Donovan's fortunes in Europe prove that correct choice of club is key
Landon Donovan's play at Everton was in sharp contrast to his time at Bayern
Bayern insiders felt Jürgen Klinsmann had exaggerated level of Donovan's ability
Bayern players felt that Donovan was a decent player but not Bayern material
Three months is a long time in soccer. Long enough to wreck a reputation or two, certainly long enough to resurrect it. Landon Donovan has crammed all of that into a couple of short-loan spells at Bayern Munich (January-March 2009) and Everton (January-March 2010) in the space of a year, when the U.S. midfielder's two excursions into European football resulted in wildly differing outcomes.
His 13-game stint in the Premier League was an unequivocal success. The 28-year-old forward started 10 matches in a row, scored two goals and helped the Toffees to memorable wins over Manchester City, Manchester United and eventual champions Chelsea, as well as to a well-deserved 2-2 draw at Arsenal.
Donovan, dismissed as a "lightweight" by cynical British commentators before his arrival, looked sharp and physically strong, and he played with real confidence. Manager David Moyes was so impressed with his recruit that he wanted to transform his loan deal into a permanent move, but Everton's financial constraints proved an obstacle. Still, Donovan left England on a high, having for the first time in his career been convincing at a club outside the States.
"The experience was a priceless one for me," Donovan told reporters this week. "The games were always fast and ultra-competitive and my time there certainly made me a better player.
To say that things hadn't gone that well at Bayern for him a year before would be an understatement. After decent performances and two goals in friendly games during the Bundesliga's winter break, Donovan was given very little playing time by manager Jürgen Klinsmann in the season. Six times he was brought on late in the second half. Only once was he on the pitch for 45 minutes: In the 2-1 home loss to 1. FC Köln, Donovan replaced striker Lukas Podolski at halftime. Kicker Sportsmagazin, the most widely read football publication in Germany, rated his performance 5.5 out of 6, with 6 being the worst possible grade.
"We won't buy him," vice president Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said in February 2009, a few good weeks before the loan had expired. Bayern president Uli Hoeness' verdict was even harsher. "Our amateur team coach told me [Donovan' wouldn't even play in his reserves," Hoeness said after Klinsmann's departure last summer.
At first glance, Donovan's problems in Germany and his accomplishments in England seem very curious, as one would have expected the opposite outcome. For starters, the Premier League is an ostensibly harder competition than the Bundesliga. Turning out for a mid-table team like Everton should also be more challenging than a stint at perennial champion Bayern, especially for an attacking player.
But other factors were ultimately much more important. At Goodison Park, Donovan was brought in to supplement a small squad that was ravaged by injuries and specifically short of strikers. "He will bring me some experience, some pace and he is a good finisher," Moyes said at the time. "He gives me another body, which is what we [need]." Thus, Donovan was able to get straight into the starting lineup and gained in stature and confidence with every good match. He had tremendous momentum.
Munich, in contrast, had no automatic places open for him. Luca Toni and Miroslav Klose were the two starters up front, with Podolski third in line. This made Donovan effectively the fourth-choice striker at the club. In addition, his arrival coincided with a run of three defeats in the first four games. The club was in a state of disarray.
Hermann Gerland, then Bayern's amateur coach and the chief critic of Donovan -- if Hoeness is to be believed -- today believes that the player had simply come to the wrong club at the wrong time.
"He was a very friendly, very nice guy," the 55-year-old Gerland told SI.com. "Landon was only here for three months. It was difficult for him to prove himself in such a short time. He couldn't quite establish himself in training. It's important to understand that he had really strong competition in Klose and Toni. Then there was Podolski, too. Who was he supposed to displace?"
Unbeknownst to him, Donovan also became mixed up in power struggles between Klinsmann and the board as well as Klinsmann and the squad.
"Rummenigge and Hoeness couldn't understand why Klinsmann had desperately wanted to sign Donovan back in the summer in the first place," a club insider said. "They let him make one signing in winter and were very surprised that he again chose Landon. He was advertised as 'world class' by the manager but obviously couldn't quite cut it at this level. Both the club and the players lost faith in Klinsmann's judgment as a result and the cracks were getting bigger by the minute."
After the club dismissed the 45-year-old Klinsmann in April 2009, Donovan, without much fault of his own, quickly became a byword for the Swabian's perceived incompetence.
In time, Donovan might well have turned into an alternative option up front. "He had all the basics and was very solid technically," Gerland said. The problem was that Klinsmann had either dramatically overplayed or misjudged Donovan's potential. "We were told he was fantastic and very fast. But I never saw him outrun anyone," Gerland said.
Some Bayern players, who would not speak for attribution, said Donovan was a decent Bundesliga player, but not quite Bayern material. They couldn't understand why he was sometimes picked as a sub before Podolski, who was popular in the dressing room.
Donovan's on/off/on relationship with European football shows that talent and skill alone are rarely the decisive factors when it comes to getting ahead in your career. With the exception of a dozen or so superstars who would shine with any team, the majority of top professionals are dependent on a stable environment, tactics that suit them and, above all, the confidence of their manager and colleagues. Donovan found little of that in Munich but much of it in the blue half of Liverpool. And he will have probably learned an important lesson in the process, too: The move to the biggest club is not always the best.