In the space of six months, head coach Niko Kovac has taken Eintracht Frankfurt from relegation candidates to top-six contenders via a two-legged play-off against 1. FC Nürnberg.
Such has been the club’s success that Frankfurt have moved swiftly to sign the 45-year-old to a two-year contract extension lasting until 2019. Talking exclusively to bundesliga.com, Kovac discussed the reasons behind The Eagles’ high-flying form, taking points off the Bundesliga’s star ensembles and working closely with his brother Robert.
bundesliga.com: Niko Kovac, an Eintracht side that is very similar to the one that were almost relegated to the Bundesliga 2 last season are now fifth in the standings. For a lot of people that comes as a surprise, is it the same for you?
Niko Kovac: That we’re fifth is a surprise. It’s not a surprise though, that we’ve improved. The team have come on leaps and bounds in every department whether that be in terms of conditioning, technical and tactical things or mental strength, which is of great importance. The decisive factor is that we’re consistent. So far, we’ve only suffered two real setbacks in Darmstadt and in Freiburg that hurt us at that moment in time.
bundesliga.com: Incidentally, your team seem to have become even more focussed since the Freiburg defeat. Can a painful defeat be beneficial for a head coach?
Kovac: Looking back on it now, I can say that the loss put us on the right path. After that game though, I was not amused and, it goes without saying, very angry. We failed to execute everything that we had set out to do and our opponents put us to the sword. I told my players loud and clear that we can’t afford to play like that in the Bundesliga. The team took it on board really well and went on to implement everything we worked on afterwards. Yeah, I think that game really opened a few eyes and made it clear that you can’t be successful in the Bundesliga by giving anything less than 100 per cent.
bundesliga.com: The other rather striking aspect in comparison to last season is the incredible defensive performances. Your team now boast the second best defensive record.
Kovac: At the end of last season we knew we had to pick up points in the nine remaining games. Of course we also knew that we weren’t going to score three goals in every game. As a result our first priority was to keep the goals we conceded to a minimum. That also explains why we’ve only conceded 11 goals this season. We truly defend with ten men and that team spirit is the key to our success. I was a professional footballer for long enough to know how hard it is to play against a well organised team that form a cohesive defensive unit.
The team has now proven to themselves that they can compete with the high-calibre sides.
bundesliga.com: Your team have earned themselves a great deal of respect, especially against some of the top teams in the league like FC Schalke 04, Borussia Dortmund and FC Bayern München. Have you noticed your opponents perceiving your side differently?
Kovac: I’d like to say so. All of the teams in the Bundesliga are ultimately top teams, but it is true that we’ve already faced almost all the high-calibre side on home soil. We’ve won most of those games and have played out two draws. The team has now proven to themselves that they can compete with the high-calibre sides if we do everything right on our side and the opponents take us more seriously as a result. That of course makes everything a little easier than last season when we had our backs to the wall, were at the wrong end of the table and our opponents perhaps came into games thinking “we can roll over Eintracht, they don’t stand a chance against us”.
bundesliga.com: A newspaper recently wrote: “Schmidt was perplexed after the defeat in Frankfurt, Ancelotti was visibly unhappy following the record titleholders 2-2 draw and Tuchel was completely fed up after BVB’s 2-1 loss. Kovac got the better of all of them.” Does that make you crack a smile?
Kovac: I don’t want to go overboard with my evaluation. The team are executing what we’re asking of them incredibly well. However, you could have an even better idea, but if the team don’t execute it then they’ll have problems. That’s why on the back of that quote I’d like to pass on the compliments to my team.
bundesliga.com: Even as a head coach who does not like to single out individuals, is it fair to say that the likes of Marco Fabian and Szabolcs Huszti, who have previously been questioned by the media, personify the positive development?
Kovac: You’ve got to differentiate. If a new player doesn’t make an immediate impact in their first half or full season, then unfortunately they very quickly get labelled a poor purchase. That’s not always the case. Bayern, for instance, often give their players two full years to the full range of their performance potential. If that’s the case at Bayern, then why should it be any different at Eintracht Frankfurt. The two players you mentioned joined the club when things weren’t right. And you’ve got to take into account that Marco Fabian came from a completely different league, a completely different climate in which it wouldn’t be possible to play the high-speed football we see in the Bundesliga. Football in China, where Szabolcs Huszti played before joining us, also can’t be compared to the Bundesliga.
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Kovac: You can see what qualities these players have. The ones that Bruno Hübner and Armin Veh picked out, shows they had a good eye for talent.
bundesliga.com: Finally a more personal question: You work together with your brother Robert, who is your assistant coach. What does that mean to you?
Kovac: It’s wonderful. If there’s anyone I trust, it’s my brother. We’ve been together all our lives (laughs). Robert and I played together in Munich, Leverkusen and the national team. He boasts an incredible level of expertise and now we have a chance to develop something special together at Eintracht. I’d like to also single out Armin Reutershahn, who was the assistant coach during my time at Hamburg. It’s important for me to have loyal, competent people on my side. Of course, it goes without saying that we don’t always of the same opinions and sometimes have rather controversial conversations. But if someone keeps me in check, then it’s my brother.
Interview by Andreas Kötter
Eintracht Frankfurt play host to unbeaten TSG 1899 Hoffenheim on Friday. Click here to head to the Match Centre for exclusive pre-match content.