By Preben Gietz
To many, a break in club action because of international games is the cause for feelings of major withdrawal. In Germany, there’s a sense of relief. This is a chance to settle down and reflect on the absurdity of events over the past months, climaxing in today’s announcement of Jupp Heynckes returning to Bayern Munich.
A seemingly never-ending chain of coaching changes rattled the Bundesliga’s status quo. Since the winter break firings have occurred in Hoffenheim, Wolfsburg, Monchengladbach, Hamburg, Schalke and Frankfurt, in that order.
In Munich, Louis van Gaal and the club agreed to part ways at the end of the season. Similarly, after Jupp Heynckes announced this week that he will not sign a new contract at the end of the season, Leverkusen revealed the hiring of Robin Dutt, currently Freiburg’s coach.
Stuttgart and Cologne both fired their coaches during the first half of the season. Out of 18 teams, 11 have undergone some type of coaching change. While some were more dramatic than others, the most high-profile move was made in Munich.
Jupp Heynckes returns to Bayern for his third stint as coach. He coached the Bavarians from 1987-1991 and for five weeks in 2009. Heynckes won two Bundesliga championships with the club, in 1989 and 1990.
Other than being best friends with Bayern President Uli Hoeness, his coaching CV includes the two titles with Bayern and winning the Champions League with Real Madrid in 1998. And, that is all. To be fair, he was very successful in Tenerife and Athletic Bilbao, where he made the most out of limited resources.
Maybe his best work is the team he most recently constructed in Leverkusen. It is a young, dynamic team with a very bright future ahead. Leverkusen, together with Dortmund, easily play the best soccer in the Bundesliga. Thanks to Heynckes, the team plays with a clear purpose and there seems to be an order to their game. It is a team that most fans will find hard to dislike – a collection of humble professionals.
Most likely, Leverkusen will play Champions League soccer next season. This, and having played a major role in building this team, makes Heynckes’ decision to bail on his players and return to Munich a questionable one. Wouldn’t it be fun to continue his work with this young team? Surely he could turn Leverkusen into a powerhouse for years to come, domestically as well as in Europe.
Bayern, on the other hand, are still fighting to qualify for the Champions League. To live up to expectations next season, the club needs to add a few significant pieces to the currently very messy puzzle. In other words, Heynckes is leaving an intact group with wonderful future prospects for a team that has shown to be in need for some serious work.
So, what awaits him in Munich? His biggest area of concern will be Bayern’s defensive struggles. Louis van Gaal, his predecessor, has made a habit out of switching components of his back four on a game-to-game basis, with Philipp Lahm being the only constant.
This season alone, the following players were all considered starters at some point: Breno, Danien van Buyten, Danijel Pranjic, Diego Contento, Holger Badstuber, Luiz Gustavo and Anatoliy Tymoshchuk. To make matters worse, these players lined up in a different combination very regularly. In a game at Mainz in February, five players rotated into the three spots next to Lahm during the course of 90 minutes.
Some of the players have shown they simply aren’t good enough (Breno, van Buyten, Pranjic), others have proven that, in reality, they should only play in the midfield (Gustavo, Tymoshchuck). That leaves Heynckes with Contento, a young fullback with potential, and Badstuber, who couldn’t confirm last season’s form.
According to reports, Bayern are eager to sign Benfica’s Fabio Coentrao, a left back. Jose Enrique, who is having a magnificent season, could be another option. Bayern is up against serious competition for these two players and would need to be willing to spend big money. In terms of central defenders, Bayern may choose the cheaper route by going after Hannover’s Emanuel Pogatetz or Monchengladbach’s Dante. They have also been linked to Phillippe Mexes, whose contract at Roma is ending this summer.
Heynckes’ work, however, doesn’t end here. He needs to instill a new way of playing into the team. Next to their defensive weaknesses, Bayern were much too reliant on Robben’ and Ribery’s way of playing this season. When Bayern’s opponents found a way to deny the two wingers of cutting inside and run at goal with their stronger foot, left and right, respectively, the team’s offense completely stagnated. Once van Gaal’s plan A was stopped, the team could not come up with a plan B.
By leaving Leverkusen, Heynckes is taking a gamble. Anything other than winning the Bundesliga and having a good run in the Champions League, if Bayern are in it, will be considered a massive failure. At the same time, he is walking away from an exciting work in progress in Leverkusen.