Bayer Leverkusen have enjoyed relative success this season, but the team's bid to return to the Champions League has been overshadowed by talk of a power struggle between joint coaches Sami Hyypiä and Sascha Lewandowski.
Sitting in third place in the Bundesliga with 45 points, six points clear of fourth-place Frankfurt and on track to qualify for the Champions League, it would appear as though all is well in Leverkusen. But inconsistent results and a reported power struggle appear to be creating frustration between dual coaches Sami Hyppiä and Sascha Lewandowski.
Leverkusen finished the first half of the season in second place, just nine points behind Bayern Munich (a minuscule gap compared to the 20 point lead the Bavarians enjoy now). Furthermore, Stefan Kiessling and Andre Schürrle were among the league's top attackers in the Bundesliga's first few months, creating 16 goals and nine assists between them.
By most accounts, things were going well at the club. It seemed the full-time appointment of Hyypiä and Lewandowski was a shrewd move on the part of the Leverkusen management.
But things started to change in 2013. After a convincing 3-1 win against Eintracht Frankfurt on January 19 to restart the campaign, Leverkusen began to tumble. Since then, the club have lost to Borussia Dortmund and Bayern, exited the Europa League at the hands of Benfica, and drawn 0-0 away to last-placed Greuther Fürth.
Nonetheless Leverkusen maintain a firm hold on third place, in part due to the struggles of early season surprises Frankfurt, Freiburg and Mainz below them. But simply returning to the Champions League doesn't appear to be satisfying Leverkusen's coaches, and Hyypiä's recent comments make it clear that things are not running smoothly between him and his counterpart.
"I think the combination is not simple for us because we both have to make lots of compromises. That makes it a little complicated," Hyypiä told German broadcaster ZDF's Sportstudio program earlier this month. "When somebody comes to ask me something I have to first speak and meet with Sascha."
And although Hyypiä added that the two always come to a single decision, Lewandowski questioned whether the current setup was the correct way to run the team.
"In the last few days a lot has happened that makes you wonder whether it's right," Lewandowski told ZDF.
Dual coach setup
The Hyypiä and Lewandowski coaching duo were appointed by Leverkusen on an interim basis in April of last year after the firing of Robin Dutt; they were confirmed as full time a month later.
As Hyypiä only retired from playing in 2011, he has yet to earn the full coaching licenses required to lead a Bundesliga side. He thus formally fills the role of "Teamchef," or team boss, while Lewandowski serves as head coach.
It is a combination that is not uncommon in Germany when a former playing star takes a top coaching position. In 1984, the legendary Franz Beckenbauer was appointed German national team manager, while Horst Köppel and later Holger Osieck served as head coach. Beckenbauer and Osieck notably went on to lead Germany to victory at the 1990 World Cup.
In 2000, after successive disappointments at World Cup 1998 and Euro 2000, Germany again hired dual coaches. This time it was Rudi Völler, the ex-Werder Bremen, Roma and Germany striker, as team boss and Michael Skibbe as head coach. Germany went on to reach the final of the 2002 World Cup, though the two left their respective positions after a Euro 2004 group stage exit.
Until recently, Hyypiä and Lewandowski appeared to be well on their way to becoming a good example of transferring what the German national team had done with coaching to the Bundesliga. But even Völler, who now serves as Leverkusen's sporting director, has indicated that changes are on the horizon.
"Sami will definitely continue - that is clear. That is sure and we have already approved it," Völler told broadcaster Sky. "With Sascha there are other considerations. It is his decision if he stays or if he will stay with us in another capacity."
Hyypiä still does not have his full coaching license, so if Leverkusen do intend to keep him at the club, the current dual-coaching setup would have to remain.
Former Germany international-turned pundit Lotthar Matthhäus recently suggested Jupp Heynckes, who coached Leverkusen from 2009 to 2011, might be the man to take the helm if the current setup is deemed untenable. The 67-year-old Bayern manager is set to be replaced by Pep Guardiola in the offseason, but hasn't said he wants to retire. Heynckes has coached Hyypiä and was at the helm when Leverkusen signed the Finn from his long-standing home from home with Liverpool.
"[Heynckes] knows the environment," said Matthäus. "Hyypiä can still learn a little from him, and he still doesn't have a coaching license and would also definitely accept Heynckes as the number one."
Heynckes' assistant at Bayern, Peter Hermann, has also been mentioned as a possible Lewandowski replacement. Himself a longtime assistant coach at Leverkusen, Hermann addressed the possibility of taking on a new job, but not as a head coach.
"I'm 61, a joint position in a scouting capacity is possible. At the moment I'm not thinking about it," said Hermann this month.
Whatever moves Leverkusen decide to make in the summer, the club still have eight matches left before the end of the season, including trips to Schalke and Hamburg. That is plenty of time to freefall out of Champions League qualification, especially for a team famed for its late-season tendency to choke. But with the toughest games against Bayern and Dortmund already out of the way, Leverkusen look likely to maintain a top-four finish.