After hunting down Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich won the league and cup double - how have they managed it?
Following his cup success with Eintracht Frankfurt last season, Niko Kovac has already won the DFL Supercup and the Bundesliga in his first year with Bayern. On Saturday he completed a domestic treble and become only the fourth coach to lift the DFB Cup with two different teams but, not so long ago, things were not looking so rosy for the Croatian.
Having been put under serious pressure by Dortmund in the league, however, he managed to turn things around. The record German titleholders only returned to the Bundesliga summit for the first time since Matchday 5 after hitting Wolfsburg for six in Week 25. It was the 12th win in what would turn into a run of 18 victories, three draws and only one defeat to finish the season.
“We’re now where we want to be - at the top of the table - and that’s where we want to stay,” said Kovac after Bayern tore apart the Wolves in March.
While challengers Dortmund suffered an untimely form dip, Kovac’s charges were proving too hot to handle.
Watch: See why Bayern became German champions again
“We have achieved a lot of momentum at the right time of the season,” said sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic. “We've scored 11 goals in the last two games and put in compact defensive performances.”
With every passing game, Bayern were forging a sharper identity under Kovac - and they had to survive a few fiery situations to get there.
A patch of poor form, big-name injuries and shock results led to suggestions of a “crisis”, but the 47-year-old's calm demeanour never wavered. Ultimately, it was a Klassiker defeat to Dortmund and Dodi Lukebakio’s jaw-dropping performance in Munich on Matchday 12 that proved the turning points.
Back in the more familiar role of table toppers, Bayern rediscovered the killer instinct that was, at times, lacking in the first half of the season.
A gritty and energetic pressing game laid the foundation for a more explosive approach in the final third, as evidenced in the wins over Borussia Mönchengladbach and Wolfsburg.
Six goals - following five in Gladbach - weren’t enough to satisfy Kovac against the Wolves though.
“We could have and should have scored more,” said the Croatian. “But that was a good way to follow up from the Gladbach game.”
Watch: Look back on Bayern's Klassiker win over Dortmund
Up until Matchday 12, Bayern were scoring at a clip of under two goals a game, but they averaged three per match in the 13 outings that followed.
With his team getting increasingly comfortable with his approach, Kovac is deploying a more dynamic and less risk-averse strategy to get the most out of the enviable talent pool he has at his disposal.
With Javi Martinez providing the anchor, Thiago, James Rodriguez and Serge Gnabry have proven a potent concoction capable of breaking lines with their work both on and off the ball. As a result, Bayern carved out, on average, double the amount of clear-cut chances per game since Matchday 13.
Watch: Robert Lewandowski on breaking a Bundesliga record
However, boiling it down to individual quality alone would be an injustice. Bayern are currently benefiting from a more cohesive approach that is reminiscent of Kovac’s Eintracht side, admittedly with a larger sprinkling of star power. Not that the former Bayern midfielder has shied away from the task at hand.
“Of course I try and motivate the players verbally before each game,” Kovac told Bild. “But at this level, when you’re playing every three days, it eventually sucks it out of you. As a coach, you can’t just wave your magic wand and motivate them. The bottom line is it has to come from the players themselves.”
In the two home games following the Wolfsburg mauling, a Bayern side packed with players who had been there and done that thumped Mainz 6-0 and - crucially - swept title rivals Dortmund aside with a 5-0 success.
"It was our best game of the season," Kovac told SportBild when discussing the Dortmund drubbing. "Our signal of intent: to Dortmund, the Bundesliga and ourselves. From that moment it was clear: the title's only coming back to us, to Bayern Munich."
Watch: Bayern's double celebrations
Bayern sealed a seventh straight title with another comprehensive win in Munich - 5-1 against Eintracht Frankfurt - and on Saturday they made it a league and cup double with a 3-0 victory over RB Leipzig in the DFB Cup final.
Kovac, who held firm in the autumn when results weren't going his way, created history in doing so. He won the league and cup as a Bayern player in 2003, meaning he has now become the first man in German football history to win the double as both a player and a coach.
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