Examining the Niko Kovac hire by Bayern

After months of speculation, more rejections than a run of the mill soap opera, a lot of cajoling on the part of management to convince Jupp Heynckes (who has given his blessing)to stay, Bayern have finally settled on their new coach: Niko Kovac, who has been a savior at Eintracht is to take over on a three-year deal effective July 1st:

Kovac? Wasn’t there anyone better? Well…..

That was the initial reaction from a lot of Bayern fans, and hiring a 46-year-old with just 84 games of Bundesliga experience to go with 19 games in charge of Croatia is certainly cause for concern. Yet, keen observers of the Bayern coaching search have seen the following passengers get off the carousel: Thomas Tuchel was probably the number one candidate, but after two courting sessions and an endorsement from Jupp Heynckes, the former BVB manager couldn’t come to an agreement with Uli Hoeness (Karl-Heinz Rummennigge supported Tuchel) and turned down the job in late March. PSG, beating out Arsenal (did you really think a reunion with Sven Mislintat could ever work?), appear to have secured his services.

 

Uli’s pick of the bunch was Julian Nagelsmann whose star has somewhat unfairly fade. People are quick to forget that his fourth placed TSG side were overachievers last year, in a season where Gladbach (ninth place), Schalke (tenth), Leverkusen (twelfth) and Wolfsburg (16th) all whiffed in the Bundesliga. In addition, almost every Hoffenheim player ended up having career years (Wagner and Ádám Szalai combined for 19 goals!!).  Stripped of  the spine of the team in Süle, Rudy and Wagner by Bayern and Toljan leaving for BVB left Nagelsmann with 19-year-old Dennis Geiger, a week removed from playing in the Regionalliga to try to control the midfield against Liverpool, who last I checked are doing okay in the Champions League. Having never set up the squad depth-wise to compete in Europe due to budget constraints and poor decisions, Havard Nordtveit is not an upgrade in any sense of the word, Justin Hoogma is yet to play, Felix Passlack is playing for the reserves, Nagelsmann is only just begun to turn TSG’s season around. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge was probably not all that fond of the 30-year-old to begin with, Heynckes definitely did not support him, and Dietmar Hopp’s decision to include a no buyout until the summer of 2019 further complicated matters for Bayern and for Dortmund. Just as an aside, both Nagelsmann and Kovac average 1.56 points in 89 and 84 Bundesliga games, respectively….

Ralph Hasenhüttl was also among the people considered, as the former Bayern reserve striker had still not extended his contract (runs out in 2019) at Leipzig, but it’s not as if RBL have had a fun campaign. They failed to make it out of the Champions League group that had Porto (a point behind Benfica in Portugal), a rebuilding Monaco that had sold its stars (Mendy, Silva, Bakayoko) for 180 million pounds to England and the tricky Besiktas (third place in Turkey) side whose stadium in Istanbul was too much for Timo Werner, and whose B team ultimately proved too much for Leipzig, needing a win in front of the RB faithful. Getting past Napoli, who could not care less about the Europa League on their quest for their first scudetto since the days of Diego Maradona was still an achievement, but a dismal showing against Marseille in the return leg ended their run. It speaks volumes of the struggles of Hasenhüttl, that Péter Gulácsi who made four or five incredible saves at the Velodrome and was the team’s best player on the night has also got that award for the season. Hasenhüttl has struggled with his rotations, Naby Keita’s concentration has been lacking, Emil Forsberg has missed huge chunks of the year, Timo Werner is brilliant in spurts, while new signings Kevin Kampl (looks a little forlorn on the European stage), Konrad Laimer (poor as a makeshift RB) Jean-Kevin Augustin (not a clue defensively, frustrating) and Bruma (dribbling wizard, who’s even more frustrating – also please don’t ever play him at LWB) haven’t really worked out. Of course, injuries to Sabitzer, Forsberg, Marcel Halstenberg, Keita’s suspensions have not helped, but one gets the feeling that Hasenhüttl might have been the beneficiary of a maiden campaign that included only the Bundesliga (remember they lost to Dresden in August in the DFB Pokal) and struggles to adapt to the changes. His attempts at mixing up the 4-2-2-2 into 4-4-2, or even three-man backlines have been disastrous and often it was hard to figure out whether Leipzig were prioritizing Europe or the Bundesliga. Unfortunately, neither has worked out, so it’s understandable that given the stylistic concerns – though Leipzig play a modern attractive style, I don’t think Bayern leadership and marketing – perhaps spoiled by Pep and Heynckes’ positional play was excited about having to sell, 125 second balls per game with high tempo gegenpressing and electric counters.

