FC Bayern’s failure – early onset decline?

ALTHOUGH the Real Madrid-Chelsea tie captivated the continent, the seismic news was actually the shock elimination of Bayern Munich at the hands of Villareal. Defeat by a Spanish club is not unknown to FCB, indeed in the last decade, they have gone out to La Liga representatives six times, but usually, its Real Madrid, Barcelona or Atlético Madrid that have inflicted the damage.

Villareal are managed by Unai Emery, who has bounced back from his unhappy time at Arsenal to win the UEFA Europa League and now reach the last four of the Champions League. There may more than a few Arsenal fans who now wonder if the likeable Emery deserved more time than 78 games to turn the Gunners into something credible.

But nobody really expected Villareal to turf Julian Nagelsmann’s team out of the Champions League, even when the “Yellow Submarine” won the first leg of the quarter-final tie by a solitary goal. Now, people are starting to ask if 34 year-old Nagelsmann has arrived at the Allianz Arena too early in his somewhat charmed career. The Bayern top brass will undoubtedly decide whether the gamble has worked. After all, the club may well win their 10th successive Bundesliga title, but that will be the only piece of silverware to be polished in the close season.

Bayern are currently nine points ahead of second-placed Borussia Dortmund, with five games to go. The two sides meet on April 23 at the Allianz. Over the previous nine years, the average margin between Bayern and the runner-up in the Bundesliga has been more than 12 points. This year it may be similar, but Bayern’s goalscoring has declined. The nine-year average is 91, but the past two years have seen Bayern score 100 and 99 respectively.

The team that drew 1-1 with Villareal included four players who are at the veteran stage of their careers, including Manuel Neuer (36), Robert Lewandowski (33) and Thomas Müller (32). This trio has been pivotal in the Bayern story and there are hints that Lewandowski, whose contract runs until June 2023, will not sign a new deal and will move to Barcelona. Müller, who missed a golden chance to clinch the tie in Munich, and Neuer, also come to the end of their current deals in 2023.

The rest of the squad includes a cluster of players – the likes of Pavard, Kimmich, Goretzkam Coman and Gnabry – who are probably at their very peak. It’s only two years since Bayern last won the Champions League, but have this collection got another victory within them given Lewandowski, for example, will need to be replaced soon? The prolific Pole has scored 235 Bundesliga goals in his time with Bayern, representing 33% of their total output.

Bayern have the money to find a replacement and potential heirs to Lewandowski’s throne include Bayer Leverkusen’s Patrik Schick (26), Stuttgart’s Sasa Kalajdzic (24) and Benjamin Sesko (18) of RB Salzburg. Bayern have spent € 747 million over the last 10 years, less than Borussia Dortmund, but the position of the Bundesliga is underlined by the expenditure of Manchester City and Chelsea, whose gross outlay is around double the total spent by Germany’s biggest two clubs. Dortmund have made their name in selling talent, hence their income from transfers over 10 years is dramatically higher than Bayern’s. While their income was higher than their expenditure, Bayern had a net spending deficit of € 376 million. Basically, they don’t need it to be any other way as the club has made a profit for 29 consecutive years.

So it is clear – Bayern can win Bundesliga titles quite comfortably given their financial model and cultural position in Germany, but where does that leave them (indeed, Germany) in Europe? We have seen the power of the Premier League over the past three seasons and the 2021-22 final may well be another all-English affair, but Germany is increasingly becoming a little uncompetitive at the very highest level. This season, three of the four Bundesliga teams went out at the group stage (Leipzig, Dortmund and Wolfsburg). In 2020-21, German interest ended at the quarter-finals. In 2020, Bayern were champions and Leipzig semi-finalists. There has been something of a decline, which may be temporary or may become exacerbated by the Premier’s economic advantages.

Furthermore, Bayern’s dominance in Germany may not necessarily be good for them in terms of making them competitive beyond their domestic league. RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund are their biggest rivals, they have occupied positions two and three in the Bundesliga for four of the last five years, but they are way behind FCB on and off the pitch. As for the rest, few clubs are consistent (or rich) enough to put excessive pressure on Bayern.

