Come the end of this season, Bayern Munich will be in need of a fresh start. That will remain true even if they were to win the Bundesliga and the DFB Pokal.
Five of their key players are aged 30 or over – including chief attacking threat Arjen Robben and captain Philipp Lahm – and there is a sense of things going stale.
Carlo Ancelotti was supposed to give Bayern a fresh start and a fresh perspective following the intense three years the squad experienced under Pep Guardiola. However, Ancelotti’s renowned man-management skills – which have pleased characters as diverse as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cristiano Ronaldo – have not been enough to invigorate Bayern this season so far.
They are top of the league and face Arsenal in the Champions League last 16 on Wednesday but have not cut the same relentlessly dominant figure of seasons gone by. It is natural that such a successful team might experience a drop in intensity – even psychologically – and a wholesale shake-up might be required to make Bayern hungry again.
The struggle to adapt from Guardiola’s plans to Ancelotti’s has been no more apparent than in Thomas Muller. Bayern chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge revealed earlier this season that Manchester United made a world-record bid of €100m for Muller during the summer of 2015. The ex-Germany international warned that the Bundesliga could be “emptied out” by English cash and the club stood resistant to the bid. The truth of the matter is that Muller looks a long way from a €100m player right now.
He may have had the odd conflict here and there with Guardiola – over tactics and his role in the team – but there can be no dispute that the Catalan got more out of Muller than Ancelotti is currently getting.
At times this season – and especially since the turn of the year – Muller has appeared out of sorts and unsure of his role in the team. A lot of that has to do with Ancelotti’s failure to impose any sort of collective identity on this team. Bayern are reliant on moments of magic – from a Robben or a Robert Lewandowski – to get themselves ahead or out of trouble.
Whatever you thought about Guardiola’s Bayern – boring or not – it was clear that in place was a clear, coherent structure. They dominated games as a team; not only through the strength of their individual talent. Here, Muller was key.
He admitted earlier this month that when Bayern aren’t playing well he can’t play well. He needs a well-drilled, efficient team around him in order to bring out his best. That is not to excuse his own poor play.
Muller has not performed at the levels expected of him since last spring. Missing the key penalty against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League semi-final was a crucial moment for the 27-year-old and for Bayern as a whole. He carried that poor form into the European Championship – where he didn’t score and became the first German since Uli Stielike at the 1982 World Cup to miss a penalty in an international shoot-out.
To date he’s only scored one Bundesliga goal in 16 outings and boasts the worst shot conversion rate in the league at under 4 per cent. He was 999 minutes without a league goal before netting against Wolfsburg in December.
Despite his travails, there is no suggestion than Muller is unhappy in Munich nor is he thought to be seeking a fresh challenge at this stage. Ancelotti might not be pleased with Muller’s output either, but he remains happy with his input. He regards Muller as a team player above all and when Bayern click he should come good.
We have been saying that all season long, however, and maybe this is one of those campaigns Bayern have to struggle through – whether they win or lose. The time for renewal will come in summer and there probably will not be any €100m bids from the Premier League for Muller. Whatever happens, a fully functioning Muller is crucial to a fully functioning Bayern, and this term under Ancelotti is proving the opposite to be true too.