Bayern Munich coach Niko Kovac winning hearts and minds in Bavaria
Bayern Munich coach Niko Kovac has made a flawless start at the helm of the record Bundesliga champions, where his no-nonsense but even-handed approach has quickly won him the respect of the club's star-studded squad.
So far, so good for the former Bayern midfielder, who began his reign with a 5-0 thumping of former employers Eintracht Frankfurt in the Supercup. The Bavarians then edged fourth-tier Drochtersen/Assel in the DFB Cup first round, before easing to Bundesliga victories over three teams who finished in the top seven last term: Hoffenheim, VfB Stuttgart and Bayer Leverkusen. They scored no fewer than 15 goals and conceded just one in those five games.
"You can see that every player at Bayern has incredible quality, and not only in attack," admitted Leverkusen coach Heiko Herrlich, after his side fell to a 3-1 defeat at the Allianz Arena. "They've venomous when they lose the ball. They counter-press immediately and go for every one-on-one. To some extent, they gave us a lesson today."
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If Bayern are handing out lessons to sides who are targeting European football, then clearly their new teacher is going about things the right way. Indeed, Kovac is proving that he can manage the big personalities that are part and parcel of a world-class squad, with a number of senior players expressing their satisfaction at his approach.
"Niko has the character to coach a big team," Franck Ribery told kicker in a recent interview. "He has great qualities. You can see that in the way he leads us and talks to us. He's analysed all the types of players in the team and knows how they tick, what they need, how he has to talk to them. It's priceless."
The 35-year-old Frenchman certainly knows a thing or two about what is required for success at this level. Ribery has just embarked on his 12th campaign with the Bavarian giants, and another league crown in May would see him set a new all-time record of nine Bundesliga titles – one more than fellow club legends Mehmet Scholl, Oliver Kahn, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Philipp Lahm.
"I'm a frank guy," Ribery continued. "When I get on well with someone, he can rely on me. Communication is the most important thing. I talk to the coach about everything, but always with the necessary respect. It's like being in a relationship. If you don't talk to your wife, then what happens? Nobody's perfect, so you always need to talk to improve things."
Kovac's forthright manner appears to have struck a chord with his players, even when it means that they may have to spend more time on the bench than in previous years. The Croatian has made no secret of the need to rotate his team throughout this season, with what he has described as a "quadruple load" of competitive action: the Bundesliga, DFB Cup, UEFA Champions League and international games.
The latter may seem a surprise inclusion, but then again 12 Bayern players were called up by their senior national squads during the recent international break, and most were involved in UEFA Nations League matches – certainly a step-up from the friendlies of old in terms of physicality and intensity.
"We have to try to combine the joy, the passion, the team spirit and the self-confidence – that every team has – into one," Kovac announced before the Bundesliga curtain-raiser, a 3-1 home win over fellow Champions League participants Hoffenheim. "If you can do that, and only then, you can achieve great things. If we can't bring those qualities together, it'll be tough. But if everyone puts the team first, a great deal is possible."
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Only three players have featured in every minute of Bayern's five games so far: captain Manuel Neuer, Joshua Kimmich and Thiago. Veterans Ribery and Arjen Robben started in the Supercup and the DFB Cup, but both have had to settle for a place among the substitutes in one of the three Bundesliga outings. Meanwhile James Rodriguez – one of last term's star performers – has played just 67 minutes in the league, although he did report late to pre-season training after sustaining a calf injury at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
"We're all professionals, so none of us are happy when we're on the bench, or in the stands," Neuer admitted. "But it's a good thing when someone isn't happy about that. The coach speaks a lot to all of the players and handles it very well. That's his job, and it will be the case throughout the season. There'll be a lot of rotation."
"In our competitive situation, everyone has to deliver," echoed Thomas Müller, who has already notched two goals and two assists in the Bundesliga. "One the one hand it's a question of attitude, but the coach also does a fine job of setting us up."
Another matter that Kovac has handled admirably so far is his central defence, where Niklas Süle is now vying for a starting place alongside the 2014 World Cup-winning duo of Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng. Only the latter has played in all three Bundesliga outings, but once again, the coach seems to have instilled a healthy sense of competition that will benefit the whole team in the long run.
"Everyone is going to sit on the bench now and then, in every part of the team," Hummels told Sport Bild. "It would be very arrogant of me not to accept that, because Jerome and Niki are both sensational central defenders."
"There are only top players at Bayern," Süle agreed. "Everyone has what it takes to play, so it's important that everyone agrees with the coach's decisions. So far, I feel like we're doing that, we're a genuine unit. It'll also be very important to stand together as a team when the big games come around."
Bayern have just kicked off a marathon run of seven games in 22 days, so there are plenty of big games on the horizon. However, the Bundesliga champions were dealt a major blow in the win over Leverkusen, as both Corentin Tolisso and Rafinha suffered serious injuries. The Frenchman is set for a lengthy spell on the sidelines after rupturing his cruciate ligament, while the Brazilian will be out for at least several weeks with an ankle problem. With Kingsley Coman also unavailable after ankle surgery, Kovac has just 16 outfield players at his disposal heading into a very hectic period.
"I'm very sad and disappointed that we have two injured players after the game," Kovac told fcbayern.com following the Leverkusen victory. "The result is certainly positive for us, but the injuries have dampened my mood."
In spite of those injury setbacks, Bayern still have plenty of cause for optimism as they head to Benfica in the Champions League and then prepare for a Bundesliga triple-header against Schalke, Augsburg and Hertha Berlin in the campaign's first Englische Woche. Kovac has the Bavarian machine purring nicely, with star striker Robert Lewandowski already up to six goals in all competitions and 'Robbery' rolling back the years with some outstanding performances.
"They're exceptional – two world-class players," Kovac told the Süddeutsche Zeitung. "They're leaders and role models. They're very important players for us and will be in the coming campaign."
Kovac's popularity with his new charges was by no means guaranteed when he stepped into Jupp Heynckes' sizeable boots this summer, but the 46-year-old has found the appropriate balance of carrot and stick to get the best out of his squad. His training sessions at Säbener Straße are also proving popular, with the boss and his brother Robert – Bayern's assistant coach – not afraid to get stuck in themselves.
"In training, you can see how ambitious and hungry for success he is," David Alaba explained to spox.com. "He comes across very well. He's an experienced coach, but with clear and fresh ideas, he knows exactly what he wants. As a person, he's a top bloke. He's not a buddy type, but he is someone you can talk to. He gives you the impression that you can talk to him about absolutely anything."
"The sessions are tough, but not too tough," Ribery analysed. "The coaches put a lot of thought into them. They know what we need, when we need time to recover. The coach is open to everything, he doesn't treat us like slaves. We've got a great group with class players and a good mentality. I'm really enjoying the way we're working right now. You can feel a real team spirit."
Having spent two seasons as a player with Bayern between 2001 and 2003, Kovac is all too aware of the club's rigorous demands and knows that he will be judged, above all, on results. But crucially, he has got the dressing room on his side and appears to know exactly where he is going with the record Bundesliga champions. "At Bayern, we want to win every game, that's our mission," he said prior to the Benfica game. With Kovac at the helm, it looks set to be mission accomplished far more often than not.