It’s a lovely late summer’s day at Sabener Strasse. There are freshly buttered-up pretzels on the table, everyone’s in a good mood, and the only complaint isn’t really a complaint: the sun is shining into Hasan Salihamidzic’s office at Bayern Munich’s training ground, making it a little toasty inside.
That’s the thing about Munich: things can almost be too good. The city — green, safe, wealthy, close to the Alps, the lakes and Italy — has become the most expensive place in Germany in recent years. The more famous of its two football clubs has been grappling with too much (domestic) success of late, winning the Bundesliga 10 times in a row to make the championship feel less like an achievement than a forgone conclusion before a ball is kicked.
A few days before The Athletic sits down with Bayern’s sporting director, his team destroyed Bochum 7-0 and could have just easily scored twice as many, all without their most important goalscorer in modern times (you know who), who has moved on to Barcelona. All of which begs the obvious question: isn’t Salihamidzic worried that his club will eventually outgrow the league?
“I’m not,” he smiles. “I’d be worried if it was the other way around (laughs). We have an interesting league, we have an excellent team. We’ve started really well. I’m not worried that the Bundesliga won’t be interesting — interesting below us (in the table), I hope. That’s the most important thing. I can’t be worried on behalf of others.”
It’s not a surprising view considering the teenage refugee from Bosnia has worked his way up inside a club that treats every poor result as an unforgivable betrayal of its mission statement.
A draw feels like a defeat and a defeat like a disaster, so there’s no choice but to win. Yes, there’s “a danger” to the Bundesliga on a whole if Bayern were to monopolise championships “for another 10 or 15 years” straight Salihamidzic concedes, but he nevertheless hopes that will be the case. “I wouldn’t mind a season where we win everything, a season without stress for me.” The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.
“For us, it’s important that our team is put together to make for attractive football, football that gets people into the stadium,” the 45-year-old adds. “I enjoy it when we’re this good. It’s fun to watch. Our supporters are happy. Of course I hope that the Bundesliga will be competitive at the top but not because we’re losing. It should be because others are winning, too. I’d prefer that.
“When Borussia Dortmund lose at home (to Werder Bremen), Leipzig lose (at Union Berlin) and Leverkusen at home (to Hoffenheim), as they did last weekend (on August 20-21)… that’s not down to us being too strong. If others were to win more, we’d have a title race with two or three teams. It’s their problem if they don’t.”
Easily said when your turnover, approximately €700million (£606m, $709m) this season, is more than 50 per cent higher than Dortmund, your nearest rival, but then again, Bayern have never been ashamed of their self-made riches.
The ultimate smug arrivistes, they weren’t considered important enough for inclusion when the Bundesliga was founded 60 years ago and were close to bankruptcy in the mid-’80s, but have since developed into a consistently profitable, self-sustainable behemoth, whose fortunes are founded upon sporting success rather than the other way around.
Still majority-owned by its members and subject to democratic control, they embody the German football dream but have grown so big that everyone else’s dreams tend to wilt in their shadow.
Can or should they do anything about it? It’s hard to see how. Even a voluntary self-imposed ban on buying the best players and coaches from the teams below them would not alter the equation. They can just go and pick up international stars such as Sadio Mane or Pep Guardiola, and hold on to their talent while everyone is forced to sell their key staff sooner than later.
Salihamdizic cautions that it is still early in the season, just three league games played, and as it soon turns out, he is right: Bayern unexpectedly go on to draw their next three league games after our interview, rendering the Sabener Strasse microclimate considerably less sunny before Barcelona’s visit on Tuesday night.
Getting ready for #FCBFCB 💪#FCBayern #UCL pic.twitter.com/5IloIRDY1A
— FC Bayern Munich (@FCBayernEN) September 12, 2022
Barring an unlikely total breakdown between Julian Nagelsmann and his team, the strength of the squad is such that they should win the league regardless, though, as they indeed did when Niko Kovac was fired in November 2019.
Lifting the European Cup and all the secondary trophies that come with it under Hansi Flick in 2020 saw the club’s biggest itch thoroughly scratched, but an ugly civil war between the coach and the sporting director, two men who would not take “nein” for an answer, led to Flick’s acrimonious departure the following summer.
As the official who had effectively lost Bayern’s most successful coach since Jupp Heynckes, Salihamidzic felt the fallout like no other member of the leadership. There were plenty of ugly insults on social media and many more measured observers simply felt the relative novice at this level lacked the necessary gravitas and nous for his vital role.
An appointee of the old Uli Hoeness/Karl-Heinz Rummenigge duopoly that had led the club in tandem for 20 years, he had often tried to please both sides and failed to develop a sharp profile of his own.
On top of that, the former Bayern and Juventus midfielder was blamed for an uninspired transfer policy during the pandemic when Bayern attempted to supplement their squad’s core unit with relatively cheap imports that mostly flopped.
Lack of depth was one of the most-cited reasons why Bayern had a disappointing season in the Champions League in 2021-22, crashing out to Villarreal in the quarter-finals, but Salihamidzic thinks mentality, not quality, was missing.
