When Bayern Munich underachieved in a draw against FC Augsburg it was said to just be a bump in the long road that is the 2018-2019 season. When Die Roten was unmotivated and subsequently upset by a hungry Hertha Berlin side, it was no reason to panic.
After a third consecutive poor performance during Bayern’s lackluster 1-1 draw with Ajax, it is now time for Niko Kovač — and his players — to engage in some introspection.
Addressing the unrest
Losing certainly breeds contempt, and make no mistake: the two draws were essentially losses, if you compare the talent and depth of Bayern Munich to Augsburg and Ajax (no offense...or even offense really).
With rumors swirling via a pregame report from Sport Bild that James Rodriguez, Mats Hummels, Javi Martinez, and Sandro Wagner are at odds with Kovač, the frustration may be doing more than just breeding contempt; it’s conceivably evolving into something more ominous.
As James swept in and out of the locker room within 10 minutes of the game ending, Kovač can only be left wondering whether he can keep the wheels on the wagon before they spin off.
Wortloser Blitzabflug von @jamesdrodriguez. Bereits um 23:02 Uhr, also knapp 10 Minuten (!) nach Abpfiff, rauscht der Kolumbianer frischgeduscht aus der Arena ab. Frust-Potenzial scheint hoch zu sein. @SPORT1 #fantalk pic.twitter.com/RQIC7hsJuz— Florian Plettenberg (@Plettigoal) October 2, 2018
Arrogant or misguided?
When Kovač submitted his lineup card, it reeked of the arrogance we have see all too often from the likes of Joachim Löw or even Carlo Ancelotti. While many might complain about the winger combination, Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben were not the source of the squad’s problems. The primary issue with the formation was with the omission of James in favor Martinez.
Martinez has proven to be a shell of what he once was. A bit slower — both in pace and tactically — Martinez is nothing more than a deep reserve on a squad like Bayern these days. And that is all right, given the talent and depth ahead of him on the roster. Martinez is certainly no longer a player that you would lean on in a crucial game early in a coaching tenure, but that is precisely what Kovač did.
Martinez pushed James out of the lineup and Thiago Alcantara up field to the 8 position, when it has already become maddeningly apparent that Thiago is now the no. 6 that this team desperately needs. In addition, James’ presence at the 8 and Thomas Müller at the 10 typically give Bayern’s offense its best hope of quality service and creative interplay with Robert Lewandowski.
Regardless of your feelings on which wingers should have started yesterday, the strong backbone formed by Thiago, James, Muller, and Lewandowski should normally be enough to allow whoever lines up on the wings to be involved in the offense.
If only Kovač had seen it that way! But instead of giving himself the best chance to push past Ajax by using what should be his best lineup, Kovač opted to show that he knew better.
And he paid for it.
Breaking the malaise
While this piece may seem to be hurtling toward calling for Kovač’s head, it’s not. It is far too early for that. The season, as they say, is still in its infancy.
We are still in the early stages of the campaign, but Kovač is putting himself in a position to lose the locker room much in the same way that Carlo Ancelotti did during his final days. Kovač’s success is tied not only to his tactical prowess, but, more importantly, also to his ability to keep his high maintenance roster happy and motivated.
Kovač was confident in his ability to boost morale and promised a reaction, but in the end it was just more of the same. Kovač has to find a way to make a breakthrough with this group before things get even worse.
We've got to do better. #FCBAJA #UCL pic.twitter.com/zILlFx9dOw— FC Bayern US (@FCBayernUS) October 2, 2018
Knowing when to go all in
If we learned anything from Kovač during the first matches this season, it’s that Kovac is not afraid to keep his eye on the long-term plan for this squad, even if that means experiencing short-term pain or unrest.
If anything, Kovač should be (and was!) commended for this. But yesterday against Ajax, he needed to regain the confidence of his team and the Bayern fan base by rolling out his best possible lineup.
And with that, Kovač failed.
️ "We have to win on Saturday, whatever it takes"— FC Bayern US (@FCBayernUS) October 3, 2018
No excuses after today's game. #UCL #FCBAJA pic.twitter.com/w4IJxQylD7
The stars need to play like stars
It is not as if Kovač shoulders all the blame for the past three games, though. The players, more than anyone, have been the primary culprits for why things have stalled on the pitch. Regardless of who Kovač sends out on the field, any combination of Bayern players should theoretically be strong enough to dispose of Augsburg, Hertha Berlin, or Ajax.
Specifically, the following players need to take heed of these points:
- Müller has to stop always trying to placate to his teammates and be confident in his own ability to finish
- Lewandowski needs to show his dynamic presence in the box on a regular basis and be the attacking terror that Bayern signed him to be
- James needs to admit that he’s injury prone and that a limited schedule now will likely result in a healthier status when Bayern really needs him in April and May
- Thiago cannot allow himself to get flustered when he’s surrounded by less skilled teammates
- Robben and Ribery have to stop being so sensitive about rotation
- Hummels and Jerome Boateng need to be far more consistent
- Martinez needs to accept that he’s the midfield Rafinha
- Kimmich and Alaba need to put more focus on their defensive positioning and awareness
The players need to better. They need to own that they’ve under-performed and that they have yet to play up to their own caliber. Until the roster talent does that, it will not matter who Kovač includes in his starting XI.
Upward and onward
The season’s not over. Far from it. It’s not time to panic, but it’s also no time to be complacent. Kovač has his work cut out for him in the coming days. While he won’t be at risk of losing his job, he may be at risk of losing his locker room.
Kovač needs to think carefully about his next moves to get back to the winning ways that win a coach like himself the support and acceptance of the locker room. Bayern may have around 40 games left in this season, but the coach’s leash gets shorter with each uninspired effort his team puts forth.