In the aftermath of Bayern Munich’s disastrous Champions League performance against Ajax, fans are wondering what has gone wrong. This marks the first time since the Ancelotti tenure that Bayern have failed to win three games in a row (all competitions). Everyone has their opinions, with blame being doled out to the club management, the attack, the defense, the team mentality, the awful away kits, and more.
Well, just like any other highly-critical football fan, I have my own finger to point, and I choose to point it squarely at the coach. Niko Kovac, after a stellar start to the season, has begun making mistakes that make no sense. While the draw against Augsburg can be blamed on individual errors and poor finishing, the loss to Berlin and the draw against Ajax should be blamed solely on the manager.
The Berlin game has been dissected to death, so if you’re interested in reading more, click here. I want to talk about how Kovac managed to throw away two crucial group stage points against a team that, by all rights, Bayern absolutely should have beaten. These mistakes, if repeated, will haunt the Bavarians for the rest of the season.
Javi Martinez has no place on the starting lineup
At this moment in time, Javi Martinez is perhaps the most superfluous player on the squad (yes, even more so than Franck Ribery). Why? Javi has one niche, and that’s as a hard-tacking, interception-making, slow but solid defensive midfielder. Can he do anything else (besides being an emergency center-back)? No.
Javi Martinez’s niche was very important back in 2013, when he was the best at what he did on the squad. Today however, Bayern Munich has Thiago Alcantara, a far superior #6, who can do everything that Martinez can do, while being both much more mobile and dangerous in possession.
In addition, Kovac has Renato Sanches and Leon Goretzka to partner with Thiago (Corentin Tolisso sadly tore his ACL and will miss the remainder of the season). Both of these players are young, fast, and dynamic — making them far more useful to this current iteration of Bayern than Martinez.
The strange thing is — Niko Kovac seems to realize this. He has reduced Javi’s minutes this season and opted to play Thiago as his exclusive defensive midfielder. What made him change his mind against Ajax, we will never know. This is what I’m talking about when it comes to rookie mistakes. Did the pressure get to Kovac? Did he decide to abandon his instincts for the “safe” choice in Martinez?
A Bayern Munich coach must be brave. If Kovac is losing his nerve now, then he’s really in trouble.
Robbery plays all the time, and it’s completely unnecessary
This is one that I’ve seen people blame management for. Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge were the ones who let Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben extend their contracts, and because no replacements were bought, poor Niko has no choice but to play them in every game. This is a lie. Niko Kovac isn’t being forced to play Robbery — he chooses to do so. What options does he have? Let’s recap:
1. Serge Gnabry: A young, fast, German winger with an eye for goal but a proneness for injury. Niko Kovac is justified in using Serge Gnabry carefully, but there’s a fine line between protecting a player and sidelining him. Why didn’t Gnabry start against Ajax? He was well-rested, while Ribery had just played the full 90 vs Berlin.
The decision to bench Gnabry was a blunder in every conceivable way — in terms of tactics, rotation, and personnel management. Was Kovac afraid to start him? Kovac already showed the world with Renato Sanches that he has the guts to play a relatively unproven youngster against Champions League opposition. If I had to guess, Kovac was spooked by the recent loss against Hertha and naively played it safe with the veteran. He paid for it dearly.
2. James Rodriguez: Think James Rodriguez can’t be a good winger for Bayern Munich? Think again. I’ll just leave this here for people to ponder over:
We’ll talk more about James later.
3. A formation change: Bayern Munich has the personnel to play any formation in the world. Why not try a 3-4-3, with Alaba and Kimmich as wingbacks? How about a flat 4-4-2, with Renato Sanches and Leon Goretzka as wide midfielders? The personnel is there. The players are good, intelligent, and versatile footballers. No one said we have to be married to the 4-2-3-1 for the entire season. With Coman injured, Kovac has the option to be a little bit creative with his solutions. Instead, he chooses to play Robbery in every game.
James Rodriguez should be playing WITH Thomas Müller, not without him
The way Niko Kovac has used James Rodriguez this season is baffling. Essentially, he seems to view Müller and James as players playing the same position, and prefers not to have both of them on the pitch at the same time. Why is that the case?
Didn’t Jupp Heynckes show last season how great James and Müller perform together? Both players performed well in their initial individual outings but have stagnated since then. James was completely ineffective against Hertha — while Müller struggled to even get a whiff of the ball against Augsburg and Ajax.
It’s very easy to understand why Bayern needs James and Müller together, and it has to do with Robbery’s decline:
- Niko Kovac insists on playing Robbery, who are not what they used to be.
- Defenders don’t need to mark Robbery closely, leaving them free to focus on Robert Lewandowski and deny him space. That’s why you play Thomas Müller, because without that extra presence in the box Lewandowski is smothered out of the game.
- A lack of creativity on the wings means that Bayern has to rely on service from the midfield. That’s where James comes in. If you don’t have his creativity, then the point of playing Müller and Lewandowski is lost, because no one can get the ball to them in dangerous areas. That’s why you have Joshua Kimmich and David Alaba sending crosses to the moon — they’re desperately trying to find the strikers in the box, but can’t. Who can? James Rodriguez.
In case you’re not convinced, let me show you some stats. James Rodriguez leads the team in expected goals per 90, with 1.03. Thomas Muller leads the team with expected assists per 90, with 0.36. These two are potentially our most dangerous attackers. Why would you separate them, Niko? Jupp Heynckes had it all figured out — what is the need to complicate things?
This cannot continue
Bayern Munich is an unforgiving club, as many managers have discovered in the past. Niko Kovac has to get it together, and quickly. If he’s genuinely out of ideas, then he should perhaps give Jupp Heynckes a call — before the board does.
Kovac needs to keep it simple, just like Jupp Heynckes did: play quality players, rely on your core, but don’t hold on to the past; tell Ribery and Robben that they need to be benched once in a while, and if the board pushes back, resign. There’s no need for Kovac to make these mistakes again.
As a Bayern fan, I can stomach injuries, bad referees, and crappy luck. But if our coach isn’t putting the team in a position to play at its best, then that’s something that simply cannot be tolerated.
We don’t need another Carlo Ancelotti.