“My wife is from Seville,” warns Hasan Salihamidzic, to explain why he speaks Spanish perfectly. Sitting on a terrace in the sun in Milan a week ago, at the Bayern concentration that was preparing to visit the San Siro, the Bavarian club’s sporting director reflected on one of the most complex transitions that German football has faced in its history.
If Cruyff revolutionized football when he beat nine of area, in the last three decades Bayern Munich made the counterrevolution by putting the heaviest tanks in the world at the top of their teams. The trajectory is reversed today thanks to the efforts of Salihamidzic (Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1977), author of one of the most daring transfer campaigns in recent years. He culminated it with the sale of Robert Lewandowski to Barcelona, who visits the Allianz Arena tonight (9:00 p.m., Movistar) in the Champions League.
Ask. How did you go about signing Sadio Mané, a Premier star in his prime, for just 30 million euros?
Response. Because he had one year left on his contract with Liverpool and he had been saying for a season that he wanted to leave. They all knew the situation. Sadio is a man of one piece: what he says he does. Klopp owed him a lot and he behaved well with the player.
P. Bayern invested some 130 million euros to strengthen itself and broke its transfer record in a summer in which eight clubs in Europe spent more, including Nottingham Forest, which invested 150. You represent the European club that spends the least in relation to the number of Champions League finals he plays and the bookmakers give him again as a favorite to win this Champions League. How is this regularity achieved?
R. It is the result of years of work. The players who have wanted to sign with us in this market have done so because they have seen that Bayern has been building a team in a consistent way for many seasons. We want to be the best. It is in our DNA. Favorite is just a word. What I like the most is the respect we inspire in our opponents and, above all, what I see every day when I watch training.
P. After Guardiola, no coach leading a major European team has attempted the tactical innovations that Julian Nagelsmann is tackling in attack. Why does he do it?
We have a responsibility. We don’t have enough money to invest 160 million euros in a 34-year-old player, whoever he is. For us financially it would not be possible and this is not an exception in Europe either. Madrid renews Modric’s contract year after year
R. We appreciated three things when we decided to sign Julian: his youth, his Bavarian origin and his ideas. He wants us to be very flexible in attack, for the players to change position at maximum speed, with maximum aggressiveness and with the greatest possible intention of finishing the play in the opposite goal. Here the ideas of Julian and the ideas of Bayern come together. The relationship between the two is almost perfect. The trust is mutual, not only in market matters but in the ways of preparing for the matches.
P. Are you aware that developing such an associative model takes more time than organizing a team simply to supply the striker with balls, which is what Bayern have done historically?
R. This project is based on patience. We’re not just looking to have quality players. In recent years we have tried to bring together young players. We have a lot of players from 25 to 27 years old with a lot of room for progression in the next five seasons. Then we see that they are resilient in relation to their position in the field. We don’t have a very large squad: there are 18 outfield players plus three goalkeepers. This is possible thanks to that basic tactical flexibility of the footballers. If there are two or three injured, it is easier for us to replace them without altering the collective functioning.
P. Nagelsmann tries to attack with six and seven players through the three interior corridors. This is unusual and entails a very great danger for the opposing defense but also for one’s own defense. When you see these attacks from the stands, do you feel dizzy, afraid, proud…?
R. It is very important that we play fun football. For our fans and also for neutral supporters around the world. I have a lot of fun. Not only when I watch the games. For the Bayern technical secretariat, which has its offices opposite the practice field, it is a daily pleasure to watch this team train. Regarding the use of the inner and outer lanes, sometimes it depends on the rival because there are times when it is convenient for the ends to stick to the line. In previous years the 4-3-3 was more rigid, with the ends wide open. Now the ends go further inside.
P. Do you think that the future of the attack of the great teams lies less in throwing centers than in building more volume of play in the middle?
R. It depends on the players you have. There are players who don’t feel comfortable moving diagonally towards goal against well-positioned defenders behind. Now we have a lot of players who can play inside. That is the flexibility we seek.
There are very few nines that can meet these demands. Now at Bayern we really play without a nine in the traditional sense. We have several men who understand the associative game when they go down to the second line of the attack, such as Gnabry, Mané, and even Müller and Sané
P. Does that flexibility require the presence of nines like Mané or Harry Kane, who know how to do more than define a touch?
R. It depends on the market. There are very few nines old-school finishers who can live up to these demands. Now at Bayern we really play without a nine in the traditional sense. We have several men who understand the associative game when they go down to the second line of attack, like Gnabry, Mané, and even Müller and Sané. When we saw that Lewandowski was going to leave, we brought in a player like Mané, who in recent years has done a great job in this regard.
