It’s a classic, in team sports, when players drag their feet in the hope that management will fire the coach. Die Roten may have done just that against Freiburg on Saturday and before.
I came to this conclusion when watching the poor display against Freiburg from block 327 at the Allianz Arena. My presence there was a coincidence – a friend was in town, I got tickets at the last moment – but what I saw on the pitch felt like anything but a coincidence. The lazy, treasonous display looked voluntary.
Why would I say that?
Watching a match on TV and being on the premises are different experiences, at least as far as I am concerned. Television cameras move, introducing a “motion bias”. When the players are a few meters away, you feel the game directly with your eyes, which roam to find angles and elements that are beyond your grasp when sitting on the couch. As a bonus, block 327 brought me the best view from above.
The sight was pretty convincing: a lazy bunch of Reds refused to give a 100% effort to win, save for Serge Gnabry, Renato Sanches and Niklas Süle. The body language did not lie. I would call it a half-assed effort, but “one-third assed effort” would be more accurate.
Why can’t the team counterattack to save its life? Because the players are not running at full speed or making the right passes to get past the opposition. This gives them plenty of time to catch up.
Many other observations of that kind popped up on Saturday:
- Arjen Robben can run faster than he did;
- James was often better positioned than Robert Lewandowski in the penalty area;
- Lewy was anything but clinical;
- Why did James fail to spot open spaces in the midfield?
- Why was Joshua Kimmich so inefficient?
I could add points, but you probably get the point already. Only Gnabry, Süle and Sanches seemed to be in the mood for a scrap, and for good reasons. These guys want to earn their stripes and become regular starters in Munich, which is almost a given in Süle’s case by now.
I suspect that the players are dragging their feet to get rid of Kovač, just as they got rid of Carlo Ancelotti a year ago. Remember what Bayern’s top dogs said at the time: we had to fire him. Too many influential players were against him.
What followed was Jupp Heynckes propping up the team…. and putting a thick coat of Jupp Magic Paint to gloss over fundamental problems in the squad. Enamoured, the board wanted him to stay on. That may have produced respectable short-term results, but it would have solved nothing in the long run.
At the heart of FC Bayern’s poor displays, you find a number of players who have enjoyed tremendous success so far in their career. Some have won everything there is to win. Understandably, they know everything about their star status.
The flip side of that coin is a lack of hunger. Those who talk about Franck Ribéry’s and Arjen Robben’s respective ages are entirely missing the point. Men in their prime are underperforming while they should carry the team! How old are Thomas Müller, Thiago Alcântara, Jérôme Boateng, Mats Hummels, David Alaba, Javi Martínez and others?
Easy answer: nowhere near 35.
In each case, you have to ask why the hell they are not playing world-class football, and have not done so for a couple of years, and you can try to pinpoint all sorts of explanations. However, there is an underlying collective problem. Guys who should dominate thanks to a mix of skills and experience are not doing the job even against far weaker opposition such as SV Rödinghausen and SC Freiburg.
Don’t use the firing squad
Would firing Niko Kovač solve anything? Only in the short term, as did showing the door to Carlo Ancelotti and bringing Jupp back in for a fourth stint. Can a club keep letting coaches go because the team doesn’t answer to anyone but Jupp Heynckes or Pep Guardiola? A good look at Hamburger SV says much about the consequences of instability.
Should the board be blamed for not signing more players? That is an entirely different discussion. It is wildly off-topic since star players in their prime are not giving their all for the team… and not for the first time.
What should Uli Hoeneß and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge do? Precisely what they have done in similar situations in past decades: call the players out. Football isn’t a democracy, but sport in which players are ultimately employees. These guys are expected to give everything for the team and fans, with passion, no matter what.
Bring out the young guns
What should Niko Kovač do? Provided that the board backs him, he should give more playing time to the hungry kids. If veterans drag their feet, bring out the young guns.
FC Bayern managers have often turned to the transfer market to patch the squad, but it would be the wrong decision to make in late 2018. Tons of young talent is right under their noses. Renato Sanches has found his feet and there is ample room for growth. Serge Gnabry is developing as well. As I wrote in a Bundesliga Fanatic season preview, guys such as Lars-Lukas Mai and Franck Evina have little professional experience, but the talent is there. Potential to transform is there.
The inevitable fan reaction will be sour if the Bayern coach goes for it and picks up a few defeats along the way.
Let erfolgsfans complain. I remember how the 2013 team was built, and it wasn’t done without pain. The backbone was made of youth products Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thomas Müller. They were supported by long-term acquisitions Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben, who had been around for years. They developed, won and suffered defeats together for years. Short-term transfers only provided a final boost in 2012-13.
Transition or rebuilding?
Given a certain amount of ageing in the squad, it is normal to enter a transition phase in which the guys well into their thirties see less action.
However, if guys who are only in their late twenties and early thirties don’t give a f*ck, bolder decision-making is justified. Then, FC Bayern shouldn’t just enter a transition phase. They should forget short-term results to dive aggressively into rebuilding.
If rebuilding means losing plastic fans, so be it. Football isn’t a popularity contest for the short-sighted, but a sport and a business in which you have to build for the long term and keep making money to enjoy enduring success. That’s the vision laid out by Hoeness and Rummenigge over decades, and no supervisory board should be blinded by short-term problems.
Many Kovač critics believe that FC Bayern picked the wrong man, who would be out of his depth in Munich. That would be ignoring the legacy he left at Eintracht Frankfurt after rebuilding on a budget. If someone can build, it’s him.
Besides, existing star coaches such as Jürgen Klopp are not always available for hire and young coaches with potential can turn into stars. Pep Guardiola was little known before he shaped FC Barcelona into winners. Klopp proved himself in Mainz, turned Borussia Dortmund into world beaters and was given a Liverpool team in a sorry state and he rebuilt it over several years. In their own way, both came out of nowhere and were given the time to work.
With that firmly in mind, I question Bayern fans who are asking for Kovač’s head five months into his tenure and want the whole board to be sacked. Instead, it could make a sh*tload of sense to give Kovač a strong mandate to reshape the Bavarians, even at the price of ruffled feathers and bruised egos.
The “sack the board” people won’t be happy to read this, but you know what? They can take a nice long hike and camp in the mountain overnight.
Without further ado, I hand them the first “straight red” in our little blog’s history: