Bayern made a difficult decision in firing Carlo Ancelotti less than halfway through the season. We take a look at what the players’ roles in this might have been.
It has now been over a month since Ancelotti was removed from his position as Bayern’s manager. Even before we heard rumours about Ancelotti leaving, I thought about how extreme the transition from Pep Guardiola to Carlo Ancelotti must have been. Guardiola pushed players intellectually, challenging them to rethink the game. He obsessed over every single pass, every movement on and off the ball. We know this: Guardiola is nothing short of a tactical genius. Conversely, Ancelotti dismisses what he considers is an overdoing of tactical thinking. He likes simple football, and sticks to tried-and-tested formulas.
The predicament that either of these philosophies is wrong entirely misses the point.
The question lies not on the manager, but rather on the players. I can’t buy a Ferrari and say it is a bad car because I can’t take it off-road. The Ferrari does not suit my needs and I made the wrong choice. Much in the same vein, it became clear that Ancelotti was unsuited to manage Bayern’s players. The issue was one of compatibility.
Thus remains the question: did the players notice this and force the Italian out? There is no straightforward way to answer this question.
Can players really sack managers?
Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said in the weeks prior to Ancelotti’s sacking that any players badmouthing the manager would have a problem with him personally. He responded to Thomas Müller, who was unhappy about his playing time. That is, and should be the official narrative in any respectable club.
However, the reality is much more complicated and nuanced.
The truth is that players do have a hand. There is every kind of reason why this is true. Players give a club its face and much of its popularity. What would Barcelona do without a figurehead like Lionel Messi? Or Real Madrid without Cristiano Ronaldo?
Simple arithmetic is another factor. It is far cheaper for a club to replace a manager than it is to replace several unhappy players.
A third reason to believe players can have managers sacked comes on the field. They can simply play at half-speed, force a few bad results and plunge the team into a crisis like the one Bayern were said to have been in during the weeks surrounding the PSG defeat. I am not saying that was the case (yet). I am saying it is entirely possible and anyone believing otherwise is being way too idealistic about players’ professionalism.
So yes, football players can potentially force a manager out if they want to.
A brief history of bedmaking
To illustrate the above thesis, I will recall a couple of examples where it was pretty evident players had a hand in forcing their manager out. Now, I based all of these on circumstantial evidence. You will be hard-pressed to find a club that admits to being pressured by its players to sack a manager. Still, players make it very evident.
Atlético Madrid appointed Gregorio Manzano in June 2011. After winning the Europa League in 2009, the suits wanted the team to reach new heights. They believed that a man with Manzano’s experience could achieve that.
Indeed, the players made the challenge greater. His predecessor, Quique Sánchez Flórez, frequently clashed with Diego Forlán. Spanish media reported that the Uruguayan striker was a big reason behind Sánchez’s departure.
Los Colchoneros failed to collect anything close to acceptable results. Albacete, a third division side, eliminated them in the Copa del Rey. Barcelona thrashed them with a 0:5 scoreline. By December, they lay 10th in the table. And to make things worse, Manzano was said to have a feud with José Antonio Reyes. He left Reyes on the bench and even out of the squad in high-profile games. As a result, pundits and fans alike began to criticise him.
By 22 December, the board threw him out. Along came Diego Simeone with his well-known methods. Atlético bounced back in spectacular fashion. Falcao rose to stardom during the season, and helped the team to the Europa League title. The Spanish media were ablaze with claims that the players had performed badly on purpose to have Manzano out.
The Premier League’s latest and greatest fairy tale ended badly in 2016-17. Claudio Ranieri’s men sat a single point above the relegation zone when the axe fell on the Italian. The situation puzzled fans and pundits. Leicester City won the Premier League in 2015-16 in the most epic of fashions. However, their title defence campaign went badly wrong from matchday one.
How could a team that had been so resilient a few months back be in such position? When the directives fired Ranieri, the rumour mill began to spin. Some outlets even said outright that the players had held a meeting with the board asking it to remove ol’ Claudio. The man himself looked the other way, saying he couldn’t believe his players had done this to him.
So did they do it?
One of the indicators that usually points to bedmaking is the results that come after a sacking. Now, Bayern have a mixed bag there. They drew against Hertha on Willy Sagnol’s single game in charge. However, things came about well after that. The club announced Jupp Heynckes as caretaker manager until next summer, and Bayern changed.
The Hamburg game may have been a bit of a letdown, but the fact remains that die Roten have three wins out of three under Jupp. The team scored nine goals and conceded none, even without Manuel Neuer at goal.
Another factor is the rumour mill. We’re usually pretty skeptical about rumours in this blog, but the chatter about discomfort with Ancelotti was huge. In the weeks prior to the sacking, Müller spoke out against the manager. Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry were seen to be on the outs as well. And then, after the club made its call, Uli Hoeneß revealed in an interview that Ancelotti had five players against him. Basically, those players forced the club’s hand. Mats Hummels denied being part of the coup when he was asked about it, even though the media were naming him as one of the five. The remaining players have kept silent.
Indeed, there is no certain way of knowing if Ancelotti was forced out by players. Still, the signs are there. The relationship had gone sour. Some players voiced their discomfort. The team was getting bad results. Then, when the club finally made a move, the results have gone a bit better. What’s white and laid by a hen?
I will put aside my own distaste for Ancelotti for a minute. Has Bayern set a horrible precedent by allowing players to force the club’s hand, if that indeed was the case?
The answer is yes and no.
Yes, because it shows players that they can indeed have a say in matters that are officially the board’s prerogative. If they wanted Ancelotti out, it worked.
No, because you don’t need to be a genius to figure the above out without actually trying. I explained before how this is a simple matter of arithmetic. Players are more expensive for a club to replace. If a situation arises that a club must choose between a manager and several players, including figureheads, the decision will almost invariably come in favour of the footballers. Acting otherwise would be more expensive, and it would risk destabilising the entire team.
Ultimately, you could argue that the club simply jumped ahead. Fans and pundits held serious doubts about Ancelotti’s ability to manage Bayern. The incompatibility was almost tangible. Before the club announced the sacking, there were even rumours that the Italian’s contract could be terminated in the summer, and Julian Nagelsmann brought in. Alas, the situation became unsustainable, and action had to be taken in September. With or without player influence, Ancelotti’s tenure seemed destined to end as a shipwreck. If indeed the players forced the manager out, they likely only brought the termination date forward.