Bayern are doubling down with Niko: the road to Kovac and where it leads

You may ask yourself, "How did I get here?" -Uli, Kalle, Brazzo and Niko aka the Talking Heads at Bayern

Bayern are doubling down with Niko:  the road to Kovac and where it leads 

The reasons why Bayern Munich are undergoing a strange slow transition are somewhat obvious to keen followers of the Bundesliga, but it’s worth reiterating a few of them to understand the larger machinations at work. With the return of Uli Hoeness, the conservative (in most senses of the word) wing of Bayern’s leadership has perhaps gained the upper hand over the footballing-wise more progressive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. As a result, the post-Pep Guardiola era, and Pep skeptics would somewhat harshly add the Catalan’s tenure here as well, has been a strange mix of domestic success and international disappointment. On the one hand, you can almost argue that there was little need for change domestically, as Bayern had cruised to the league title even in “a nightmare season” where the Ancelotti experiment, one filled with cigarette smoke and scant tactical nuance, went awry. All Uli and Kalle had to do is to fire up the Juppsignal as Heynckes, the treble winning hero of 2012\13, came and obliterated the Bundesliga with a lot of help from James Rodríguez, before calling it quits again.

Feeling confident, the decision-makers convinced themselves that it was Viktor Kassai who eliminated them against Real Madrid in the UCL and thus eschewed/postponed a rebuild and brought back the likes of Robben and Ribery for one last hurrah. Hoeness and co were figuring that Tedesco Schalke just ran hot in close games (one of the few things they got right, as it turns out) and with Dortmund in shambles after the two Peters (Bosz and Stöger) season, Leipzig’s European troubles costing Hasenhüttl his job and Rangnick needing to step in they would be unchallenged. Herrlich’s Leverkusen had talent but lacked the coaching, while Hoffenheim who made the UCL in the home stretch would not continue to outperform expectations under Julian Nagelsmann. The TSG hotshot coach was deemed “too young” for Bayern by the brass while KHR failed to convince Thomas Tuchel to move to Munich and the moves for Mauricio Pocchettino or Jürgen Klopp were never realistic.  (Pre-banning Hummels, Müller, Boateng) Jogi Löw probably wanted no part of the Bayern job and Wenger, Mourinho, or Andre-Villas Boas furiously learning German were also mostly tabloid candidates. Pál Dárdai was flattered, but at the time he thought he would never leave Hertha. Lucien Favre was in Nice and waiting for the second time around with BVB.

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(one of these guys is a good Bundesliga coach)

So, who was left? 

Enter former Bayern player Niko Kovac, who after being appointed at SGE amidst a relegation fight, held Bayern to a one goal win on just 1.12 XG on April 2nd of 2016 on matchday 28 down the stretch of Guardiola beating Thomas Tuchel’s BVB side to the title. That probably caught the eyes of a Bayern brass - it’s perhaps not too much of an assumption to think that Hoeness/KHR have the Doc Rivers approach of taking note of/overrating coaches/players who do well against Bayern. Holding Bayern squad that would finish with 88pts and just 17 league goals conceded with the likes of Anis Ben-Hatira and Szabolcs Huszti, who are now both plying their trade in the Hungarian league, Constant Djakpa who at 32 was cut by a FIFTH division team, the legendary Luc Castaignos replacing Haris Seferovic, who unlike at present in the Liga NOS, was mostly busy missing chances was no small feat.

The above analysis of mine goes through the rise of Eintracht thanks to some clever scouting, wheeling and dealing by Fredi Bobic, Ben Manga (chief scout) and Bruno Hübner that laid the foundation for an improved squad. Still, it was on Kovac to instill a hard-nosed, energetic and aggressive pressing ethic into a side that began to trouble a lot of Bundesliga sides. The 5-2-1-2 with high-pressing wingbacks Timmy Chandler, Marius Wolf, Omar Mascarell as a number six and Kevin Prince Boateng playing behind Ante Rebic or Luka Jovic and Sebastien Haller was similar to Tedesco’s Schalke, right down to the difficulties in creating open play goals and excelling on counterattacks.

But, as I wrote after seeing them in person and talking to a few of their very happy players after beating Wolfsburg 3-0 away in what was a rather deserted mixed zone:

 “Ultimately, Niko Kovac’s biggest skill is perhaps not in a tactical adjustment, or a playing philosophy, though as we saw with the switching of formation, the toning down on tackles\pressing and the move into a post-Meier era, he’s definitely capable of those. No, Kovac’s best asset is his ability to connect with his players: he’s often the older brother\uncle to many of the Serbian\Croatian players, and the developments of Gacinovic\Rebic\Jovic are a testament to his work. Kovac’s a guy from the same part of Berlin as Boateng (the district of Wedding), and might be the only coach who can manage such a mercurial figure.”

