Is Niko Kovač’s credit running out at FC Bayern München?

After a confident pre-season and start to 2019-20, Bayern are now plagued with doubts about their football. Niko Kovač is at the centre of the uncertainty. Is the Croat pushing his luck?

However you look at it, it is not a great time to be a Bayern fan. The team exhibits a chronic lack of pace and decisiveness in both attack and defence. Only Robert Lewandowski has risen up with the best numbers of his career. Indeed, the full clinical picture of Bayern, and the numbers that point to it, have been discussed at length. In this blog, we have been cautious not to board the #KovačOut bus – but is it possible that it may be nearing our stop?

Michel and Juan Pablo got together in this piece to weigh in on the current situation.

Juan Pablo: the cone of uncertainty becomes less uncertain

I have always likened a football team’s season to a hurricane forecast. There are many things that, on paper, are certain about a team at any given time. Most of them pertain to the track record of the team thus far in a campaign, and its current status. This much is obvious. We know how many Bayern players are injured, how many goals they have scored and conceded, et cetera.

We can compare these numbers to seasons past. What do the numbers say?

It’s not great. For the first time in upwards of 30 years, Bayern have conceded two or more goals in five straight games. Not since 2010-11 had the team’s position in the Bundesliga been so feeble. Michel himself said in a DW piece that this is the weakest Bayern team since Louis van Gaal came in to help fix a team in shambles.

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This comes in a season where Bayern supposedly went into uncharted waters to bolster the team and finalise the much-heralded transition. Bayern signed high-profile to make fist meet table and issue a statement of intent. Even if Bayern missed out on other transfers – many of which were said to be the club’s first choices – the shopping cart at the end of August was nothing to sneeze at.

What Bayern way?

Despite all of this moving around, Bayern are a soulless team at the moment. I have no idea how Niko Kovač wants his players to play, what tactical strategies he seeks to implement. The possession game presents itself as a remnant of the Guardiola era, hard-coded into the collective imaginary of the squad, but not a conscious choice by the current technical staff.

Manuel Neuer took to the press after the Olympiacos game to say that the team’s performances haven’t been “Bayern-like”. What exactly is that in 2019? Like I said, Bayern have almost no difficulty in seeing more of the ball. Opposition teams are quite okay with that; they know they can use Bayern’s fundamental concept against them because the defending is awful. Bayern no longer choke the opposition into submission in their own half. They simply push upfield in a lukewarm, disjointed manner, making themselves sitting ducks for counterattacks that stab directly into its glaring weak points.

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I attribute much of that to two factors. The first is mentality. There is no apparent will to obliterate the opposition, no drive to seek goals whatever the scoreline is. Bayern exhibit no joy in their football. A worrying lack of self-examination compounds this. Niko Kovač said after the draw against Augsburg that he was satisfied with the team’s performance. I was at an absolute loss. The manager of Germany’s most successful club claimed to be satisfied with a draw against a contender for relegation, which came with conceding a goal before the first minute of the game had elapsed.

Make no mistake: such a statement is unacceptable. The worst part is the discourse appears to have imbued itself into the squad as well.

A distaste for grey

The second factor is an inability to make good use of resources. Kovač attempted last season to adopt a heavy rotation scheme. He then renounced rotating altogether, after a string of bad results that nearly cost him his job. What he fails to see, in my view, is that no rotation is as bad as excessive rotation. Being a manager is as much an exercise in tactics as it is an exercise in HR. Kovač neglects the players whom he sees as non-starters. This time, he has condemned a club icon like Thomas Müller to that hell of benchwarming.

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Don’t get me wrong: a manager should have absolute freedom to field the players they choose. However, a season is very long. Kovač keeps saying his substitutes will get their chances, but the truth is that no player can be expected to suddenly perform after a long period of sitting most of the action out.

Going from one extreme to the other, in almost any situation, does not solve a problem. It simply creates a new one.

Does he have a plan?

Ultimately, this is the question for which I can’t find an answer. I cannot point to a roadmap Niko Kovač has devised for Bayern. He does not seem to be in touch with the realities and demands of the football club. As such, while I still don’t think he should be shown the door, I am more inclined than ever to say that he is not the man for the job. I’m not asking him to bring a treble to Säbener Strasse. Guardiola didn’t. But at least he had a plan.

Michel: badly managed squad

All the points raised by Juan Pablo are correct. We gave Kovač a free past last season because he did not have the benefit of a renewed squad in a transition year. He still pulled off a double.

This season is different. The injection of talent from the transfer market could take this team to a higher level. It does not make up for the lack of a proper youth promotion policy, but it does give the coach more options to work with.

What is Kovač’s response? Poor rotation, a leaky defence that still requires fixing and a little squad management. Some players spend too much time on the pitch. Others get fewer minutes than needed to be “responsive.” It is unacceptable that a club board member has to state “Javi must play” for a certain Spanish midfielder to finally start an important game.

Once he ended rotation and reintroduced the “double six” central midfield scheme last season, Kovač seemingly ran out of ideas. The team has been stagnant.

Practical solutions could include giving a chance to youth players. The last wave of promotions involved Thomas Müller and David Alaba in the van Gaal days. Youngsters have generally been taken to US and China tours, but have rarely featured in Bundesliga game. The last notable attempt was made by Jupp Heynckes in the final stretch of his caretaker tenure.

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Kovač has a unique chance to try some people out. The injury crisis in defence means he could play Lars Lucas Mai as centre-back and see if he can “graduate” to the first team. It can’t happen if you don’t try it.

Limited time

While it was normal not to ask for the coach’s head a year ago, scrutiny will only intensify. With a patched up team and greater time into his tenure, Kovač bears far more responsibility for results today than he did in 2018. Novelty, lack of options and the need for adaptation have worn off.

Kovač must bring better squad management and tactics to the table, or he will be considered as directly liable for failures that seem inevitable for the second half of the season.

Time is always short at Bayern. You are never too far from the chopping block, no matter how likeable you are as a person. If you don’t have the most amazing start, you must develop. This is where Kovač does not succeed into his second season.

Final thoughts

Wake up, Niko. What you have done at Eintracht Frankfurt was lovely. You lifted a team out of the relegation zone and paved the way for an era of success. Today, your task is to make Bayern contenders in Europe.

The team is not going in the right direction as we speak, and you must improve your ways. Otherwise, those who whined about your nomination will ultimately be proven right. No coach wants a big red “unfit for Bayern” sticker in the history books.