Jerome Boateng and Thomas Müller have been central to Bayern Munich's climb back to the top of the Bundesliga table under Hansi Flick, but few would have predicted it at the start of the season…
Müller and Boateng, alongside now-Borussia Dortmund player Mats Hummels - had been told early last year that they would no longer be considered by Germany coach Joachim Löw - and things didn't look much better following Bayern's summer shopping.
The arrivals of creative talents Philippe Coutinho and Ivan Perisic to bolster the champions' attacking options, and French World Cup winners Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard to shore up their defensive ones, looked ominous Müller and Boateng, who had previously revolutionised the sport as a Raumdeuter and quarter-back respectively.
Raumdeuter finding old spaces
Müller has been a Bayern stalwart since breaking into the team under Louis van Gaal back in 2008, but last season - the eighth in which he has ended the campaign with the Meisterschale in his hands - he had to settle for a diminished role under Kovac. Yes, Müller's return of six goals and nine assists were more than respectable, but he was subbed off in 17 of his 28 games.
Where he had to wrestle with James Rodriguez for playing time and creative influence last term, Coutinho became Müller's main rival for the No.10 position at the start of this. Müller only started five of his 10 games under Kovac in the current campaign until the Croatian departed following November's 5-1 loss to the coach's former club, Eintracht Frankfurt.
Watch: Müller under the tactical microscope
Flick, Kovac's assistant, had been Löw's number two when Germany won the World Cup in 2014. Müller had scored five goals for Die Mannschaft in Brazil - one fewer than James for Columbia - and Flick was not quite so ready to write off the 30-year-old Raumdeuter's talents.
"He's got a very good sense of the game tactically and he's a player who's very important on the pitch," he said on ascending to the top job at Bayern - a role since made permanent. "He's the coach's right-hand man. He leads the team; he leads his teammates and plays at a very high level. Thomas is a player that would do any team good."
Müller took no time at all to prove Flick right, laying on two goals in the very next game - Bayern's 4-0 thumping of Dortmund in Der Klassiker. Müller has started each of the 14 Bundesliga fixtures with Flick since, with his zero goals and four assists under Kovac this season climbing to six goals and 12 assists with the new man in charge.
Watch: How Flick masterminded Bayern's Klassiker win over Dortmund
Soccer's quarter-back finding his range
Boateng is another who has found a second wind under Flick. Hummels elected against staying and fighting for his place with last summer's arrivals and, in particular, Hernandez, instead returning to former club BVB. Boateng held his ground, though, the 31-year-old's individual training regimes seeing his social media following grow roughly in proportion to his declining waist line.
Boateng was only given nine starts under Kovac last season, and after former CEO Uli Hoeneß suggested he would be better off seeking pastures new last summer, his Munich future looked bleaker still after just six more starts in the opening 10 games this term, the last of which saw him sent off in that 5-1 loss to Frankfurt.
Watch: Highlights of the loss to Frankfurt, a turning point for Bayern
Boateng all but invented the quarter-back role in soccer, and remained one of the best centre-backs in the world when in possession. The question was whether he was still as good without the ball - able to win it back when the opposition had it - and he was motivated by Flick to prove he still had it.
"Hansi's just a top coach and he absolutely deserves the job," Boateng said recently. "He's a great person and has a great sense for the players. He's very respectful and professional with the players, with those who play and those who don't. He makes everyone feel important. He's like Jupp Heynckes."
If Boateng feels important now it's because he is, though. As fit as ever, he has started three more games since Flick (nine) than under Kovac (six), and swapped a sending off for an assist in the two time periods in question. Boateng has also featured in six clean sheets compared to just one previously.
Watch: Boateng and Müller star in Bayern's win over Augsburg last time out
More to come?
Bayern are back at the summit of the Bundesliga table, Flick is now the head coach on a permanent basis, and Alphonso Davies and Joshua Zirkzee are among the players at the other end of the age spectrum who have been blooded by the new man.
Flick's ability to fuse youth and experience is perhaps best encapsulated by Bayern's final game before the coronavirus-enforced break in play. Leon Goretzka and Serge Gnabry - two relatively recent Germany internationals - combined to round off a 2-0 win over Augsburg. But the game had been unlocked by Boateng and Müller; the quarter-back with a laser-sighted pass on 53 minutes, the Raumdeuter finding space as only he knows how to slot home.