P. Cristiano Ronaldo was on the market and was offered to Bayern. With his five Golden Balls, there are few nines more qualified auctioneers than him. Why did they refuse to sign him?
R. Because we already had a closed squad with eight versatile attacking players who can play in four different positions. We have a lot of respect for Cristiano. His performance in the world of football has been impressive. But we have another idea.
P. For a decade, when the rivals are closed there are hardly any spaces for the reference point to be deep. This especially concerns Bayern who have played with a tank all their lives: Jancker, Mario Gómez, Luca Toni, Elber, Mandzukic, Lewandowski… What happened?
R. It is the evolution of football. There are few top level pure tips left and the price of those that belong to a second level is very high as well. We went the other way because our coach has a different idea of what an effective attack should look like these days. Flexibility conspires against a nine pure, unless they are like Haaland, who in addition to being a striker has the feet of a fanciful. Otherwise, Haaland would not score these one-touch goals in a team like City, whose rivals deny all space.
P. Is Lewandowski leaving because he wants to or because he knows he has no future there?
R. We wanted to renew his contract but we saw that he did not want to. So we decided that it was better to sell it than to let it go free in 2023.
P. In Barcelona they say that Bayern made a mistake by letting him out.
R. I feel great respect for Barcelona. They have made a great squad. But we have some financial rules: when we renew the contracts of players over 30 years old, we do not do it for more than a single season. Mistake? I do not know. We are happy and for Barcelona it has also been a success. No more no less. We were not willing to give Lewandowski, who is 34, a four-year contract, paying him such a high salary. This is also part of a strategy.
P. Under its policy, Bayern would never embark on an operation whose total amount amounts to 160 million euros [el traspaso más el salario bruto de Lewandowski en el Barça] by a 34-year-old player, whoever he is?
R. We have a responsibility. We don’t have enough money to do something like that. I don’t know if Barcelona have it or not, but for us financially it would not be possible and this is not an exception in Europe either. Madrid renews Modric’s contract year after year… I told Lewandowski: let’s renew for one year. But of course I understand that for him, at 34 years old, signing a four-year contract is something extraordinarily positive. Lewandowski is a great player. Definitely. And if there is a club with a strategy that can afford it, great for them.
P. Is it true that Lewandowski gave away €400 bottles of champagne to all Bayern colleagues and employees? Does this show that there was much to celebrate on Sabener Strasse?
R. He also gave me a bottle. Lewandowski has done Bayern a lot of good with his goals, but Bayern has done Lewandowski a lot of good. The gift has been a great gesture on your part. He shows that he hasn’t forgotten about his teammates. He is a very good boy. Losing a footballer like that is not easy. That is why it was important for Barcelona to pay a reasonable price. Replacing a player who scores between 30 and 50 goals every year is complicated, but now our plan is for the scorers to be three or four, and not just one.
Robert will do very well. Because around him he has teammates who can give him assists and put him in a situation where he exploits his quality. It is obvious that he is a nine very dominant who needs to be assisted. He gives a lot to the team, but the team must also give him a lot
P. From Guardiola to Nagelsmann, Bayern has been built so that Lewandowski does not have to do anything other than take advantage of the supply of balls, especially with centers, to define with a touch. Will Barcelona now go from being a team that plays to dominate the rival to a team that plays for Lewandowski’s goal?
R. He is a great player who will do very well there. Because he has teammates around him who can give him assists and put him in a situation where he exploits his quality. It is obvious that he is a nine very dominant who needs to be assisted. He gives a lot to the team, but the team must also give him a lot.
P. In the last two seasons, Bayern was eliminated from the Champions League by clubs like Atlético and Villarreal, who were closed behind and denied Lewandowski spaces, even to head crosses. Isn’t Nagelsmann’s idea more surgical?
R. Let’s hope so because we have been eliminated in fours for two years! Now we have many different options. This transcends Lewandowski: he has changed the whole game. We are happy.
P. Does Bayern leave its doors open for Lewandowski to return to the club as manager in the future?
R. We have kept the friendship. Life always offers a second chance.
P. They say that when Lewandowski returned to say goodbye, he met with you and President Oliver Kahn in his office on Sabener Strasse, on such good terms that they all ended up putting their feet on the table.
R. It isn’t true! We met, he brought the bottles of champagne, and we said goodbye as friends. He will always speak well of Bayern and we of him.
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