There was a time when the sight of Manuel Neuer charging out of his goal was a source of relief for Bayern Munich fans. In his prime, Neuer would never misread the situation.
He would always get to the ball first. Neuer is no longer in his prime. As he lumbered out towards Sadio Mane on Wednesday evening, the Bayern fans feared the worst.
They watched aghast as Mane left Neuer in no-man’s land and looped the ball into the far corner.
Sadio Mane turned the on-rushing Manuel Neuer to create space for the opening goal
Mane then delicately chipped the ball into the Bayern Munich net and over two defenders
Ahead of the game, Neuer had declared that it was about time Bayern claimed a major scalp in the Champions League. In reality, defeat to Liverpool proved that he and his team are no longer good enough to do so.
‘The fact is that German football is now only second-rate,’ grumbled the editorial in Germany’s biggest newspaper, Bild, this morning.
It certainly looks that way. Bayern’s exit crowned a miserable trilogy of defeats for German sides, all of whom have been outclassed and eliminated by Premier League opponents in the last-16. Now, for the first time since 2006, there will be no Bundesliga team in the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
With its fan ownership model and internal competitiveness, the Bundesliga has always suffered from the fact that it has a lot of good teams but no super clubs. Bayern were always the exception that proved the rule, but now they too appear to have dropped out of Europe’s elite, missing out on the quarter-finals for the first time since 2011.
At the Allianz Arena on Wednesday night, there was the unmistakable sense that this was the end of an era. The brilliant generation of German players who rose at the turn of the decade is finally over the hill.
Niko Kovac is building a new generation around the young talents at Bayern Munich
Their high point came around 2013 and 2014, when the Bundesliga had two teams in the Champions League Final and Germany were crowned world champions. They probably could have won even more, but now the party is over. It seemed fitting that it was Virgil Van Dijk, whose late equaliser also relegated Germany from the top tier of the Nations League last autumn, who sank Bayern with a goal and an assist last night.
‘Bayern and Germany need a radical upheaval if they are going to compete for titles again,’ wrote Bild.
This has been clear for a while, but now it is a matter of urgency. With the development programmes still in rude health, there is plenty of good young talent coming up in Germany, but both Bayern and the national team stuck firmly with the older stars for a season or two too long. Had younger players been integrated earlier, the transition would have been smoother. Instead, the older generation has been overstretched and the younger players have not been given the chance to mature.
At Bayern, Niko Kovac was brought in to change that, and despite this defeat, he has been broadly successful so far. Slowly but surely, he is building a new generation around the likes of Niklas Sule, Leon Goretzka and Serge Gnabry.
That has meant a difficult balancing act with the older egos of the dressing room, with whom the relationship has often been tense. On Tuesday again, both Neuer and Mats Hummels criticised Kovac’s approach to the game, saying that Bayern had been too passive.
Defeat to Liverpool on Wednesday proved that Bayern Munich are no longer good enough
Bayern’s exit crowned a miserable trilogy of defeats for German sides in this year’s tournament
Yet Kovac knows that he has the backing of the Bayern hierarchy, who have told him that even failure to win the Bundesliga is acceptable while the transition is underway. In the summer, many of the older players will be moved on. Arjen Robben has already announced his departure, and Franck Ribery may be forced to go against his will. There are murmurs that Jerome Boateng, Robert Lewandowski and Javi Martinez may all also be on the way out.
It will not be an easy transition for Bayern, but Kovac is at least going about it in the right way. He has made good decisions, and resisted the temptation to make a big symbolic gesture by dropping a senior player.
The same cannot be said for Germany coach Joachim Low, who announced last week that Hummels, Boateng and Thomas Muller were no longer in his plans. What appeared a positive move towards the younger generation is actually just proof that Low, too, is long past his best.
The way the transition is managed will have a big impact on German football in the future
Germany stares glumly at the wreckage of the last 12 months after the acrimonious World Cup
Under pressure to keep his job, Low opted for symbolism over rational decision-making. Hummels and co. are all still good enough to play a role in the Germany squad, so why not make a decision that also makes footballing sense? Promoting Marc-Andre ter Stegen to the number one role, for example, and dropping the ageing Neuer. Instead, Germany are left with the wrong goalkeeper, fewer centre-backs and a festering bitterness between the older and younger generations.
The way the transition is managed will have a big impact on how quickly German football can pick itself up again, and Kovac appears to be managing his transition better than Low. It may well be that Bayern bounce back quicker than Germany do.
For now, though, Germany stares glumly at the wreckage of the last 12 months. The acrimonious World Cup summer, the disastrous Nations League campaign and the complete collapse in the Champions League all seemed to come together on Wednesday night. As Sadio Mane twirled past the wooden frame of Manuel Neuer, there could be no more doubt. An era has ended. A new one must begin.