Roundtable: Four questions about the Kovač exit

Maurice Separator November 5, 2019

Sitting at the roundtable are Maurice, Tobi, Christopher and Daniel. They explain the factors that led to the dismissal of Kovač, highlight the first tasks of interim coach Flick and discuss the long-term plan of the club.

In the end the 1:5 in Frankfurt was too much. After many uninspired appearances coach Niko Kovač was dismissed on Sunday evening. It was the first sacking of the Bundesliga season. Team management, backing from the top, or tactics – what did the Croatian ultimately stumble over?

Maurice: In my opinion, Kovač failed the moment he lost the dressing room. He provoked this mainly by his public statements. Lately he has been blindly blaming the media and explicitly separated between the team and the coach – as if they were not a unit. Even after weak games, he was lacking clear words. The public turning away from “mia san mia”, the Bavarian mantra thst sees a Bavarian superiority as a natural thing, was probably also poorly received internally. In the end, Kovač failed for what they had got him in the first place: that the team should once again be on fire on pitch for their coach and club.

Tobi: In the end, Kovač knocked down practically every hurdle he faced during his career at Bayern. For me, the first neck breaker was his reaction to the criticism of his constantly rotating the squad by the management team about 13 months ago. At the first sign of pushback, he gave up his squad concept and desperately insisted on finding and maintaining a functioning starting eleven. Tactically, too, the initially interesting approaches disappeared without a trace during this crisis. As a result, the situation stabilised due to the (ultimately unsustained) wave of success, which brought Kovač not only a great Double but also a summer break to regroup. Only insiders know whether nothing changed first and he lost the dressing room then, or vice versa. The statements of the last weeks, however, were already rather a sign of resignation than progress. Kovač wanted to be a beacon of tranquility in a stormy sea, but the players didn’t call at his port.

Christopher: At the end of the day it was a mixture of many factors. The main point in my opinion: Kovač was never able to create an identity for the team. That was the difference to van Gaal, Heynckes or Guardiola. Each coach had a real idea and could shape the team in his own way. At best, Kovač was able to do this only in rudimentary form. However, he also lacked the players. Especially in midfield there is a hole next to Thiago, which the management team could not or did not want to repair for two years.

Daniel: It’s a little bit of everything. I don’t think he lost the dressing room as much as Ancelotti did. But still far enough that there seemed to be insurmountable obstacles. His verbal eloquence wasn’t able to fix his many faux pas. Müller as an emergency option, bad passing that had nothing to do with tactics, and again and again the team was explicitly blamed.

In the end, however, the truth lies on the field and that is the main point. Sometimes football is very simple: If the whole team is out of form, it’s the coach’s fault. Since the international match break, one low-point has chased the next. The team doesn’t manage to perform against a relegation threatened second division side for 85 minutes and can be happy four days later to only get 5 against Frankfurt while there is one misplaced pass after another.

Boss all of a sudden: Hans-Dieter Flick takes over the coaching position temporarily. He is facing a pile of tasks.
(Photo: Simon Hofmann/Bongarts/Getty Images)

In the first season, the team managed to turn a weak autumn around and go on to win the Double through an unprecedented rally. Then came the sobering end of the Champions League round of 16 against Liverpool. And finally another weak autumn. What will be remembered of the coach Kovač?

Maurice: In my opinion, the positive moments of Kovač remain most of all, despite all the negative aspects in the last six months. How the whole curve chanted the name of the Croat in the venerable Berlin Olympic Stadium, while the team raised the trophy and Kovač only hesitantly entered the circle of the celebrating players. This moment of harmony has been deeply imprinted on my mind. 

Tobi: An “oh well”, as it already was the case with Ancelotti and Klinsmann (even stranger there). The end of the season 2019 was intense, but also there the beautiful moments with Robbery and the cup final glossed over a lot of issues. Scenes like in Nuremberg, when FCB played wildly, or like in many of the last games, when they somehow rumbled through, are not forgotten. The appointment made my stomach ache, but of course you wish every Bayern coach to become successful. In the end, however, exactly what had been feared happened. Unfortunately Kovač there won’t be a chapter devoted to Kovač in Bayern’s history books.

Christopher: A lot of grey and a few highlights, such as the 5:0 against Dortmund in the second half of the season. Especially the performances at home were too rarely dominant. This has also been a factor in this season. From a human point of view, he will be remembered for making the club more human in a way. Here he convinced especially in the second half of the season with many thoughtful press conferences also about himself as a person. But most recently, he was also prone to mistakes in this, his showpiece discipline. Just think of the statements about the speed of Liverpool or the role of Thomas Müller. 

