Niko Kovac was recently handed one of the biggest jobs in world football when he agreed to take over from Jupp Heynckes as Bayern Munich coach. It was an appointment that caught many observers by surprise, but there is most certainly reason behind the move.
1) He has the Bayern 'gene'
bundesliga.com outlines five reasons why the 46-year-old is the perfect fit for the reigning champions….
An elusive, seemingly intangible concept applied only to a select chosen few, Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge alluded to it when Kovac's arrival was confirmed: "The fact Niko knows the Bayern DNA very well is important. He knows how our club works."
So what exactly does it mean? Simply put, having played for Bayern between 2001 and 2003, Kovac is fully aware of the pressure that comes with keeping the club at the top of the game and knows that nothing but outright success will be enough.
2) Can handle big players
Furthermore, he already has an existing relationship with key figures at Bayern, having played alongside current sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic. Kovac – along with his brother and assistant Robert, likewise a former Bayern player - therefore arrives armed with an intimate knowledge of the inner workings at the Allianz Arena.
The Berlin-born coach is also obviously a fluent German speaker, which was another non-negotiable factor in Bayern's decision, in keeping with the club's desire to keep its identity and stay true to its German roots.
With those two initial fundamental factors covered, the next big question is whether he has the character to be able to deal with the star-stacked ensemble in the Bayern dressing room. Does Kovac have what it takes to leave veteran players of the calibre of Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben on the bench? Could he tell a World Cup winner like Jerome Boateng he is being rested?
The answer to those questions is unquestionably yes. During his spell as Croatia head coach (2013-2015), he managed a squad containing the likes of Barcelona star Ivan Rakitic, Real Madrid duo Luca Modric and Mateo Kovacic, as well as former Bayern striker Mario Mandzukic. That he was able to guide the side to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup (having missed out at South Africa 2010) speaks volumes of his ability to handle big-name players.
3) Can improve players
"I could’ve played at Real Madrid but I didn’t work hard enough for that,” Boateng said recently. Yet under Kovac, Boateng knuckled down and was arguably Frankfurt's best player in 2017/18, scoring six goals and providing one assist in the league, as well as helping the Eagles to DFB Cup glory.
Hands up – and be honest – if you had heard of Ante Rebic, Marius Wolf, Luka Jovic or Jonathan De Guzman before the start of last season? If your answer is no, you are probably not alone. Rebic (six goals, two assists), Wolf (five/eight) and Jovic (eight/one) buzzed in attack, while De Guzman emerged as one of the most composed midfielders in the Bundesliga, his range of passing and teasing free-kicks a not-so-secret weapon for the Eagles.
4) Tactically flexible
Yet that quartet are just some of the standout names of a remarkable campaign for Frankfurt. Danny da Costa and Timothy Chandler both became much more consistent, combining attacking dynamism with defensive solidity.
Boateng was full of praise for the tactician recently when asked about his ability to take players to the next level, telling Bild am Sonntag: "Regardless of when and where it happens, I'd tell any player who's going to be coached by Niko Kovac: 'get ready because you're going to do a lot of work, but you will definitely get better.' That's what sets Kovac apart; he improves every single player."
Having the right personality, background and rapport with players are essential attributes for any coach, but they all count for nothing without a certain on-field expertise. Luckily for Bayern, this is another area in which Kovac excels.
Last season, he set Frankfurt up in a variety of formations, designed to get the most out of the players at his disposal, frequently employing direct, vertical and aggressive tactics against sides with more naturally gifted players. Nevertheless, the Eagles still managed to record wins over Bayern and Schalke in the cup, as well as holding Hoffenheim and Dortmund to draws in the league, and defeating Leipzig.
Watch: How Kovac transformed Frankfurt
"We're very flexible with our players," said Salihamidzic when asked about how Kovac might play at Bayern. "Niko has often played with a three-man or five-man backline. Bayern have always played in a 4-3-3 over the last 10 years […] but Niko will nevertheless be able to work very flexibly within this system.
"We're all convinced that he'll help us over the next few years – that's why we've hired him. He's a clever guy. He's a hard worker, is meticulous, innovative and modern."
5) Impressive track record
One of the arguments in the 'against' column when weighing up whether to appoint Kovac will likely have been his relative lack of experience and silverware as a coach. Aside from spells as assistant or in charge of reserve teams, his first role at the helm of a senior side was the aforementioned stint as Croatia boss, before joining Frankfurt in March 2016.
The recent DFB Cup win - beating none other than Bayern in the final - will have quashed any doubts about his title-winning credentials, adding to the domestic double he helped Bayern to as a player in 2003.
Watch: Kovac's top 5 Bundesliga goals!
The steady upward trajectory Frankfurt took under his care should not be overlooked either. Kovac kept the Eagles in the Bundesliga via the play-offs in his three months in charge in 2015/16, before lifting them to 11th place the following year and eighth in 2017/18. Frankfurt earned more points (36, 42, 49) and scored more goals (34, 36, 45) with each passing year under his watch.
The final seal of approval arrived from Kovac's predecessor Heynckes: “I think he’s a smart guy, he’s communicative, and we all started out small at some point. But he’s taking over a team that’s working well, which is hugely important and valuable, so it’ll work out.”