The last time Jupp Heynckes left Bayern Munich in 2013, he left behind an all-conquering, treble winning side for one of the most thorough tacticians and probably the best coach in modern football. Pep Guardiola’s job was simple, to keep the flow of trophies coming while settling in his trademark footballing style in Bavaria.
Come to 2018, Heynckes is again leaving Bayern, but this time he is leaving behind a team which is only the Bundesliga champions. Having been knocked out of the UEFA Champions League by a rather opportunist Real Madrid, the Bayern head coach wanted to leave on a high by winning the DFB Pokal.
Instead, he ended up being beaten by his successor, Niko Kovac of Eintracht Frankfurt, who led the Eagles to their first Pokal win since 1998.
Kovac’s appointment was met with plenty of scrutiny after the confusion that reigned within the upper hierarchy at Bayern about their next coach. Torn between keeping Heynckes for another season and the demand for having a German speaking coach who builds a positive environment saw them deter and delay approaches to potential replacements, which saw Thomas Tuchel, the most logical choice, join Paris Saint-Germain.
Having lost out on the ideal peg for their hole, Bayern acted quickly to get Kovac, a former player. Fans and many pundits weren’t sold on Kovac being able to handle the big egos and demands of the dressing room in Munich.
But Kovac knows Bayern Munich. Even though before Eintracht, his career had relatively less noteworthy touches on his CV, his time as Croatia head coach could be only termed as satisfactory.
However in Frankfurt, he not only saved Eintracht from relegation, he also made them contenders for European slots in the Bundesliga, along with two successive DFB Pokal finals. That is due to his shrewd signings, which included a revitalised Kevin-Prince Boateng, Sebastien Haller, Carlos Salcedo and Ante Rebic; coupled with development of players under him – Boateng played like he was highly motivated and wanted to play for the shirt.
Mijat Gaćinović has developed into a fine player and Jetro Willems, who was once considered a prodigy failed to build on early promise in the Netherlands, has cemented his place at left back. Similar can be said of Danny Da Costa. Kovac has shown he can build and develop teams and players.
Even though his move to Bayern was announced before the end of the Bundesliga season, much to the fury of Eintracht officials, Kovac managed to keep the players motivated and fired up to finish the season on a high. The players respect Kovac as seen by their performance in the final and the celebrations after.
The DFB Pokal win gave some more insight into Kovac’s match preparation. Set up to exploit Bayern’s lack of pace with Mats Hummels and Niklas Süle, with Rebic and Marius Wolf acting as direct threats on the counter with Boateng feeding them. Makoto Hasebe, Jonathan De Guzman and Omar Mascarell closed space and pressed Bayern’s creative players Javi Martinez and Thiago Alcantara into inefficiency.
While the revitalised Willems and Da Costa tried to keep Joshua Kimmich and David Alaba from overloading the flanks. This was a plan built on meticulous study of how Bayern play, and while Bayern did manage to see a lot of the ball, they only managed five shots on target out of a total 22 taken – an accuracy of 23%.
While Frankfurt struggled with Thomas Müller’s movements inward and Kimmich overlapping on the right flank, which eventually led to Bayern’s equaliser, Frankfurt’s David Abraham and Salcedo stood firm. On the counter, Rebic, the star of the night, ravaged Süle and Hummels, exploiting their lack of pace. If Kovac can use that to win the Pokal, he must make sure to find a way to fix it next season.
Kovac’s in game management was top class as well. After taking the lead for the second time, he brought in Marco Russ for De Guzman, and shifted to a back three to reduce the space in and around the box for Müller, James Rodriguez & Co. to exploit, while allowing Hasebe, a fantastic reader of the game to win the ball freely. And of course, Gaćinović, who came in for Wolf, finished the game off, giving a much-needed cup win for Kovac and Eintracht Frankfurt.
After the game, Kovac went on to Heynckes and apologised for ruining his farewell, showing he is a man of class as well. While Jupp would have loved the Pokal, he must be happy about seeing his successor outplay him.
Kovac is no Tuchel, but he is his own man and coach. Bayern may not have signed the obvious, big name coach, but they have a coach who can make a big name for himself in Munich, and he’s started the foundation work before he joins them.