Daniel: When the heart says “Yes”, the mind does not have to follow. Kovač felt good as an ordinary guy, but other things are a part of football as well. Heynckes was able to solve Ancelotti’s problems to an extent, but it didn’t need an ordinary guy, but someone special to follow Heynckes and guide the club into calmer waters after the summer break. Instead, Kovač came and from the start had to fight against the ever-present joke, Heynckes would succeed him in October anyway. Although he is a good coach, Kovač was the wrong man at the wrong time at the wrong place from the beginning and this is what I remember: Not every good coach is also a good Bayern coach. Nevertheless, I think there are only a handful of coaches who are dismissed during the season and who will be welcomed back to Munich as much as Kovač will be. A very respectable legacy. 

An error-prone and mostly injured defense, a harmless offense except for the outstanding Robert Lewandowski, as well as a completely neglected positional game – which of these issues does the new coach Hansi Flick have to address first?

Maurice: Flick has to start with the positional game, because the Bayern season stands or falls with that. An improved spacing during the build-up strengthens the offense and at the same time helps the defense, because simple turnovers can be avoided. For the interim coach it will be important to give the players back the seemingly lost confidence of previous times. That the players are still familiar with the basics of positional game to a large extent can help enormously in this respect.

Tobi: First the team must have a desire again. What that factor can do we already experienced with Jonker (after van Gaal) and Heynckes (after Ancelotti). Tactics can only build on this. A meaningful staggering in possession of the ball must be at the forefront here: a suitable positioning, especially between the lines, as well as a coherent concept for collective gegenpressing. Unchallenged passes behind the defensive line are poison for Bayern’s defence. As soon as the basic structure fits, the improvements may build up on this. Rehearsed moves, suitable movements within the penalty area, correct staggering of the defence against crosses.

Christopher: I think in the short term it will be about getting more defensive stablity. This can only be achieved if the players are better positioned and stick to tactical guidelines. In the area of human interactions, the goal will be to patch open wounds. Players like Boateng or Martínez, some of whom have been critisized several times, will now have to take on responsibility. 

Daniel: First of all Bayern has to regain stability in their positional game. The root cause of all the problems – that is the misplaced passes, the defense, the neglected offense – are the terrible distances between the players. It doesn’t have to be spectacular straight away, but Flick has to implement a stable and compact spacing structure as fast as possible. Because it doesn’t help to criticize Jérôme Boateng’s dubious man to man challenges without addressing the real crux of the matter, which is that after six minutes you must never concede such an attack.

After Kovač’s dismissal, two fundamental questions arise: How long should interim coach Flick stay in office? Until the international break, Christmas or the end of the season? And, what should be Bayern’ long-term plan for the head coach position?

Maurice: It makes little sense to rush things now and get the next best coach just to be able to present a big name. Unlike with the Kovač engagement one should now follow the – hopefully existing – master plan and appoint the desired candidate. If this required the club to continue with Flick until the end of the season, then they should do it. It would then be important to provide the ex-DFB sports director with an appropriate assistant coach. It is a valid question to ask whether this step might come too soon for the much speculated Miroslav Klose.

Tobi: For now there is no wrong answer. As soon as the suitable successor is identified and available, he should come. Until then Flick deserves a chance. Whether and how he can use it remains to be seen, because he is still an unknown quantity in the role. In the long run there must be a coach who knows where he wants to go with the team. The era of administration, born out of post Pep exhaustion, is over. You can’t administer what doesn’t work in the first place. 

Christopher: Classical consultant answer: “It depends”. The question will be who the management will identify as the solution. If it is a coach who is immediately available (Allegri or Mourinho) or one tries to tempt Ajax to let ten Hag go. Especially the latter has the danger that Flick has to remain in the job for a very long time. This brings a lot of uncertainty. The coaching question is also paired with the change at the management level. Uli Hoeneß will step down in two weeks and has already given his successor Hainer a difficult task. Even if the president has no formal influence. At the same time, the Kahn era will start in two months. In the best case scenario, both are already included now into the decision process.

Daniel: Since Guardiola the type of administrator (Ancelotti) and heart (Kovač) has failed. There was only one truly happy period when Heynckes, who ticked all the boxes, came back. It’s time to set football as the main criterion again. So do you want to continue playing possession football? If so, Ten Hag seems to be the optimal solution. Most likely he will try the next step in summer. Until then, there is still a lot of water flowing down the Isar, but should you really get the next inappropriate fix just to have someone for the next seven months? And so that the optimal solution is gone again? I don’t think so. No more stopgaps. You should determine the playing style and secure a coach, even if it’ll be for next summer.

If nothing unusual happens against Dortmund, Flick should remain interim coach even after the international break. He is a good man and has the potential to become a solid interim coach, you should not degrade him without need or even dismiss him.

Apart from that, there are the big instant solutions Allegri, Mourinho or Rangnick. The latter has no language problems, but he was successful last year with an offensive type of defensive football. They were insurmountable at the back and up front the fast strikers scored. Is that really the style of FC Bayern? Of the big names, the most interesting one for me is Arsène Wenger, but only if he doesn’t insist on staying over the end of the season.

»Eier, wir brauchen Eier!«

— Oliver Kahn

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