Bayern Munich boss Niko Kovac has declared that Niklas Süle is his first-choice centre-back, meaning that Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels will have to compete for one spot in defence.
It’s a conundrum that many coaches can only dream of: How do you fit three of the world’s best centre-backs into just two positions? Two of them are FIFA World Cup winners with 10 Bundesliga titles between them, the other one of world football’s most highly rated young defenders.
There had already been a trend in the first half of 2018/19 with the 23-year-old Süle starting 20 of 26 competitive matches, but now Kovac has publically stated that the 6’5’’ colossus is the man who will form the backbone of the Bayern defence.
“Niklas does really well with his pace and doesn’t ponder too long,” the Munich boss stated on TV ahead of the 3-1 win at Hoffenheim. “He’s first choice ahead of the other two. They will have to battle it out.”
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The winner for that opening Bundesliga match of 2019 was Hummels, with Boateng coming on late in the piece as the champions looked to ensure the three points. It’s a move that splits up the core of the Germany defence that won the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, which also included goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.
The two 30-year-olds had also played alongside each other in Bayern’s final warm-up match the previous weekend at the Telekom Cup, while Süle had been paired with Lukas Mai in the tournament’s semi-final. Kovac, however, justified the “difficult” decision for the Hoffenheim game: “We looked at things closely during the winter training camp. Mats did really well in the games before the winter break. Mats was just a little bit better.”
The former Croatia and Eintracht Frankfurt boss though was still full of praise for the benched Boateng. “Jerome accepted the decision as a professional,” the 47-year-old stated. “He’s an absolute professional, and I’ve got a great relationship with him. I trust him and he trusts me, but this is down to performances.”
And Boateng has in fact seen a greater share of the action this season than his fellow World Cup winner with 17 starts to Hummels’ 15. Eleven of those 17 have been alongside Süle and just six with his long-time partner. The Süle-Hummels axis has been deployed on nine occasions, and there was a single use of Süle-Martinez in the DFB Cup at Rödinghausen.
Bayern have at least 19 competitive matches remaining this season and the potential for up to 27. With Süle now the man seemingly in possession and Hummels in pole position at the start of the calendar year, it will be interesting to see how Kovac marshals his defenders in this title hunt. And of course there’s the addition of French world champion Benjamin Pavard to the equation from next season.