Whether Nagelsmann can ride the stormy weather ahead is open to question, although it cannot be denied Bayern have, at times, played superbly in 2021-22. Yet some Bayern fans want him to leave and others don’t always warm to his demeanour. Nagelsmann has said his first campaign has not been a success, but that inevitable Bundesliga title will be his first major trophy. One big landmark for a relatively young man, one small step for his employer.

How Red Bull took flight in football

THE Red Bull football franchise is not popular among certain fan groups, and yet there are far worse activities going on in the game the masses should be worried about. The Austrian drinks company may not sit comfortably among other club ownership models, particular in Germany, where RB Leipzig have upset the 50+1 model, but they should not be roped into the same bracket as clubs that throw cash around signing big name players.

Karan Tejwani’s book, Wings of Change (Pitch Publishing, 2020), provides some insight into the Red Bull world. Anyone visiting Leipzig will be aware of the friction between the followers of traditional clubs like Lokomotive and Chemie and RB, but it is hard not to be impressed by a club that has brought Bundesliga football to the eastern part of Germany once more. Advocates of the 50+1 system have a legitimate point, but the German Bundesliga is somewhat dysfunctional in that Bayern Munich have won the title for nine consecutive seasons.

However, new kids on the block are never welcomed in any walk of life, especially if there is money behind their surge to prominence. What Tejwani’s book reveals, or at least confirms, is that Red Bull’s move into football has a strategy, a long-term approach and has been carefully formulated to cover most bases. In other words, it is about player production and shrewd transfer activity. It’s important to remember, though, the Red Bull clubs have benefitted enormously from the financial backing of Dietrich Mateschitz’s energy drinks company.

The system created by Red Bull has produced a cadre of football coaches and technicians that are influencing European football. For example, Manchester United’s current interim coach, Ralf Rangnick, was director of football at Leipzig and then went on to coach the club. He has left a mark a number of managers around Europe, such as Jesse Marsch (Leeds), Julian Nagelsmann (Bayern), Thomas Tuchel (Chelsea), Marco Rose (Dortmund), Ralph Hassenhüttl (Southampton) and Jürgen Klopp (Liverpool). What’s more, Red Bull clubs have produced or nurtured coaches like Niko Kovač, Oliver Glasner, Adi Hutter and Achim Beierlorzer.

The Red Bull football empire is like a multinational company and that’s why they are so unpopular, even though other German clubs, such as Bayer and Wolfsburg have corporate backing, and three of Bayern’s shareholders are Adidas, Allianz and Audi, all giants of Deutschland AG. Critics would say Leipzig and Salzburg do not operate in the spirit of the environment in which they operate.

This book may not give you the inside track (that is another book to be written at some point), but it does explain why the likes of Leipzig and Salzburg have been so successful, and it is not purely down to money, although hard currency does give you options in life. In a football world where the elite are steam-rollering the rest, the Red Bull project provides an alternative, even if some would claim Leipzig are just a trophy or two away from joining the top bracket. There’s much to admire, but you sense that RB Leipzig will never be accepted in Germany as one of the gang. A worthwhile read and one that can be absorbed fairly quickly.

Schalke’s relegation – a jolt for big club immunity

THE POPULAR view is that Europe’s dominant clubs, those with more money, fans and business acumen than their rivals, will never get relegated again. To some extent, closed leagues, the rationale for the aborted European Super League, have almost been created in some countries in all but name. But how do you define a big club and just how secure are they?

A truly huge footballing institution earns its status based on a number of criteria, including: heritage, financial strength, spectator appeal, cultural position and influence, contribution to the development of the game, contribution to their home country’s national team, and ultimately, success on the field of play.

When these things become disconnected, a big club can suddenly find itself falling into decline. The assumption is that the group of elite clubs are so well insulated that failure is not necessarily relegation, but more likely not qualifying for the Champions League or delivering a trophy-less campaign.