Lucien Favre knows a thing or too about counterattacks, but he is also a 2019 expiring, plus Dortmund appear to be rekindling the fire (he was to be the coach in the summer before Peter Bosz) to the tune of his 3-5 million Euro buyout.

Joachim Löw was also rumored but not interested, as the DFB coach (contract until 2020) intends to take a year off from coaching, were he to leave after the World Cup, which is not at all certain. Jürgen Klopp has just about no reason to leave Liverpool, especially given the success against Pep Guardiola and Manchester City, while Spurs coach Mauricio Pocchettino (sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic seems to be his biggest advocate, though potentially brining Harry Kane to replace Lewandowski would not have hurt either) does not speak German.

Sorry, Mehmet and Stefan!

As the search went on a certain picture of a German-speaking, Bayern-connected, tough, old-schoolish coach who undestands modern football (sorry Mehmet Scholl, Stefan Effenberg, Lothar Matthaus, etc) emerged, and it was someone who “Brazzo” was very much familiar with from his days at Bayern.

Making the case for Kovac – organized, efficient strict, tactically flexible and a leader

That January cover of Kicker magazine contained an interesting article with Kovac, who spoke out against the Aubameyang\Dembele sagas of player power and strikes (“that will end in anarchy!”) and eloquently presented his views on the importance of  youth development (“the reason why German football is where it is today” and “need to have the best coaches there, training kids to play small-sided games with lots of contact and focus on repetition”), the state of the Bundesliga (“Bayern are a dominant force, every other team needs to battle hard for 90 minutes, but the league still belongs to the top 3 in the world” while also handling difficult issues such as Qatar hosting the World Cup (“for a potential boycott to work, everyone would need to do it, but that is not realistic” and racism – where he showed remarkable empathy towards those who have suffered racist attacks and even offered potential solutions (education in kindergarten, punishment on the local\individual level at matches via bans, etc). In hindsight, it’s easy to see the kicker interview as a Bayern job interview, and Kovac successfully ticked all the boxes, even pointing out that he turned down a contract from Bayern as a HSV player, because he intended to fill out his contract. It was at the same time a very convincing interview that one could take at face value as a totally honest and thoughtful man giving his genuine opinions on various subjects, but there was something almost politicianesque about his answers. When he was asked about replacing Heynckes as the Bayern trainer he replied: “I can 100% guarantee that there is no contact to Bayern. As of today I’m the Eintracht coach next year, since I have a contract until 2019. I really like it here and am lucky to be so, things are moving in a good direction. We could get even further, that’s my wish!” Again, totally honest and convincing, but if you’re trying to deconstruct it, that “as of today” could be interpreted so many ways.

Moving past “Kicker hermeneutics” and  beyond interpretational disputes,  Kovac, since his appointment as the Eintracht Frankfurt coach has garnered praise around the Bundesliga for helping to turn “the moody diva” from relegation fodder to European hopefuls. Despite limited spending and living off discarded players and loanees, he already took die Adler into the DFB Pokal last season, and is again in the final four, with the Champions League still very much in reach in the Bundesliga. Though others are of course responsible for Frankfurt’s turnaround and you can read about that here,

Will Niko Kovac lead Eintracht Frankfurt into Europe ? – an analysis of die Adler’s rise in 2 parts

it’s easy to see why Kovac is the poster boy for the Frankfurt transformation. He’s eloquent, commands respect, and has an almost “cool uncle” like respect from his players. I spent a little time in his proximity in the mixed zone at a January game in Wolfsburg and aside from his striking looks, noticed that Ante Rebic looked at him with a reverence usually seen in mob movies. (Is Rebic the Christopher to Kovac’s Tony Soprano from “The Sopranos” ? is a question we will leave for later).

