Niko Kovac is the man presented with the unenviable task of taking the reins at Bayern Munich next season, with the club on the brink of a treble during this one.
Bayern Munich have made something of a habit in the past few years of not only taking all the top talent from all their domestic rivals, but announcing that news at the most inopportune time for them.
The 2013 Champions League final between Bayern and Borussia Dortmund was the meeting of the two top clubs in Germany, and would arguably be the game that would decide which of them would set the tone as the defining team of that era in the league.
However, Dortmund star Mario Gotze’s switch south, leaked before the final, said more than any result ever could have.
Bayern would win 2-1, complete the treble, and haven’t been troubled from their perch since.
Indeed, one need only think back to January, when infuriated Schalke fans told Leon Goretzka in no uncertain terms where he could go before a game against Hannover, after his move to Bayern was confirmed for the summer.
But Bayern’s Machiavellian desire to toy with their domestic opposition took its most sinister turn since Gotze this weekend, when Eintracht Frankfurt – days before crucial league and cup fixtures against Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke – were rattled by the news that their manager, Niko Kovac, would be joining Goretzka in Bavaria.
The club’s Sporting Director Fredi Bobic described the decision by Bayern to make the announcement as “selfish” with the week ahead to come, while the appointment jives alarmingly with Kovac’s comments concerning commitment at the start of the month.
Regardless of what comes of the Eagles this season, Kovac will return to the club to take over from Jupp Heynckes on July 1st amid some concern from Die Roten faithful.
Kovac is not a superstar coach, having just two years of Bundesliga experience under his belt and being best known for leading Croatia to a group stage exit at the last World Cup, and he is walking into a Bayern side who have three pillars in flux.
Franck Ribery is now 35, and questions over his retirement or possible shuffling on continue to persist. Arjen Robben is not much younger, and will need to be ushered out of a position of reliance. Robert Lewandowski, meanwhile, continues to be the best pure number nine in the world, but growing fears he is among the stupidly-long queue of top-class forwards auditioning for Karim Benzema’s Real Madrid shirt will not go away.
Kovac, however, is no stranger to the bright lights of the top of the game. As well as captaining Croatia at two major championships, he spent the majority of his career in the Bundesliga, along with his brother Robert, becoming a Hertha Berlin legend and finishing second twice with Leverkusen.
His two seasons with Bayern from 2001-03 saw him behind the likes of Thorsten Fink, Owen Hargreaves, Michael Ballack, and Ze Roberto in the midfield pecking order under Ottmar Hitzfeld. He returned to Hertha with a Bundesliga medal, but brother Robert is more fondly remembered on the pitch.
Now, Robert works for Niko, and the elder Kovac has a chance to rewrite his legacy at the German giants – and there is more than a little bit of Hitzfeld in Kovac’s tactical thinking.
Eintracht this season have played a stereotypically German 5-3-2 formation, characterised by high, intense pressing, fantastic organisation and shape, and patient recycling of the ball before the usual launch of a direct pass towards the two forwards – the dynamic Ante Rebic and the target-man Sebastien Haller.
It’s not unlike both Hitzfeld’s efficient sides of the past, and many of the sides Kovac would have lined up against during his career, but it surely all seems a tad too simplistic for the cosmopolitan, self-appointed saviours of German football?
Ever since the reigns of Louis van Gaal, and especially Pep Guardiola, Bayern have aimed to play attractive, attacking football.
Carlo Ancelotti aimed to simply continue Guardiola’s good work, albeit with significantly less micromanagement, and while Heynckes has always trumpeted the simple virtues of football, his sides have always played with freedom – Jupp was a forward himself, after all.
it’s possible Kovac inspires the insipid, and that the club hierarchy are grabbing the hammer beside the emergency glass covering the big button marked “Jupp” sooner than imagined.
However, Kovac’s appointment has come at a time when Bayern are ripe for a revolution. The Guardiola hangover has kept them ticking over at the top of the Bundesliga, but the European trophies have eluded them since 2013, and despite semi-final appearances under Guardiola and Ancelotti, it is only this season where they look like genuine favourites for the title.
The modern superclub demands strands of legacy in every corner to inspire and to sell in equal measure, and perhaps Hasan Salihamidzic, in handing his former team-mate the reins, sees Kovac as a potential Guardiola or Zidane; Bayern’s player-turned-supercoach to lead them into their own era of Bundesliga-backed European dominance.
Turning back to their roots, at a time where tiki-taka is on the downslope in the midst of great defeats suffered by its most iconic exponents in both Guardiola and Barcelona in the past week, and seeking a new direction and philosophy – in the shape of the man once voted Bayern’s greatest ever coach – would speak loudly to any executive.
Kovac’s preferred shape would also suit the potential flux with Robben and Ribery too. A Kovac-inspired Bayern side could be a more fearsome prospect than most think.
In Javi Martinez, Kovac will already possess the midfielder-cum-centre back his back line desires, and he would easily slot in alongside Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng like a high-powered Makoto Hasebe.
David Alaba and Joshua Kimmich, with their work rate and attacking instincts, will slot in perfectly as the attacking wing-backs, and may excel from the added liberation in front of them.
Goretzka and Arturo Vidal will form the solid midfield base that the system demands, and a front partnership of Lewandowski – should he stay – and Thomas Muller or James Rodriguez will cause any side heaps of problems.
Robben could even slot into that Rebic role on occasion, but with the defensive five established, and the lack of a need to play attacking wingers, Kovac’s system will enforce Bayern to rid themselves of their reliance on their two legendary wingers.
And in testing times at Eintracht, Kovac has been able to let his personality shine through and show himself as a strong leader in the locker room. He will not be bullied into selecting the twosome either.
But he has a long way to go to establish that. The perception of him being the latest coach to go on a hot streak – the Bundesliga tends to throw up one surprise contender a year, be it Mainz, Koln, or Hoffenheim (who have since established themselves) in recent times – will be a hard one to shake.
But if there’s one side that know their own domestic league inside and out it’s Bayern, and you would never bet against them in getting a decision of this magnitude wrong. Kovac’s classic approach and uncompromising character is the perfect tonic to return the club to European dominance.
He faced questions when he took over an Eintracht side in the relegation zone a little over two years ago. He faced questions on how to improve a side that just scraped through the relegation play-offs. Questions about moving midfielder Hasebe to the defence, over controlling the temperamental Jonathan de Guzman and Kevin-Prince Boateng, over sustaining Eintacht’s unlikely European push.
Kovac answered them all with power, fitness, passion, and decisive certainty.
“The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe, you have to make it fall,” Che Guevara once said, and Kovac is the perfect man to pick that apple.
Alex Dunne, Pundit Arena