nagelsmann is young, charismatic and would not only excite, but fits with what Bayern and their young core are right now, and what has made them so attractive under Flick. The biggest impediment could be the €20m release clause that Bild report would be payable to Leipzig, though in an environment where Borussia Mönchengladbach have just paid €7.5m to pluck Adi Hütter from Eintracht Frankfurt, it seems far from prohibitive.
For Flick, the logical next step is replacing Jogi Löw in the Germany job, a prize that he would cherish. He won’t forget the enormous highs at Bayern, though they will try to move on as soon as possible. They could never have imagined 18 months on just how hard Flick would be to replace.
Other cultures have long since found the Bundesliga’s ability to compartmentalise and announce moves way ahead of time curious, and sometimes it’s still awkward in the bubble. Any guesses for Hütter’s first game after announcing he was leaving Frankfurt? It was at Gladbach, where a 4-0 defeat cut Eintracht’s lead in fourth to four points on Borussia Dortmund, who breezed past Werder Bremen (4-1) as Erling Haaland broke his drought with a brace. “It’s grist to the mill for the critics,” admitted Eintracht’s Sebastian Rode.
It was a bad start for Friedhelm Funkel in his first game in charge of Köln. The 3-0 defeat just down the road at Leverkusen was one thing, but the 67-year-old’s post-match interview with Sky caused a major storm. “They are extremely quick,” said Funkel, “thanks to their – yes, there are one or two expressions you can no longer say – their players, who are just so fast” – clearly referencing Leon Bailey and Moussa Diaby. Some fans took to social media to demand Funkel’s removal for the racially-charged inference, and the coach’s attempted backtrack on Sunday and the club’s efforts to defuse the situation have been described as “a communications disaster” by the city’s leading newspaper Express.
Besides Köln another curveball in the relegation battle is Hertha being put in quarantine following a Covid outbreak, with coach Pal Dardai and striker Dodi Lukebakio among those infected. Sunday’s game at Mainz was postponed and they can’t resume group training until 30 April, leaving them three weeks to cram in six remaining games.