There was a time when Bayern Munich lived up to the very worst connotations of their “FC Hollywood” nickname – a club bloated by their wealth and status as the most successful team in German football but never quite as dominant or sophisticated as their advantages suggest they should have been.
In the past, they leaned a little too easily on their resources, splurging money inefficiently on glamour signings and the best players of domestic rivals, to defang the competition as much as enhance their own squad, instead of managing smart and thinking to the long-term. Big reputations came and went, in the dug out and in the dressing room, and the Bavarians remained stuck as regular winners in Germany but a secondary power against their continental rivals. Not anymore.
Bayern now stand as arguably the best run of all of Europe’s most elite clubs. They boast one of the best squads in world football, a first-team comparable to almost any competitor, and play a style of football that has won them new fans around the world. No longer universally despised as privileged, unworthy champions at home, they have even earned the respect of some rival fans in Germany. They no longer stumble to success but look to dominate every aspect of the game, on the field and off.
By comparison, Manchester United are the sick man of European football – a side with an almost limitless pool of resources of their own but poorly run and falling short of their own expectations. Their success away from the pitch, tying up numerous commercial partners, has been cited as a cause for the disarray in the first-team, but like Bayern, United are as much a corporate entities these as they are a football club. The difference is that the business-like Bavarians get things done while the Glazers and their advisers dither, and not just when it comes to transfers.
Renato Sanches and Mats Hummels aren’t the first players that the red half of Manchester have missed out on to the German champions. Thiago Alcantara switched to the Allianz Arena over Old Trafford in 2013, and last summer Arturo Vidal – a midfielder believed to be another target from 2013 – was snapped up by Bayern with minimal fuss. They even beat the former Premier League winners to the appointment of Pep Guardiola as manager despite Sir Alex Ferguson meeting with the Spaniard over dinner during his post-Barcelona sabbatical in New York.
Unless United get themselves organised, these won’t be the last names they’ll miss out on to the Bundesliga giants, but what lessons can be learned from how Bayern Munich go about their business and what needs to change for Old Trafford to become a seat of power in European football once again?
1. Sharper decision making
Bayern’s greatest strength as an organisation is perhaps the clarity and speed at which they make decision and act upon them.
While United have become a club that squabbles over internal politics, the decision-making process is clear in Munich. Everyone knows where they stand within the club’s hierarchy, at least in comparison to the free-for-all in Manchester. Bayern’s people know what needs to be done and get on with it.
In recent years, disagreements and competing agendas have seen other transfer targets besides Renato Sanches fall by the wayside, and into the clutches of rival suitors. Moves for Thiago Alcantara, Toni Kroos and Cesc Fabregas were all held up and ultimately derailed by different decision-makers failing to find common ground.
The roles and remits of those within the Bayern hierarchy are clearly defined – they have a sporting director, a chief executive and other specific positions that work in sync.
United’s set-up is far more muddled. Ed Woodward’s official title is executive vice-chairman – a label that hints at the unnecessary obfuscation that gets in the way at Old Trafford.
2. A proper structure
It was easy for United to operate in sharp focus without the sort of rigid structure behind the scenes Bayern employ during the days of Sir Alex Ferguson’s role as manager. He didn’t just improve the performance of players on the pitch but also the organisation that revolved around him.
After all, he was more than just a football manager. Ferguson oversaw the backroom staff, was effectively a director of football, a member of the board and was an all-rounder who provided leadership on non-commercial issues, making all the important football decisions and managing more than just his coaching team.
His most important hires were often his assistant managers such as Brian Kidd, Steve McClaren, Carlos Quieroz and Rene Meulensteen who took the lead on training while the gaffer ensured all the apparatus of the club kept spinning. Ferguson was irreplaceable. Removing him from the equation left a void that cannot be easily filled. United look lost on almost all levels without him.
Woodward’s role – a position of compromise wedged between the commercial and football agendas of the club – hasn’t helped to remove the confusion. He has been a corporate dogsbody, parachuted in to work as acting head of the academy, the de facto director football and a public fire fighter for the Glazers in every department.
