A sense of belonging is important in football, of being the right fit. Having been far from first choice to replace the retiring Jupp Heynckes in the summer, his new team struggling in the autumn – dropping to fifth by week 12 having won just two of their previous eight Bundesliga games, Niko Kovač’s tenure as Bayern Munich head coach has carried a sense of the temporary, of insecurity. It was almost as if he was there by default rather than on merit. But after his sides devastating 5-0 Der Klassiker win over rivals Borussia Dortmund which put them back on top of the Bundesliga, a 14th win in 16 league games since the start of December, Kovač may finally fit.
Although the Croatian coach’s success with previous club Eintracht Frankfurt was undoubted, saving Frankfurt from relegation in 2016 before taking them into Europe via a glorious 3-1 DFB Pokal final win over his future employers in his final game in charge last season, whether his combative, pragmatic style seen with Eintracht – which resulted in the most Bundesliga yellow cards in each of Kovač’s two full seasons – would translate to the free-wheeling “FC Hollywood” remained questionable. Especially since Frankfurt’s form has accelerated in his absence, his former club currently sitting fourth having finished eighth last term.
Kovač’s tactical awareness had been criticised since his arrival. This week, when it was suggested he wasn’t a ‘tactical nerd’ like Thomas Tuchel or Pep Guardiola, the Croatian said: “That’s not true. At Frankfurt I was considered a ‘tactical nerd’ because I played so many different systems. When I came to Munich, there was already a system. The players feel comfortable in this system, so there is no need to make big changes. Just because I didn’t change the system, it doesn’t mean I can’t.” While that may be the case, the feeling persists that Kovač has been unable make his mark on an aging Bayern team, that Munich were on auto pilot and that Kovač may have even been a little out of his depth.
That however, has started to change. While Kovač may have been at best third choice for the Bayern job last summer, Jupp Heynckes retiring and Julian Nagelsmann honouring his contact at Hoffenheim before a move to RB Leipzig at the end of this season, Bayern’s domestic campaign has started to coalesce of late. The devastating 5-1 demolition of Dortmund in Der Klassiker on Saturday evening followed 6-0 wins over 1. FSV Mainz 05 and Wolfsburg in their two previous home Bundesliga games and a 5-1 win at Champions League chasing Borussia Mönchengladbach, which, along with the massive swing on Saturday, has aided their goal difference, now 15 better than Dortmund’s. Last week’s 1-1 draw at Freiburg represented Munich’s only dropped points in their seven League games before the crucial meeting with Lucien Favre’s Dortmund – who they had at one stage trailed by nine points.
Bild, for example, were unsurprisingly far more positive on Kovač’s management by Sunday morning, highlighting the importance of more freedom given to Thiago Alcantara, with Kovač explaining: “You probably saw it, but we changed the system [in midfield] to a six and a two eights. That was the key to success.
“It was a lesson, you have to say that clearly. Bayern were much better, much faster.” said Favre afterwards. A “lesson” was right as far as Thomas Delaney was concerned: “It’s hard to say what the exact difference was,” said the Dortmund midfielder. “They were physically, mentally, tactically better than us, everything. We just got schooled – this it.” Munich, who’s fans bizarrely took the chance protest the club’s mint green away shirts with a tifo featuring former midfielder Stefan Effenberg in a deckchair holding cocktail and the banner “something for vacation, not the football stadium”, were devastating from the start.
Despite Mahmoud Dahoud hitting the post from close range at 0-0, which theoretically could have changed the game, the first half, described by Robert Lewandowski as the “perfect 45 minutes”, saw the home side race into a 4-0 lead and was played out with growing sense of inevitably, Mats Hummels simple 10th minute header from a corner was followed seven minutes later by a catastrophic error from 19-year-old French centre back Dan-Axel Zagadou which allowed Robert Lewandowski to score his first, Zagadou’s nervous display saw him withdrawn at halftime. But not before Javi Martinez’s drive and Serge Gnabry’s late first half strike made it 4-0. The second half proved rather superfluous but Lewandowski was able to pass 200 Bundesliga goals with a fifth late on. The 30-year-old forward reached the 200 mark in 284 games, second quickest to reach that mark behind the legendary Gerd Müller – who did it 234 appearances.