With a similar points per game as Nagelsmann, one could see an argument for Kovac at Bayern and as I argued in my Kovac hiring piece, he was definitely saying all the right things about player power\respect (Aubameyang\Dembélé sagas). 

According to one version of the Bayern-Kovac marriage, things began to get serious after a chance encounter on the birthday of Uli Hoeness’ driver, who happens to be Croatian and an acquaintance of the Kovac brothers, Niko and Robert, Bayern were able to buy out Kovac (at an uncomfortable time for Eintracht, who were bitter about it) from his Frankfurt deal. Yet, my overarching concern and conclusion was one of “Well is he the best Bayern could do?” and the number of questions about what it means to coach Bayern in the upcoming 2018\19 season and beyond:

“Is he a permanent solution and thus a departure from the juego de posicion style of aesthetic dominance of Bayern under Pep, or simply a bridge, a pragmatist who can adjust his tactics as needed in order to get results? How will that sort of ends justify the means go over at Bayern, a club where winning is a requirement, but style is a profound part of it? Will Bayern change to three in the back and how would that look like? Are there any Eintracht players (Rebic, Wolf) that could follow their coach? Will Kovac’s leadership abilities and Bayern DNA be enough to convince the stars like Robben or Ribéry (staying on another year) in crucial moments, or will he be thrown under the bus like Ancelotti? How will Kovac deal with the need for playing time for Kingsley Coman and Serge Gnabry, as well as the incredibly crowded midfield situation? What will happen should another team get off to a Boszesque hot start and Bayern struggle out of the gates ? (bring Heynckes back?) Is the decision to appoint Kovac a sort of compromise between Hoeness and Rummenigge and not the best solution for Bayern? Still, given the hoopla and the sheer length of the coaching search, as well as all the rejections, perhaps the biggest question that Bayern executives are probably afraid to ask themselves is:
Is the Bayern job just not that attractive anymore?”

Those concerns certainly intensified after the disastrous start and Dortmund’s supernova start under Lucien Favre and I’m still not sure how Kovac was able to hang on to his job, when he was seemingly about to get fired every week in October\November. Of course, the simple answer, and this is perhaps unfair to Kovac, is that it’s hard to get a serious candidate during the middle of the season, and although few people believed in it when Dortmund were 9 points clear in mid-December, things would turn around. I doubt that Bayern were all team #trusttheXPTS but ironically, it was analytics writer extraordinaire Mike Goodman who got it right (as he usually does) in that “Bayern are going to be fine. They’re going to go back to winning games and smothering teams, and absolutely strangling the life out of the rest of the Bundesliga. “

Reeling off 18 wins from 22 matches with 1 loss, on a +52 non pen XG difference got them 57 points, basically matching their expected points total, and as Dortmund who were about 7.5 points overperforming regressed/ran unlucky against the bottom-dwellers of the league to the tune of 34 points vs 31 XPTS in their last 17 matches, it seemed like a matter of time before Bayern would overtake them.

Enter das Massaker where as regular readers of the newsletter know that  Bayern’s set piece prowess and Kovac’s pressing/counterpressing annihilated Dortmund to the tune of 5-0, but the game was in garbage time by around the 17th minute after Lewandowski did the old poker soul read (“In poker, a "soul read" occurs when a player makes an unbelievable play, usually an unbelievable call, based on a "read" that they claim to have on their opponent)  on Zagadou for the second goal in the 17th minute. Bayern took the lead over BVB and never let go, finishing with a 19-4 goal difference, and some really heartwarming Robbery sendoffs, as Kovac also won the cup over Leipzig in an entertaining 3-0 win to give the Bavarians their 19th Pokal. So, essentially Kovac, by the skin of his teeth, but also thanks to a number of dominant performances (vs the two Borussias, the six spots against Wolfsburg and Mainz, crushing Eintracht on MD 34) emerged victorious. 

Endlich Umbruch?

