Mailbag Roundtable: December 2019
Our first question is a combination of several questions we received: “Where did Flick have the strongest impact in his tenure so far? Which player benefitted the most and which player suffered the most under the new coach?“
Daniel: A common problem of Niko Kovač’s Bayern-side were the vast distances between individual players. That’s how you get these ludicrous moments like a stranded Boateng being the last defender and forced into a sprinting duel in the opening 5 minutes away at Frankfurt.
Flick’s solution was a very interesting and revealing one. Whereas other coaches would speak of “fixing the defense” or “bringing stability” and all of these stereotypical clichés, he tackled this issue offensively. His biggest and most effective change was the implementation of a high press. Bayern’s game is benefitting from that press functioning. The players now systematically try to win the ball deep in the opponent’s half, which is exactly what all these attacking minded players want to do anyway.
But that’s only the offensive upside, the real kicker are the defensive boons for Bayern. You can only press effectively when you’re compact, in other words when there are no gigantic gaps between players.
Additionally, since you need to position yourself correctly to cover the entire pitch, Bayern’s positioning has significantly increased. All in all it is rather ingenious how much just implementing a well functioning high pressing-game helped Bayern. It is very attacking-minded and thus fits Bayern’s equally attacking-minded mindset, I do not believe it is a coincidence that many player’s performances got significantly better since Flick took over.
Now it is also important to note that Flick already did more than what could have been realistically asked of him, Leverkusen at times exposed the system’s still existing imperfections. He still needs time.
As for players it is rather obvious who the biggest loser is: Thiago. Thiago was the main man in midfield for over a year, Kovač only benched him once against Tottenham in the first half and that did not go right. Now he was not only benched in three out of the last four games, he is also consistently one of the last used substitutes. I do not really understand why Coutinho is getting more game time than Thiago at the moment, he has not done much of anything in a Bayern shirt and is more than likely gone next summer.
The biggest winner for me is Javi Martínez. He had previously not gotten much game time and when he finally did play, he did not impress in midfield. Now he’s consistently playing in central defense where he belongs and performs like the incredible defender he has been in Ancelotti’s first season. And he is not even playing sideways-football all the time, incredible!
Alex: In my view, Flick has had two big impacts I would like to mention: First, he has lifted the spirit of the squad and managed to dispel the sense of gloom and latent discontent that seemed ever-present under Kovač. Second, he has made some vital tactical adjustments to Bayern’s game which are much more in line with the club’s self-image and the demands of the players than under Kovač. Dominance, possession, control, aggressive (gegen-)pressing, defending from the front – this is what the club, the players, and the fans want to see and is the reason why everyone seems happy now.
Without the shadow of a doubt, the player who has benefited the most from Flick’s appointment is Thomas Müller. Only a few weeks ago he was considered an almost certain candidate to leave Bayern in the summer at the latest, perhaps even in the winter. He has got a new lease of life under Flick and has been thriving like the business of a street corner umbrella merchant in a thunderstorm. As for the losers of Flick’s appointment, I see two: Coutinho and Thiago. Both players had a difficult time under Kovač already, but at least Coutinho got his regular game time because Kovač did not want or dare to leave him out. Now, under Flick, their situation has turned from bad to worse if that was at all possible. At the moment, they are marginal figures at best. Looked at soberly, their situation is even more dire. There is a case to be made that both Coutinho and Thiago are completely expendable at the moment. Flick does not need them for his style of play and whenever they get a chance and are brought on, they do not exactly make themselves indispensable through their performances.
Rick: First up, I will continue to voice my disappointment at the rather swift jettisoning of Niko Kovač. Whether it was the result of pressure from the dressing room, the constant drone from some sections of the fan base or a combination of both, KHR and Uli were far too quick in pulling the trigger. OK, it was officially a mutual decision, but we all know that the Croatian was a dead man walking after that fiasco in Frankfurt and the “talks” that followed.
Now that I have got that off my chest, I will say that Hansi Flick’s appointment was a wise one. It would have been so easy to wheel in anybody else, and to keep the post occupied by a genuine Bayern man was an excellent move.
As for how things have gone so far under the new coach, all was well and good until this weekend. But I was always wary of our getting ahead of ourselves too soon. The performance in Belgrade was outstanding, but I will admit to rolling my eyes a little when many of the “Kovač raus” brigade started to talk about winning the Champions League. Needless to say, the chickens came to roost against Leverkusen, where the profligacy in front of goal and Swiss cheese defence returned with a vengeance.
My benchmark is the winter break. With a game against Gladbach to come, Bayern could be seven or more points adrift when we all slip into Bundesliga hibernation mode. If this is the case, be prepared for more coach-changing talk. Thankfully, Jose Mourinho is now safely out of the equation.
The player who appears to have benefited the most is Thomas Müller, who as Alex points out has been given a new lease of life. Hopefully this quashes the talk of him wanting to leave. Another who seems to have benefited is Leon Goretzka, whose resurgence has extended to the German national team.
The biggest loser is Thiago, who appears to have replaced Müller as this season’s bench-warmer. For the time being at least, the Spaniard appears to be surplus to requirements; he would have been an interesting off-the-bench option against Leverkusen, but Flick’s decision to throw him on with just nine minutes remaining was telling.
Question provided by M Unplugged: “If Flick is very successful and gets Bayern some trophies this season, should he take over as coach? Is he our next Jupp?”