Although Favre’s meticulous, nuanced although sometimes pernickety coaching has been somewhat revolutionary this season at the Westfalenstadion, Dortmund already occurring eight points more than their total of last season which saw them finish fourth, the Swiss manager drew criticism for leaving out Mario Götze and deploying Marco Reus in attack with top scorer Paco Alcácer injured. Reus said afterwards that this is not his ‘favourite position’. “It’s easy to say after the game that it was not a good idea,” conceded Favre afterwards “But I don’t know if it would have been better if we had played 4-4-1-1. We wanted to run in behind and Reus was the better man for that. That did not work,” he admitted.
A frustrated Reus described his team’s display as ‘catastrophic’, telling Sky Germany Dortmund “defended disastrously and deserved to lose. Honestly, I have no explanation.” Dortmund sporting director Michael Zorc meanwhile was particularly scathing, stating that some Dortmund players made mistakes that they hadn’t made since youth team football, before going as far to say that the second goal – scored by Lewandowski after a Zagadou mistake, was ‘almost an own goal.’ “We were lacking everything that makes a top team,” said Zorc. “I had the feeling we were not up to it mentally.”
Meanwhile Bild were typical brash in their criticism of Favre’s approach, who tactics supposedly “went completely to pants”, to put it politely, while Monday’s issue of Kicker carried the headline ‘Scared, Hesitant and Miserable’ in reference to Dortmund’s “non-performance” as they saw it. Bayern were, by contrast, described as “passionate, persistent and masterful.”
However, Hans-Joachim Watzke, Dortmund CEO, remained a little more positive. Interviewed alongside Bayern counterpart Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, despite conceding Bayern were now favourites and that the Dortmund’s display had been “unacceptable”, Watzke told Sky: “On Monday, Bayern will notice that they only get three points for this game, and we will realize that we are only one point behind. So far we have done more than we all hoped for [this season.] Now we have to analyse critically internally: What could we have done better? Could we have had to do things differently?”
Although Munich sporting director, and former Bayern midfielder, Hasan Salihamidzic, explained “The coach and the team have done a lot better,” Rummenigge nevertheless told Sky that Niko Kovač’s job isn’t necessarily safe beyond the summer. “We will analyse everything after the season ends. There was a phase when there was a lot of internal criticism otherwise we would not have had a nine point deficit” to start with. Nevertheless, the win may prove pivotal for Kovač. His tactical tweak in midfield combined with the benching of James Rodriguez, Marca reporting that this may have been more tactical that injury related, was a rare sign of Kovač imposing himself on an entrenched Bayern team.
While the signings of younger players such as both of France’s World Cup winning full back’s Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez, Hernandez’s €80m fee nearly doubling the Bundesliga record, while older pros are phased out, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Rafinha all leaving at the end of the season, Kovač now has a genuine chance to mould the team in his image.
As far as the title race goes, Bayern may only lead by one point and have a tougher run in with tricky trips to Düsseldorf and Leipzig to come as well as a final day meeting with Kovač’s former side Frankfurt, but Bayern’s form coupled with Dortmund only scraping wins in recent weeks after injury time winners against Hertha Berlin and Wolfsburg – not to mention the physiological effect of this 5-0 drubbing, the gap feels far bigger despite Lucien Favre rightly insisting beforehand that nothing would actually be decided at the Allianz Arena on Saturday. For Niko Kovač however, weather he wins the title or not, after the demolition of Dortmund may have finally proved he is a long-term Bayern coach.
By Adam White.
This piece was extracted from Onside Inzaghi, an exquisite European Football Journal.