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Heynckes feels the heat at Bayern

Jupp Heynckes sent a timely reminder this week: he is still Bayern Munich's manager. "I'm under contract (until 2013) and I expect to fulfill it," the 66-year-old Heynckes told the press on Thursday, "I'm doing this job very passionately and I'm fully committed. Managing is not work for me". He even looked like he meant it, despite admitting that the next two home games -- Saturday's visit of TSG Hoffenheim and Tuesday's Champions League match against FC Basel -- were of "paramount importance." Tabloid Bild was so impressed with Heynckes' cool demeanor that they called the press briefing "Bayern's best performance of 2012."

That assessment was sarcastic but perhaps not inaccurate. Bayern is second in the Bundesliga but has been poor since the winter-break. So poor that a three-point-lead over Dortmund has turned into a seven-point deficit and that the club finds itself at the verge of elimination in Europe at the "last 16" stage. (The first leg in Basel was lost 1-0). So poor, in fact, that Heynckes' departure in the summer has been treated as a fait accompli by sections of the Munich press. Bild reported board level discussions about his successor; president Uli Hoeness liked Schalke 04 manager Mirko Slomka, we were told, whereas CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge was said to be impressed with Swiss coach Lucien Favre, the architect of Borussia Mönchengladbach's renaissance. Bayern, to the surprise of many, reacted very strongly to the story. The club issued a news release, stating that it "condemned this outrageous, baseless media speculation in the strongest possible terms," adding that it reserved to take legal steps against "this kind of rumor journalism."

Honorary president Franz Beckenbauer felt the board would have been better advised to ignore the matter but nerves are obviously frayed at Säbenerstrasse. Ever since Rummenigge implicitly castigated Heynckes for not adding to the squad in January a couple of weeks ago, the manager has been in a vulnerable position. What was at first supposed to be a short-term-tenure and then looked being capable of becoming a much longer engagement as Hoeness called his friend "the perfect manager" in the autumn, when Bayern was winning everything, now looks like coming to a premature end. Heynckes knew perfectly well this could happen at Bayern, where coming first is the law and coming second a crime warranting capital punishment.

The former Real Madrid coach and West Germany international is keeping things in perspective amid this crisis. And his appearance on Thursday showed precisely why Hoeness was right, to an extent. It's hard to think of any other German coach who would have reacted this calmly to reporters asking about his dismissal. His great experience has also helped him to deal well with all the big egos in the dressing room; Süddeutsche Zeitung felt his ability "to moderate the vanities" should not be underestimated. "We'll show you that the mood in the dressing room is much better than you think," Heynckes said.

Is that enough, however? Heynckes' appointment, like most managerial appointments at Bayern (and elsewhere) was a reaction to his predecessor's reign. Louis van Gaal had given the team a strong tactical identity but was too self-righteous in his views and in the treatment of his superiors and players. In the rush to appoint an anti-Van-Gaal -- the Dutchman himself had been hired as the anti-Klinsmann before, as a "football teacher" who could introduce real tactical know-how after Klinsmann's motivational rhetoric and emphasis on fitness had left the players cold -- Heynckes looked attractive as a calm hand. The real problem now is not that he's turned out to be something different. He hasn't. The problem is that Heynckes' modus operandi has fallen short in the light of opposition (Dortmund, and Basel, even) who are able to reach a higher tactical and collective plane thanks to the work of their younger, more technically devoted coaches. Bayern, under Heynckes, have more balance than Van Gaal's 2011 version but there's precious little by way of a real game plan, only the traditional, regressive reliance on the individual brilliance of his best players.

Beckenbauer belittled the criticism of Heynckes by saying that all Bayern needed was for Mario Gomez to score and for Manuel Neuer to stop missing crosses , which is true in a sense but also neatly sums up the team's main flaw: it doesn't function well enough collectively to cope with the loss of form (or mistakes) of important individuals. The negative impact of Bastian Schweinsteiger's absence due to injury is another symptom of this fundamental weakness. The players, it seems, are aware of it, too. Heynckes didn't spend enough time fine-tuning formations and moves, reporters were told privately.

One could argue that a team with so much firepower isn't really in need of a very tactical approach and that's true, in a fashion. Bayern will beat most Bundesliga teams, even the better organized ones. But when the opposition defend with intelligence and threaten on the break, Bayern struggles -- more than it should. It's as if the reservoir of the tactical input from the Van Gaal years has been used up. After successfully curbing the excesses of attacking soccer, Heynckes has completely failed to put anything new in its place. His Bayern just muddle through, essentially.

The officials probably know that, too, but they are sticking with Heynckes in light of no obvious alternatives. Jürgen Klopp, the one German club manager who might be capable to transfer his technocratic, highly collective approach to Munich's FC Hollywood environment, is not available. Neither is Joachim Löw, the Germany manager. Slomka is nowhere near the same level yet, neither is Mainz's Thomas Tuchel. And Favre has yet to prove that his incessant pressing and counterattacking can work with bigger, older players. There's also little appetite for a non-German speaking coach, a fact that reduces the number of contenders even further.

Bayern is, in so many words, stuck; precisely where it was after Ottmar Hitzfeld's second, short-lived spell had come to an end in 2008. The club knows that it must embrace modernity to maximize its chances but it is wary that the new wave of coaches are not big enough personalities or experienced enough to make a star-studded team play with the selfless discipline and all-action commitment that grace Europe's very best outfits. Thus, it wouldn't be a total surprise if Heynckes were allowed to persist with his steady if underwhelming course for another season. If he can win his next couple of games, that is.

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