The audio version of this article can be heard as part of the upcoming Onside Inzaghi podcast.
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 5th by week 12 having won just 2 of their previous 8 Bundesliga games, Niko Kovac’s tenure as Bayern Munich 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 Dortmund which put them back on top of the Bundesliga of the Bundesliga, a 14th win in 16 league games since the start of December, Kovac 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 cup final win over his future employers in his final game in charge last season, whether his combative, pragmatic style, which resulted in the most Bundesliga yellow cards in both full seasons with Eintracht, 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 4th having finished 8th last term.
Kovac’s tactical awareness in particular has been scrutinised 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 it, that doesn’t mean I can’t.” While that may be the case, the feeling persists that Kovac has been unable make his mark on an aging Bayern team, that Munich were on auto pilot and that Kovac may have even been a little out of his depth.
That however, has started to change. While Kovac may have been at best third choice for the Bayern job, Jupp Heynckes retiring and Julian Nagelsmann honouring his contact at Hoffenheim before a move to Leipzig at the end of this season, Bayern’s domestic campaign has finally started to coalesce of late. The devastating 5-0 demolition of Dortmund in Der Klassiker on Saturday evening followed 6-0 wins over Mainz and Wolfsburg in their two previous home games after a 5-1 win at Champions League chasing Monchengladbach, which, along with the massive swing on Saturday, means their goal difference is 15 better than Dortmund’s. Last week’s 1-1 draw at Freiburg represented Munich's only dropped points in seven league games before the crucial meeting with Lucien Favre’s Dortmund. At one stage trailed BVB by nine points.
Bild were unsurprisingly far more positive on Kovac’s management by Sunday morning, highlighting the importance of the freedom given to Thiago Alcantara, as Kovac explaining "we changed the system [in midfield] to a six and a two eights. That was the key to success."
"It was a lesson... Bayern were much better, much faster." said Favre afterwards. Thomas Delaney agreed: “It’s hard to say what the exact difference was” said the Dortmund midfielder. “They were physically, mentally and tactically better than us, everything. We just got schooled” Munich, who’s fans bizarrely took the chance to protest the club’s mint green away shirts with a tifo featuring former midfielder Stefan Effenberg in a deckchair holding a cocktail alongside a banner reading “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 a growing sense of inevitably, Mats Hummels’ simple 10th minute header from a corner was followed 7 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 5th late on. The 30 year old forward reached the 200 mark in 284 games, second quickest to reach that mark after the legendary Gerd Muller who took 234 appearances.
Although Favre’s meticulous, nuanced although sometimes pernickety coaching has proved revolutionary this season at the Westfalenstadion, Dortmund already accruing 8 points more than their total of last season which saw them finish 4th, the Swiss manager drew criticism for leaving out Mario Gotze and deploying Marco Reus in attack with top scorer Paco Alcacer injured. Reus protested afterwards that it's not his ‘favorite position’. “It's easy to say after the game that it was not a good idea.” conceded Favre, “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 the mistakes of youth team footballers and that Lewandowski's first, 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 typically brash in their criticism of Favre’s approach, who tactics supposedly “went completely to shit”, while Monday’s issue of Kicker carried the headline ‘Scared, Hesitant and Miserable’ in reference to Dortmund's “non-performance.” Bayern were, by contrast, described as “passionate, persistent and masterful.”
However, Hans-Joachim Watzke, Dortmund CEO, retained some positivity. 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 analyze internally: What could we have done better? Could we have done things differently?”
Although Munich Sporting director, and former Bayern midfielder, Hasan Salihamidzic said "The coach and the team have done a lot better," Rummenigge nevertheless told Sky that Niko Kovac’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.” Nevertheless, the win may prove pivotal for Kovac. His tactical tweak in midfield combined with the benching of James Rodriguez, Marca reporting it as more tactical that injury related, was a rare sign of Kovac imposing himself on an entrenched Bayern team.
Meanwhile 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 euro 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, Kovac 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 Dusseldorf and Leipzig to come as well as a final day meeting with Kovac’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 Kovac 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