Almost all of the so-called Anti Kovac All-Stars or AKAS, save for Renato Sanches and Thomas Müller, left the club: an angry Rafinha without a farewell game, Robben retired an emotional Ribéry to destinations unknown, though he was last seen as the preeminent Algerian hype man at AFCON. More surprisingly, the 42 million option to purchase was not exercised on James, though in light of his difficulties with the Croatian head coach, that was hardly a surprise by season’s end. The fact that despite some fantastic advanced metrics that in terms of final output matched his Heynckes season, no team actually made an offer to Real Madrid, and now due to the Asensio injury he looks likely to stick around is at least worrisome from James’ perspective.  Perhaps the most shocking departure was Mats Hummels, who per several reports was not willing to fight for his place and Bayern took 30.5 million by Dortmund for him. 

That aforementioned competition was of course the duo of Benjamin Pavard - available on a 35 million buyout thanks to former Bayern sport director Michael Reschke helping his old club out on what was the worst kept secret in German football over the last year or so - and Lucas Hernandez, on whom Bayern finally broke their transfer record, paying 80 million to Atlétic Madrid and nearly doubling their previous high of 41.5 million of Corentin Tolisso. Whenever there are some massive and far-reaching changes, the Germans use the word Umbruch, which because it is a fantastic language means upheaval, radical change, sea-change, rebuilding phase, turmoil and breaking point as well. I find that to be an absolutely perfect encapsulation of what has gone on at Bayern, who for so long have put this off. Now, with Uli Hoeness announcing his retirement in November (he will still remain on the board), and his compadre KHR going out at the end of 2021, Bayern are ready for that sea change: Oliver Kahn is set to join the board in January, to be the eventual Rummenigge replacement, but either way, with Hoeness stepping back, Salihamidzic’s position as sporting director looks to be under scrutiny. Philipp Lahm had already rejected Bayern’s approach for that position in 2017. Although Kovac had enjoyed the backing of the Bayern brass and looks to be the winner of the power struggle after last season, I would still not bet on his long term future being at Bayern, though which coach really stays more than 2-3 years in the Bundesliga anymore.

KHR speaks out on the future

At any rate, one should expect Rummenigge to be a lot more proactive in his decision-making\hiring and Kahn, by all accounts a smart cookie, should help to push Bayern into a more progressive era in 2021 by the latest.

In an interview with Bild, KHR would not comment on the speculation about Uli’s future, and confirmed that he has no desire to cut his own tenure short and will gladly work together\pass the baton to Kahn. Rummenigge also confirmed that he hasn’t spoken with Kahn about the job, but thinks that it will go smoothly and he wants to initiate an “on-boarding process” to integrate the goalkeeper legend into the board.

More importantly, KHR - and on this issue he and Hoeness have been on the same page - also hit out at the unrealistic transfer and wage feels, mentioning that 100-120 million deals are the norm and players like Griezmann are asking for yearly net salaries of over ten million Euros. In contrast, he has again talked about finding “the Bayern way” and incorporating young players into the 17-20 squad\roster spots (this is consistent with what Kovac and Brazzo have been communicating as currently these would be Arp, Davies, Mai and a player to be named later from the reserve team). It’s the job of the coaching staff, now fortified with former Hoffenheim and Jogi Löw’s right hand man at the Germany NT, Hansi Flick, to bring those players up to the required levels.

Finally, after bashing the bizarre world of transfers and rumors, KHR discussed, almost as if he needed to convince himself that “Bayern are still one of the top 3 clubs in Europe. We have a tremendous stadium, Munich is a great place and our overall package we can offer is top-notch” somewhat surprisingly and perhaps cryptically concluded that “Bayern will still make further transfers”.

Overall, I found it to be a strangely inconsistent interview, part self-soothing, part braggadocio, part calculated and ultimately confusing. Bayern have certainly been at a crossroads now in recent years, as their Mia san Mia mentality and business model has gotten by thanks to excellent domestic results and great marketing, but deep-down perhaps the leadership will admit that the likelihood of being able to go toe to toe with the elite of world football is diminishing. The reasons - the gulf in TV and sponsorship money, the limitations of 50+1, the quality of the Bundesliga, the brain-drain of top footballing talent both on and off the pitch out Germany - are well-known but the solutions - better and more organized youth development and not just the “for-show” Bayern campus, making smarter decisions via scouting, using big data, hiring more 21st century-minded football people (or just listening to them in major decisions) - have been neglected. How much all of that’s likely or even allowed to change - change resistance\traditionalism is a major part of Bayern’s identity - is up in the air, and the next 18 months or so are going to be crucial for the Bavarians.

One thing is for sure after four decades, Bayern won’t be the same without the legendary\controversial Hoeness, who for all his flaws, had transformed Bayern into a global super club. Truly the end of an era, before the season even began….