Managerial game of musical chairs is critical in moment of superclub struggle

<span>Left to right: Xabi Alonso of <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Bayer Leverkusen;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Bayer Leverkusen</a> has a decision to make; Thomas Tuchel is leaving <a class="link " href="ünchen/" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Bayern;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Bayern</a>; Luciano Spalletti, now <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Italy;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Italy</a>’s head coach, left a large void at Napoli.</span><span>Composite: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images; Michaela Rehle/AFP/Getty Images; Isabella Bonotto/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.</span>

Come the summer Liverpool will be without a manager, Barcelona will be without a manager and, after the events of this week, we know that Bayern Munich and Napoli will both be without a manager. There’s also a European Championship after which it is safe to assume numerous national teams will be without managers – Julian Nagelsmann’s contract with Germany, to take only the most eye-catching example, runs only until the end of the tournament, while Gareth Southgate’s contract with England expires in December. For managers, this will be a summer of unprecedented flux.

For Liverpool the coming months could be a triumphal valedictory procession for Jürgen Klopp, beginning with the Carabao Cup final against Chelsea on Sunday. The crisis of last season seems to have passed and a bold new squad is emerging – which is just as well given the present injury crisis.

Related: Bayern join Liverpool in chasing Xabi Alonso with Tuchel to leave in summer

That is not how it feels for the reigning champions of Germany, Spain and Italy, all of whom have obvious problems. Bayern’s are probably the least troublesome, even if three successive managers in Hansi Flick, Nagelsmann and Thomas Tuchel have been unable to solve them. For all the promise of Jamal Musiala, Alphonso Davies and Mathys Tel, they have a squad that seems to have gone a little stale and is threatening to grow old together.

They still seem remarkably reliant on the ageing Manuel Neuer and Thomas Müller and the fading Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka, while Leroy Sané and Kingsley Coman, aged 28 and 27 respectively, are beginning to run out of time to be the players it looked as though they might be. Harry Kane is 30 and scoring goals freely, but his ankles won’t last for ever.

Which presents something of a paradox for a new manager. On the one hand Bayern are a squad in need of a serious overhaul, but on the other, given their financial resources, they will be expected to win the league and reach the latter stages of the Champions League and do so in style.

It was no great surprise when it emerged this week that Xabi Alonso is the preferred candidate to take over and it may be that, quite apart from whatever affection he feels for a club with whom he won three league titles as a player, he sees Bayern with their almost guaranteed place in the Champions League knockout stages as an opportunity to gain an education at a level he is yet to experience as a coach.

But if he does go on to win the league with Bayer Leverkusen this season, how much is there really to be gained in effectively playing the Bundesliga on an easier setting next season?

Napoli’s issues are perhaps the most predictable. They are a club that exists in a constant churn of chaos and the task for anybody replacing Luciano Spalletti, who left after winning the Scudetto last season and is now the Italy national coach, was always going to be monumental.

Rudi Garcia was, nonetheless, an inexplicable appointment, while the return of Walter Mazzarri in November looked desperate. Replacing him for the remainder of the season with Francesco Calzona, who is carrying on as Slovakia national manager, is unorthodox. Further changes will happen in the summer, most significant the almost certain departure of Victor Osimhen.

But Barcelona’s may be the most intractable. The debt of €1.2bn is not the president Joan Laporta’s responsibility but the consequences of his attempts to tackle it are. Two decades ago, he had solved a similar crisis by creating a “virtuous cycle”, success on the pitch generating revenues and interest easing the financial pressure while allowing investment that brought further success, in the midst of which he appointed Pep Guardiola as coach.

The attempt to replicate that moment of inspiration with another legendary midfielder, steeped in the traditions of the club but with little experience as a coach, has failed. Although Xavi won the league last season, he has become increasingly irritable, often outraged by opponents having the temerity not to let his side play, spouting the mantras of juego de posición without seeming able to adapt them to circumstance or instil them in his players.

Resources are limited, yet Robert Lewandowski, now 35, still has two years left on a contract signed in summer 2022. To call one of the greatest forwards of his generation a burden when he’s the club’s leading scorer this season is perhaps unfair but when money is tight – and it is all the tighter because of the portions of income Laporta sold off to try to initiate the cycle – it is not ideal to have a declining player in his mid-30s devouring a significant chunk of income.

And that hints at a broader issue. It may be that the superclub hegemony that has endured unchallenged for a dozen years is coming under threat. One of the reasons the Champions League has felt so flat this season is that as the familiar cadre of names have faltered, there has been nothing to replace them; at least half of the last 16, frankly, don’t look much good.

Size almost certainly still provides a safety net but those weary giants no longer seem as indomitable as once they did – although if they are out of range, even in this state, that is bleak for any suggestion of competitivity in elite football. All of which makes the game of musical chairs in the summer critical. In a time of potential disruption, the right appointment could stabilise or regenerate a club; the wrong one could have severe consequences.

First, though, there are the remaining three months of this season to play. The tendency, based on memories of what happened when Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement in 2001, is to assume that the prospect of a vacancy leads to drift. After all, if you know the boss is leaving, why bother trying to impress him? And it may be that is what happens at Bayern and Barça. Napoli’s situation is so complex it feels futile to try to apply precedent. The feeling at Liverpool, though, is of galvanisation, of the sense of an ending focusing minds. But as Klopp drives towards final glory, in the background the shadowy dance that will define the next era goes on.