He’s also helped Mijat Gacinovic’s career take off, handled the integration of new signings Carlos Salcedo and Simon Falette into a defense that has veterans like David Abraham, Marco Russ or the versatile Makoto Hasebe, who has also shined in a CB/DM hybrid role. In addition, Kovac should get a lot of the credit for giving Luka Jovic – who could not hit the target in the Hinrunde – into a solid finisher, Marius Wolf (deemed surplus at Hannover!!) the confidence, turning Ante Rebic from “the most frustrating Bundesliga athlete not named Erik Durm” to the league’s most-improved player. Danny da Costa and Timmy Chandler are also not what one would call world-class wingers – I believe journeymen is the appropriate label – but Kovac has turned them into pressing monsters in defense and rampaging wingbacks in attack. Oh by the way, he also unleashed poor Jetro Willems from his doghouse last weekend against Hoffenheim. He’s gotten a tremendous season out of Kevin-Prince Boateng – they are both from the same district in Berlin – written off approximately 46 times in his career.  You can check out Kovac’s flexible tactics:

Will Niko Kovac lead Eintracht into Europe ? – Part 2 of the analysis of die Adler’s rise

but the quick summary is that Kovac has preferred a highish sitting (their average distance from their opponent’s goal is 37.7 meters, nearly identical to Bayern!) back five with athletic wingbacks and CBs capable of winning individual battles where CB/DM Hasebe can play long balls next to the single pivot playmaking of Omar Mascarell (or nowadays Jonathan de Guzman). Gacinovic used to the box to box solution alongside Boateng, but in recent weeks Marius Wolf has played that role with the Ghanaian often seen as a second striker. Ante Rebic and Sebastien Haller (recently Jovic has taken over after the Frenchman’s poor form) are the first line of the press, often supported by Wolf’s athletic runs and high-pushing wingbacks in an attempt to win the ball back quickly off the initial press. If the counter is on, Frankfurt are more than happy to take it, but if not recirculating the ball to the ball-retention strong back three and the single pivot is always a good option. Sure they don’t overwhelm you with a lot of open play goals – 22 is sixth best in the Bundesliga, with BVB, TSG and B04 at 30-37 and Bayern scoring 57! – and they rely a lot on set pieces: 13 set piece goals (penalties removed) is tied with Bayern for the lead.

Hey, Spielverlagerung, where is the Kovac interview?

50% possession, a plus 0.5 shots on target difference, 12 shots allowed at around 10% or 0.10 XG per shot  are all numbers that compare Kovac’s Frankfurt favorably to Schalke 04:, 49% possession, 12 set piece goals, +0.7 SOT difference, 11.2 shots allowed at 12.5%, not to mention expected points having them dead even.

 Questions

Of course there will be a number of questions that Kovac’s appointment at Bayern will have triggered, along with Fredi Bobic:

Is he a permanent solution and thus a departure from the juego de posicion style of aesthetic dominance of Bayern under Pep, or simply a bridge, a pragmatist who can adjust his tactics as needed in order to get results? How will that sort of ends justify the means go over at Bayern, a club where winning is a requirement, but style is a profound part of it? Will Bayern change to three in the back and how would that look like? Are there any Eintracht players (Rebic, Wolf) that could follow their coach? Will Kovac’s leadership abilities and Bayern DNA be enough to convince the stars like Robben or Ribéry (staying on another year) in crucial moments, or will he be thrown under the bus like Ancelotti? How will Kovac deal with the need for playing time for Kingsley Coman and Serge Gnabry, as well as the incredibly crowded midfield situation? What will happen should another team get off to a Boszesque hot start and Bayern struggle out of the gates ? (bring Heynckes back?) Is the decision to appoint Kovac a sort of compromise between Hoeness and Rumenigge and not the best solution for Bayern?

Still, given the hoopla and the sheer length of the coaching search, as well as all the rejections, perhaps the biggest question that Bayern executives are probably afraid to ask themselves is:

Is the Bayern job just not that attractive anymore?

 

 

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Abel started out watching and playing soccer in Hungary, before falling in love with the Bundesliga in the mid -90s (thanks to Kicker and Sat1's Ran). Now, he's in the USA -- and still loving it all many years later. Abel is faithful to BVB, but also endlessly fascinated by the emergence of new teams and talents from Germany, to the point that he even started a website about it, at www.bundespremierleague.com. Otherwise, you can find him working in publishing, teaching ESL, and/or drinking craft beer - not necessarily at the same time, or in that order. Abel tweets at @VanbastenESL and @BundesPL

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