ESPN’s Bundesliga commentator Derek Rae analyses high-profile moves in Germany, as a star defender opts to leave title challengers for the champions, and an up-and-coming coach announces he is to join Borussia Dortmund.
It has been a strange few days of goodbyes in German football, all beginning while I was on air last Friday broadcasting RB Leipzig’s narrow win over FC Augsburg for the Bundesliga’s world feed. Leipzig had for once left out their star defender Dayot Upamecano, ostensibly with the upcoming Champions League meeting with Liverpool in mind. But there was another story brewing.
My match coordinator Rudi Schaarschmidt and executive producer Ivo Hrstic, both monitoring developments at our TV headquarters in Cologne, were able to relay some important details to me. Bayern Munich sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic had just given an interview to Bild essentially confirming that Upamecano would be joining them. Bayern were triggering the much-discussed release clause allowing the France international to sign for the Rekordmeister for a fee of €42.5 million.
So at half-time we were able to tell that part of the story. What we didn’t have was confirmation from Leipzig, as sporting director Markus Kroesche wouldn’t quite go as far as to concede it was happening. Thirty-six hours later, Leipzig acknowledged Upamecano’s transfer to Bayern.
This came as absolutely no surprise to anyone who pays even semi-close attention to German football. In fact, readers of this column will know I’ve been describing this as virtually a done deal for a few weeks. But on Sunday and Monday, my social media timeline was suddenly full of opinions about German teams rolling over to Bayern.
– Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
– ESPN+ viewer’s guide: Bundesliga, Serie A, MLS, FA Cup and more
First of all, this was the player’s choice, and who can fault him for wanting to join the best team in the world? Secondly, I believe there is a fundamental misunderstanding about how German clubs operate. As recently as last week in this space, I discussed how Leipzig always have a succession plan for departing players. It is the very essence of their business model. They knew given the buyout clause in place, Upamecano would be off this summer, and Premier League clubs would have an interest too.
Let’s say Upamecano had announced he was heading to England, rather than Bavaria. Bayern carry clout and pulling power, and for their part were always going to sign a top-level defender, Upamecano or otherwise. What practical difference does it make to Leipzig where he chooses to go? They planned for his exit long ago. Their target is now to polish the next Upamecano and they frequently hit the bullseye on such missions.
When Upamecano arrives in Munich, David Alaba will depart after 13 incredible years and a joint-record nine Meisterschale (Championship trophy) successes. Again there’s nothing mysterious about that news in itself, indeed it has been a nailed-on certainty for some time. What I did find slightly odd was the need for the Austria international to hold a media briefing at this stage without being able to fill in some of the blanks as to his next move. To be fair, we did learn that destination will likely be one of Real Madrid or Barcelona and his Spanish language skills are good enough to make himself understood on the pitch.
Alaba, it must be said, has not been a compelling factor for Bayern this season, suffering through one of his more ordinary campaigns — to be charitable.
Much noisier goodbyes were announced this week by non-players. I’ll have a lot more to say about Marco Rose heading from Borussia Monchengladbach to Borussia Dortmund in a future column, but to return to the theme of German football’s unique dynamic, why is it such a stretch that someone can fulfill his contractual obligation while already having made future career path known?
This is commonplace in Germany and certainly at Gladbach, where it happened as recently a two years ago when Dieter Hecking saw out the end of the season before making way for Rose. I realise that in England, for example, such a scenario would likely not transpire and a feeling persists that someone might down tools or that it could lead to a conflict of interest.
Max Eberl, Gladbach’s head of sport, puts it succinctly and as well as anyone: “This club trusts the people it has employed.”
Meanwhile, Jochen Schneider’s contract of employment as sporting director at Schalke will be terminated at the end of the season, the supervisory board announced this week. I feel a bit sorry for Schneider, a decent football man who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. But he made some terrible decisions and has admitted as much. Schalke’s hardcore fans have been on Schneider’s back for a while and his position had become untenable.
Schalke have lurched between four different coaches in this trouble-torn season and there has been a vibe of disharmony and instability on Schneider’s watch going back more than a year. It is right that they bring a new person in to — barring a miracle — finalise the transition to second-tier football in Gelsenkirchen next term.
In Schneider’s case, Neil Sedaka got it just a touch wrong with the title of his song all those years ago: “Breaking Up is Hard To Do (But Not Necessarily Always).”