Where will Nico Kovac be leading FC Bayern?
Season goals usually result almost by themselves. To a certain extent, last year’s performance is an indication of the new season, either to wipe out a shame or to win a missed title. Consider, for example, the CL final defeats of 1999 or 2012 and the role these results played in the following years. Now FC Bayern may have narrowly failed in the Champions League in the 2017/18 season, but in view of their own transfers and the investments made elsewhere in comparison, it does not necessarily give the impression that the club really wants to erase a recent failure.
With regard to international ambitions, the club is apparently more likely to make an orderly withdrawal than to be in attack mode. The Champions League is rather unknown territory for the new coach Niko Kovac, he has yet to prove himself in the concert of the greats. Even the national competition is a challenge for Kovac, despite the widespread but far from correct assumption that with Bayern München every coach can now easily become German Champion. As a result, there is a certain gap in motivation between the new coach, team and environment.
For Niko Kovac, the season could end with the first league title of his coaching career, a personal success that would hardly fulfil their aspirations, not only for players like Robert Lewandowski or James Rodríguez. Even with numerous fans the prospect of a seventh title in a row hardly triggers euphoria, the Bundesliga has meanwhile become a mandatory task. One can rightly say that this undisputed position of Bayern is quite a problem for Niko Kovac. Similar to Jürgen Klinsmann in Ottmar Hitzfeld’s summer of 2008, Kovac took over a team from Jupp Heynckes that had won the German championship without any worries but was all too carefree at the end of the season, leaving one or two titles behind. It will be crucial for the course of the season whether Kovac succeeds in getting the team back on track for a common goal.
It is therefore an advantage that the new coach seems to have his strengths in the areas of team management and communication with the players. As the president’s personal coach of choice, Kovac can also justifiably hope for some support from the board and, despite the unavoidable media pressure, does not have to fear being kicked out immediately in the event of initial failures. It is even conceivable that an initial sporting crisis could have a healing character and act as a catalyst in the process of making the team ” his” team: If a team stands with its back to the wall in an intact internal climate, this often welds together.
It is exactly this mentality that Uli Hoeneß longs for and in which he sees the key to re-conquering the throne of Europe. They had the best team in Europe, the best coach, the most elaborate tactics and yet they had never made it to the CL final. Instead, they had to watch teams like Atletico and Real, who were inferior to FC Bayern in terms of quality of play, to fight for the title with better winner mentality and a cut throat approach. Attributes that don’t necessarily cost hundreds of millions and allow you to face more financially strong or investment-friendly teams from Europe without having to compete for the big superstars.
The current circumstances remind us a little of Jupp Heyncke’s first term in office: In 1987 he too took over a team spoiled for success in the Bundesliga (German Champion 1985, 86, 87) from a retiring coaching legend (Udo Lattek). Heynckes also took over a team that was noticeably in the motivation gap after its defeat in the final against Porto and whose international ambitions were rather unclear. They had failed to exploit the relative power vacuum in Europe created by the exclusion of English clubs and now had to watch Bayern München and the Bundesliga as a whole slowly but surely take second place to Serie A. And Heynckes also took over an almost unchanged team full of established players.
The 1987/88 season was therefore also a transitional season: in the Bundesliga FCB had to make do with the runners-up despite 22 wins and a respectable 70 points (which was mainly due to the weak defensive performance), in the European Cup the team failed in the quarter-finals to Real Madrid. But not only the title was lost, the nimbus of untouchability was lost. If they had finished the previous season with only one defeat, they now had eight. While they remained unbeaten away in 1986/87, they now lost against all their direct competitors. Heynckes was controversial in the team and among the fans.
Heynckes only managed to make the team his team in the second season. They separated from stars like Matthäus or Michael Rummenigge and bought young players like Thon, Reuter or Grahammer. And for the first time there was a fundamental transformation in the Bayern midfield, during which the principle of the strong leader in the centre (Roth, Breitner, Lerby, Matthäus) was abandoned in favour of a midfield consisting of technically adept, small dribblers. With Thon, Dorfner, Schwabl and Flick Heynckes successfully established a new style that kept Bayern internationally competitive.
Heynckes also benefited from the fact that Christoph Daum and 1st FC Cologne, a common external enemy, ensured that an unimagined cohesion was established within the club. Nothing has helped Heynckes’ sympathies with the fans and within the team as much as Daums’ verbal attacks. Victories from the 1988/89 season such as those at Inter Milan or 1st FC Cologne are above all evidence of a team spirit and cohesion that is rarely seen.
Now such scenarios cannot be planned, and even if a serious competitor of the Bundesliga could certainly help to restore a sharper focus and give the Bundesliga everyday life lost appeal, one should not rely on getting on the road to success by means of such external factors. But if there is a lesson from the past, it is that you also have to give a coach the confidence and the ability to reshape the squad according to his preferences. Not in the sense that Gladbach experienced it under Dick Advocaat or Wolfsburg under Magath – but if you are convinced of a trainer and his concept, then you should also provide him with the right personnel.
Whether Kovac is really the right man in the right place will only become clear in the future. In any case, however, he will be a better coach if the players match his system. The players in the club are therefore well advised to actually get involved with the new coach and not to deny him the establishment of his own style by means of an immature cadre full of inherited burdens. This naturally includes having confidence in the trainer’s abilities. But if this trainer was preferred to other candidates such as Nagelsmann or Tuchel, then hopefully with confidence in his competence and not because he was considered more compliant and easier to deal with in comparison.