“We didn’t have the right attitude going into the Villarreal (away) match,” he says. “Perhaps we felt a little too confident. It was like, ‘We’ll be OK. There’s always the second leg in Munich’.
“But you can’t win a game in the Champions League, nor in the Bundesliga, with 85 per cent. You see now how good our team can be when they’re determined and aggressive from the get-go. We have plenty of footballing quality but forget it — first, you have to fight your way into a match and win the 50-50s. If we do that, we can beat anyone with our quality. Without the basics, no team in the world are any good.”
Buying Mane and handful of other top players (Matthijs de Ligt, Ryan Gravenberch, Noussair Mazraoui and Mathys Tel) wasn’t just the overdue post-COVID strengthening of the squad.
“We couldn’t spend money we didn’t have before. We don’t do crazy things at this club,” he insists. But in a conscious ramping-up of internal competition, Bayern also made their squad smaller, with 20 outfield players, to stoke an intensity that can, in all honesty, be sometimes missing in the league. “We don’t have that sense of there being a fixed first XI,” Salihamdizic says, pointing to the window. “When I look at the training and it’s 10 vs 10, I’m not sure which ones are the starters. That’s cool.”
Unusually for Bayern, this summer’s €137.5m outlay for new recruits was mostly financed by a €104m sale of fringe players — among them, many of the failures of the past two seasons. “For us, it was clear during the pandemic that we would buy players who gave us the option to sell them if it didn’t work out for them,” Salihamidzic says.
“A player like Marc Roca might not have made it here but he’s still a very good and interesting player, a starter for Leeds United, who helps them beat Chelsea. Generating these sales allowed us to get in some top players in and put together a squad that’s deep enough for everyone to play a part.”
The key recruit was Mane, a ready-made star who instantly changed the widespread perception that Bayern had lost their touch in the transfer market and had become less attractive to big names.
His signing hugely strengthened Salihamidzic’s position inside the club in a couple of ways. First, the relatively quick and smooth conclusion of the deal showed him as a shrewd operator, a marked improvement on the messy and unsuccessful pursuit of Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi and the bungled contract extension of David Alaba in the summer of 2021.
Second, signing the Liverpool forward early in the window allowed Salihamidzic to play hardball over the sale of Lewandowski to Barcelona, and it helped him to emancipate himself from his mentor Hoeness.
Whereas the honorary president had publicly urged Bayern to keep the Poland striker against his will if necessary, Salihamidzic knew selling the 34-year-old was the better option in light of dressing-room rumblings and the number of new options in attack for Nagelsmann — provided the Catalans paid up.
“The plan was to make a lot of changes, to leave those two pandemic years behind us, but we had different ways of implementing it. It was obvious that (Lewandowski) was thinking about a move but without having top replacements available, we wouldn’t have agreed (to let him go).”
There had been speculation Bayern were in danger of losing that special family atmosphere that Hoeness had so successfully fostered now Salihamidzic and executive chairman Oliver Kahn are in charge of the club. But according to the man overlooking this summer’s recruitment drive, the Bayern brand has retained its considerable appeal.
De Ligt, for example, “left a lot of money on the table coming to us (from Juventus),” he says. “He wanted to go to Bayern at all costs. He said, ‘I feel at home here’. Three years ago, before he went to Juve, we had talked with him and (his then-agent) Mino Raiola. We kept in touch, we knew each other, and I knew, if it was at all possible at some point, that the player definitely wanted to go to Bayern.
“He couldn’t play football the way he wanted to in Italy. I knew he’d definitely come if we found a solution (with Juventus). That shows you how eager he was to be successful for this club, and how he viewed the chances of doing so.”
Homely vibes aside, players of such quality are less concerned with finances than the team’s competitiveness, Salihamidzic believes, adding that their willingness to move to Bavaria spoke volumes in that regard.
“The core of our group is in their mid-20s. We have a few youngsters and not too many over-30s in the squad,” he says. “We have a very good age structure. That makes us sexy for many of the players who we tried to get on the transfer market. They think in terms of the next three-to-five years. They take a look at the way the squad is put together, in terms of quality, mentality, positional flexibility, and age structure.”
This is longhand for: this team is ready to win now and the near future. The supervisory board evidently agreed with that assessment. They renewed Salihamidzic’s contract until 2026 at the end of August. There’s an argument that he’s been the biggest winner in German football this summer, considering his weak starting position.
The decision to move on Lewandowski might yet come back to haunt him and the club momentarily, but by public consensus, Salihamidzic has done a pretty good job, which has shifted the pressure firmly onto Nagelsmann.
Like every manager since Heynckes before him, the 35-year-old will be judged by a handful of games in the knockout stages in the Champions League.
It will be instructive to see if Salihamidzic’s newfound serenity — “I’ve learned to be a lot calmer now,” he says — will survive until spring time. The weather in Munich might well be a lot more unsettled by then.
(Top photo: Marvin Ibo Guengoer – GES Sportfoto/Getty Images)
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Hasan Salihamidzic interview: ‘Bayern Munich’s squad structure makes us sexy to players’
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