Niko Kovac: A boon or a bane for Bayern Munich?
Bowing out of the UEFA Champions League in the round of 16, finding themselves 2 points behind arch-rivals Borrusia Dortmund in the Bundesliga and scraping to a 5-4 victory against 2nd tier Heidenheim isn't quite the Bayern Munich way of doing things.
Yet under 43-year-old Niko Kovac, the German giants find themselves in this position and this situation begs for the question corresponding to whether Niko is the right man to lead the transition for the Bavarian mammoths.
First off, Niko Kovac had to deal with the departures of players such as Arturo Vidal, Sebastian Rudy and Juan Bernat who weren't replaced leaving Bayern with the 35-year-old Rafinha as the only backup fullback.
The aging trio of Robben, Ribery, and Rafinha didn’t help either coupled with the traumatic exit of his 7 German stars in the group stage of the World Cup. The World Cup winner Corentin Tolisso suffered a long term injury and with Javi Martinez not getting any younger, Bayern was only left with Thiago as a viable no.6. So Niko had a lot on his plate right from the start of his life at the helm of the 28-time German champions.
As the season progressed, Kovac searched for the winning formula for a long time and had to deal with the surprising loss of form of stars Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng which produced a string of poor results and was well on his way of losing the dressing room. He managed to turn things around towards the end of the Hinrunde and won the dressing room back as he earned the confidence of senior stars James Rodriguez and Robert Lewandowski.
Kovac should've been braver and while naturally, a coach can be afraid to play youngsters in his first season in charge of a big club, as a coach leading a transition he should have had the courage to tell the senior players in the squad that their time was over and give young players time to develop. He should've played Renato Sanches, Lars Lukas Mai, Woo-yeong Jeong, and Christian Fruchtl at least in the less important games.
Niko Kovac found that the Bavarian defence wasn't as safe as it once was and that frailties at the back can derail Bayern off its tracks. So Niko Kovac tried to turn the Bavarians into a well-oiled counter-attacking machine in a bid to reduce defensive lapses. He tried to do it against a host of teams, most famously against Liverpool, in which his team was branded too timid to attack.
His idea wasn't wrong but he failed to realize that the players he has at the helm are more skilled on the ball than off it which wasn't the case at Frankfurt. You simply can't counter-attack against a team of Liverpool's stature with the more important players such as James and Lewandowski not having that kind of flashy pace.
One of the major components, when you play on the counter, is that if your counter-attack breaks down, the opposition can find you in a very defensively vulnerable position for which you need pacy centrebacks especially when the opposition has players like Salah and Mane. That wasn't the case with Bayern fielding Sule and Hummels, both of whom lack the pace on the turn. So the selection of tactics simply wasn't correct for a game which mattered so much.
One of the main reasons why I was very excited for the arrival of Niko Kovac was his tactical flexibility which we haven't seen a lot at Bayern mainly due to the thin squad. With the necessary tools at hand, Kovac can play a 3 at the back, a 4 at the back and even a 5 at the back system with relative ease as he did at Frankfurt. He can also change between possession and counter-attacking football, which opens up a doorway to some previously unknown dimensions.
This although has a huge counterargument involving this season itself; that being the half time pep talks and tactical changes haven't worked in any way possible. Bayern even threw away a 3-goal lead in the 2nd half to the then relegation-threatened Fortuna Dusseldorf. This season Bayern have regularly put in poor 2nd half performances and were unable to change tactically to exploit the rival's weaknesses.
Whatever that Niko has tried in the second half has been hugely underwhelming and uninspiring. While Pep was tactically rigid he could give half time talks that would change 2-0 deficits into 4-2 wins against teams such as Juventus. If Kovac can't find a way to inspire the team or if he lacks the courage to change the team's tactical approach, then he will be neutralizing a major advantage.
While this season Kovac's counterattacking tactics did not bear us a lot of rewards, it can turn out to be a boon in disguise in the future. Bayern's traditional style of play i.e. building from the back has evidently helped weaker teams such as Hertha Berlin, Fortuna Dusseldorf and Freiburg earn points against Die Roten. Bayern's lack of decisiveness in front of goal is equally to blame for this disastrous season.
With the summer arrivals of the World Cup winning duo of Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez, and reported concrete interest in the likes of Callum Hudson-Odoi, Timo Werner and Nicolas Pepe adding to the existing array of youngsters, Bayern will have the tools to play fluid counterattacking and clinical football Kovac wants his Bayern to play and replace the existing Possession based philosophy.
Summing up, Niko Kovac can be a very successful coach at Bayern provided he has the courage to go against the Bayern brass the way Louis Van Gaal did back in 2009 and built the pillars on which Bayern won the treble and won 6 Bundesliga titles in a row. His tactical flexibility which is yet to be seen at Bayern, counterattacking expertise which is yet to be well oiled into the Bayern system and the passion for the club can reap lots of rewards for Bayern in the future.