The days of individuals doing odd jobs, and allowing important responsibilities to fall into the laps of the wrong people, have to come to an end. It’s not a smart way to run any large-scale organisation. Like Bayern, United would greatly benefit from a simplified and more streamlined power structure to formalise how things should work, and who does what, when it comes to running the club and making decisions.
3. Sign a director of football
One key role that is still to be properly created and filled at Old Trafford is that of a director of football.
Although the club are believed to be in the process of recruiting an experienced specialist to head up their transfer strategy and oversee the identification of talent, the development of the squad and other matters relating to football beyond the first-team, it’s an appointment that has been required for longer than it has been considered.
The apparent lack of awareness over the need and importance of having someone in that position until very recently doesn’t speak well of the United board’s understanding of their own situation and problems. Whereas Bayern can count sporting director Matthias Sammer as a member of their all-powerful executive board, the board of directors at Old Trafford only features members of the Glazer family and their associates.
Sir Bobby Charlton and Sir Alex Ferguson many sit on a secondary advisory board but that body has no real power can be overruled from above.
As Squawka’s chief reporter Greg Stobart explained in his podcast on the club’s transfer plans this summer, there is no buffer between the marketing and commercial agendas at the club and football matters, with a lack of joined-up thinking over the transfer strategy and someone to push for what’s best for the squad rather than the share price.
4. Ex-players in power
As with the tactics and formations employed by Louis van Gaal on the pitch, a well thought-out structure still needs the right people deployed in the right positions.
United can count upon directors from the worlds of accountancy, finance and business, such as Richard Arnold and Woodward, but at Bayern former players are also involved in the running of the club, and not just the football team.
Their former star striker, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, is chairman of the executive board. Sporting director Sammer is an ex-international for Germany who won the Champions League with Borussia Dortmund in 1997. He sits next to Pep Guardiola in the dugout and alongside Rummenigge on the executive board – an actual link between the boardroom and the dressing room.
Uli Hoeness, another former Bayern player, rose to become the club’s general manager after retiring as a player, greatly expanding their commercial activities and making them one of the wealthiest sides in world football. After serving time in prison for tax evasion, he is back at the Allianz Arena covering for Sammer who has taken time out to care for his sick son.
The Bavarians also count on plenty of board members and directors with backgrounds outside of the game too, but it’s a blend of experiences from within football and other fields that is so valuable.
While United may employ former players in ambassadorial roles, Bayern’s ambassadors do more than just make appearances at brand events and photo opportunities. Paul Brietner, who was a European Cup-winner with the Bavarians in 1974, is trusted to advise the club’s board members as well as glad-handing sponsors.
Sir Bobby Charlton can’t do it all by himself in the boardroom. He is 78, out-numbered by the other executives and directors, and lacks the power to actually make decisions or steer club policy directly. Bayern’s elder statesman, Franz Beckenbauer, is no longer in a position of power in Munich. He doesn’t have to be. A new generation are running the club, with more experience of the modern game – it’s hard to see where this fresh blood will come from at Old Trafford.
United’s Champions League-winning goalkeeper Edwin Van der Sar has left to become marketing director at Ajax, another of his former clubs, and the likes of Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville have departed for the worlds of punditry. Why isn’t there more interest in retaining the experience of former champions in roles that can tie the football and commercial activities of the club together?
Ex-United captain Bryan Robson is used as a face for corporate activities abroad but his experience as a player and manager could be valuable within the corridors of power. In Europe, it’s often ex-players and former managers who go on to become directors of football – a role the club desperately need to fill with the right person, not just another person from the same professions as the Glazer’s other seniors appointments.
Similarly, Zinedine Zidane picked up the phone to convince Raphael Varane to move to Real Madrid over United in 20111. Imagine what a former icon such as Eric Cantona could do for his old team. Whether it would interest him or not, has he even been asked?
