The Bundesliga from the inside, an interview with Ezequiel Daray

Ezequiel Daray has been living in Germany for around seven years, and is Fox Sports’ Bundesliga correspondent, attending games, getting to talk with managers, players and fans, and developing a close relationship with the league that most foreign journalists can only dream of. We chatted with him about Bayern, of course, and the Bundesliga at large.

In addition to serving as the matchday correspondent for one or two Bundesliga games every week, Daray hosts Das Ligahaus. The weekly magazine sees him visit towns and cities in Germany in search of attractions, as well as exploring the country’s football culture, often focusing on particular clubs and players. Naturally, Daray’s job grants him a privileged insight. Because of this, we wanted to ask him a few questions and get a conversation going. He was kind enough to free up an hour of his time for a call.

Daray is a man of very clear and constant opinion. One of the things he has continuously said throughout this season is that Niko Kovač is not suited to manage Bayern. Given that Bayern fans are mostly divided about this issue, our first question struck right into it.

The clouds above Kovač

Straight Red: You have held since the start of the season that Niko Kovač isn’t the right manager for Bayern. Why do you think he is not a good fit for the team?

Ezequiel Daray: My criticism is purely in footballing terms, not of Kovač as a person or as a worker. I know he is very intense and methodical, obsessed about his work. However, his vision of football prioritises defending. He believes that attack is something that skilled players will take care of with their quality. Many players that have worked under him have complained that they do not train enough in offensive situations. The attacking is not well oiled. Eintracht Frankfurt players told me this personally. They said “we do a whole lot of running but we have no idea what to do with the ball”.

Now, I have not heard this from Bayern players, but what media outlets close to the team report is very similar to what Frankfurt players shared with me. And so, at first I thought Kovač wouldn’t be right for Bayern. Then I thought that maybe he would give them a certain defensive solidity, because Frankfurt defended so well, and maybe attack better because Bayern has better players.

The truth is that, while in recent weeks we have seen a more solid Bayern, the football they play is not what the Allianz Arena is accustomed to. And something that really shocks me in games like the one against Heidenheim or Werder Bremen, is seeing a Bayern manager pressing the referee to end a game. Against Liverpool… they did well at Anfield. But in München they failed to shot once at goal. You can lose, like Dortmund did against Tottenham, with Lloris as the star. But to not manage a single shot on target at home is unacceptable. Kovač failed to rise up in big games.

SR: Indeed there is much debate around Kovač. Do you think there is a disagreement between Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge about him?

ED: That is a big rumour. I speak with a lot of journalists that very closely cover Bayern and they will swear by it. To me there is some truth to it, because I have heard Rummenigge say in interviews things like “nobody’s job is guaranteed”, which is a politically correct way of putting it. Colleagues have told me that the return leg against Liverpool left Rummenigge deeply upset. He is critical of Kovač’s system.

As for Hoeness, he believes that he made a mistake in 1991 when he sacked Jupp Heynckes. He believes he rushed into it and that Heynckes should have been given more time. The success of Bayern under him years later only reinforced this idea. He is afraid of making the same mistake with Kovač, and thinks that if the club provides a younger squad, the manager can deliver. I think this disagreement is real, and it is real in fans as well. The German fans I have spoken to are, in their majority, not satisfied with Kovač’s performance. This didn’t happen with Guardiola or Ancelotti. 

SR: If Kovač were to leave Bayern, who do you think would be a suited successor?

ED: The main factor playing in Kovač’s favour is that not many suited managers are available. Ten Hag is a possibility. We should remember that Peter Bosz’s outstanding season with Ajax, reaching the Europa League final, earned him a place in Dortmund. He failed there and now he is struggling in Leverkusen. Not every manager can translate success in a lesser team to success in a big one. Ajax is a team less burdened by pressure and with a far younger squad. At Bayern, it only takes three or four bad results for even well-established players and directors to cast doubt on you.

I always said that to me, even if it is a risky decision, Xabi Alonso is the man to manage Bayern. First, his German is perfect. Second, I believe that this theory of Germanising the dressing room is out of the eighteenth century. Seeing football in an inherently German way is fine, but the country also has to be open to other ideas. Other leagues are far smarter in that respect. People in Dortmund have told me that Simeone would be perfect for BVB, but they acknowledge that his not speaking German would come into play at the first sign of trouble.

To me, Xabi Alonso is right not only because he does speak German and because he played in the world’s three best leagues, but because he worked under managers of all kinds. He has massive experience. I saw it in every interview I had with him after games. Most players will give you the usual lines: “we gave it our all”, “we deserved a better result”. Xabi Alonso gave you a tactical analysis of the game in every answer. He showed you things about the game you hadn’t even noticed. He is very intelligent and knows the club. His managerial experience is short, but when Guardiola signed for Barcelona, he had only taken charge of the B team. Zidane took over Real Madrid straight from Castilla. 

