Bayern Munich fall into Niko Kovac's trap
Niko Kovac came into the DFB-Pokal final knowing that his offense was throroughly outgunned. Frankfurt needed to press ruthlessly while remaining compact and organized in defense in order to disrupt Bayern's passing game and find openings. Novac’s solution was to line up Eintracht in a 4-1-4-1.
In contrast to the way that Jupp Heynckes has used that formation with two wingers on either side of two creative attacking midfielders (James and Thiago), Kovac’s version played effectively as a 4-5-1 for most of the game, creating a wall of nine defenders to stifle Bayern’s midfield and cut off forward passes. And the gambit worked, when in the 11’ minute, Kovac’s countryman Ante Rebic caught James Rodriguez off guard and stole the ball away, scoring after a 1-2 with Kevin-Prince Boateng. Bayern created several chances in their effort to recover, but could not find the finishing necessary to overcome Frankfurt’s defense.
Bayern wither under physical play
Another part of Frankfurt’s game that seemingly caught Bayern unprepared was their sheer physicality. At halftime, Frankfurt had accumulated three yellow cards and 14 fouls. (Bayern saw merely 1 yellow card awarded to Lewandowski and 4 fouls.) The aggressive style and physical game left Bayern rattled and made it difficult for them to string together the passes needed to drive forward around Frankfurt’s defenders. Frankfurt conceded several free kicks—including some dangerous ones—but Bayern could not capitalize on those either. The best opportunities were missed by Lewandowski, once off the crossbar (8’) and once wide of the net (34’).
Niklas Süle cracks the toughest nut
As if it were scripted, center-back Niklas Süle found the way to break Eintracht's press: the solution came not from the midfield, but all the way from the back, as Süle delivered a perfect through ball clear through Frankfurt's packed midfield line. The long pass enabled Joshua Kimmich to collect the ball on the run at full speed, which gave him the space he needed to deliver a cross into the box. It rolled to Lewandowski, and he shot it into the net. If you went only by the game stats, you'd have thought Süle had a forgettable day. But you'd be wrong. By coincidence, that kind of through-ball is precisely the offensive contribution that one would have missed from Jerome Boateng, whom Süle was replacing. An omen of what's to come?
Shock: Maybe Niko Kovac knows what he’s doing
At the beginning of the 2017-2018 season, could you imagine how you’d have reacted if someone told you Kevin-Prince Boateng—who had just been basically fired by Las Palmas for “irreconcilable differences”—would play as a striker in the DFB-Pokal final against Bayern Munich and provide an assist and a de facto hockey-assist (inadvertently with his arm) in an upset win against the German champion? You might have asked me to share whatever I was smoking, but you would probably have politely disagreed.
Niko Kovac looks more and more like a very tough customer who knows how to utilize the strengths of the players at his disposal to maximum effect, and who isn’t afraid to push players to their limits in creative roles. Outsiders scoffed at Hasan Salihamidzic, when he seemed to fall into his position for lack of a better option. Kovac may prove to be a similar surprise. he came prepared, and he beat the best.
Jupp Heynckes deserved better
It has been an incredible season, and Jupp Heynckes deserved to see his final match end in victory and a domestic double. Everything Heynckes did was right: he fielded Bayern’s strongest lineup, virtually the same that took Real Madrid to the brink of defeat. He made all the right substitutions: Corentin Tolisso for an ineffective Thiago, Coman for Müller on the right wing, and Sandro Wagner for a gassed Franck Ribery. Tolisso had the game winner at his feet and failed to connect, Coman re-engergized Bayern's offense on the outside, and Wagner provided another tall target in the box. But none of it worked.
The DFB-Pokal final was in many ways a mirror image of Bayern’s knockout in the Champions League by Real Madrid. The chances were there, but the finishing was lacking. James served up several perfect passes, but they all were thwarted. The conclusion in no way diminishes what Jupp Heynckes accomplished this season. If that sentence leaves you incredulous, I ask you to think only what Carlo Ancelotti would have accomplished had he not been dismissed.
Bonus: Bayern are ready for a new coach with new ideas
We have witnessed the passing of an era—one that began with Heynckes and one that paradoxically ended with him. The 4-2-3-1, the inverted wingers, the passing game, the clean play, and so on and so forth. What makes Niko Kovac different? He has grit. And FC Bayern München could use a hearty dose of grit. So set aside the bitterness of today, and think ahead to tomorrow, after the World Cup, when Kovac will have a roster that is talented beyond his wildest dreams that he can use to crush the dreams of his opponents. It will be a wild trip.