After steering Bayern Munich back to the top of the Bundesliga table it came as little surprise when Hansi Flick was confirmed as the club’s permanent head coach recently, but on-field results are not all that spoke in the 54-year-old’s favour: his work in improving Alphonso Davies, Joshua Zirkzee, Sarpreet Singh and other youngsters has also made a big impression at Säbener Strasse.
Flick was handed the first-team reins ahead of a crunch Matchday 11 clash with Borussia Dortmund at the start of November 2019 and, after steadying the ship with a 4-0 victory in that maiden assignment, swiftly promoted the club’s most promising youngsters - Zirkzee, Singh, Oliver Batista Meier and Leon Dajaku - to the first team squad on a full-time basis.
“We're convinced that these boys will develop in the best way if they train with the best players,” he said at the time. “In our first team, they have the conditions to do that."
It was a decision very much in line with the club’s own strategy of harnessing the fruits of its youth academy, rather than paying overpriced fees on the transfer market.
Watch: How Flick masterminded Bayern's victory over Dortmund
“Hansi supports our system […] we always have to train talent with quality to reinforce and develop our team,” sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic told Munich-based newspaper TZ. “We’ve now succeeded with Davies, and Zirkzee is also positioning himself well with the pros.”
But, aside from giving young wannabes the chance to train alongside their heroes, what exactly is it that Flick has done?
One of his primary strengths is his man-management. “He tries to communicate a lot with the players and has very clear ideas of what he wants,” said Thomas Müller, one of a number of senior pros including Robert Lewandowski and Manuel Neuer to have praised their boss’s ability in this area.
Such so-called ‘soft skills’ are in increasingly high demand across all industries, not just football, and Philippe Coutinho emphasised precisely why it is so important.
“Even when he was assistant coach he got on very well with us and that’s obviously bearing fruit now,” the Brazilian said earlier this year.
“He’s got the talent to make every player understand that they’re an important part of the team. That might not seem important at first glance, but it’s actually the foundation for everything that’s happening on the pitch right now. The atmosphere has to be good in the team – and it is.”
As Bayern’s most successful head coach in terms of points-per-game in over 20 years, averaging 2.62 points per outing so far in his 21 matches in all competitions, there is no questioning the success of Flick’s approach.
And he adopts the same method with globally famous World Cup winners as he does with unproven young hopefuls.
"We immediately had a good connection,” Singh, 20, told Sport Bild last year. “In pre-season he talked to me a lot and showed me some extra exercises I could do in order to improve. Hansi Flick is fantastic for me, he’s a great guy and a brilliant coach. The fact he’s now in charge of the first team could be a chance for us youngsters.”
It certainly has been. Even on what are supposed to be rest days, Flick has still been spotted at the club’s training complex working in small groups with Singh and other young players, passing on hints and tips to help them progress.
Their dedication has been richly rewarded. In Flick’s 15 Bundesliga games in charge of Bayern so far, Zirkzee (18) has been in a matchday squad 11 times, making five appearances including two starts and scoring three goals.
Singh (three matchday squad inclusions) has likewise made his top-flight debut, Dajaku (18, five inclusions) has been handed his first-team debut, while Mickael Cuisance (20, 11 inclusions), Lukas Mai (20, seven), Oliver Batista Meier (19, four) and Fiete Arp (20, one) have also been given a taste of life at the top.
“They need to have talent, mentality and attitude,” Flick told Sport1, explaining what youngsters must do to break through. “The overall package has to be right. If it is, then there’s a high probability that they’ll make it.” However, a fourth factor is also decisive: “They also need to have a little bit of luck.”
Watch: Zirkzee's star turn on his Bundesliga debut
Such has been the case of Davies, who has had a coming-of-age campaign in 2019/20. On the fringes of the starting line-up at the beginning of the season, long-term injuries to both Niklas Süle and Lucas Hernandez early on led to a defensive reshuffle, with David Alaba moving inside to centre-back and Davies taking Alaba’s place at left-back.
The Canada international has since thrived under Flick’s watch. He has started 17 of his 21 Bundesliga games this term, scoring once and registering four assists en route to becoming a cornerstone of the side.
“He’s extremely important to us at left-back, he’s taken a huge stride forward,” Flick said of the 19 year old.
“Through his dynamism and robustness, he often saves us during games. He’s really quick, he can pass well and has got a good shot. From that position he can also contribute a lot in attack. We’re working on that with him, want to continue developing that with him. That’ll be the next step for him, to have more moments like the one against Freiburg where he set up the goal for Lewy.”
Luck - if a teammate’s misfortune can be described as such - also contributed to Zirkzee’s rise. Injuries to fellow attackers Kingsley Coman and Ivan Perisic in late 2019 gave the Dutch youngster his opportunity. He made sure to grab it, scoring twice in successive games as a substitute to help secure wins over Freiburg and Wolfsburg.
And when Lewandowski injured his knee in February, Zirkzee was the one Flick called upon as a replacement.
“Joshua’s trained well and he’s showed in training that he’s got good quality and is a good finisher. He can hold the ball up well and has the physicality to do so, which is important when things are tight up top. So that was our thinking, to make a like-for-like replacement [for Lewandowski]. It was good.”
And with Flick at the wheel, the chances are that Davies, Zirkzee and Co. are only going to get better.