The upheaval

SR: Ahead of a summer of many changes and with a couple of transfer seasons behind him, another questioned figure at Bayern is Hasan Salihamidzić. His handling of the Callum Hudson-Odoi negotiation is a very negative point and many people think he is not half the sporting manager Matthias Sammer was. What do you think of his performance?

ED: It’s clear that so far he has failed to meet the standards. However, I think he can be cut some slack. Bayern didn’t sign anyone last summer, so you can’t really say he did a good or a bad job. Gnabry had already signed and returned from a loan. Goretzka came on a free transfer. We will see him really go to work this summer. Still, it caught my attention how the negotiation with Chelsea for Hudson-Odoi went, and even how the Lucas Hernández transfer happened. Bayern usually strike by surprised with signings and announce them way in advance.

Both Atlético Madrid and Chelsea complained about Bayern’s way of proceeding. That didn’t happen before. Lucas Hernández strikes me as a very good signing, as does Pavard. We shall see what else they come up with. Going for Timo Werner, to me, is a mistake, however. 

SR: Of the rumours making the rounds regarding whom Bayern will sign, what do you think has most truth to it?

ED: There are many elements here. The first and foremost is whether Kovač stays or leaves. Every new manager at Bayern did relatively little to alter the face of the squad in their first season. They respect the system they inherit. Even Guardiola. The players that come in will depend on the manager’s needs. Kovač played with a 3-5-2 at Frankfurt. If he stays at Bayern, a backline with Pavard, Süle, Lucas Hernández with Alaba and Kimmich as wingbacks is feasible. In that case, it’s hard to think they will use two wingers because they will need more central midfielders. However, Rummenigge did say the team needs more players on the wings.

Thus, naming players becomes very hard, not least because the market is terribly inflated. One player I do like a lot, and about whom I agree with Rummenigge that he is underused, is Paulo Dybala. He can offer a lot as a second striker. Timo Werner doesn’t strike me as a smart lad. I don’t think he has the ability to play at Bayern. And signing him would entail conflict with Leipzig and a massive price tag. If there’s anything Leipzig don’t need, it’s money.

SR: James Rodríguez is another hot topic at Bayern. Rummenigge wants to sign him, while Hoeness and Kovač are less inclined. James himself is said to be ridden with doubt. You have commented a lot on this, what is your view?

ED: I spoke with James recently. His reasons to be unsure of signing permanently for Bayern are strictly personal and not at all related to sporting matters. Naturally, he would like to have more playing time, but it is down to personal matters which I will, of course, keep to myself. They are completely sensible, and I can relate to them as an expat. I don’t question his position in that respect. However, I do believe he is receptive and open to a permanent move.

What people in the club are saying is that the players’ minds change dramatically when they are on the pitch more often and feel that they are important. James’ problem right now is that Kovač will likely keep the team relatively unaltered after the Dortmund game. Still, my opinion is that Bayern will eventually sign him.

One interesting thing that has surfaced recently and that I heard from a colleague, is that the loan agreement contains a clause that forbids Bayern from signing James simply to resell him at a higher value. If they sign him, they keep him. This is, of course, a rumour, but it is gaining traction. To me, in this reconstruction of Bayern, a 27-year-old player with that much experience for €42m, is something they can’t let go. I think they will end up convincing him to stay.

Bonus: Dortmund and Leipzig into the future

SR: Do you think that a lack of domestic competition hampered Bayern in previous seasons? Is Lucien Favre’s Dortmund project a veritable challenge for the future?

ED: Without a doubt. I said this would affect Juventus as well, and we saw what happened with Ajax. For eight months they are cruising along, and suddenly they need to kick into top gear in March and April. I had a bit more faith in Bayern this year, and they let me down completely. This year they had fewer injuries, and they reached the Round of 16 at a time when they were chasing Dortmund in the league. This motivated them. But they let me down. When Guardiola was at Bayern, being so far ahead in the league hampered their performance in the Champions League, but also the injuries.

Favre’s Dortmund will continue to challenge Bayern. They too will rebuild and rejuvenate, even if not at the scale Bayern will. Dortmund started that this year, very cleverly. In two or three seasons, Leipzig will be the established third force in Germany. Their policy is very smart as well. They focus on youth and they are bringing along Julian Nagelsmann who I think is a very interesting manager and will have every resource at his disposal.