Daniel: I would like to tell you (and Jupp Heynckes himself for that manner) to hold your horses just yet. Flick has had five games as caretaker manager. How Bayern completely flipped the narrative is absolutely incredible but I would like to see how he deals with a real problem phase before Bayern seriously contemplates appointing him as head coach.
I would like stability, too, but you cannot force stability. The initial plan was getting a coach that can stay at Bayern for a long time and bring said stability, you should not just throw everything out and hope that man is already here. I still wonder if there are any reasons why Flick was not a successful head coach until now. Bayern should use the time to evaluate him and other candidates.
Alex: That is a challenging issue to properly break down. If I were to consider the question of the ideal Bayern coach purely on an outcome-oriented basis, I would say that it should not matter which name the coach has, which trophies he has won in the past, and what his personality is like as long as the team consistently performs well and wins its games. Even a green skinned alien from Mars who smells like a bucket of rotten fish would be acceptable if under its rule Bayern keep on winning the Bundesliga and the Champions League year after year. So in this sense, if Flick were the coach to achieve this at Bayern (win, win, win) – by all means, I would be all for keeping him and never letting him go.
Unfortunately, this is not how football works nowadays. Today, a coach at a top club does not only need to win their games and bring home silverware season after season, they also need to be able to inspire optimism among the fans, be equivalent to the sense of exceptionality of their clubs as a person (a special coach at a special club), radiate charisma and have an allure that seduces players to move to the club because they want to learn and improve under that particular coach. It goes without saying that they, of course, need to have outstanding coaching skills to boot.
Is Flick this man? I am not so sure. Even if Bayern were to continue to consistently win their games under him, I would still be torn. On the one hand, I should be rooting for him as Bayern’s permanent coach in this case even as I should do for the hypothetical green skinned alien because nothing succeeds like success. On the other hand, with a view to Bayern’s future and not just present, I might still prefer a coach who does not just deliver results but is also the kind of magnetic, charismatic figure I outlined above, i.e. a guy that gives Bayern a moment of international flair and an elite club appeal that draws in interesting new players (and, by the way, also helps make them attractive for new potential business partners).
Rick: I thought Kovač would be our next Jupp. Sadly, he was binned as unceremoniously as Jupp was the first time around. Even though he had coached Croatia and had achieved notable success with a fairly ordinary Frankfurt squad, Niko could never escape from the accusation of being inexperienced at this level. Then there was his being too defensive, too predictable, too inflexible, too dull, too uncharismatic, or any combination thereof.
After the honeymoon is over – some may say that it already is after this weekend’s defeat – the same accusation may be levelled at Flick. Should he win some silverware this season, I would not be averse to keeping him on. But the accusation of being inexperienced will always be the monkey on his back, meaning that he will always be a couple of defeats away from being under threat.
Bayern have (had?) always been – compared to many of their international rivals – a team that is (was?) less trigger-happy with the coaching staff. But in recent years this appears to have changed. It may well be that we will have to put up with a coaching merry-go-round until we find the right fit. Those of us who remember the early 1990s will know how this story goes.
We all want stability, but Flick is unlikely to be the long-term solution.
Lizzy Carr wants to know: “Would you rather win the Bundesliga or the Champions League this season?”
Daniel: I mean that’s about the simplest question I ever had to answer: The Champions League, duh. It is the much higher achievement. The only thing that is bigger than winning the Champions League is winning the World Cup (well you could at least debate the value of winning the Euros, too).
So yeah the competition Bayern has won 7 times in a row and will win numerous times in the future is not nearly as significant as winning the competition Bayern has only won 5 times. I am taking a Champions League over a Bundesliga title any day of the year.
Now that is just about me wanting to win the Champions League, I do not expect them to really win it, although I do think people in general tend to overrate just about anybody in world football other than City and Liverpool.
Alex: This is a simple question to answer: the Bundesliga. I consider winning the Bundesliga the bread and butter of Bayern, whereas winning the Champions League is like the cherry on the cake. I do not necessarily need the cherry, but I could not do without my bread for proper nourishment. This season, I find winning the Bundesliga title especially important for Bayern because even more than in previous years, it is not a foregone conclusion that they will. Therefore, the sense of achievement will be much greater if they actually go on and do it once again.
The Champions League is a much more random event. There is a number of clubs who can win it every year, but only one club may. There will be a time when Bayern is that club again. If it does not happen this year, it might do the next time around. However, considering how great Bayern’s economic advantage is over all other clubs in the Bundesliga, the extent of their failure if they do not manage to clinch the domestic title is much greater than the extent of their success if they manage to win the Champions League. For a club whose organic revenue is almost twice as high as that of their closest rivals (Dortmund) not to win the Bundesliga title would be an embarrassment. So in short: The Bundesliga is a must have, the Champions League is a nice to have.
Rick: A sixth Henkelpott in the cabinet would be a wonderful thing to have. But for me the real hard work goes into winning the Bundesliga. In the Champions League, all it takes are a couple of moments of bad luck to end the campaign. The season-long challenge that the Bundesliga offers is a far better barometer of success.
This is all the more pointed this year, because the Bundesliga is no longer the walk in the park it was in the recent past. The gauntlet has been thrown down by the likes of Leipzig and Gladbach, and it would be a genuine disappointment if Bayern are unable to meet this challenge.