The last days of December are colloquially known as “between the years” in Germany, a period so slow and quiet that time itself disappears into the void.
Alas, it was very different for Hasan Salihamidzic in 2022.
Bayern Munich’s sporting director has been busier than in any winter break since taking that job in July 2017, as the perennial German champions deal with a raft of World Cup-related problems not of their making.
While Senegal forward Sadio Mane is expected to recover from the November knee injury that forced him to miss the World Cup in time for Bayern’s Champions League last-16 rendezvous with Paris Saint-Germain next month, defender Lucas Hernandez (ACL tear) won’t be back until 2023-24, unfortunately.
Salihamidzic has brought in the Netherlands international Daley Blind (a free agent after Ajax agreed to release him) to provide cover for Hernandez both on the left and in the center of the Bayern back line but the 32-year-old might also be needed on the right, where a) Benjamin Pavarddropped to the bench by France coach Didier Deschamps during the World Cup, has struggled for form and b) another key player is set to miss a big chunk of this season.
As the club revealed on Friday, Noussair Mazraoui suffers from “a mild inflammation of the pericardium” – the tissue surrounding the heart – after contracting COVID-19 during his participation in the World Cup with surprise semi-finalists Morocco. (Bayern left back Alphonso Davis needed three months of rest to overcome myocarditis, another heart condition, following a COVID-19 infection a year ago).
Worst of all, though, is the long-term absence of Manuel Neuer.
Bayern’s goalkeeper and captain broke a leg skiing on December 21 and isn’t expected back until the autumn. The club don’t fully trust his 34-year-old deputy Sven Ulreich, which has necessitated a fevered search for… what exactly? A six-month stand-in? A new long-term No 2 goalkeeper? Or Neuer’s eventual replacement?
There’s a clue in how Bayern see the situation in the length of contract they offered Yann Sommer, who has emerged as the preferred candidate after attempts to recall Alexander Nubel from his long-term loan at French side Monaco have failed. (The 26-year-old isn’t prepared to go back onto the Bayern bench once Neuer returns and he also hasn’t got the best working relationship with goalkeeping coach Toni Tapalovic, who is one of Neuer’s best friends.)
Sommer, also 34, has provisionally agreed to join Bayern until the summer of 2025, provided they can agree a deal with his current club, Borussia Monchengladbach. Since Neuer’s existing contract finishes a year earlier than that, it looks as if the 80-cap Swiss international would then be given a chance to prove himself a worthy successor to the man who captained Germany at Qatar 2022.
Without this implied promise, Bayern wouldn’t have been able to convince Sommer to up sticks and join them halfway through a season, especially not a few months before he could pick from a wider variety of suitors as a free agent. But it also constitutes quite a remarkable turn of events.
A few months ago, it would have been unthinkable for Bayern to sign a goalkeeper able to challenge and possibly usurp their long-time king between the posts. Sommer’s proposed long-term deal signals a clear shift in thinking.
Neuer is no longer considered untouchable. Or, to put it in more neutral terms, Sommer’s proposed two-and-a-half year stay in Munich will allow for several contingencies. There’s just no guarantee Neuer will even be back on his feet di lui never mind at his very best di lui by the start of the new season in August, even if he and the club are, of course, hopeful of this outcome.
Sommer, though, wasn’t on the plane that left to ferry the Bayern squad to a winter-break training camp in the Qatari capital Doha on Friday morning.
Gladbach would like to make some money off him – they are currently eighth so will probably miss out on European football next season and are already set to lose Marcus Thuram as a free agent when the France forward’s contract expires in July – but Sommer won’t be allowed to move unless they can find a replacement, something which isn’t at all easy at this time of year.
As Bayern’s former goalkeeper and now CEO Oliver Kahn noted in a talk with German newspaper Bild before their departure to the Gulf, clubs aren’t known for a willingness to sell their first-choice goalkeeper in the middle of a season.
Daniel Farke-managed Gladbach are reportedly interested in Jonas Omlin28, of French side Montpellier and 24-year-old Philipp Kohn of Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg – ironically, they were two of Sommer’s backups at the recent World Cup – but neither club would sell before getting in a new goalkeeper themselves.
So Bayern are stuck in a downward chain – an unnerving state of affairs for a club used to getting their way.
It might take a little longer before this particular web gets untangled.
(Top photo: Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)