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Niko Kovac and Bayern Munich Were Never Meant to Be

Bayern Munich have been one of the dominant sides of the decade; domestically and on the European stage. For the past 10 years, Bayern have attempted to form a style to keep their dominance in Germany for a sustainable period. It can all traced back to the appointment of Louis Van Gaal, a manager known for having a particular way of playing, that demands a lot from his players in terms of shape and offensive positioning. While Van Gaal did fail in entertaining the fans (something that would repeat in England) and bringing trophies in his second season, he nevertheless planted the seeds for what Bayern would become. He taught the likes of Thomas Muller, Bastien Schweinsteiger and Philip Lahm how possession football should be played.

After Van Gaal’s departure and Jupp Heynckes’ treble success, Bayern Munich landed the most desirable manager in the world: Pep Guardiola. The Spanish genius sought out to do precisely what Van Gaal was asked to do; define a possession-based, style of play for the Champions.

Pep’s time at Bayern was easily the most interesting of his career. He attempted to implement the same template he used at Barcelona. Which later, Guardiola quickly realised wasn’t possible, and changes were needed to be made. The Bundesliga is a league full of teams which can counter-attack with great speed and numbers. Pep was already used to teams trying to beat his Barcelona sides through quick counters, but German clubs were much better at doing this, especially during the rise of Geganpressing. Guardiola seemingly became paranoid, desperate to retain domination, while also keeping his Bayern Munich side defensively solid if a counter was to arise. He did this through the full-backs. Pep was lucky to have David Alaba and Philip Lahm as his primary full-back pairing; two players so comfortable on the ball, they could seamlessly play in midfield, a position the pair have played before. With Bayern having two of the most fantastic wingers in the world in Ribery and Robben dominating the flanks, it gave Guardiola the option to play Alaba and Lahm as half-backs. Most of the ball progression didn’t need to go through the midfield anymore. With Robben and Ribery being two of the best dribblers of the decade, it allowed Guardiola to give them more space to dribble, create and score, instead of the inside forwards he was using at Barcelona. Guardiola’s Bayern was more disciplined and structured than ever before. With the Bundesliga’s lack of competition during Guardiola’s three-year stint with the Bavarians, it allowed him to experiment with different formations, with the Spaniard at one point setting up his team in a 2-3-5, a real throwback formation. While this was impressive on paper, Bayern were already doing this in a lot of their games. The full-backs would come inside, the number 10 and one of the central midfielders (usually Kroos) would push forward alongside Mandzukic, and Robben and Ribery were left as the primary outlet on the wings.

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Guardiola did what his former manager could not; define how Bayern Munich should be for the next decade, with a focus on possession play, a high press and a more traditional striker who can link-up with the forwards, first Mandzukic then Lewandowski. I could go into a lot of depth in terms of Pep’s Bayern, but it was more to explain why Bayern fans have become frustrated since the Spaniard’s departure.

Ancelotti was first, and arguably where the problems began. This isn’t to say that he’s a bad coach, but he isn’t Guardiola. Ancelotti is at his best when he’s given a very talented group of players, that just need a push in the right direction. He’ll usually resolve some of the more apparent problems while making the attack function. His success at Real Madrid and Chelsea showed this, where he was given two fantastic groups of players. In Chelsea’s case, they recently missed out on their first European trophy, while letting their league form slip after Jose Mourinho’s departure. He did the same at Real Madrid and actually made them fun to watch after the frustration that was Jose Mourinho’s final season. Bayern weren’t bad under Ancelotti, but it didn’t feel like they weren’t getting better. He did win the Bundesliga as expected. However, a semi-final defeat in the DFB Pokal to Dortmund and a rather unfortunate defeat to Madrid in the quarter-finals of the Champions League did show a noticeable downgrade. Ancelotti’s short second season in charge saw them lose to Julien Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim and a rather embarrassing 3-0 defeat to PSG, which saw Ancelotti’s naivety exposed. Nagelsmann at only 29 already looked the more tactically astute manager, in a similar mould to Pep and being a Bavarian himself. He was who Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinze Rummenigge wanted more than anyone else.

The other reason for Ancelotti’s dismissal was man-management. As mentioned, Bayern weren’t getting better, and the team lacked the same edge they had under Pep, with more reliance over the talent Bayern have over the rest of the Bundesliga. The players were generally unhappy with how Ancelotti’s training sessions were so much more laid-back than under Guardiola, with Robben, Ribery, Lewandowski, Hummels and Boateng all particularly unhappy. Reports were surfacing that the players were having secret training sessions behind Ancelotti’s back because they felt they weren’t being pushed enough. The influence Pep has had on this team is clear, and a manager with the same tactical nous and flexibility was needed, to keep Bayern playing in the same way as seen during Guardiola’s tenure, to keep the players happy.

