After Wednesday’s 3-0 loss to PSG in the Champions League, Karl Heinz-Rummenigge, Bayern Munich’s executive chairman, summed up the feelings around the club.
“What we saw today was not FC Bayern, I think we can all agree that,” Rummenigge said. "It’s important that we bounce back quickly and demonstrate that we are the team that has been sensational in Europe and [the Bundesliga] in recent years.”
However they end up demonstrating that, it’ll be with a new man in charge. Fewer than 24 hours after Rummenigge sounded the alarm, the club announced that it would be parting ways with manager Carlo Ancelotti after a little more than one full season in charge.
Bayern Munich are in crisis—so long as your definition of “crisis” is “currently sit in third place in the Bundesliga through six games, after winning the league by 15 points last season and also pushing eventual champions Real Madrid to extra time in the quarterfinals of the Champions League.” At a club like Bayern—where the expectation is to win the Bundesliga, challenge for the Champions League, and do it in a way that’s pleasing to the eye—pretty good is never good enough.
And “pretty good” is where Ancelotti got them. They breezed to the league title last season, racking up a lavish plus-67 goal differential en route to their fifth Bundesliga trophy in a row. Their underlying numbers weren’t quite as good—per expected goals, their attack was roughly on par with Borussia Dortmund, their defense was the best in the league, and their expected-goal differential was about 20 goals lower than their actual output—but their performances still more than deserved the Bundesliga title. Meanwhile, in last season’s Champions League, a missed Arturo Vidal penalty and a Javi Martinez red card swung the first leg of their Real Madrid tie right as it seemed like Bayern might run Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. off the field.
They haven’t been at the same level this season, but we’re just six games into the Bundesliga campaign and two into the Champions League run. They’ve so far been eclipsed by Borussia Dortmund, who have allowed only one goal in domestic play and top the German table, while PSG turned Ancelotti’s team into David Moyes–era Manchester United: soft against the counterattack and out of ideas in the final third. PSG’s Kylian Mbappé, who’s still only 18, made Bayern’s armory of star attackers look like an already-lost generation.
The PSG game summed up the core tension between Ancelotti and Bayern: Carlo Ancelotti is not Pep Guardiola. Ancelotti’s predecessor was brought to the club to revolutionize their playing style and widen the team’s imagination of what was possible on a soccer field. Guardiola never won the Champions League, but through a systematized and dominant method with strict positional guidelines, he accomplished both of those goals. You need only a couple of fingers to count the number of games in which Guardiola’s Bayern were outplayed during his three years in Germany.
Bayern chose Guardiola’s successor by way of some conventional managerial wisdom: Once your players tire of a demanding micromanager, replace him with a player’s coach. Ancelotti’s training sessions were nowhere near as intense as Pep’s—no one’s are—and the team’s formation and strategy weren’t as structured—no one’s is. This allowed a creative and improvisational midfielder like Thiago to flourish, but it also saw club superstars like Thomas Muller and David Alaba fail to hit the same heights they reached under Guardiola.
Eventually, according to journalist Raphael Honigstein, the players came to miss Guardiola's importunate instruction:
After the PSG game, Arjen Robben, who was an unused sub in Paris, was asked if he and his teammates were still behind their manager. He declined to answer.
Ancelotti is a managerial legend: He’s won titles in every major European league other than Spain, and to make up for that, he won the Champions League with Real Madrid. Historically, he’s been as good as anyone at taking a group of expensive superstars and figuring out how to get them to work together. In many ways, he’s a pre-Twitter Phil Jackson of the soccer world. But if you’re a “player’s coach” and the players stop wanting to play for you, then it’s hard to see a way back.
He has enjoyed a superb career, managing the biggest stars (and egos!) in the game - but has Carlo Ancelotti won less than he should? pic.twitter.com/JolMiF98hA— 21st Club (@21stClub) September 28, 2017
As for Bayern, they’ll temporarily replace Ancelotti with Willy Sangol, former Bayern player and assistant coach. Long term, maybe Sangol gets the job if Bayern bounce back to the top of the league and make a run in Europe, but it seems more likely that it will go to Ringer favorite Julian Nagelsmann, the millennial, tunic-wearing manager at Hoffenheim. Even if Ancelotti had lasted the whole season, it looked like even odds that Nagelsmann would take over this summer. He’d be a good choice for the position—but of course, Bayern are going to need him to be more than that.