Bayern Munich Squad Planning Suggests Identity Crisis

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Bayern Munich Squad Planning Suggests Identity Crisis
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

When Bayern Munich confirmed the signing of Pep Guardiola as head coach in January of 2013, the ex-Barcelona trainer was expected to take his team to the next level. By the time of his first day on the job, it was clear he could not have inherited a better and more appropriate team.

Bayern, Champions League finalists in three out of four consecutive seasons, had just won a treble. They had a relatively young squad with only Franck Ribery the wrong side of 30 years old. Although they played a different tactical system under Jupp Heynckes than they would under Guardiola, there was no more appropriate team (other than his former Barcelona) for the Catalan coach.

The majority of Bayern's players had previously learned to play a quick-passing game under Guardiola's former mentor, Louis van Gaal. And only Barcelona's possession (per Uefa.com) exceeded that of Bayern in the four Champions League seasons preceding Guardiola's appointment.

At his first press conference, Guardiola admitted (per Goal.com) that Bayern's team and his philosophy of football were not perfectly aligned. But he pledged to be flexible, telling reporters: "Barcelona players have different qualities to those of Bayern. I need to adjust, the system does not."

The trouble is, one year into Guardiola's contract, the once-consistent Bayern are now in the midst of an identity crisis. Rather than taking his team to the next level, the trainer is reinventing the club.

Last summer, regular substitutes Luiz Gustavo and Mario Gomez, as well as promising youngster Emre Can were offloaded. Bayern invested a whopping €37 million to secure Mario Goetze and also brought in Guardiola's protege, Thiago Alcantara.

An outcast under Heynckes, Rafinha suddenly became first choice at right-back. Philipp Lahm was moved to midfield and club-record signing Javi Martinez to the bench. Club hero Mario Mandzukic was frozen out of the team in most big games and Thomas Mueller played fewer minutes than in any other season during his career.

It was a very different Bayern, one that had the depth to win the Bundesliga easily but one that was found out in the Champions League. After laboring their way to the semifinal, the German giants were hammered by Real Madrid, who inflicted a humiliating 5-0 defeat on the proud Bavarians.

Markus Schreiber/Associated Press
Lewandowski is a great striker, but Gotze's precedent could dampen his expectations.

Bayern have continued to evolve this summer. Robert Lewandowski and Sebastian Rode were signed on free transfers. Then came Juan Bernat, whose intended role as of yet is unclear. Mandzukic and Toni Kroos, both mainstays of the treble-winning squad, have been offloaded.

SportBild typically has the inside scoop on Bayern matters, and according to the German publication (h/t @Lupin5), Guardiola has two options in mind while Thiago and Franck Ribery recover from their current injuries. Both involve using Rafinha and Bernat as full-backs and Lahm and David Alaba in midfield.

The return of Thiago could see either of the natural full-back-turned-central-midfielders dropped, or one of the attacking midfielders or Lewandowski fall out of the starting lineup.

Exactly what direction Bayern are pursuing is still rather hazy, and their motivation is even more curious. But what is crystal clear is that the team is changing rapidly.

Kroos' sale was altogether avoidable. Via Bild (in German), Bayern offered him a contract extension worth €7 million per year and refused to budge on that valuation. According to a wage list published by SportBild, that's substantially less than Ribery, Goetze (both €12 million), Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger (both €10 million), Thomas Mueller and Thiago (both €8 million).

Separate Bild reports also claim Lewandowski and Arjen Robben will earn €8 million annually. Lahm and Mueller have since been given new contracts at presumably higher wages, although details of each have yet to be made public.

Regardless, an offer to Kroos in the €8-10 million region (which Bundesliga expert Raphael Honigstein believes was the player's demand) would have fit into Bayern's wage structure. Bayern were willing to bend over backwards for Guardiola, paying him a world-record €17 million (via Daily Mail, h/t InsideSpanishFutbol.com) and adding Thiago to an already crowded midfield. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that Guardiola did not want Kroos.

Letting such key players as Kroos and even Mandzukic leave while both are in their best years is not a practice typical of a club looking to build on its success and take the next step. Nor is planning to leave a hometown hero and vice-captain like Bastian Schweinsteiger on the bench in favor of adapting a world-class full-back to play in his position.

It appears that instead of adapting to the players and taking Heynckes' treble-winning team to the next level, Guardiola is trying to build a new team with new tactics. And no player, even record signing Martinez, is assured of his role.

Guardiola's results in his first year were mixed: The class of his players and depth of his bench alone were enough to see Bayern win the Bundesliga and Club World Cup, but he deserves credit for coaching his team to victory in penalties over Chelsea in the UEFA Supercup and for edging (albeit under controversial circumstances) Dortmund in the DFB-Pokal final.

However, he was signed and paid so handsomely not to win league games, but to make Bayern a lasting force in the Champions League. Whether that will be a possibility remains in the balance.

Markus Schreiber/Associated Press
Hojbjerg is a huge talent, but still several years away from his prime.

Guardiola deserves some amount of patience, but the trouble now is he only has two more years left on his contract and some of his most important players are approaching the decline that inevitably comes with age.

Maybe the trainer intends to rely more upon Pierre Hojbjerg, but the 18-year-old has only a handful of professional games under his belt. He's still several years away from his prime (consider Kroos' development for perspective) and may not be competitive in the latter stages of the Champions League for quite some time.

Similarly, the 21-year-old Bernat is inexperienced and yet to play in Europe's greatest club competition. And he (as well as Lewandowski) could take some time to adapt to life in Munich. World Cup hero Goetze spent most of his first season at Bayern on the bench.

All the while, several key Bayern players are nearing the end of their prime years. Fans were reminded of Lahm's age on Friday when he retired from international football. He and Dante turn 31 this fall. Ribery is 31 and seems to already be in decline, his performance this spring falling well short of his previous highs. Arjen Robben is 30, while Schweinsteiger is just a few weeks away from his 30th birthday.

Matt Dunham/Associated Press
Lahm and Schweinsteiger are entering the latter stages of their careers.

At the moment, Bayern have a competitive team that has the potential to win the Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal. But the club this summer has not taken a decisive step forward in preparing to immediately be competitive once again in the Champions League. Real (who signed Kroos and could yet add James Rodriguez), Barcelona (who signed Luis Suarez and Marc-Andre ter Stegen) and Chelsea (who brought in Diego Costa, Cesc Fabregas and Filipe Luis) most certainly have.

By the time Bayern's newcomers and youngsters are ready, irreplaceable figures like Lahm, Schweinsteiger and Robben may be past the best of their abilities. And Guardiola, who only coached his beloved Barcelona for four years, may be gone as soon as his contract expires in 2016.

As it stands, Bayern look to have sacrificed Heynckes' philosophy and core aspects of his treble-winning team in order to build their future around ideals that Guardiola is still working to refine. A trainer's job is to form a team to perform as well as he can develop it to be. And he may be successful in the long term.

From a fan's perspective, however, it's a shame that it may take some time to get back to the top and that many of the stars of today may not last long enough to affect Bayern's next Champions League title. And taking the time to build a team (it took Heynckes two years, and he inherited a team that was very close to his ideal) around such a unique philosophy as Guardiola's, when the trainer could be gone in just two years, is risky. The next Bayern coach could be forced to radically change the team once more, back to a more practical goal.

A year ago, it seemed as though Bayern had it all and were perfectly set for the long term. Now it's not quite certain. They're in a bit of an identity crisis; what once was sure will now require some very careful, measured actions. The German giants can reign over Europe once more, but they now have it all to do.

 

Follow Clark Whitney on Twitter

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