Season review part one: Bayern falter, Kovač wobbles
In today’s part one we’ll talk about a missed record start, a spooky Oktoberfest, championship feelings after the defeat in Dortmund and the almost-sacking of Niko Kovač.
A mild Friday evening in August. The season kick-off in Munich had almost become habit for the serial champions on the Isar river, and yet you could still feel the tension in the Arena. The Bundesliga kick-off under new coach Niko Kovač was on the agenda, against last season’s high-flyers 1899 Hoffenheim of all teams. What kind of fight would the Rekordmeister put up a week after the tired 1-0 cup win over regional league side SV Drochtersen?
The very first game traced a lot of patterns that would define Bayern’s season. After a Kimmich corner, Müller scored the first goal of this young season. The set-piece record under Kovač would improve significantly. Szalai got the equaliser after fooling Boateng. The 2014 World Cup winner never really got going over the whole campaign. And here comes VAR. On the first game of the season, first it leads to a Lewandowski penalty being retaken, and then a Müller goal being disallowed for handball. Both times referee Dankert was right. Over the course of the season, however, there will be a fair few controversial situations.
The eventually commanding 3-1 win, however, is particularly bitter for wide forward Coman. The Frenchman had just come back from an injury that had kept him out for months, and had a brilliant first half, when Schulz took him out. Coman crumpled, writhed in pain, and had to be subbed off. The diagnosis: ankle ligament tear. The livewire dribbler was out for almost all of the remaining games in the first half of the season.
In the ensuing weeks, FC Bayern handle the potential banana skins Stuttgart, Leverkusen, and Schalke superbly. Scoring 11 and conceding twice, with twelve points, Bayern were top – four points ahead of their black and yellow rivals. The media elect Bayern as champions again already. Too soon, as would quickly turn out.
Against Augsburg on the fifth matchday, Kovač had the chance to set a record for the best start for a new Bayern coach. Eight victories in eight games. Before the game, the Croat sprang a surprise with extensive rotation, including Goretzka as a left-back. After 90 minutes, the scoreboard stands at 1-1. Kovač had gambled and lost.
Bayern are traditionally strong during Oktoberfest. An unwritten rule almost so firmly set in stone as the Bavarian beer purity laws. For Kovač’s troops, however, autumn would be as nasty as a stale stein at Oktoberfest.
Just three days after the draw against Augsburg, a trip to the capital of Germany. Two Boateng brain-farts later and Bayern took their first defeat of the season back to the capital of football. On the final weekend of Oktoberfest, Gladbach out-countered the home side at the Allianz who deservedly lost 3-0.
From four points ahead to four points behind. Sixth in the table and a hangover feeling. The media paints the picture of a clueless and beaten coach. He resorts to calls for perseverance. “I know that time operates differently at Bayern Munich,” he says. Under pressure from Rummenigge and Hoeneß, he has to put an end to the rotation. With immediate effect, only his spine plays from now on. Youngsters like Sanches are completely left out.
The games just go the same way over and over. Bayern start well, but after about 10 minutes there’s a rupture in the game. Little comes off going forwards, because the central-midfielders in Kovač’s 4-3-3 are positioned too high, and at the back Bayern make their lives unnecessarily complicated with gaps and slip-ups.
After the international break, everything was meant to be different. That was the intention and indeed a weak Wolfsburg and Mainz were just about defeated. But the next low point is just waiting for the team. A poor performance against Freiburg, somehow leading 1-0 through Gnabry before the boys from Badem-Württemberg coolly punished an overly passive Bayern.
And so the side went into the big tie against Dortmund in the Westfalenstadion four points behind. In the crunch game Bayern showed everything that they’d previously lacked. And yet in spite of heart, fight and passion, they had to swallow a sore 3-2 defeat. It had been a game that was a great advertisement for the Bundesliga. Only without a Bayern win.
They had gone in front twice, with Marco Reus equalising both times. And then Alcácer shot right through Bayern hearts. Favre’s adjustments at half-time couldn’t be overcome. In the second half, the spirit of the first few minutes was lacking. Kovač was clearly out-coached. And yet it was only a fractional offside call in added time that denied Lewandowski an equaliser.
That evening I left the stadium amongst Dortmund fans who were drunk on joy and I was sure that this FC Bayern would be champions. A week later, my opinion had swung 180 degrees. A 3-1 lead at home against Düsseldorf had been thrown away. Lukebakio was the name of the ghoul that afternoon in November.
“There’s a need for internal conversations.” Uli Hoeneß’s words must have sounded like judgement day for coach Kovač. The young Croat was out for the count. No small number of people speculated that he wouldn’t survive the weekend. In the end though, the club stood together behind its coach. A last chance for Kovač.
Bayern’s deficit had grown to nine points. Only Wolfsburg in 2008/09 had clawed back a bigger gap since a win became worth three points. The Rekordmeister would need a change to act as the spark that would hopefully lead to a streak.
Indeed, Kovač still had one ace up his sleeve. He went for a double pivot. Wanting to improve defensive stability on the one hand, he also wanted to shorten the distances in midfield. The away game at Werder Bremen was the acid test for this perhaps final straw. With Kimmich in midfield and the recovered Coman, the desperately needed win came off.
With two victories against relegation candidates Nuremberg and Hannover, as well as two victories against direct competitors from Leipzig and Frankfurt, a tidy end to the first half of the season was completed. The 3-0 win in Frankfurt especially gave hope for the second half of the season. Both against Leipzig as well as against Frankfurt, it’s the veteran Ribéry who scores the important goals.
With table-topping Dortmund also slipping against Düsseldorf on matchday 16, the deficit shrinks to six points. Bayern climb to third in the table.
In part two, we’ll look back at Bayern’s comeback in the second half of the season, which despite some setbacks would lead to a seventh consecutive title.