Bayern Munich at a crossroads and for Nagelsmann the scrutiny starts now

Defeat to Spanish upstarts Villarreal in the Champions League leaves the coach with some hard work ahead

Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Even ‘Radio Muller’ went silent. When Thomas Muller, nicknamed ‘Radio’ for his chatterbox tendency, delivers a post-match verdict of “I don’t know what I should say,” it is a sure sign Bayern Munich have been thoroughly stunned.

Their exit from the Champions League on Tuesday, sealed by a late Villarreal equaliser in the Germany leg of a tie the Spanish upstarts led 1-0 after the first 90 minutes, marks a second season in succession that the Bundesliga champions have not made the competition’s semi-finals.

For almost any other club, that would not sound instantly like failure. For a Bayern who have won the competition twice in the last decade and only twice fell shy of the semis in the nine years between 2012 and 2020, it is interpreted as a significant setback.

They will most likely win a 10th successive Bundesliga this month or next, but after nine on the trot, domestic domination can feel routine. They are not in contention for the German Cup this season, either, having lost to Borussia Monchegladbach by a startling 5-0 in the second round.

Their head coach, 34-year-old Julian Nagelsmann, was among several who missed that game because of Covid-19 infections. But the exit from the European Cup puts him very much front-and-centre of the scrutiny Bayern are now under - from the club’s huge fan-base, from the boardroom, and even from within the dressing-room, where there is a deep and talented enough squad to expect to overcome mid-budget, provincial Villarreal.

The first criticism of Nagelsmann after the final whistle at the Allianz, where home supporters were still digesting Samuel Chukeueze’s 88th-minute breakaway goal for 1-1 on the night, came from the opposition. Pointedly, Villarreal’s playmaker Dani Parejo explained how the underdogs had been motivated by Nagelsmann’s words when Bayern drew Villarreal - rather than Real Madrid, say, or a Premier League club - as last-eight opponents.

“When the draw took place and they got Villarreal,” said Parejo, still catching his breath, “the Bayern head coach - who I don’t know - showed a lack of respect for us, and for football, because he wanted to ‘settle the tie in the first leg’.” Parejo added a Spanish phrase - “when you spit in the air, there’s a good chance it will land on you” - to make his point.

Nagelsmann was not alone for having greeted with glee a contest with the team who sit seventh in La Liga. Hasan Salihamidzic, the club’s sporting director also let himself be interviewed smiling approvingly at the prospect of contesting a semi-final place with "manageable" Villarreal.

Fact is, Bayern proved to be the manageable threat, and for all their undoubted potency - Robert Lewandowski is again going to end a season with closer to 50 goals than 40; his team put seven past RB Salzburg in the home leg of their last-16 tie - accumulated few clear-cut chances against a rigorous, superbly choreographed Villarreal.

“We had 68 per cent possession,” said Nagelsmann. “If they are defending with eight players back in their own penalty area, it’s hard. The [Chukwueze] goal came straight from their regaining the ball, typical of the Spanish approach and the kind of thing southern [European] teams do.” Perhaps with Parejo’s sensitivities in mind, Nagelsmann added. “I’m sorry if I am saying something inappropriate.”

If Nagelsmann meant Bayern’s ideal of fluent keep-ball is a finer principle than the contain-and-counter that Villarreal have employed so effectively through Champions League knockout wins against Juventus and Bayern, their coach Unai Emery will pay little attention. History beckons, as it did this time last year, when Emery led his side to triumph in the Europa League, the club’s first major trophy.

Bayern, meanwhile, are at a crossroads. How many out of the senior quartet of players, Manuel Neuer, Muller, Lewandowski and Serge Gnabry renew contracts that expire in 2023 remains to be seen, with Lewandowski linked with Barcelona, among other possible suitors.

The central defender Niklas Sule, whose contract expires this summer, has already agreed to join Borussia Dortmund, weakening a part of the squad that said goodbye last summer, on free transfers, to David Alaba and Jerome Boateng.

With a nine-point lead over Dortmund in the Bundesliga and five fixtures to play, Bayern should not have to wait too long to give the precocious Nagelsmann his first major trophy as a head coach. But he may feel the hard work starts as soon as the transfer window opens, and he needs to persuade long-term Bayern legends that theirs is a club mighty enough to still compete for the very biggest prize.

Updated: April 13, 2022, 1:35 PM