So, why Niko Kovac? It’s the question that has perplexed me for nearly a year now, and after looking into it for a while, I finally figured that out. Jupp Heynckes returned to the club once again, and Bayern went back to their best. They were so good that Uli Hoeness desperately tried to convince him to stay on. Heynckes, understandably, said this was going to be the last time he managed a club, leaving Bayern to look at other options, to help continue the foundation that Pep established.

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Julien Nagelsmann was the first name on their list, but Red Bull were a step ahead of them, convincing Nagelsmann to move to Leipzig instead of Munich. Red Bull are ran so well, with some of the best talents in Germany to work with. This must have been a more exciting project for Nagelsmann than managing a rather difficult Bayern team. Thomas Tuchel was next on their list. Like Nagelsmann, Tuchel is a Bavarian and was clearly interested in the job. Yet, Bayern were taking too long in approaching the former Dortmund manager, leaving Paris Saint-Germain with an opening to take Tuchel from right under Bayern’s noses.

Bayern seemingly chose Kovac because that’s all they were left with. His CV wasn’t nearly as impressive as Tuchel or Nagelsmann’s. Kovac did help keep Frankfurt in the Bundesliga in his first season, to then finishing 11th and 8th and taking Frankfurt to two consecutive Pokal finals, winning his second against his future employers. This was an impressive feat, but the big question was could he effectively manage the best team in Germany and a group of players with incredibly high standards. At Frankfurt, Kovac was more focused on how to set his side up defensively and work on off the ball positioning. Kovac would need to change this, since Bayern are the most dominant side in the Bundesliga in terms of possession and shots, off the ball work wasn’t a priority. It’s where Kovac differs from Tuchel and Nagelsmann; two coaches who have shown the ability to build a cohesive and robust attack, with Dortmund and Hoffenheim being two of the best attacking sides during their respective reigns. Convincing the Bayern fans and board members that he was the right fit for Bayern was going to be extremely difficult.

Kovac’s final game in charge, a 5-1 defeat to Frankfurt, wasn’t the first poor performance we saw from his Bayern Munich side. In fact, it was seen from the beginning of his reign. Kovac had a very mixed start to his tenure. They began dropping points, failing to look comfortable in the final third. After winning their first 4 games of the season, they dropped points in 3 consecutive games, and the same problem can be seen in these games: a lack of quality chances. Their 2-0 defeat to Hertha Berlin perfectly showcases Kovac’s most significant issue when it comes to Bayern on the pitch. While Bayern did dominate the game, their shot map was a mess:

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Bayern just seemed to lack an attacking plan under Kovac, relying more on the experience of a title-winning team full of winners than his own ability to coach. This three-game stretch displayed how poor Bayern was at creating high-quality chances compared to the same team under Pep or even Ancelotti’s. His overreliance on Lewandowski was becoming more apparent as the match days were rolling by. The Polish marksman was the main thing keeping Bayern’s attack ticking, with Lewandowski not only winning the golden boot in the Bundesliga with 22 goals but also assisted 7. He created over a chance per 90, and his sheer quality not only kept Bayern as one of the best attacking sides in Germany but got a lot out of other players in the team. I find it highly unlikely that Gnabry would have finished with his impressive goal tally last season, if it wasn’t for Lewandowski dragging defenders with him, and dropping deep to create space.

Der Klassiker was by far lowest point for Kovac in his debut season, for perfectly exhibiting everything wrong with Bayern’s attack. Bayern struggled against their rivals for the first time in years. Dortmund were riding high at this point, looking unstoppable with Sancho, Reus and Alcacer having fantastic starts to the season. But this is a fixture where Bayern have always turned up, with their last defeat coming in 2016, where they were somewhat unlucky to lose. This time was different. Bayern did get an early lead thanks to Lewandowski and went on to have a positive first half, with Burki tested through efforts from Ribery and Gnabry. Bayern were dominant and played some of their best football of the season. But Dortmund’s character and determination showed, with Reus scoring two and Alcacer getting the winner, to put Dortmund in the driving seat for the title.

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Bayern were shambolic in the second half by their standards, only mustering Lewandowski’s goal and a few half chances from Ribery and Muller. Dortmund looked like they wanted it more, creating countless opportunities and could have easily won that game by more. Even after Alcacer’s goal, Bayern still had 18 minutes to get an equaliser, yet had no ideas in achieving that, neither did Kovac. Favre reacted to his team’s lack of goals by introducing Mahmoud Dahoud to add some energy in midfield and Paco Alcacer, one of the best bench options around. Kovac, on the other hand, reacted by bringing on Renato Sanches for Serge Gnabry, one of the only players with pace in the team and Sandro Wagner, a player who doesn’t add anything different to what Lewandowski can do. It was so uninspiring, especially when James Rodriguez was on the bench. It still surprises me that Kovac managed to last longer than that defeat.

