Dominance; so often an end-goal in many walks of life. Be it empire-building throughout history, establishing dynasties in sport, or the growth of the American and European economic powerhouses of the 18th, 19th, and 20thcenturies, we as a species have an inherent thirst for conquest. While this thirst has advanced our civilization in immeasurable ways, it has also led to the eventual decline of countless rulers, nations, companies, and yes, teams.
Bayern Munich are the unquestioned masters of German football. Their twenty-eight league wins are three times the amount of the nation’s second-most successful league winner, 1. FC Nuremberg. When you add their DFB-Pokal success (Eighteen; the most in the competitions history), as well as a haul of eight European trophies since 1966, Die Bayern are a true domestic juggernaut as well as being part of the European elite. Like so many before them over the course of history, however, perhaps it has been this expected continuation of dominance and success that could be their undoing.
In the last 20-years, Bayern have tallied fourteen league wins; half their overall total, while winning the last six in a row. Ask most football fans and they’re of the opinion that the Bundesliga is arguably one of the most one-sided leagues in Europe. Regardless of how close the dog-fights are for the European places – and indeed relegation – no one could pry the Allianz Arena outfit off their lofty, and expected, perch. If football fans know it, then Bayern fans know it. If Bayern fans know it, then surely Uli Hoeneß, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, and the players not only know it, but expect it almost to the point of some sort of divine right.
Perhaps the warning signs were there though, evident and glaring this summer in Russia. World Cup holders Germany came into the tournament with a sense admitted feeling of not having to work to retain the trophy. The on-pitch performance by Die Mannschaft was, in a word, woeful, and Germany crashed out of the group stage in spectacular fashion. It could very well be perceived as a bit telling that a large contingent of the German squad were Bayern players; all of whom were seen as crucial pieces in the team.
Shockingly – but also not so shockingly – Manuel Neuer, Thomas Müller, Joshua Kimmich, Jérȏme Boateng and Mats Hummels all escaped deserved criticism, but that same mentality may now have crept into the Bayern camp, and not just amongst the nationalmannschaft contingent.
After their 3-0 home defeat to Borussia Mönchengladbach at the weekend, new manager Niko Kovač openly cited that Bayern are not playing as a team. When speaking to Sky Sport, he stated;
“I think everyone tried, but right now we’re not trying as a team. You have to act as a unit. At the moment we are making too many individual mistakes, which brings a certain amount of uncertainty to the team. Sometimes you have good times and you have bad times.”
It’s not dropping points that has seen the beginning of grumblings amongst certain quarters, but it’s the manner in which Bayern have performed that has caused some alarm bells to ring. In uncharacteristic fashion, the club have failed to register a win in their last four combined outings, including home draws against Augsburg and Ajax, to go along with Gladbach’s shock win on Saturday. But it was the rapid decline in results that took everybody for an unexpected loop.
After starting the season so brightly at the beginning of the Kovač regime, including a 5-0 thrashing of his former charge Eintracht Frankfurt in the Supercup, and credible wins against Hoffenheim, Leverkusen, Benfica, and Schalke. Sure enough, Bayern yet again seemed unstoppable as they swept aside admirable opposition as expected. Fast forward nearly three weeks and the tune has largely changed.
Many have pointed the finger at Kovačhimself. A former Bayern player himself, though never truly settling at the club during his two-year spell, his exposure to the club’s mentality, expectations, and fanbase made him an attractive managerial candidate. His success while at the helm of Eintracht Frankfurt and reinvigorating one of Germany’s most storied clubs was nothing to sneeze at. He led them to two successive DFB-Pokal final appearances, including a win against Bayern in 2017/18 edition, Die Adler’s first trophy since 1988.
