A Complex Business
Almost nothing is straightforward in the world of football. One area which may appear to be relatively simple to the casual observer is that of older players. A closer inspection, however, would lead to the conclusion that there are so many factors involved that quite the opposite is the case – even in a club like Bayern, which has a responsible board that doesn’t buy and sell on a whim.
The nature and length of a player’s latter years at a club are a combination of the player’s perspective and the club’s perspective. There is nothing new or mystifying about these perspectives, and most fans will be aware of them, but it is worth taking a minute to consider several of the major ones, to get an appreciation of the multiple interrelated factors at play.
Normally, all players have a career trajectory: their effectiveness as a top player rises to a peak, stays around that level for a few years, and then goes into an accelerated descent as they approach retirement in their early or mid-thirties. This descent, unfortunately, is often more obvious to everyone other than the player himself, and the player may struggle to accept getting less playing time and less of the limelight at the club. This is compounded by the earnings potential of the player. Again, many players think that they merit a higher weekly wage than their ability and contributions on the pitch in their final years would merit. They have, however, become used to high earnings, and any form of reduced salary is deemed offensive and unacceptable.
Depending, too, on their nationality, some players may have high ambitions to play for their national team well into their thirties. For some smaller nations, they may still be the best option for some position or other in their national team. They must, however, be getting regular playing time somewhere to maintain a competitive standard of play. Then there are the players who simply want to play in another country to try somewhere else.
On the other hand, there are players who graciously accept their declining years and, in some cases, have either a love for the club or an association with the area, and want to finish their playing years at the club, if at all possible. Others have families who have become well settled in the country, and they don’t want to unsettle their families for yet another move, which will almost certainly be a short one.
The primary aim of a club’s management board is to have a squad of players which can give domestic and European dominance, within the club’s financial constraints. This is an aim which needs continual discussion, assessment and action, but perhaps the biggest challenge, especially when there are older stars at the club, is to plan long enough in advance and predict the effectiveness of players 12-18 months hence. In the springtime, at the latest, the management board needs to plan for summer sales and purchases of players that will give the club a squad which is at its most effective the following April and May; that is when the toughest European games will be played.
Players who are fading need to be weighed up in the light of (a) their market value (b) their impediment effect on younger players and (c) their suitability for a backup role. With some players, their cash value from a sale may be of more importance, if there is a young alternative player coming on, or if there is a young alternative who can be signed. Even a wealthy club does not want to pay top wages to more players than necessary, and a timely sale, before a player is out of contract, is often of more importance to a club than might be expected. Moreover, holding the older player too long and impeding the younger player’s playing time carries its own batch of problems. And keeping the older star as a backup may not always be an ideal situation, even when that player accepts the conditions.
These factors point more and more on the manager’s ability to rotate the squad. If there is one point worth emphasising above all others in this article, it is the enormous importance of the manager having a well-thought-out rotation plan, if the club is to maintain a squad with depth. If he doesn’t have that, and sticks to rigidly to a preferred XI, the club will be in a constant state of flux, with too many players wanting away because their amount of playing time is unacceptable, and the club will always struggle to maintain a squad which has optimal depth. At Bayern Munich, Guardiola seems to be embarking on one of the most elaborate and largely successful player-rotation schemes that the club has had in many years, by trying players in new positions, varying his formations and generally helping every player to raise his game. On the flip side, however, and with Guardiola in particular, there is the added factor of his readiness to get rid of any troublesome player at short notice.
When the crunch comes, the club does not need to tell a player that he is unwanted. That is obvious if no contract offer is made, but a low contract offer can get the same message across in an indirect manner. Sometimes a club is more blatant about it all, virtually announcing and advertising that a player is for sale, or is considered as a makeweight in part of a swap deal.
Aside from the monetary value of a player and his performance on the field, however, sometimes a club will retain a player out of a sense of returned loyalty, or because the player is considered to be an ambassador for the club.
Bayern Munich’s Older Players
These factors can lead to many different scenarios for older players, and almost the whole spectrum of scenarios can be seen at Bayern Munich. Some speculation is required, but a reading the factors can generally lead to fairly accurate conclusions.
Daniel van Buyten could be regarded as a contented diminisher; he seems happy to finish his days at Bayern, take a backup role and play when called upon, and hopes to get just enough playing time to secure his place at the World Cup in 2014. He is very likely to retire when his current contract expires, and it would be very surprising if Bayern offers him a contract extension.
Schweinsteiger and Lahm could be regarded as local Bavarian heroes; they are central to the club, its values and its history. If their form doesn’t drop off unexpectedly, they will probably complete their playing careers at Bayern, and at least one of them – possibly Lahm – may be offered a role in Bayern after his playing career ends, if he wants it. Schweinsteiger has talked in the past about the idea of playing elsewhere, but that is no longer very probable, unless he gets squeezed out of the team. He’s getting older now, and no key Bayern player would want to leave Bayern in the next three years, while there’s the belief that Guardiola is likely to lead them to another Champions League victory.
Pizarro could be regarded as a temporary backup, called in for a year until a longer term solution can be arranged (probably Lewandowski). Pizarro is getting very limited playing time just now, and seems to have a very limited future at Bayern – almost zero likelihood of a contract extension. He has moved around clubs a lot over the years, though, and may well play elsewhere for another year or two, simply for the money and love of the game.
Ribery is a Bayern legend, but in a slightly different sense from Schweinsteiger and Lahm, because he isn’t local and isn’t even German. He seems to have appreciated how Bayern stood by him when he was in trouble, he has had his best and most successful years at Bayern, rising to great heights, and his family seem to like living in Munich, so he has openly expressed a wish to finish his playing years at Bayern. Things can change but, all else remaining as it is, Bayern are likely to accommodate that wish, if Ribery can cope with getting less playing time in his final year.
Not long ago, Robben could have been regarded as a useful sale, but he has bucked the trend this year and that is no longer the case. He seemed to have become predictable, in his somewhat selfish playing style; his volatile outbursts made him a candidate for being released by Guardiola; there was an oversupply of midfielders at Bayern for his position; and he was still regarded as valuable by other clubs. Now he has reinvented himself as a team player, expanded his game, hidden the worst of his egoism and, even in a Bayern squad full of top midfielders, has justified his starting place again and again. It is difficult to predict what his future at Bayern may look like, but he seems to have recognised that Bayern is the best place to be just now and is putting up a great fight for his place.
Bayern is both a very ambitious football club and a business, but it is nice to see a sense of loyalty in their handling of older players who have served them well and brought them a lot of glory over the years. Long may that be the case.
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