However, something changed in Bayern’s form. After that defeat to Dortmund and a subsequent draw to Dusseldorf, The Bavarians suddenly awoke from their 6-month slumber, and turned into the ‘Super Bayern’ we know and, at least, admire. From December 1st to the end of the season, Bayern only dropped 9 points, losing a single game. This run included scoring 5 goals or more against Meinz, Gladbach, Frankfurt, Wolfsburg and Dortmund.

This improved form and title win would make you believe that Kovac had turned it all around, but that still wasn’t the case. Two toothless and rather abject performances in the Champions League against Liverpool showed Bayern at their worst in Europe since their demolition by the hands of Real Madrid in 2014. The Bundesliga Champions failed to register a shot on target during their 0-0 draw at Anfield, placing them in a position where they just needed to win at the Allianz. The problem with treating your away legs as damage control means there is even more pressure on you to win at home than before, and if your opponent does manage to score in your own back yard, it makes that mountain even steeper. Kovac’s approach here screamed naivety. Liverpool is one of the best teams in Europe, and assuming they can’t score at the Allianz is ridiculous. The best teams in European competitions know how to win both home and away. This remarkably unambitious approach has been used and failed by many coaches. Mourinho did it with Manchester United during a round of 16 encounter with Sevilla, where they earned a goalless draw in Seville, only to lose the return leg in one of Mourinho’s worst games as a manager. Valverde did the same against Roma in 2018 and against eventual champions Liverpool last season, hoping a strong home victory would be enough to secure the tie. It’s ignorant and frustrating to see coaches still see the away leg as a game where keeping a clean sheet is all that matters.

Their defeat at the Allianz to Liverpool was the final straw for many Bayern fans, with the most worrying element of the loss being how far behind Bayern looked compared to Klopp’s team. Bayern lacked the same intensity we saw under Pep and were by far the second-best team in both legs. The gap between Jurgen Klopp and Niko Kovac was enormous at this stage. Even with Bayern’s improvement in the league, it was a huge step back in terms of Kovac being the right man for the job.

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Even Bayern’s change of form during the second half of the season did raise some doubts. Did Kovac suddenly get the players on his side with his approach being implemented on the pitch, or did the players suddenly remember they are supposed to be the Champions and need to prove that for their own reputations? The latter seems to be accurate, with reports surfacing that the Bayern players agreed to do everything to ensure they remained the Bundesliga holders.

Kovac’s biggest crime as Bayern coach was easily the collapse in his relationship with Thomas Muller. Personally, I do not like Muller at all. While he is clearly a talented player, he is not at the level to have as much power at Bayern Munich as he does. Muller commands a lot of influence in the dressing room and was one of the leading figures in Ancelotti’s dismissal, not satisfied with his lack of game time. The former Milan coach did actually play Muller a lot during his first season, but Bayern decided to add one of the best number 10’s in the world, with James Rodriguez arriving on loan. It was the first time Muller faced apparent competition in the squad, which he didn’t like. He then does what he usually does, and talks to reporters, which lead to more pressure on Ancelotti. The point is as Bayern coach, you should never leave Muller out of your first-team plans. The World Cup winner has recently been forced out of the national team by Joachim Low, a decision I respect and appreciate.

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So just like Rodriguez’s arrival, Muller was again unhappy to see himself dropped after Philippe Coutinho arrived on loan; an incredibly talented player who was an improvement over the ageing Muller. Kovac even admitted that he wouldn’t field Countinho and Muller together because it would be “too attacking.” It was evident by the start that Coutinho had to the season, that he would be preferred, looking more like the player we all adored watching at Liverpool. Coutinho clearly enjoyed working with Kovac, saying, “He is a top coach and a great guy who likes to work hard.” Coutinho’s presence in the side seemed to be an attempt by Kovac to push his own authority, but he clearly lost. Kovac even referred to Muller as “emergency nail,” showing just how Kovac was ready to change the norm in Munich. Kovac did later backtrack on this comment, which says everything you need to know about Muller’s influence. During Van Gaal tenure as Bayern coach, he famously said “Muller always plays,” a statement that rings forever true as the years go by. Ancelotti was sacked for not playing Muller, and Kovac is another to attempt to cross the German forward, only to lose the battle, and his job.

I can’t really blame Kovac for resigning. Even if he didn’t, there was a high chance he was going to be sacked. A squad relying more on individual quality than a tactical blueprint, taking Bayern Munich from the most dominant team in Germany to one that could be toppled and falling out with key members of the squad. I do genuinely sympathise with the situation Kovac was in, but the Bayern job, like many big club jobs, is different. There are different standards, players have higher demands in terms of what the coach should be doing, and they expect a certain level to be playing at. I still believe Kovac isn’t a bad coach. It’s just his style of coaching isn’t suited for a club of Bayern’s expectations. He arrived as the third choice option. He was always going to struggle to win over the fans, the players and the board. Kovac and Bayern were so different that it’s hard even to think that this was going to work in the long term. This was an appointment that felt wrong from the beginning, and even if I did hope he would find his feet in this massive job, it’s clear that this was never going to work out.

 

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