Houston, we have a problem. Niko Kovač’s squad rotation is weak after seven Bundesliga matchdays, sacrificing performance and perhaps Thomas Müller’s future. What can be done?
First, let us evaluate the current problem. FC Bayern München are involved in a tight race at the top of the Bundesliga. Together with the Champions League and DFB-Pokal, the team may have to put up a fight to win an eighth straight domestic title.
For that to happen, coach Kovač will have to manage his squad very intelligently. He will need to rotate the players enough for the team to fire on all cylinders throughout the season. Otherwise, they will misfire.
For the most part, Kovač’s selections have made sense. Guys such as Benjamin Pavard, Serge Gnabry and Philippe Coutinho have excelled. The Croatian trainer would be crazy not to use them as much as he can.
Niklas Süle, Corentin Tolisso and Kingsley Coman have underperformed, but benching such talented players all the time is not necessarily a solution. Sometimes a guy needs time to find his legs, and sometimes injuries tie your hands.
However, Kovač made a mistake last Saturday against Hoffenheim. The starting XI that smashed Tottenham Hotspur 7:2 in the Champions League in midweek was mostly unchanged. Right when Thomas Müller could have taken over from Coutinho and Javi could have played instead of Tolisso, they “started” on the bench. You could even argue that Alphonso Davies or Ivan Perišić could have been on one of the wings instead of Coman.
Lack of rotation currently makes two victims. They are Thomas Müller and Javi Martínez. The Raumdeuter has only clocked 286 minutes in all competitions so far this season, against a paltry 88 for the defensive midfielder. In comparison, Manuel Neuer, Süle and Pavard have all played 630 minutes.
The root of Kovač’s mistake
In a team that needs strength in three competitions for the entire season, everyone has to chip in. It is not an option. Skills and experience from these two members of Bayern’s golden generation are needed to avoid exhausting the other guys. By failing to use his assets properly, Kovač may damage his team’s ability to win three trophies.
Why is he too conservative? Because he was burned in 2018-19. Bayern started the season nicely, but pundits and fans asked questions about a lack of rotation before an international break. He introduced it, and the team gradually slumped. It hit rock bottom when Borussia Dortmund took a 10-point lead in the Bundesliga.
Kovač saw the problem and restored order. He re-introduced the “double six” scheme in central midfield and picked the men who would start most games. It was practically the end of rotation at Bayern. The team climbed back in the table and won the Bundesliga. Achievement unlocked.
I can understand why the trainer would be reluctant to rotate the players once again. However, a lack of risk-taking can also backfire. Tired players lose form and guys who spend too much time on the bench are not sharp. Everyone needs to play to have sufficient momentum in team sports. Nobody has an on/off switch. That’s why coaches rotate in the first place.
Bayern’s coaching staff needs to find the right balance.
Thomas Müller’s problem
In an interview with kicker, Thomas Müller has admitted that he is not happy at the moment. He does not like the “trend” in squad selection, and does not see himself as a benchwarmer.
The Raumdeuter has not expressed desire for a transfer. Still, he did point out that further benchwarming would make him consider his future. The door is open for much speculation.
What does it mean? Several things.
First and foremost, Philippe Coutinho’s arrival at Bayern is a successful one. The Brazilian has performed well enough for Kovač to trust him in most games. He is very influential as a playmaker, making it hard for Müller to win the 10 position in the starting XI.
Give Hasan Salihamidžić credit for a smart loan signing.
Coutinho’s performances have to bring the best out of Müller. The Bavarian has to compete with his South American counterpart for playing time. This is perfectly normal at a club that needs to have two potential starters in all positions to compete for silverware on three stages. No one is too special to avoid it.
Everyone loves Müller, but it would be foolish to deny that his form is inconsistent since he missed a huge penalty shot against Atlético de Madrid in the spring of 2016. The event may have dented his confidence, and he has yet to fully recover.
Scores of Bayern fans would be incredibly sad if no.25 were to leave on a transfer this winter or next summer. Müller has to work hard, and Kovač has to give him sufficient playing time to make it happen. It is a joint responsibility.
We need Javi
Likewise, FC Bayern have a problem with Javi Martínez. For some reason, Kovač loves using Thiago Alcântara as a holding midfielder, diminishing his ability to direct the passing game. He also plays Tolisso too often despite spotty form.
Let us admit that Javi may not be the world-beater that he was in 2013. However, if you give him enough minutes on the pitch, he can still be a solid holding midfielder who slows down the run of play and kills counterattacks.
Once again, I argue for rotation for everyone to have fresh legs. Javi is the only pure defensive midfielder at FC Bayern. His skill set is crucial in football. If Kovač denies him that, he has to give people a damn good reason.
Managing a top club is difficult. However, when you sign up to be in the Bayern dugout, you have to deal with egos, a deeper talent pool and higher expectations. It’s time for Kovač to up his game, and it starts with rotation.