Bayern Munich have earned a lot of nicknames over the years. Supporters like to call their club Stern des Südens ("star of the south"), as in their minds Bayern Munich represent the south of Germany. In Spain, Bayern are fearfully known as La Bestia Negra ("the black beast"). In the '90s, reporters started using a different nickname: FC Hollywood. In an attempt to describe the drama, the huge egos involved in the club and the frequent front-page coverage in the tabloids, the reference to Tinseltown didn't seem too far-fetched, especially because Hollywood has been able to produce blockbuster movies, despite all the off-script drama.
In recent days, Bayern have adopted that FC Hollywood moniker once again.
On Monday, the club announced the firing of goalkeeper coach Toni Tapalovic. He was the confidant of captain Manuel Neuer, who demanded that Tapalovic stay after manager Julian Nagelsmann had joined Bayern in 2021 with the idea of bringing in a new goalkeeper coach who would better fit his style of training. Specifically, he had Frederik Gossling, who served as goalkeeper coach under Nagelsmann at RB Leipzig, in mind. A candidate to replace Tapalovic is reported to be Michael Rechner, whom Nagelsmann knows from his time at TSG Hoffenheim.
Sources close to the Bayern team tell ESPN that, while Neuer has been captain since 2017, he is not necessarily the first player Nagelsmann consults about pivotal questions. That designation belongs to Joshua Kimmich, the 27-year-old midfielder who plays a central role in Nagelsmann's tactical setup. Neuer is not Nagelsmann's favourite, but he would not deny the quality of the Germany No. 1. Neuer remained untouched in his position until he broke his right leg in a skiing accident shortly after the World Cup.
Juggling goalkeepers past, present and future
According to sources, Bayern's higher-ups were angry upon receiving news of Neuer's accident, fearing that their season could be in jeopardy considering there were so few options in the transfer market. Tapalovic was not involved in the search for a replacement, which could be interpreted as the first sign that his days were numbered.
Neuer suffered fractures to both the fibula and tibia, and while he wants to be back in June, it could take much longer for bones and nerves to heal and to rebuild strength in his right leg, which he is unable to move at present. There are some within the club who believe that Neuer will not be ready for the start of the 2023-24 season. As he turns 37 in March, the passing-of-the-torch moment might have just happened, because Bayern decided against elevating backup goalkeeper Sven Ulreich and instead signed Yann Sommer from Borussia Monchengladbach.
While Bayern opted to go after the best goalkeeper available in January transfer window, diving into difficult negotiations with Monchengladbach in order to strike a deal before the first matchday, Alexander Nubel -- the well-regarded Bayern keeper on loan at AS Monaco and rumoured to be an option to replace Neuer, although the Ligue 1 outfit were never ready to agree to his recall -- said that no one from the Bavarians' coaching staff had communicated with him since his move to Monaco in July 2021. Nagelsmann confirmed that he had not talked to Nubel, but the blame was put on Tapalovic, who was promptly let go.
"Differences, particularly over the way we worked together, have now led to us going our separate ways," board director of sport Hasan Salihamidzic stated in a strikingly short news release on Monday. The firing of Tapalovic, who was not only Neuer's closest confidant at Bayern but is also a very good friend and was even the best man at his wedding, could be the beginning of the end of Neuer's tenure as captain.
Sommer arrived at the club with the promise that he has a shot at keeping the No. 1 spot beyond Neuer's return. Bayern's board has also approached Neuer to talk about a possible pay cut for the duration of his recovery. The veteran has a clause in his contract that ensures him full pay in the case of an injury for four months instead of the six weeks mandated by German labour laws. Those negotiations could widen the rift between Neuer and club.
Recovering from the World Cup hangover
In the meantime, Nagelsmann will continue to have Kimmich as his first point of communication within the squad, but the midfielder is not at his best at the moment, as he showed in the Bundesliga's first game back after the World Cup against Leipzig. Kimmich stood beside himself for stretches of the match and committed too many mistakes for a player so pivotal to the team's tactical structure.
His underperformance could be in part a consequence of Germany's early World Cup exit. Kimmich was among the players who mentally suffered the most from being eliminated in the group stage for the second tournament in a row.
"We travel home. Thus, I am afraid that I will fall into a hole," he said after the final game. "For me, this is the most difficult day of my career."
While other Germany internationals seemed to become extra motivated by the group stage elimination, Kimmich may still carrying baggage with him.
Broadly speaking, the World Cup did not treat Bayern well.
There were more injuries besides Neuer's. Sadio Mane missed the chance to represent Senegal because of an inflamed head of the fibula, Lucas Hernandez tore an ACL in Qatar and reportedly considered retirement for some time, and Noussair Mazraoui has suffered from pericarditis linked to a COVID infection he had during the World Cup. On top of all that, there was disappointment among the Germany internationals and broken dreams among the French contingent who lost to Argentina in the final.
An underwhelming return to action
Of the 23 players in Bayern's Bundesliga squad, 16 competed at the World Cup. Both of the starting XIs Nagelsmann fielded in Bayern's two games since returning to action have been made up entirely of players who featured in Qatar.
The manager opted for a surprisingly demanding programme during his team's training camp in Qatar in early January, with up to three sessions per day. Players were put to their limits during that camp, which might pay off down the road but could have increased the risk of injuries, especially considering that Bayern have a small squad compared to their competition in the Champions League.
The club decided to schedule only one friendly before the restart, which occurred the day after a tired team returned from Qatar. That game against FC Salzburg seemed to get out of hand at times, because a motivated Austrian side who intended to hold their own against the powerhouse from across the border turned it into a physical affair. Nagelsmann subbed off most of his star players around the hour mark to keep from suffering any more injuries.
One week later, Bayern played Leipzig in their first competitive game of 2023, and did so rather underwhelmingly. Leipzig, arguably Bayern's most serious challenger for the Bundesliga title, were able to recover from conceding in the final moments of the first half and not only equalised but dominated stretches of the second half.
The showing at home against FC Cologne on Tuesday did not bring about much improvement. Cologne scored early and, while they defended for the most part after that, they had several opportunities to add a second and close out the game. A late screamer by Kimmich rescued a point for Bayern, but it cannot change the impression of a bumpy start to the second half of the season.
The drama continues
Nagelsmann won't be under meaningful pressure unless Bayern suddenly fall out of the title picture. His real test will be the upcoming Champions League games against Paris Saint-Germain, because his bosses expect a better outcome than last year's quarterfinal elimination at the hands of Villarreal.
If luck is on Bayern's side, several players will improve their form by their round-of-16 first leg on Feb. 14, Mane will have regained competitive fitness and the training ground and headquarters will have far fewer distractions. However, if recent months have taught us anything, there is rarely a time of silence in this club. Whether it's the board getting angry about Leon Goretzka publicly criticising sponsor Qatar, benchwarmers such as Ryan Gravenberch being noticeably unhappy about their status in the team or Serge Gnabry inadvisably spending his off day at Paris Fashion Week, there is always something going on.
The latest headline-grabbing controversy was Gnabry's trip to Paris on Sunday in between the games against Leipzig and Cologne. Nagelsmann voiced his disapproval on Monday but still chose to pick Gnabry for the starting XI against Cologne on Tuesday night. Gnabry was subbed off at half-time following a frantic performance and was summoned to meet with Salihamidzic the following day.
"This is amateurish. That is exactly what I don't like," Salihamidzic commented on Gnabry's extracurricular activity. "It is not Bayern Munich-like to hang out somewhere on your off day."
The Paris Fashion Week is certainly not Bayern Munich-like, but it does have plenty of connections to Hollywood.