Did FC Bayern Munich have a solid season or a disappointing one? We could provide a short-term and agenda-driven answer, but a proper evaluation has to factor in a squad rebuilding process with the future in sight.
If we narrow our view to the 2018-19 season with a pair of realism glasses on the tip of our nose, the harvest wasn’t bad at all. A seventh straight Bundesliga title, with 78 points, after falling into an early hole. A DFB-Pokal win. In Europe, Bayern fell to Liverpool in the Round of 16.
By historical standards, the team hit two targets by winning domestic titles. It failed to earn a spot in Champions League quarters, the yearly goal imposed by the Board. We have mixed results.
There is nothing wrong on the surface, but the process that led to such results was often painful. The Reds’ defence was often weak in the first half, thanks to a mix of tactical hesitance and individual decline. When the ship was back in calm waters in the second half of the season, the damage was already done. The Bayern fan base and the media were already up in arms.
Despite the problems, Niko Kovač and his boys delivered a double, which is symbolically a better performance than “Heynckes IV” caretaker regime that preceded. Had Jupp delivered a double in the same fashion, nobody would have complained because his name is far more respected than anyone else’s.
Broadening our view, we need to take a good look at the rebuilding process that is underway. If the “mixed results” feel unsatisfying, it is because the team doesn’t project dominance. FCB never looked capable of genuinely challenging Liverpool in the Champions League. They struggled in many domestic matches that could have been blowouts.
It’s easy to look dump blame at coach Niko Kovač’s doorstep, but I find that simplistic. Ageing players on the verge of leaving, an unsatisfied and often underperforming central midfield diva and struggling central defenders undermined the team’s fortunes during the season.
There is much work to do to rebuild that squad.
At goalkeeper, it may be time to think about Manuel Neuer’s succession. There are serious question marks regarding his ability to deliver stellar performances as regularly as in the past.
Work is well underway at centre-back. Mats Hummels goes back to Borussia Dortmund. Jérôme Boateng may leave in the summer as well. Lucas Hernández and Benjamin Pavard are coming in a few days. They are versatile, with the ability to centrally and on the flanks. Adding a “true” centre-back to complete a quartet with Niklas Süle would make sense. Finding a backup full-back to replace Rafinha may also be a necessity.
The central midfield may not need that much work. Corentin Tolisso, Thiago Alcântara, Javi Martínez and Leon Goretzka can form a solid core. I consider Renato Sanches as a very promising talent, but can he get sufficient playing time to develop?
On the wings, Kingsley Coman has returned to form in the late season, and Serge Gnabry is the revelation of the year. Round that up with a couple of additions to have another strong quartet on the flanks. In the middle, Thomas Müller, Robert Lewandowski and the Polish striker’s eventual backup.
FC Bayern are not short of money. Signing talented players is more about negotiating the right deals than scraping for cash. They should also dare to give youngsters a chance since there is talent in the academy.
Creaky back line
Beyond beefing up the squad, the number one priority is making the Bayern defence respected and fearsome.
Why did FCB fail to beat Liverpool? Because the defence that conceded so many goals needed the whole team to drop back and prevent a bloodbath in the first leg. That conservatism prevailed once again in the second leg. The Bavarians were looking for a way to wrestle their way out of the ropes, but a silly mistake destroyed their plans.
It is not overly complicated to grasp the problem when you are familiar with sporting competitions, especially when you have been involved in them yourself.
How do you drive forward to create scoring chances in football when your back line is deemed unreliable? The answer is: you do not. Lack of confidence in the guys at the back prevents you from attacking effectively.
Think of it in terms of a sport that is the subject of constant analogies: boxing. If you think that your opponent’s fists will do more damage than your own, holding your hands very high and hiding behind them is a logical strategy. You don’t throw as many shots. You may also lose the fight as soon as you open up. Were you more confident in your ability to avoid taking a punch, your offensive skills would shine.
Balance is necessary to win in all sports, including football. If your attack is not a threat, opponents take more risks, without the fear of getting hit on the counter. If your defence is not solid, you are tentative on the ball and cannot create chances. The two dynamics can easily reinforce each other and lead to disaster.
Reinforcing the back line’s manpower to make it versatile is the first step to break the pattern. With the right players under his watch, it would be Kovač’s job to reorganise the tactical scheme.
Stop blaming Kovač
The coach himself took a lot of flack for the team’s weak moments in 2018-19, and it was often unfair.
FC Bayern do too little to promote players from the youth ranks, but how is that the Croat’s fault? David Alaba and Thomas Müller are the only stars who came from the academy… when Louis van Gaal was in charge. In almost a full decade, Heynckes, Guardiola and Ancelotti have done little with young players besides testing them in training camp.
My only criticism of Kovač in that regard is that he could have played Renato Sanches more often last season. He did, after all, state publicly that he wanted to have him in the squad. Without James Rodríguez, some playing time could go his way, but keep in mind that the team would still have five central midfielders.
Many observers thought that the tactics were stale, but the coach had his hands tied by the Board. Without squad reshaping, the old regime was still in place. Many players used outdated possession tactics.
The same logic applies to individual player declines. Anyone who watched Jérôme Boateng’s career knows that he started slowing down a couple of years ago. Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry lost some of their effectiveness years ago as well.
The real Judgment Day
Therefore, I call 2018-19 a season of transition, analysis and troubleshooting, with a double at the end. A proper evaluation of Kovač’s reign can only start in 2019-20. I expect substantial improvements.
If Bayern look entirely out of European contention in the spring of 2020, it will be time to think about the coach’s responsibility. He already got a couple of significant signings. His personal choice of assistant, Hansi Flick, was granted. More transfers will probably be made, and the club usually gets the head coach’s approval before going forward.
We are more likely to see a Bayern team that resembles what Kovač wants to see at the end of the summer transfer window. Accountability starts at that point, not when you pick up the pieces from an era that vanished.