22 November 2009 ~ While Rafael Benítez has taken Liverpool down the table and all but out of the Champions League this season he can at least go about his work without Liverpool staff critiquing his managerial style in public. The same cannot be said for fellow Champions League winner Louis van Gaal. The under-fire Bayern Munich boss leads his team into a must-win game with Bayer Leverkusen this afternoon fighting for his job after one of the most tortuous months of his career.
Bayern have underperformed dramatically under Van Gaal. After consecutive defeats to Bordeaux in the Champions League group stages, they seem set to join Werder Bremen, Hamburg and Hertha Berlin in the Europa League. Their domestic form has offered no respite. Bayern currently sit in eighth position in the Bundesliga. For a club who have finished no worse than fourth for the past 14 years, their current standing won't be accepted. And Van Gaal has heard all about it.
While a chairman's backing can be the kiss of death for football managers in England, their German equivalents see no need to sugarcoat their opinions. Van Gaal's style was criticised heavily by Bayern president Franz Beckenbauer and general manager Uli Hoeness this week in a joint interview published in Bild. "Louis van Gaal thinks he can take care of everything himself, but one single person can't solve everything," said Hoeness. "He has to learn to delegate responsibility," added Beckenbauer. Hoeness, who is expected to replace Beckenbauer as president later this week, announced that Bayern will assess the situation in the Christmas break: "The board and Van Gaal deal with each other in a critical and honest manner. I cannot keep saying things are great when we are in eighth place."
Van Gaal has not only been facing lectures from above this season. He has also suffered the wrath of his players. Phillip Lahm, Bayern's longest serving player and vice-captain, paid an "unprecedented fine" for deconstructing Bayern's ills to a national newspaper last week. "Top teams in the Champions League have first-class players in seven, eight positions – we don't. Other clubs have a system, a philosophy, and buy the players accordingly. We don't. It's not enough to buy good players, one has to develop a team," said Lahm.
Luca Toni, the Italian forward, was also fined for his "unauthorised early departure" from the Bundesliga match against Shalke earlier this month. Toni took exception to his half-time substitution and stormed home in a huff. He has since paid his fine and apologised to his team-mates but stopped short of accepting all the blame, adding that his reaction was "the consequence of four long months of inconveniences and misunderstandings with the present coach."
With Van Gaal facing pressure from all angles the last thing he needs is the visit of Bayer Leverkusen today. Not only are Leverkusen unbeaten league leaders but they also have Jupp Heynckes to thank for their strong form. Heynckes, the caretaker manager who filled in for Bayern last season after Jürgen Klinsmann was sacked in April, is a stark reminder to Van Gaal of how a coach can instill the discipline and belief required to substantially improve a team. The only consolation for Van Gaal is that, other than out, the only way is up.