Van Gaal's failings were many
A 1-1 draw away to sixth-placed team 1. FC Nürnberg wouldn't result in the dismissal of the manager in most clubs, but as everyone in Germany knows, Bayern Munich is a law unto itself at the best of times. Louis van Gaal was unceremoniously sacked for good and with immediate effect on Sunday, after last month's announcement that he would leave at the end of the season. These are the 11 (interrelated) reasons why it didn't work out:
52 points from 29 games. Fourth place. This is patently not enough for a team who wanted to challenge on all three fronts but can now only fight off demotion to the Europa League. Crashing out to a geriatric, chaotically coached Inter would have just about been forgivable, but possibly missing out on the Champions League millions certainly isn't. Back in January, Bayern president Uli Hoeness threatened to "get nervous" if qualification to UEFA's top competition was in danger, and he did. Jürgen Klinsmann was fired at precisely the same junction -- five matches to go in the league -- in 2009.
One important facet to bear in mind is that prior achievements traditionally count for little in the Bundesliga, where Sepp Herberger's "after the game is before the game" -- mantra rules supreme. Armin Veh couldn't invoke his championship with Stuttgart (2007) in his defense when the club decided to sack him the next season, and last year's double and Champions League final with Van Gaal in charge cut little ice at Säbenerstrasse in Munich, either. Bayern expect to be successful as a matter of course. It's a somewhat crude, short-termist approach. But this culture of enormous pressure is also one of the factors underlying the club's tremendous record of 20 championships in 42 years.
Nine Bayern players were involved until the very end of the competition in South Africa, including Arjen Robben, who came back with a huge hole in his thigh muscle. Bayern has historically struggled after big tournaments and its slow start to the season repeated the pattern. Both the board and Van Gaal underestimated that problem. Bayern has been playing catch-up ever since.
You don't get the "FC Hollywood"-tag for no reason. Bayern's tremendous experience and footballing competence at boardroom level has long been its strength and weakness. Guys like Franz Beckenbauer (honorary president), Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge (CEO) are always on air, always speaking about players and performances and, by extension, about the manager. If you're German, you know what's in store for you. Did the Dutchman? Van Gaal famously claimed that Bayern suited him "like a warm coat" when he took office in July 2009 but probably underestimated the level of criticism and interference he'd have to put up with from his superiors. Bayern, too, wanted a strong, independent manager to begin with and knew that Van Gaal could be a prickly customer. But the board didn't realize that he would not be amenable at all to (mostly) constructive advice. And they couldn't fathom just how idiosyncratic his behavior would be.
In November, Hoeness launched a full-frontal attack on Van Gaal -- or one last wake-up call. "He doesn't accept anyone's opinion, there's no point talking to him anymore," the former World Cup winner with West Germany said. Rummenigge consequently
There was huge amount of one-upmanship involved from the word go, from both sides. Van Gaal openly showed that he didn't value the board's soccer expertise very highly, a stance that had a knock-on effect on squad politics: Mario Gomez and Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, two expensive buys that had been signed before Van Gaal's arrival, were ignored and described as "not my players" by the manager. The disappointing form from both in 2009/10 seemed to prove Van Gaal right but Bayern felt he had actually undermined their confidence to make a point and in turn noted that his two transfers of that year, Danijel Pranjic and Edson Braafheid, didn't exactly set the Bundesliga alight either. An uneasy truce was reached in the wake of success at the end of that season, but matters came again to a head last summer, when the manager wrote a biography explaining his "football philosophy" and had the nerve to recommend that his superiors read it.
Most Bayern players are bought by the sporting director, in conjunction with the manager. But coaches are routinely allowed to bring in one or two of their own targets. It's a mix-and-match approach that has obvious pros and cons but key to its success is a spirit of cooperation and compromise from both sides. In Van Gaal's first summer at the club, Bayern deferred to his wishes (Lucio out, Pranjic and Braafheid in) and there was little friction in that respect. But things took a dramatic turn to the worse when Van Gaal strongly vetoed all attempts to strengthen the team in defense after the lost Champions League final. He felt that the existing squad was good enough and promised to bring through more youngsters, as he had impressively done with Thomas Müller and Holger Badstuber before. The move backfired. Bayern's chronic vulnerability at the back prevented them from winning anything.
Van Gaal came to Munich with an open mind. He played a 4-4-2 diamond to begin with, and even tried a 3-3-3-1 before settling on 4-2-3-1 halfway through his first season. The formation brought the best out of many players and gave Bayern's play a sense of identity, something that hadn't been seen in Munich for quite a while. The season after, the formation became a dogma. He never diverted from it. Not when the opposition had worked out a way to deal with, not when specific games warranted it, nor when key players were injured. Instead, players were shuffled around inside the system and often ended up in very unfamiliar positions. A general loss of confidence and stability were the consequences. The kind of possession-based soccer that Van Gaal had drilled into the side couldn't work under these circumstances. "Our buildup play was too risky," captain Philipp Lahm ventured this week. One or two attempts by senior players to talk to the manager were brusquely dismissed not long ago.
To be sure, the 33-year-old was probably past his best this season. His passing was off and stats showed he was running less than before. Van Bommel, however, was a very important player in the dressing room, someone who had the ear of both the coach and high-maintenance characters like Franck Ribéry. Ushering him out the door -- he had fallen out with Van Gaal -- in January resulted in a lack of leadership on and off the pitch. It also undermined Bastian Schweinsteiger, who's only been half the player without the tough-tackling van Bommel covering his back. A half-decent Van Bommel would certainly have done a better job than Pranjic in central midfield.
It's long been a badly kept secret in Munich that Bayern have agreed personal terms with Schalke 04 and Germany keeper Manuel Neuer. In January, however, van Gaal decided to
Van Gaal's authoritarian style rubbed plenty of people the wrong way to begin with. After Luca Toni's move back to Italy (December '09), the majority of the players came to terms with the manager's harsh ways. Success on the pitch made them put up with him, even when he employed some unorthodox methods -- he once showed them his genitals -- to motivate them. Publicly, the players insisted van Gaal was treating them fairly but they felt increasingly exasperated as this car crash of a season progressed. Max Reckers, the video analyst, was a source of constant irritation: he patronized players and spoke to them as if they were school children.
After one particular bad dressing-down, Holger Badstuber was close to tears. Even Arjen Robben distanced himself from his compatriot. "His management style reminds me of that of Felix Magath," said Rummenigge. "It doesn't win you any friends."
Journalists don't know jack. That was Van Gaal's default position. He might actually be right in some cases, but was it necessary to confront them with their (supposed) incompetence at very opportunity? Critical questions were dismissed as "parrot music," as an irrelevance. Senior TV journalists had trouble keeping it together in the face of a manager who treated every query as a personal insult. The media were certainly not the reason why he was sacked but Van Gaal's lack of even basic civility toward them ensured there was no one left to fight his corner when the chickens came home to roost.