The date is 25 May, 2019. Late in the evening, Niko Kovač and his team are celebrating their victory in the DFB-Pokal in front of their fans, who are cheering them from the East Stand in Berlin’s Olympic stadium. Among these fans are some of the club’s and Kovač’s most loyal supporters. Their view is clear: this coach is one of us and we are going to treat him as such. By this gesture of moral support alone, they were able to provide a huge boost to his confidence.
Bayern had just played one of their best games of the season. They had beaten RB Leipzig 3-0 in the DFB-Pokal final. It had been a terrific and exciting game. Niko Kovač had added a second title to his earlier Bundesliga championship and completed the double for the season. There, under the nightly Berlin sky, erything came to a good end. All the discussion, all the problems, all the worries were glossed over by the performance on the day and during the later stages of the season.
They were glossed over because they had never entirely disappeared. But Kovač is a fighter. He already was as a player. So there he was amidst his most faithful supporters, who kept chanting his name and finally managed to pass him a megaphone: “This would not have been possible without you!”, he shouted towards them, welling up in tears.
These moments marked the peak of his time at Bayern, the conclusion of which came quickly in the end. The nadir of the club in autumn of 2018 was followed by a long high, not least because of Niko Kovač and his work. Of course, he and the club missed their goals in the Champions League. The team’s strategic and tactical deficiencies proved too great. Not so much because Kovač was a bad coach, but because his ideas of football and those of the club ultimately proved to be too different.
A coach had to adapt to his club, Rummenigge said last summer. That what Kovač had stood for as a coach during his career did not fit to Bayern’s ideals, and the process of adaptation of Kovač, which both sides had their best intentions to undertake, did not work out as planned. The “smart alecs”, as Uli Hoeneß would call them, had known this from the start. Even though he would have meant this mockingly, Bayern’s outgoing president would be right: hindsight is always 20/20. That the club gave Kovač a chance does not necessarily have to be regarded as a mistake, it can also be seen as a courageous decision and an important lesson for the future.
But let us go back to the turning point last year. Kovač humbly took a step back and subordinated his ideas to the greater good of the club after the embarrassing 3-3 draw at home against Düsseldorf. He changed his leadership style. Allegedly, it went down well with the squad that the coach met his players at eye level and listened to their ideas. This was seen as a strength, not a weakness, and the team paid him back for it on the field.
The relationship between coach and team did not peak in the DFB-Pokal final against Leipzig. This game only ended on a very high note the period of greatest harmony between coach and team. The beginning of this period dates to the preparation for the game against Dortmund.
According to a reliable source close to the players, Kovač framed the entire preparation in the week before the game in the semantics of “war”. Apparently, by a combination of combative rhetoric and strong tactical analysis, he managed to send out a team prepared to fight to the death and hell-bent on winning. Whatever you might think of this approach, it worked. Bayern blew Dortmund away 5-0.
At around this point, the confidence had grown among the players that Kovač might be someone who would see them through the big games after all. The bosses behind the scenes also felt that the process of Kovač’s adaptation was coming along nicely. Rightly so. Because the trust Kovač had been earning among the players and the later double gave them sufficient reason to think so. A premature termination of his contract was out of the question. Kovač’s standing at the club had reached its peak.
But the story took a different turn this season. Ultimately, the differences on multiple levels turned out to be too substantial. We analysed a lot of the ongoing tactical isues here in our blog. In retrospect, however, it probably was not a lack of skills and expertise as a coach that led to the demise of Kovač. It was rather a more fundamental difference in the basic idea of how to approach the game of football.
Kovač was not able to develop the tactical means necessary for a dominant, possession-based kind of football that has been the hallmark of Bayern for at least the best part of a decade because he himself seems to favor a fundamentally different idea of football. This state of being caught between two worlds seemed destined to fail in the long run. In addition, he never quite found a right way to develop a hierarchy in his squad and balance his players’ demands for game time and recognition, which led to permanent rumblings of discontent among the players.
The differences between club and coach turned out to be too great in the end. But nobody can take away last season’s success from him. Considering that the two sides never quite fit to each other, it is all the more remarkable that Kovač managed to win the double during his time at the club. The moment of Kovač standing before his supporters in the East End of Berlin’s Olympic stadium with tears in his eyes, letting go of all the pressure that had built on him throughout the season, celebrating, partying will never be forgotten.
He might have been the wrong coach at the wrong place and he will look back at his time at Bayern with mixed feelings in years to come. Too difficult was his time there, too fraught with problems, too massive was the criticism he regularly received. But he certainly will be able to show his skills at another club soon, and he will have learned from his experiences and be successful again.
Servus, Niko! And best luck in your future endeavors!