Bayern delivered the double in grand form after a solid performance in the DFB-Pokal final. A season full of doubts ended in glory, but how many of those doubts remain?
I think it is safe to say that almost zero Bayern fans considered a double possible back in December. Not only were the team trailing by a large margin in the Bundesliga. Borussia Dortmund’s scintillating form contrasted starkly with that of Niko Kovač’s men.
In the Pokal, Bayern struggled to advance past lower-league teams like Drochtersen/Assel and Rödinghausen. In fact, Bayern failed to accrue victory margins of over one goal in all of their cup games save for the actual final.
But here we are, with a double in the club’s cabinets again. And with the benefit of hindsight, it’s time to assess the ills we discussed throughout a very rough year.
Complacency and profligacy
Bayern’s complacency with one-goal leads is symptomatic of a general malaise that plagued the Croat’s maiden season. All too often, the team allowed the opposition to regain momentum after drawing first blood. In several games, most notably against Fortuna Düsseldorf in the Hinrunde, this trend yielded disastrous results. What should have been comfortable wins against teams that capitulated early became nail-biters that all too often ended with Bayern dropping points.
This apparent apathy towards a tight result was often compounded by a chronic squandering of goalscoring opportunities when Bayern did give a damn. You need not go farther than the draw with Nürnberg for a prime example. Kingsley Coman’s one-on-one with the goalkeeper should have resulted in a goal – and a nail in the coffin to seal the title. Instead, he made a mess of it.
Cup final reprisal
Against Leipzig in Berlin, we saw a bit of the game where Bayern lifted their foot off the throttle. Ralf Ragnick’s men were clearly bamboozled by Robert Lewandowski’s opener. It was the time to put them to the sword and the game to bed. However, Bayern decided to fall back for a bit. Luckily, they went back to full steam late in the game to score two more goals. But that wasn’t always the case.
And so, complacency remained a problem even in the last game of the season. This lack of consistency in attack is right in line with many reports that Kovač is rather uninterested in developing the offensive phase in training. Journalists have said that he contently relies on individual qualities of players like Lewandowski and Coman to score goals. There is no clear plan for what the team has to do to create spaces and bring opposition defenders out of place.
Now, games like the 5:0 thumping of Borussia Dortmund indicate that Kovač does have a tactical answer to the attacking approach. Still, it remains to be seen if he can implement it to a degree where consistency is achieved.
Verdict: signs of improvement, but the problem remains.
Early in the season, Kovač relied heavily on rotation. He went as far as playing Leon Goretzka as left back against Augsburg in a game that ended with a draw. After a first half of the season full of rotation – often for the sake of it – the less-than-ideal state of the team forced the manager to abandon the idea by December. When I say “abandon” I mean Kovač virtually stopped rotating altogether.
When asked about this, Kovač pointed out that rotation would only happen in case of injury or exhaustion. “It’s my job to keep the players fit and fresh”, he said. “Not keep them happy”. The consistency of having a prototype starting XI based entirely on merit paid off. However, it also came at the expense of players who are in need of playing time to actually make a serious bid for a starting spot. It’s the kind of vicious cycle that throws off talent and makes it useless. Not having enough playing time means that there is a sizeable layer of rust hiding a footballer’s potential. This, in turn, results in fewer chances for increased time on the pitch.
The Sanches paradox
We all know who embodies this better than anyone at Bayern. It’s Renato Sanches. He made a statement with that fantastic goal in the Bundesliga closing game, but make no mistake. His performances throughout the season, with the exception of the game against Benfica in Lisbon, were subpar.
In great measure, this is Kovač’s fault. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying he should pamper problem players. But it’s also part of his job to help realise the potential of players on whom the club has placed hopes for the future. It’s part of his job to make these players become an actual part of the team. Sanches was never afforded the opportunities a young player needs to develop. If Bayern kept him, Kovač’s job description included getting him built up.
Bayern is in the midst of a transition. Players like Lars Lukas Mai, Joshua Zirkzee and Jeong Woo-yeong are knocking at the door and Kovač is playing deaf.
Verdict: it became a problem during the season, and it’s gotten worse.
Bar none, the return leg against Liverpool was Bayern’s darkest hour of 2018-19. All of us understood why the manager opted for a rather conservative approach at Anfield. However, there was no drive to complete the job in München. The team looked completely unable to push forward and find spaces. You don’t win football games without goals. This cluelessness in attack pertains to what I mentioned about Kovač not really being concerned with how the team paves the way for a goal. Individual quality might get you past Stuttgart, but it will not be enough against a world-class team like Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool. Kovač failed, in that game and other big ones that preceded it, to instill an aggressive, overrunning mentality to seek victory. And his defensive foundations, reliable as they were for much of the season, crumbled when Sadio Mané decided he’d had enough of Bayern.
Liverpool essentially lectured Bayern in what they were missing. The ability to shift into a higher gear that puts them out of reach of the opposition. We only saw that from Bayern in two big games: the aforementioned 5:0 on Dortmund and the last bits of the Pokal final.
Now, I can cut Kovač some slack. Bayern held off until the current transfer window to really overhaul the team and set the bulk of the transition in motion. Kovač had to work with the hand he was dealt with. Still, that hand was nothing to sneeze at. The team should have at least tried to do better. They’d done a good job at Anfield and the follow-up needed to be even better.
With a barrage of reinforcements incoming, the pressure is on Kovač from both fans and management to change the face of Bayern’s attack.
Verdict: this season was awful but the jury is out on whether Kovač has it in him to lead the way.
Something to build on
Bayern saved the best for last this season. A double is a remarkable achievement any way you look at it. However, my sensation is that Bayern fans still harbour doubts about how it came about. Had Borussia Dortmund not thrown the league away, we would be having an entirely different conversation. Kovač earned himself enough credit for people to see how he will turn things around in the coming season. All we know for sure now is he’s got his work cut out for him.