Underachievers

At the end of 2020-21 season, Schalke 04 finished bottom of Germany’s Bundesliga and were relegated. Schalke are regularly named among Europe’s top 20 (KPMG #15, Deloitte #16, Soccerex #97, Brand Finance # 20) clubs and one of the most passionately supported in Germany. They are underachievers, but their position in German football is very significant, even though they have been relegated before. Furthermore, they are one of the biggest clubs not to have won the UEFA Champions League.

Germany’s footballing structure and its conservative ownership rules mean that Bayern Munich aside, the rest of the league is fairly democratic. Hence, in recent years, some of the top names have suffered relegation, including 1FC Köln and Hamburg. Schalke’s collapse has been building over three seasons. In 2018, they were runners-up to Bayern Munich, admittedly by 21 points. But since then, they have finished 14th, 12th and 18th.

Schalke’s relegation is the culmination of a broad range of problems, not least financial issues. The club has a high level of debt – € 200 million – and saw its revenues fall by 31% to € 222.8 million in 2019-20, largely due to a 41% decrease in broadcasting income. The club’s chief financial officer, Peter Peters, departed in June 2020 to add to the gloom.

It’s hard to think of a bigger club going through relegation in recent years, which does feed the theory about the rich having some level of immunity, but is a reminder that if things get out of hand, the mighty can fall.

Fortified

Clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona would seem to be among the most fortified against relegation. In England, the big six clubs would also fall into this category, but Manchester United and City, Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool have all been relegated at some stage in their history. The most recent was Chelsea, who were relegated three times between 1975 and 1988. Tottenham went down in 1977 but bounced back immediately.

Manchester United’s demotion in 1974 is now the stuff that legends are made of: the famous Denis Law backheel (in the colours of Manchester City) that was NOT responsible for sending his old club down, the feral crowd invasion and the club’s bounce-back in 1975. City have been relegated several times in the past 50 years and as recently as 2002, they were in the second tier of English football and even had a year in the third tier in 1998-99.

Taking the formation of the Premier League as the start of recent football history, of the 49 clubs that have played in the top flight, only seven have never been relegated: Arsenal, Brighton, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham. 

Over the past decade, the average time in the lower division for a relegated Premier team has been just over three seasons, which is comparable to Ligue 1’s average. Only Spain’s La Liga among the top five leagues has a higher number – 3.36 seasons. The lowest is Serie A at 2.80 seasons per relegated club and the Bundesliga is not far behind at 2.90. 

Unsurprisingly, since 1992, most of Europe’s blue riband clubs have remained in their top divisions: Real and Barcelona in Spain;  PSG, Lyon and Bordeaux in France; Inter and AC Milan in Italy (Juventus were “relegated” in 2006 as punishment for their part in the Calciopoli scandal); Bayern and Dortmund in Germany; and five of England’s “big six” (Manchester City the exception).

Advantage

What would send a major club down in this age of hubris and elitism? The obvious answer is financial crises, either macro problems or a club losing its benefactor, owner or main sponsor. Over-leveraged clubs are particularly vulnerable when an unexpected event occurs. Given that success is now so tightly bound to financial power, it is perfectly conceivable that we may witness a transformational event that sends a club to the wall or, at best, enforces relegation upon a club. In some ways this is more likely than a conventional relegation created by poor performances on the pitch.

Most football clubs have golden periods but these can end and often they are never reclaimed. Scan the names in England’s Championship and the lower divisions and you will come across former champions Nottingham Forest (also twice European Cup winners), Sunderland, Derby County, Portsmouth, Huddersfield Town and Preston North End. No club has a divine right to enjoy prolonged success. 

Schalke 04, for example, have long been considered to be on the fringe of the elite, thanks to their huge support. Like Tottenham in England, their last league title was over 60 years ago – Schalke fans can barely remember being the top club. They will, of course, be favourites to win promotion, but 2. Bundesliga also includes Werder Bremen, Hamburg SV, Fortuna Düsseldorf and Hannover 96, clubs who may feel they belong in the top flight. They may have a competitive advantage if the crowds return to the Veltins-Arena in Gelsenkirchen. If they don’t or normal services becomes further delayed, then Schalke may find it just that little bit harder to return to the Bundesliga.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: Alamy