Bayern Munich are by no means immune to mistakes, but they rarely make the same mistake twice. The ground lost to Borussia Dortmund between 2010 and 2012 was spectacularly recaptured, along with many of the rival club’s best players. The abortive reign of Carlo Ancelotti in 2016 seems to have warned the club hierarchy off the allure of the star foreign manager. And the remarkable chain of events that has reconfigured the landscape of German football over the past fortnight may just have its origins in Bayern’s failed pursuit of a promising young coach called Thomas Tuchel.
Tuchel had been on Bayern’s radar as early as 2014, when Pep Guardiola began to recommend the Mainz coach as a potential successor. Cordial meetings were held with the sporting director, Michael Reschke, and the club president, Uli Hoeness. But it was in 2018, when the veteran coach Jupp Heynckes announced his retirement, that the chase really began. Heynckes publicly anointed Tuchel as his chosen successor and talks were arranged. But Bayern were too late. Tuchel had made up his mind to go abroad, and would soon be unveiled as the manager of Paris Saint-Germain.
If Julian Nagelsmann was unnerved at the prospect of Tuchel returning to the job market, he did a good job of hiding it. As his Bayern squad broke up for the international break after the 2-1 defeat at Bayer Leverkusen, there was little portent of the approaching chaos. “Everyone come back healthy from the internationals,” Nagelsmann warned his team in what would be their final meeting together. “And then we’ll smash Dortmund!” At which point Nagelsmann went skiing in the Austrian Alps with his girlfriend. He would only find out late on the Thursday night via media reports that his job had been given to Tuchel.
It seemed logical enough, even if the shock value at the time was real. Beat Dortmund at the Allianz Arena this Saturday – as they have done in each of their last eight meetings at home – and Bayern will return to the top of the Bundesliga, presumptive favourites to win their 11th title in a row. This season’s Champions League has produced eight wins out of eight. But then raw numbers have never kept any Bayern manager safe. This is a club where coaches are hired and fired largely on feel and projection, the vague but compelling idea that some basic essence has been lost. “This is not what Bayern stands for,” the current sporting director, Hasan Salihamidzic, said scornfully after the defeat to Leverkusen, and in retrospect this was the point at which we should have realised that change was coming.
And something has undoubtedly been slightly off at Bayern this season, even if it is hard to pin down exactly what. There were few signs of dressing-room disaffection, and indeed over the international window many Bayern players expressed their surprise at Nagelsmann’s sacking. Certainly results since the World Cup have been substandard, allowing a surging Dortmund to go top for the first time in almost four years. Eleven points dropped from winning positions hints at a certain brittleness and an occasional tendency to concede soft goals. But there is nothing like a smoking gun here.
Indeed, the timing of Nagelsmann’s sacking seems to be intrinsically linked to Tuchel’s availability, and the fear of losing out on him again with Tottenham and Real Madrid circling. All of which, coming days before a crucial title showdown against Dortmund and a Champions League quarter-final against Manchester City, raises certain pressing questions. Has the ultimate long-term process club just had a massive short-term spasm? Has the club that like to plot out their managerial changes years in advance succumbed to the sugar-fix of the new-manager bounce?
“It’s not the time for big changes in systems or tactics,” Tuchel said at his Bayern unveiling, and the urgency of the tests ahead suggests that pragmatism will define his early weeks in the job. The short-term priority will be to strengthen a defence that has kept just two clean sheets in its past 10 games, which suggests the three-man defence he employed at Chelsea may well be repeated on Saturday. There are intentional parallels here with his spell at Stamford Bridge, during which he won the Champions League within his first six months of taking the job. That run was also based on a remarkable defensive record, with two central midfielders screening the back three and allowing the wing-backs to press high up the pitch.
The obvious point to make here, and one borne out by Tuchel’s body of work at Mainz, Dortmund and Paris, is that clearly he is better than a stop-gap coach. But how much better? Man for man, Bayern’s squad bears comparison with any in Europe, from João Cancelo and Matthijs de Ligt in defence, to Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka in midfield, to the array of riches in the final third. A new goalkeeper and a No 9 are probably needed soon, but this is not a team in desperate need of a rebuild.
In short: if ever there were an opportunity for Tuchel to put down roots, to articulate a long-term vision, to prove his staying power, this is it. For all the haste of his arrival, he finds himself in the extremely rare position of having time on his side. Even a failure to win the Bundesliga or Champions League this season will probably not be held against him. Barring abject disaster, he should get at least a year to build the team he wants. There may be a certain irony in this, but a short-term punt on a short-term coach may just have given Bayern their best shot in a while at long-term stability.