As sudden shock sackings go, the departure of Julian Nagelsmann from Bayern Munich is going to be hard to beat.
– Bayern fire Nagelsmann, hire Tuchel
It’s not just the fact that the manager won the title in his first season and the bookmakers liked his chances of winning the treble this season. Bayern are the betting favourites to win the German Cup (they’re in the quarterfinals) and the Bundesliga (they’re one point off the top) and they’re second favourites behind Manchester City to win the Champions League.
Nor is it just the fact that the club let the news leak this week and Nagelsmann found out through the media while skiing in Austria during the international break.
Nor is it just the fact that a mere four days earlier, Bayern chairman Herbert Hainer talked about how the club was planning “long term” around Nagelsmann because he was “tactically and strategically excellent at the highest European level,” that he had made “clear progress” in 18 months and that any doubts around his coaching come from outside the club. (Friday’s sacking suggest that either Hainer’s not fully au fait with what happens inside his club, or his nose got a little bit longer.)
Nope — for me, what stands out is how even at the highest level, and even at supposed gold-standard clubs like Bayern, there is still plenty room for knee-jerk reactions, and long-term planning is just something you talk about in boardrooms, not something you actually do. (You know the clubs: the kind that proudly remind you that they not only do they win oodles of silverware every year and sell out every game, but they’ve been profitable for more than a quarter of a century.)
In 2021, Bayern paid a world-record compensation package of €25m ($27m) to Leipzig so that Nagelsmann could break his contract and, effectively, join them two years early, since his deal with Leipzig expired in 2023. They gave him a five-year contract, which is a rarity even among elite coaches, let alone 33-year-olds, which is the age Nagelsmann was at the time. His salary was a reported €8m a season, which makes the whole package close to €65m.
That’s a staggering number. If you make that sort of commitment, conventional wisdom suggests you go all-in and live with the consequences until they become unsustainable. And Bayern’s consequences — even their worst-case scenarios — were far from unsustainable.
To their credit, chief executive Oliver Kahn and sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic owned the decision. Kahn pointed out that post-World Cup Bayern were less successful and less attractive. “The big fluctuations in performance have cast doubt on our goal for this season, but also our goals for the future,” he said, which basically means he no longer thought Nagelsmann would take them where they wanted to be. Salihamidzic didn’t go into detail but said he had conducted a “thorough analysis of the sporting development of the team,” which implies he agreed that Bayern weren’t going in the right direction.
German media completed the picture with regard to Bayern’s reasoning, and it broadly centered around four points.
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The first is the lack of results and that, sure, they could still win the treble, but they could also screw up against Manchester City in their Champions League quarterfinal and Borussia Dortmund when they face off in Der Klassiker in the Bundesliga on April Fools Day, thus blowing their chances at their two key objectives this season. Yes, they could mess up everywhere and finish the season empty-handed, but the question to ask is how much better are your chances after bringing in another guy for those games, especially when he’ll have maybe two days of full training after the international break before they face Dortmund? And is that worth abandoning the Nagelsmann project you so believed in 18 months ago?
The second is the lack of individual development of players, both youngsters and newcomers. OK: of the newcomers, neither Ryan Gravenberch nor Noussair Mazaraoui (who has been injured) have been great. Sadio Mane hasn’t been dominant, but then he’s also been sidelined. But Matthijs De Ligt is coming along nicely, and Mathys Tel has made 21 appearances, which for a 17-year-old, is pretty impressive.
What about the growth of the youngsters already at the club? Jamal Musiala looks fine to me. Alphonso Davies might not be at the level he was at two years ago, but he’s only 22 and coming off a long injury. Josip Stanisic has been great. Was Nagelsmann supposed to turn 27-year-olds like Leroy Sane and Serge Gnabry into the second coming of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery?
Another reason is that the “senior players” had lost faith in Nagelsmann, according to reports, and that they had been questioning his tactical decisions. Maybe so, and to be fair, this Bayern team has the lowest points total at this stage of the season of any side since 2010-11. But which “senior players” are you listening to? Because if it’s the thirty-somethings (or near-thirty-somethings) left over from previous eras, you might want to tune them out. You can’t talk about the future while hanging on the past.
And then, the answer to the “why now” question is the availability of Thomas Tuchel. He won the Champions League with Chelsea, he worked at big clubs like Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain, he lives in the area … he’s brilliant. He’s been unemployed since he was summarily sacked by Chelsea in September, but Bayern supposedly convinced themselves that Tottenham Hotspur and/or Real Madrid were ready to make him an offer, so they had to act quickly.
Not only does this sound like classic infomercial spiel — “place your order in the next 10 minutes or you might lose out on this set of steak knives!” — but it also doesn’t quite stack up.
Tuchel is a fine coach, but he’s not Pep Guardiola. If Tuchel wants Real Madrid and thinks he has a legitimate shot at Real Madrid, he can wait a couple of months. Meanwhile, it’s hard to believe he’s suffering such withdrawal symptoms from coaching that he’d take the Tottenham job now rather than waiting for the possibility of Bayern at the end of the season, especially when Spurs have Ryan Mason lined up as interim boss if they do sack Antonio Conte — which, by the way, they have yet to do.
If that’s the rationale Bayern are putting out there, it doesn’t make sense. At least, to me. But maybe, in a weird way, it makes sense in the context of the club.
Bayern aren’t just a club: they’re a culture, a state of mind, and it weirdly oscillates between “insiders” (ex-players or coaches, steeped in the Bayern way) and “outsiders” (big names brought in to shake things up). They’ve made nine permanent coaching appointments in the past 15 years: five of them were ex-Bayern players or coaches (Jupp Heynckes twice, plus Jurgen Klinsmann, Hansi Flick and Niko Kovac), while four of them were outsiders (Guardiola, Nagelsmann, Louis Van Gaal and Carlo Ancelotti). Of the latter four, three were sacked midseason.
The funny thing here is that the people who brought in Nagelsmann — namely Kahn and Salihamidzic — and then changed their minds about him less than two years later, were also the ones who saw him as a disruptive, long-term innovator who would revolutionise the club for the better.
By sacking him now, in this way, they’re effectively saying they got it badly wrong. Fine, people make mistakes. If it was a mistake, as Nagelsmann’s sacking implies, this one was arguably the most expensive coaching mistake in the history of football, but OK: you get a do-over. But you don’t get that many. And if this boomerangs, it’s hard to see them sticking around either.