The arrival of Louis Van Gaal at Bayern Munich has provided an intriguing twist to the bnew season in Germany.
By Nick Bidwell
In a summer when many of the Bundesliga’s leading lights have opted for a change of coach, what happens pre-season might go a long way to determining the identity of the next champions.
For incoming bosses such as Louis Van Gaal (Bayern Munich), Felix Magath (Schalke), Armin Veh (Wolfsburg), Bruno Labbadia (Hamburg) and Jupp Heynckes (Leverkusen) time is uncomfortably tight. With just five or six weeks to find their bearings, lay down the law, sift the playing gold from the base metal and work on tactical variations, it is no job for the faint-hearted.
Each of these sideline supremos has his priority of priorities. The veteran Heynckes, previously at the helm of, among others, Bayern and Real Madrid, has to find a way to add consistency to a talented, but fitful, young Leverkusen side. After a turbulent off-season at Hamburg – marked by coach Martin Jol and technical director Dietmar Beiersdorfer’s resignations – Labbadia yearns for stability but needs a good start to quell fans’ unrest.
As for Magath, who sensationally led Wolfsburg to their first league title in May, he will aim to re-acquaint the notoriously self-absorbed figures in the Schalke dressing room with the concept of “team first”. Magath has far less money available to him than at Wolfsburg as Schalke are heavily in debt and barely have a transfer budget worthy of the name. But if anyone can work a miracle in the Ruhr it is “Felix Almighty”, a man unashamed to rule by fear.
New Wolfsburg coach Veh is under no illusion how difficult it will be to keep the VW-backed club on top. He guided Stuttgart to a surprise title win in 2007, only for it to turn sour very quickly indeed. Although history tells us that provincial title winners tend to fade away as quickly as they rise, Veh has good cause to think Wolfsburg might be the exception to the rule.
Magath’s intelligently-assembled squad remain intact and all those who bemoan player power must have been heartened by Wolfsburg’s refusal to play ball when Milan made a £30m offer for Bosnia striker Edin Dzeko. The latter was keen to go, but was told in no uncertain terms that he would have to respect his contract. Unusually – and it’s worth underlining – Dzeko accepted the decision with good grace.
Returning Bayern to their default position on top of the Bundesliga is the first and last item on Van Gaal’s agenda. The appointment of the ex-Ajax, Barcelona, AZ Alkmaar and Holland boss was a logical one. Under his predecessor Jurgen Klinsmann, Bayern were, for the most part, an organisational and tactical shambles. In contrast, the Dutchman is well known for producing finely tuned teams, characterised by disciplined shape and set patterns of play.
But Van Gaal teams are not created overnight. They require a lot of time and effort on the training ground, time which Bayern may not have.
And who to pick? Not only has Van Gaal inherited a extended troupe of internationals, the Bayern remedy after any disappointing season has always been to splash the cash, and this summer they have spent £50m on Stuttgart striker Mario Gomez, Ukraine defensive midfielder Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, Croat wide man Danijel Pranjic and Dutch defender Edson Braafheid, not to mention the high wages of a pair of Bosman frees: Croatia striker Ivica Olic and Gladbach playmaker Alex Baumjohann.
First-team berths will not come cheap and it will be fascinating to see how the redundant react. Van Gaal’s grasp of man-management will definitely be tested. He has a reputation for preferring youngsters to star names – “He only wants robots who obey him,“ Johan Cruyff scathingly once said – and one commodity Bayern are not short of is A-listers with loud, militant voices.
Bundesliga attendances have boomed in the new millennium, with average gates nearly 42,000 last term, and one reason is the sheer unpredictability of the elite. Every other year the title race goes to the wire and last season no fewer than six teams were involved in the shake-up.
Over the next nine months the field of championship hopefuls could conceivably be wider still. Bremen will be itching to bounce back strongly after a mediocre last term; Hoffenheim, whose coach Ralf Rangnick aims to disprove the theory that the longer he stays at a club the worse results get, have bought well in Argentinian midfielder Franco Zuculini and Brazilian striker Maicosuel; while Hertha Berlin’s Lucien Favre is a past master at turning supposed off-the-rack players into a haute couture team.
Under the innovative aegis of Jurgen Klopp, Dortmund have taken a great leap forward, while Stuttgart – provided they can adequately replace Gomez – should have their sights trained on the summit too. Even Koln, only mid-table last term, fancy their chances, their ambition heightened by prodigal son Lukas Podolski’s return.
Bayern, vastly superior to the rest in economic power and talent, will always be favourites. But if the Bavarians slip – and they are not infallible – expect a stampede to jump into the breach.