When a group of players allow a team to be successful, it’s priceless. Changing the guard, though, as Julian Nagelsmann is finding at Bayern Munich, can be fraught. It’s a task that may define him.
The end can be sudden. A serious injury, a dramatic dip in form, a lucrative move to a less demanding competition. But, even if it’s slower, the twilight of an athlete’s career is difficult for both the person and the organization they represent. When a group of decorated players reach that stage together, the challenge can be enormous and the solutions opaque.
It’s what happened to the men’s German national football team in the last few years. And it looks to be what’s happening to Bayern Munich right now. With Robert Lewandowski sold to Barcelona, captain Manuel Neuer at loggerheads with the club after breaking his leg skiing and Thomas Müller’s role diminished, coach Julian Nagelsmann is in the midst of a generational overhaul.
“All great teams consist of players who recognize that as great as they might be, they’re part of something that’s bigger. And so the decisions that you make are in line with your commitment to the team. So there are things you wouldn’t do, such as going skiing,” Fergus Connolly told DW.
Connolly has coached at elite teams across several sports including Liverpool FC, the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL, the Welsh national rugby team and teams in the Australian Football League (Aussie Rules). Similar scenarios to that in Bavaria can apply in different sporting contexts, he said.
“Really good coaches can start to spot those players starting to put their own needs and desires in front of the team because they see it on the training ground beforehand,” he added. “It could be really small things, but they start to see those add up. That’s when they know it’s time to develop the replacement.”
Löw slow to act with Germany stars
Elite level sportspeople require innate belief in their abilities in order to make it to the top. So, for them, recognizing decline can be difficult, if not impossible. The issues are exacerbated when a group of players of a similar age have success together but also decline at similar times.
Former coach Joachim Löw was slow to recognize that his team of World Cup winners from 2014 needed refreshing. He then axed several senior players, including Müller, after 2018, only to re-open the door again for last year’s tournament. He, and his team, paid the price for that indecision with successive group-stage exits at the last two World Cups and a lack of any clear succession plan.
“It works both ways,” said Connolly. “Players become attached to a team and to a coach, and coaches also become attached to players. They get to know them, they do care for them. So it’s a difficult decision to make.”
In such circumstances, a change at the top can make moving on from a so-called golden generation easier.
“I’ve been in conversations with coaches who have just been hired, and need to have tough conversations about getting rid of a player before they even start, because it will be more difficult to do later. I’ve even seen coaches use the injury of senior players as that glimmer of that moment they were waiting for. They’ve got his understudy ready to go, primed, and then they use that to push forward their replacement.”
Sports psychologist Dan Abrahams, who has also worked with numerous high level athletes and clubs, believes that a generational change in an organization has to be treated carefully.
“We have to appreciate that these are players careers,” Abrahams told DW.
“If they’ve been in a successful team, they will feel a sense of belonging to the team that they’ve been associated with and feel they belong to a social group. If that group of players have been successful, then of course they’re going to be quite protective of that. Then if somebody from the outside comes in and there is a feeling that this person, or these people, want to disband this force, that can that can cause stress responses, anxiety, anger and frustration.”
On that human level, it’s easy to see why great teams, such as 2020 treble winners Bayern, can struggle with such change. Whatever the sport and whatever the team, those in charge must decide whether changing leadership structures among the players (Neuer), transferring certain senior players out (Lewandowski) or simply reducing their roles (Müller) is the best way to deal with sporting decline.
Threat from younger generation
Abrahams says there are ways to make it easier for those players. “You’ve always got to give them plausible, honest answers to questions about their status at the club and also try to lessen the threat to them.”
That threat often comes in the form of younger players, or replacements lined up from outside the organization. The competitive nature of most top-level sportspeople means few will help those who will eventually replace them, even if it would be to the benefit of their team, said Connolly. But he added that those who do have great value to a coach, particularly if they buy in to the culture he or she is trying to create.
“If you’re not on the bus, you’re not in the cafeteria, or you’re not at training, you don’t know who’s actively contributing, and then who might be undermining the culture,” Connolly said. “And sometimes that’s where a coach’s decision might be difficult to understand. But a coach has a lot more to think about than just the game.”
That much is clear. The problem of replacing a cluster of senior players without upsetting a successful side is solvable but requires coaches and organizational leaders to lean much more on empathy and communication than tactics or strategy. Nagelsmann picked up on this at the start of the season, saying he wanted to: “be a bit less focused on tactics, more on leadership.”
It hasn’t always gone entirely to plan just yet. How Nagelsmann handles the issues around Neuer and other senior players will have an impact that stretches beyond the immediate and the pitch.
Author: Matt Pearson