Though a full Croatian international with eighty-three caps, Kovač is a native of Germany, having been born in Berlin to Croatian parents. He also spent the entirety of his professional career in Germany until the last three years where he would finish at Red Bull Salzburg. Indeed, he seemed a good fit for the club after their difficult period under Carlo Ancelotti, despite Jupp Heynckes coming out of managerial retirement to right the ship in the wake of the Italian’s unsuccessful spell. Kovač understood the club, the country, and the league in ways that Ancelotti could not, or didn’t want to, and his appointment was seen as enough to ensure Bayern’s continued reign over the nation’s top league; it may have been the wrong assumption.
As successful as he was with Eintracht, Bayern is another animal entirely. Past the obvious loftier expectations of a league win being the absolute minimum requirement for a successful season, Bayern boast a start-studded first-team which Kovač did not have to deal with in Frankfurt. The collective always came first at the Commerzbank-Arena but with Bayern comes many – and massive – individual egos that must be understood and even appeased.
With those egos comes the expectation from the board and the fans of the right type of football being played. Bayern are expected to dominate proceedings in every fixture, but this again is not something that Kovač was accustomed to. At Eintracht, his favoured 3-4-2-1 deployment preached defensive solidarity and relied on a heavily-structured system both with and without the ball. According to an insider story that Bild chose to run, there are feelings inside the Bayern camp that he is not tactically astute enough. With Heynckes, and naturally Pep Guardiola before him, Bayern could boast a clear and attractive style of play, far more expansive and fluid than what Kovač championed at his former charge. It’s perhaps a little ironic that Ancelotti suffered similar, if not the criticism during much of his tenure at Säbener Straße.
For all his perceived shortcomings, nothing can be taken away from Kovač regarding how he built his managerial career, and this is where much of the blame must be shifted away from him. As mentioned before, the players themselves must shoulder some of the responsibility in terms of their efforts on the pitch. Kovač’s system may not be one hundred percent ideal, but there must still be a required performance level maintained, and it’s clear it is not being met.
Even more importantly, however, the Bayern brass perhaps must suffer the largest percentage of wrath should matters this season not improve dramatically. Hoeneßand Rummenigge, supremely confident and spoiled in terms of Bayern’s domestic position, have overseen critical errors this summer which may prove fatal. Transfer dealings especially, which have begun to be questioned heavily in the aftermath of Bayern’s dip in form, and rightfully so. With Douglas Costa, Arturo Vidal, Sebastian Rudy, and Juan Bernat all departing the club this summer, the Bavarian giants have not only actively starved themselves of important pieces in the first-team, but have failed to sufficiently replace their losses.
Current long-term injuries to Corentin Tolisso, Rafinha, and Kingsley Coman, not only is Bayern’s decreased depth under the microscope, but an even heavier reliance will continue to be placed on the league’s oldest squad. With the acquisition of Leon Goretzka on a free from Schalke representing the clubs’ only major business this summer, the Bayern chiefs failed to press upon the need to address Boateng’s decline, lack of depth at centre-back and fullback, and the fact that both Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben, brilliant servants though they are, have now reached their mid-30’s. Renato Sanches being recalled from a torrid loan spell at Swansea to replace one of Vidal and Rudy summer should also be called into question. If Kovač’s task this season was already a difficult one, the state of decline of Bayern’s first-team will only serve to exacerbate the growing questions.
In the end, perhaps the appointment of Kovač will go down in history as the wrong one. Julian Nagelsmann, now RB Leipzig bound next season, has drawn attention from Bayern in the past while under the stewardship of Guardiola. More expansive in tactical terms than Kovač, with a more attractive brand of football, and a willingness to install faith in the youth pipeline, Nagelsmann may well have been the one that got away.
Be that as it may, there is still time for issues to be rectified. Unfortunately, it is not likely that the club higher-ups, its fans, or its players will be willing to give ground, but rather expand and demand that Kovač honour the Bayern way and adapt to them; something that may not be possible. Should their domestic position not improve to acceptable levels, it is likely that the former Bayern midfielder will go down as a villain in some circles, but the truth is that Niko Kovač has been asked to go to war without the right ammunition and still expected to win.
By Andrew Thompson.