Bayern make the most of their resources, and not just when it comes to the money flowing into the club. They also keep hold of their talent and put it to good use off the pitch. English football as a whole struggles to find roles for former players beyond TV analysis and coaching jobs, but that shouldn’t stop Manchester United gaining an edge that other Premier League sides appear happy to overlook.
5. Transfer business, not transfer rumours
In the space of one lunch hour on May 10th, 2016, Bayern announced the signing of Renato Sanches and Mats Hummels for the 2016/17 season. Although there had been talk of some interest from the club regarding both players, no one expected the deals to be completed and made public so quickly and suddenly.
They have become specialists at shocking the world and the transfer market with moves that barely register on the rumour mill radar. With minimal fuss, they go about their business, quietly and deliberately. Mario Gotze was wrapped up mid-season in 2013. Deals for Mehdi Benatia, Douglas Costa and Arturo Vidal almost happened in the blink of an eye.
United, on the other hand, are scatter gun at best, regularly missing out on targets or becoming used by agents and players to get a better deal from their current employers, as was the case with Sergio Ramos at Real Madrid last summer.
In 2013, during the reign of David Moyes, they missed out on Ander Herrera due to the complexities of the release fee clause Athletic Club had inserted into the midfielder’s contract. When Bayern made their move for Javi Martinez in 2012, they cut through the legalities with a well-considered plan and the cash to grease over any wrinkles in order to make sure the deal was done.
United never seem so certain, chasing one name only to end up with an entirely different kind of player instead, and the priorities of the boardroom don’t always match up with the manager. Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao were high-profile capture driven by Ed Woodward for marketing and commercial reasons as much as their quality as footballers. Neither ever seemed a good fit for the philosophy of Louis van Gaal, while more superstars signings such as Gareth Bale and Neymar remain part of the ambitions for some factions in the boardroom.
Bayern know what they want, meet the right people, put down the money and make sure their business is done quickly and professionally. United are linked with hundreds of targets every year and yet struggle to close deals, either quibbling over pennies or missing out after stringing negotiations on for a little too long. It’s never made as simple as it should be.
6. Planning for their next managers
The extreme competence shown by Bayern in the transfer market is reflected in how they identify and appoint their managers too.
While United have backed themselves into a corner this year, and will need to make an 11th hour decision over whether to stick with Louis van Gaal or twist with Jose Mourinho for next season, the Bavarians ensured they were front of the queue for Pep Guardiola in 2013. This season they signed up Carlo Ancelotti to succeed the Spaniard even before his move to Manchester City had been confirmed.
Van Gaal was manager at the Allianz Arena between 2011 and 2012, and while his reign came to a premature ending in Munich, due in part to many of the same issues currently undermining his time at United, he was always brought in as part of a more long-sighted process to modernise the club and their football. Under Jupp Heynckes, Bayern built upon his foundations to become treble-winners.
These were not ad hoc recruitment decisions – it was all part of a plan. From David Moyes to Van Gaal, United’s succession strategy has too often seemed opportunistic or nepotistic rather than thought-out or properly considered.
7. A philosophy that’s more than just jargon
Eyes still roll when talk turns to a football team’s “philosophy” but while some onlookers may scoff at the apparent pretentiousness of the idea, clubs like Bayern inform everything they do by working to an identity and an established set of principles rather than follow fashion. Again, it’s all fairly simple. Everyone is able to understand the values and buy into them.
It was often said that Ferguson managed United as if he would be in charge for years to come. With their philosophy as a reference, it’s not just the manager who works with a vision and a plan for the future in mind. It creates continuity. People know where they stand and what needs to be done.
By contrast, United appear riddled with internal conflicts, competing priorities, a lack of proper forward planning or the sort of knowledge, leadership or structure to fall back on when the club takes a wrong turn. While it’s true they are a side that had an identity and their own philosophy long before Van Gaal’s arrival, unfortunately it appears the real secrets and details existed in Ferguson’s head, rather than as a recipe of principles that can be easily followed, as is the case at Bayern, and clubs like Barcelona, Ajax and Juventus.