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Breaking down the locker room unrest over Niko Kovac

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Niko Kovac is in danger of losing Bayern Munich’s locker room a year after Carlo Ancelotti was terminated amid similarly poor results and unrest among the stars.


MUNICH, GERMANY - OCTOBER 04: Team coach Niko Kovac (R) of FC Bayern Muenchen and his assistent coach and brother Robert Kovac are pictured during a training session at the club's Saebener Strasse training ground on October 4, 2018 in Munich, Germany.
Niko and Robert Kovac.
Photo by A. Beier/Getty Images for FC Bayern

All is not well in Munich. According to a report by Bild (paywall), discontent and frustration with new head coach Niko Kovac are spreading in Bayern Munich’s locker room just a year after similar conflicts and poor performances cost Carlo Ancelotti his job. Various players on the team are upset at Kovac’s rotation policy, his use of Croatian, and a confused offensive plan.

“¡No estamos en Frankfurt!”

James Rodriguez was furious when he left the field after Bayern Munich drew against Ajax Amsterdam 1-1 this past Tuesday. “We are not in Frankfurt!” he shouted. The source of his frustration and target of his declaration was not present: head coach Niko Kovac. James had spent the first hour of the match on the bench. He showered and left the arena without further comment ten minutes later.

James is reportedly angry that he has frequently been benched while Thomas Müller has started, despite several unimpressive performances by the Bayern veteran. James in fact has yet to play an entire match this season. After his longest and arguably best performance this season, against Schalke in which he played 87 minutes and scored, he sat out Bayern’s lackluster 1-1 draw against Augsburg entirely. He then played 72 minutes in Bayern’s 0-2 loss to Hertha Berlin.

Rotated out

According to Bild, James is one of several players who are frustrated with head coach Niko Kovac. The other discontents in the locker room are reportedly Sandro Wagner, Niklas Sule, Leon Goretzka, and Serge Gnabry. With the exception of Süle, who has rotated regularly at center-back with Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng, all of them, including James, have played very little this season.

  • Niklas Süle: 540’
  • James Rodriguez: 332’
  • Leon Goretzka: 322’
  • Serge Gnabry: 207’
  • Sandro Wagner: 122’

For comparison, of 900 possible minutes this year (which only Manuel Neuer and Joshua Kimmich have played in full):

  • Thomas Müller: 720’
  • Franck Ribery: 683’
  • Arjen Robben: 617’
  • Javi Martinez: 546’ (just ahead of Süle).

Even young work-in-progress Renato Sanches has played more minutes than Serge Gnabry (246’ vs 207’). Niko Kovac has repeatedly emphasized the importance of rotation in keeping Bayern Munich’s squad fit, but the disaffected players have not benefited from additional minutes. Niklas Süle, for example, who have seen relatively more time, was supposedly dismayed that Kovac put him back on the bench directly after his strong performance against Leverkusen. The players thus support the principle of rotation but question its execution.

FC Bayern Munič

Also according to the report, certain players and assistant coach Peter Hermann, whom Bayern coaxed out of retirement this summer, are not happy about the formation of a kind of Croatian clique at Säbener Straße. Apparently, Kovac frequently speaks Croatian with his brother and assistant coach Robert Kovac, sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic, and goalkeeping coach Toni Tapalovic even when others are present. The players, all of whom are generally expected to learn German, find it disrespectful.

The lengths to which the club goes to encourage players to learn German are well known. The team regularly posts videos to its Youtube channel documenting how players like Javi Martinez and Corentin Tolisso are progressing in their studies. It is an important part of the culture of the club, which strives to remain grounded in Bavaria despite its aggressive internationalization efforts.

It is even something of an event when a non-German player gives his first interview in German, as Kingsley Coman did last year. Even American loanee Chris Richards has apparently been doing his homework, tweeting in German last month when the team played Benfica.

Kovac’s casual use of Croation thus not only excludes those who can’t understand what their coach is saying, but it also stands in contradiction to what the front office expects of the players.

Missing the concept

Finally, Bild states that the players feel Kovac has yet to convey a clear tactical concept on offense. Kovac has fielded numerous different offenses this season. The tendency is clearly toward a 4-1-4-1, the same formation that Jupp Heynckes reinstated after Ancelotti and his conservative 4-3-3 were dismissed. But Kovac’s shifting choices in the central midfield have intermittently given his forwards insufficient cover and viable options that can resist Gegenpressing and break down tight defenses.

The results seem dictated by Kovac’s choice of attacking midfielder. Renato Sanches played that part infelicitously against Augsburg and Hertha, first with Martinez as the single pivot and then Thiago. Against Ajax, Javi played the pivot again while Thiago struggled at the 8 spot. That position — the no. 8 — appears to be the weak link: Bayern’s fortunes have risen and fallen with the success of the attacking midfielder between the forwards and the pivot.

Sanches succeeded against his former club Benfica despite glaring errors. But Kovac’s dedication to him has arguably hurt the team’s cohesion, given Sanches’s offensive impetuosity and proneness to mistakes. Thiago also seems clearly more comfortable directing the game and eluding pressing from the no. 6 spot — provided he has a reliable midfield outlet ahead of him.

If Javi is benched for the far more effective Thiago at the 6, then that leaves either Goretzka or James as Kovac’s no. 8, giving the team more creative options up front than just dribbling and crossing from the wings. Perhaps that is the concept that the players are missing.

Kovac promised to review Bayern’s seven successful games prior to the current skid. Let’s hope he finds what he is looking for.