World Cup Blog: What Does The World Cup Mean For Niko Kovac?

Justin Separator July 23, 2018

In much of the German media, football is discussed superficially at best. Few things showed that as clearly as the one-sided death knells of possession football, which had been in the works for years with generalised discussions. Far too often, things such as the necessary calmness and objectivity are lacking, as well as depth.

It’s about portraying football as simply as possible, because the demand on readers and watchers is too low. It’s not problematic that the desire is to simplify complex situations, but that these situations are oftentimes distorted.

The narratives and stereotypes are then taken on by the fans. The fact that reportage and analyse can also be done coolly, profoundly, yet also understandably, has been shown not least by Martin Schneider of the Süddeutsche Zeitung or Raphael Honigstein.

Elsewhere the story goes that “Tiqui Taca” or possession are dead, that they were shown up at the tournament. In Germany, a large collection of experts and former players are in agreement that virtues have deserted the German national team, and that Löw decided upon the wrong strategy. Does that mean for Kovac and Bayern that a huge, strategic upheaval is needed?

Clichés, pigeon-holes and incorrect explanations

Instead of discussing how Germany’s possession game could become good again or what the lack in tempo was down to, people in Germany preferred to discuss internal trench warfare, missing attitude or missing leaders.

For the Germans, football can’t be simple enough. But it hasn’t been that for a long time. Far too many components decide success and failure. Willingness to run, fighting spirit and the supposed virtues of football are a part of that. But also runs, weight of pass, technique, positional play, the complete strategic set-up and much more.

At the World Cup, many people who can’t get anything out of possession football anyway felt justified. But what is even meant by possession football?

“Tiqui Taca”, possession football, “false 9” – we’re throwing around terms that we can’t even properly explain, because they’re misused by some large media outlets merely for their own intentions.
Guardiola is often pigeon-holed with the argument that possession is for him the most important element. If we wanted to go in completely the opposition direction, he is actually a coach who places a great deal of value on counter-attacks. How did Bayern, for example, win the 2016 knock-out game against Juventus? By winning the ball in the counter-press and then using the transitions.

Possession of the ball arises inevitably when a team is in good shape, defends well (and high up) and can do something with the ball. But it’s not just for the sake of it. From the year dot, Guardiola’s teams have looked for solutions in order to go forwards.

They don’t play the ball around just to have the ball, but to find gaps and space. That’s why he and other coaching colleagues use positional play, which they adapt to their own players, the situation and the opposition.

Positional play, however, should certainly not be equated with 100% possession. It is supposed to help find fast solutions in all phases of a game. Whether that’s with the ball or without.
Many teams at the World Cup weren’t able whatsoever to generate chances from long spells of possession.

If this situation is referred to in the German public sphere, then it’s often very superficial. But we don’t just see narratives broadcast there: incorrect explanations are also given.
Another example for that is the so-called “false 9”. In this country, a lot of people still assume that it’s about a small midfielder playing up front.

In actual fact, it’s far more about the runs made by the player. Lukaku was also at times a “false 9” for Belgium when he left his position unoccupied to make space for other players. Physique plays no role. But with some argumentations it fits into the narrative of German football.

“False nine”? Out and out striker? It’s not about stature, but the role and the runs

With “possession football” this brutal simplification of the sport becomes even clearer. Years ago, Louis van Gaal defined a four-phase model that explains clearly that there isn’t simply the one or the other extreme.

Van Gaal of all people, marked by many as a possession fetishist, always concentrated on the two transition moments.

The four phases are circulation of possession, transitions after turnovers, work off the ball and transitions after winning the ball back.

France, Belgium, Croatia and England were so successful at this World Cup because they were most effective measured against this model. Obviously, though, they had their own varied strong points.

France sat visibly deeper and focused on organised work off the ball. But they could also generate chances from longer spells of possession and often were in control of both transition moments.

Belgium, too, whose focus was more on defending higher up and good possession, were very successful. Even England were able to negate their lack of individual quality by having a balanced but good relationship with all four phases, focusing on safe ball circulation and good organisation in transition. They all stood, then, in no way for just an extreme like “counter football” or “possession football”.

What we can expect from Niko Kovac

In addition to the pigeon-hole thinking comes the absurdity of wanting to read the tactical trends of the future from a World Cup, just because it’s so significant. Short preparation time for the national teams, limitations for the coaches in their selection of players and the factors of luck and bad luck make sure that each team had to adjust in any case. Strategically, a World Cup is always defined by tactical compromises too, which are less common in club football.

For FC Bayern and Niko Kovac, the World Cup, then, has only a conditional significance. More important is the intuition to rip up all pigeon-holes and not think in extremes. From a strategic point of view, Kovac will have to be measured by how good his team is in the four phases of the game, and not whether he’s a possession or counter-attacking coach.

Flexibility is questioned. In the Bundesliga there will once more be far too many teams who have no interest in getting the ball at their own feet because they are convinced that possession makes no sense.

It’s even more important, then, that Bayern play more quickly, more vertically, and more flexibly. That’s what they do best. The game can be controlled with the ball, and goals can only be scored with the round thing at your feet. Guardiola’s eternal quote that a team can’t concede in possession endures too.

So that that doesn’t degenerate into something for its own sake, the coaching staff will have to offer the players solutions that allow them to break down the bleak defensive lines of the league with speed. The basis for that is positional play.

Against stronger sides and in particular in the Champions League, things will get particularly interesting. Will Bayern then sit deeper and invite their opponents onto them? Under Ancelotti there were the beginnings of such an approach which, however, weren’t carried out well enough.

Out of possession, the squad was not able to control the game. Individual players were too undisciplined, the team as a whole too impatient and the positional play too poor as well. As a result, both moments of transition went out of the window often too. If Bayern didn’t have the ball, they swam – in recent years at least.

It’s down to Kovac to change that. He has to improve organisation out of possession and to stabilise the team in such a way that phases are also possible from time to time in which Bayern can cede possession to the opponents.

At the same time, he and his team must tweak Bayern’s play in possession. For both points it’s most important to cultivate the basis, and that basis is positional play. Only then can Bayern play through the unorganised ranks of opponents upon winning the ball back, and be in the right positions upon losing the ball in order to win it right back again.

For a possible Champions League triumph, then, FC Bayern need a bit of everything. The focus could in fact vary from game to game. Listening closely to the first quotes from the coach, it could be that the focus will tend to rest on the two transition moments. His reference to Louis van Gaal would then be a little less surprising.

»Eier, wir brauchen Eier!«

— Oliver Kahn

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