On May 22, Bayern Munich from Germany will meet Inter Milan from Italy in the UEFA Champions League Final, probably the biggest match in club soccer world wide.
Flashback. Just half a year ago, in late November 2009, Bayern was only placed seventh in the domestic Bundesliga, six points behind the league leaders, and third in their Champions League first round group. With only two matches left, they were four points behind the second spot which was required to qualify for the next round. The press was sure that new coach Louis Van Gaal who joined Munich in summer 2009 would not celebrate Christmas in that position, as speculations about him being fired could be read in any newspaper and as both the president and the commercial manager of the club both already started criticizing him in public.
Today they top the domestic league, have booked their spot in the German Cup final and have the Inter match coming up. What has happened in between?
Former Dutch superstar Patrick Kluivert once called Van Gaal “a master at building a team”, and even Van Gaal likes to use the terms “team building” and “performance” to describe his coaching philosophy.
In 1965, American psychologist Bruce Tuckman created a classical reference model for team building processes: The “forming, storming, norming, performing” framework. Ever since then, many organizations use it to enhance the performance of their teams. In the following I will try to explain the season of Bayern Munich by using this framework and vice versa.
In the forming phase, the team gets to know each other. Everybody tries to avoid conflicts and risks while the coach or supervisor has to be very clear in his instructions. In the first phase at Munich, Van Gaal was very strict and clear in his directives, no other opinions were accepted – not only on the soccer pitch but also in topics like table manners (no one is allowed to leave the table until all others have also finished their lunch). He created a lot of routine work in the training sessions, which is typical for the forming phase, and gathered the information he needed about the team while allowing the team to also get to know his style of working.
After this first assessment phase, Van Gaal and his team entered into a very competitive phase, the so-called “storming”. While it can sometimes be a quite short process, Bayern Munich was storming for several month. Here are some highlights from this phase:
Super star striker and World Champion Luca Toni, probably the player with the highest salary on the Bayern roster, criticized the tactics Van Gaal imposed as it was unfavorable to his style of play. He lost his staring position and was transferred to Italy just a few weeks later.
Commercial manager (an now president) Uli Hoeness criticized the 4-3-3 system Van Gaal was playing and wanted to move to a 4-4-2, also asking the coach to be more collaborative.
Club president and soccer legend Franz Beckenbauer stated that Van Gaal would have to delegate trust and responsibility.
Philipp Lahm, German international and Bayern right back gave a newspaper interview in which he criticized the lack of quality players on the team, the transfers made prior to the season and the lack of a clear philosophy. He was forced to pay the biggest fine ever in club history.
By the end of November, the relationship between Van Gaal and his players seemed like completely destroyed and the team was with the back against the wall. Then came December 8, 2009.
Bayern was playing away at Italy’s record champions Juventus and needed to win against the Italian favorites to secure their spot in the next round of the Champions League. Just 19 minutes into the game, Bayern was down 0-1. Then came the turning point of Bayern’s season. The team ignored all the conflicts and storms and tried to concentrate on working together as a team. They started to play with each other instead of against each other, ignored the negative environment and won the match in a sensational way by 4 goals to 1.
One week later they also qualified for the semi finals of the German cup and won their next consecutive six league matches. The team found their way of working together, the “norming” was done.
After advancing against Fiorentina in the Champions League round of 16, Bayern was considered the clear underdog against English giants Manchester United in the quarter finals. After winning the first leg 2-1, the team played some of the worst 40 minutes ever to begin the second leg at Manchester, trailing 3-0 shortly before half time when striker Ivica Olic converted their first scoring opportunity to make it 3-1.
The second half saw a completely different Bayern team. They completely dominated Manchester and it felt like they had 100% of possession. Dutch star Arjen Robben scored and incredible long distance volley goal, Manchester United was unable to answer and Bayern advanced to the semi finals. There, they met Olympique from Lyon, France. In the first leg, Bayern dominated but only managed to score one goal in the 1-0 victory. The away match at Lyon was one of the best Bayern matches of the last 20 or so years. They humiliated Lyon with a 3-0 away victory, implementing the dominant “position play” tactic Van Gaal is famous for. Within just a few months, the team went from an unorganized bunch of players to an interdependent unit.
Bayern will meet Inter in the finals, a team coached by another very charismatic , controversial coach, José Mourinho. Mourinho and Inter went through a comparable team development process Bayern did, and probably Tuckman’s “forming, storming, norming, performing” framework could have also been explained looking at Inter under Mourinho.
Two teams that have reached the “Performing” stage will meet at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid. It’s been quite a journey for both of them.