Julian Nagelsmann’s Bayern mission epitomises modern football’s absurdity | Jonathan Wilson
Julian Nagelsmann is 33. This summer, he will fulfil what always seemed his destiny and become manager of Bayern Munich, the club he supported as a boy growing up in Landsberg am Lech, the Bavarian town where a young Johnny Cash was stationed with the US air force. It is a story with an almost mythic quality: the young professional suffering serious knee injuries and committing himself to coaching, emerging as the brightest talent of the dominant German school. But this is where it gets real; this is where he has to win.
Nagelsmann will face the problem common to all managers of Bayern (or Juventus or Paris Saint-Germain): that the domestic league is not a challenge. Bayern this season will complete a ninth straight title; the latest Deloitte report shows their annual revenues are 73% higher than those of the second-wealthiest team, Borussia Dortmund. Of course they dominate: RB Leipzig posed a slight threat to Bayern this season and may finish within 10 points, but this summer they will lose their most promising player, the central defender Dayot Upamecano, and their manager to the perennial champions.
Amid the fallout from the European Super League proposals, Germany was much praised for its 50+1 ownership model that guarantees fans a voice in the running of clubs – in theory at least: RB Leipzig have shown how broadly the regulations can be interpreted. Yet the financial stratification of the game in the Bundesliga is as stark as anywhere and pre-pandemic there were banners – including from Bayern ultras – protesting at the distribution of resources. The German model has advantages but nobody should think that unreformed it is a panacea.
If Nagelsmann sees out his five-year contract (and only Pep Guardiola has completed three consecutive seasons at Bayern since the departure of Ottmar Hitzfeld in 2004), he will be expected to have won five Bundesliga titles. That is par. Where he will be judged is in Europe, on a handful of knockout ties – and if making it through the group stage doesn’t seem like much of an achievement for a super club, just wait till the Swiss system is introduced in 2024.
The more dominant a club, the more it expects to win, the more assessment of worth comes to depend on individual moments in one or two big European games each season. Last year Bayern beat Paris Saint-Germain 1-0 in the Champions League final and so Hansi Flick was hailed as a genius; this year they lost to PSG in the quarter-finals on away goals and so nobody seemed overly concerned when he decided to leave – even if public sympathy was largely with him rather than the sporting director with whom he had been warring, Hasan Salihamidzic.
That is, obviously, preposterous – what if Robert Lewandowski had not been injured? What if Manuel Neuer had not got his feet in a tangle for the first PSG goal? What if that Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting header had dropped under and not on to the bar? – but it does add an extra layer of intrigue to any appointment.
Winning big games, being able to remain calm under pressure, getting players in the right frame of mind, riding the emotion of the occasion, is a skill in itself. And if there is a doubt about Nagelsmann, it must be that his sides have a tendency not to perform in the biggest Champions League games.
The sample size, it should be said, is very small and it should also be acknowledged that Nagelsmann’s sides have always gone into those big games as underdogs. It is a glimmer of a concern, not an indelible question mark. In August 2017, his Hoffenheim faced Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool in a Champions League qualifying play-off. It was billed as a clash between two great exponents of the German pressing school but although Liverpool won only 2-1 and 4-2, it felt anticlimactic: they were clearly far superior.
But then, it was Hoffenheim; of course, Liverpool were superior. But the thought recurred in the Champions League semi-final last season. RB Leipzig had disposed comfortably of Tottenham and Atlético, so perhaps the observation is unfair, but they seemed overawed against PSG in the semi. There seemed little attempt to impose themselves and their usual pressing game did not function. Was it anxiety on the big occasion? Was it just that PSG were good? Or had Nagelsmann attempted unsuccessfully to modify his approach to combat the threat on the counter of Kylian Mbappé, Neymar and Ángel Di María?
It was easy then to blame him for his caution but two months later, RB Leipzig did press with abandon at Old Trafford and were beaten 5-0 by Manchester United. This is always the dilemma for sides who press hard. A high line is, by definition, a gamble. Against a top-class opponent, a pressing team must weigh the risk of playing their normal game against changing to a less familiar but theoretically more conservative approach.
It is a problem Guardiola has faced repeatedly in the latter stages of the Champions League, and one that beset Germany from the moment Jogi Löw decided to abandon counterattacking for something more progressive after the 2014 World Cup (and even, arguably, at Euro 2012).
In the home group game against United, despite a late wobble, and both matches against PSG, there were promising signs for RB Leipzig, but then they were curiously limp against Liverpool in the last 16. That doubt remains. Of course, it is entirely reasonable to point out that three knockout ties and a group match are very little evidence on which to base an assessment, but that is the absurdity of modern football: for Bayern, few games count and the type that do are just the fixtures in which Nagelsmann is yet to deliver.
But then how can any coach be reasonably judged? Nagelsmann could get the process exactly right. His training sessions could be exceptionally sophisticated and effective. Bayern could win every Bundesliga game 5-0 and have clinched the title by February. But another away-goals defeat in the Champions League quarter-final and it would all seem a little empty. But this is modern football: the more games that are played, the fewer seem actually to matter.