After four games without a win, including a shock 3-0 home defeat at the weekend, there has been talk about a “crisis” at Bayern Munich. So what’s gone wrong? And is new head coach Niko Kovac at fault? Or are there deeper issues? James Walker-Roberts takes a look…
Bayern “Hello, Jupp, it’s us again….”
After sacking Carlo Ancelotti less than two months into the 2017/18 season. Bayern could be about to axe another manager. With Niko Kovac said to be “fighting for his job” after a 3-0 home defeat to Borussia Monchengladbach. The loss extended Bayern’s winless run to four matches and came just days after president Uli Hoeness said Kovac was putting “his neck on the line” with his rotation policy.
The defeat also comes just weeks after Bayern looked set to equal a club record by winning their first nine games of the season – a record set by the 2012/13 treble-winning side of legendary manager Jupp Heynckes, who came to the rescue to replace Ancelotti last season. So, what’s gone wrong?
For starters: Kovac was not Bayern’s top target when they looked for a manager to take over from Heynckes at the end of last season.
Hoeness said the club tried for a “very, very long time” to persuade Heynckes, now 73 years old, to stay on, before turning to Thomas Tuchel, who instead opted for Paris Saint-Germain. Kovac all of a sudden became their “preferred candidate”.
Kovac spent two seasons as a player at Bayern from 2001-2003. But as a manager his CV lacks the silverware that Heynckes, Ancelotti and Pep Guardiola have won. His biggest achievement was winning the German Cup last season with Eintracht Frankfurt – the club’s first trophy success in 30 years – beating future employers Bayern 3-1 in the final.
Bayern Munich put their on-field problems to one side on Sunday in order to hold their annual Oktoberfest celebrations
Despite any potential doubts, initial noises were positive. Bayer Leverkusen coach Heiko Herrlich described Bayern as “venomous” after a 3-1 defeat at the Allianz Arena. Franck Ribery told kicker that Kovac has “great qualities” and “the character to coach a big team”. David Alaba said Kovac brought “clear and fresh ideas” to Bayern. Seven wins in a row to start the season seemed to offer weight to Kovac’s appointment.
However, the mood has shifted in recent weeks. One of the apparent issues is the regular rotation, with Kovac yet to name the same team for consecutive league matches. In the last five matches there have been five different line-ups and there have also been tweaks with the formations.
In fact, only two players – Manuel Neuer and Joshua Kimmich – have started all seven league matches as previously regular starters are spending more time on the bench than they might have expected.
Hoeness’ view on the situation was: “It’s up to the coach. In the end, he’s putting his neck on the line for it.”
Bayern’s winless run
|October 6||Bayern Munich 0-3 Borussia Monchengladbach|
|October 2||Bayern Munich 1-1 Ajax|
|September 28||Hertha Berlin 2-0 Bayern Munich|
|September 25||Bayern Munich 1-1 Augsburg|
German newspaper Bild, though, has claimed that some players are unhappy. James Rodriguez reportedly exclaimed “we’re not at Frankfurt here” after not featuring in a 1-1 draw with Augsburg. The Colombia international, who is on loan from Real Madrid, was dropped for the match after scoring, and producing a positive display, in Bayern’s previous match.
Kovac has denied reports of a rift. But there have also been suggestions that some players do not like the manager speaking in Croatian rather than German to his coaching staff. Bayern players are all encouraged to learn and speak German. But it is reported that Kovac speaks Croatian with his assistant coach. Who is his brother Robert, and his goalkeeping coach and sporting director.
“The atmosphere in the dressing room is a positive one,” said Kovac in response to a question about rifts. “Some are of course disappointed not to play, and we’re also disappointed with recent results. Nevertheless, there is a real sense of unity in the team.”
Recent performances have not helped Kovac’s cause. Bayern were outplayed by Ajax at the Allianz Arena in the Champions League and fortunate to escape with a 1-1 draw. There was also some alarming defending as Monchengladbach scored their third goal at the weekend, with players standing still and watching as Patrick Herrmann – one of only two Gladbach players in the box – controlled the ball and then fired past Neuer.
It’s up to the coach. In the end, he’s putting his neck on the line for it.
Bayern president Uli Hoeness on Kovac’s rotation policy
Asked on Saturday if he feared the sack, Kovac said: “I cannot answer that. I know the mechanisms in football, in the Bundesliga and in Bavaria. I know that I’m at Bayern and the time here is different than maybe elsewhere. We have played seven games well and four not. We have shown that we can do it. I am convinced that we will be back and I want to do my part.”
There are potentially-tempting candidates available if Bayern did decide to make a change, including Zinedine Zidane and Antonio Conte.
However, Hoeness has given his support to Kovac, saying: “I clearly stand behind him. No matter what happens in the coming weeks.” Those comments – made in the wake of the 3-0 loss to Monchengladbach – should provide some relief for Kovac as he tries to deal with Bayern’s underlying issues.
When Bayern last won the Champions League in 2012/13 they had seven players in the starting line-up who are still first-team regulars. There has been some investment in youth in recent years but Bayern still heavily rely on the “old-guard”.
The youngest players in the starting line-up against Borussia Monchengladbach were 23-year-olds Kimmich, Niklas Sule and Leon Goretzka. There were five players aged 29 or older, and one of the half-time substitutes was 35-year-old Ribery.
It is not surprising that Bayern have the oldest average age in the Bundesliga this season (28 years and 66 days). Only two teams in the Premier League – Burnley and Watford – can top that. While Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig, the current top two in the Bundesliga. They have average ages of 25 years and 131 days, and 24 years and 181 days respectively.
Bayern are getting old. The stats show that, as do the performances against Monchengladbach and Ajax. Yet there wasn’t much done in the summer to address it. Goretzka was the only signing – on a free transfer – while Renato Sanches and Serge Gnabry returned from loan spells.
CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge explained that Bayern have a “different philosophy to some European rivals” and “buying just to please the audience does not work”.
However, the lack of transfer activity, coupled with a shortage of successful youth products in recent years, has ultimately left Kovac with a small squad – particularly after injuries to Corentin Toilisso, Kingsley Coman and Rafinha – and also an ageing one.
That’s not a winning combination. It hasn’t been helped by a dip in form from goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. Who has the second-worst save rate in the Bundesliga. And an apparent lack of defensive organisation. At the other end of the pitch, Bayern have had 53 shots in the last three games and scored just once. In the game against Monchengladbach, Robert Lewandowski had just 12 touches, which is his lowest-ever total in the Bundesliga.
There are clearly issues that need fixing. But changing manager might not be the solution, even if Heynckes did pick up the phone…