Niko Kovac is known for his grit and iron mentality. Over the past few years, he has coaxed incredible performances from the ultimate Bundesliga underdogs, Eintracht Frankfurt, culminating in their victory over Bayern Munich itself in the DFB-Pokal last season. Kovac likewise shares no small part in the success of the Croatian national team, which he captained until 2009 and coached from 2013 to 2015. Croatian star Ante Rebic blossomed under Kovac’s tutelage at Frankfurt.
At Frankfurt, Kovac showed great tactical flexibility. In addition to the common 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 formations that have been customary at Bayern Munich for several years, not to mention the 4-1-4-1 variant that Jupp Heynckes preferred this past season, Kovac frequently relied on a defensive formation with three center-backs, drawing up the team in a 3-5-2 with Rebic and Sébastien Haller up front, and Marius Wolf and Timothy Chandler respectively as left and right wing-backs (for example, in their decisive 2-0 win over Mönchengladbach in January).
At his introductory press conference yesterday, Bayern Munich’s new coach hinted that he might bring his trademark 3-5-2 to Munich while remaining true to Bayern’s tradition of attacking soccer (transcript from Spox.com):
We want to retain the playing style of the past few years, but modify one thing or another. Maybe also in another playing system. You have to see what the opponent thinks up during the game. . . Our goal is to make every player better. First of all, I have to get to know all the players, especially the new ones and the players from the youth teams. I hope that we will perhaps be able to integrate an additional system.
What would that mean in practice? Bundesliga.com gives a nice overview of Kovac’s ideal 3-5-2 lineup at Eintracht Frankfurt, but propose a hypothetical 3-5-2 featuring all three of Bayern’s center-backs — Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng, and Niklas Süle — and none of their many wingers — Kingsley Coman (who is a virtually guaranteed starter), Serge Gnabry, Franck Ribery, and Arjen Robben:
Neuer — Boateng, Süle, Hummels — Kimmich, Goretzka, Vidal, James, Alaba — Lewandowski, Müller
If that lineup strikes you as implausible, you are right. Benching all of Bayern’s wingers while starting all three center-backs (leaving Lars Lukas Mai as depth in case of injury?) is hardly the attractive, attacking soccer that wins Bayern fans.
To my mind, Kovac’s comments suggest something rather different: that Bayern Munich could shift formations during a game in response to the opponent’s play or to create tactical overloadsat a weak point.
Let’s look at a hypothetical 4-2-3-1 lineup under Kovac this coming season. I have fielded both Gnabry and Coman on the wings, with Müller and James in the middle, and Sebastian Rudy as central defensive midfielder. Shift James forward, and we have a version of Heynckes’s 4-1-4-1:
There are, of course, a wide variety of other options, given Bayern’s extraordinary roster: Rudy’s position could be taken by Javi Martinez, for instance. Vidal (or Corentin Tolisso, if Vidal is gone) or Leon Goretzka could play in James’s position. James could replace Müller, who could be benched or played out wide, with Coman on the left and Gnabry on the bench — and so on.
What Kovac might well do is take a strong, offensive starting lineup like this, featuring a back four, and shift it into a 3-5-2 during games. That 3-5-2 at Bayern Munich would not be a conservative, defensive formation, but rather a hyper-aggressive one, allowing one of either David Alaba or Joshua Kimmich to play temporarily as a wing-back.
For example, here is how the same 4-2-3-1 lineup could transform into a 3-5-2 leaning to the right, allowing Joshua Kimmich to drive forward and collaborate with Kingsley Coman:
In this image, I have left Coman on the outside and Kimmich just inside, but in practice they would freely exchange positions. Kimmich could drive forward on the outside all the way to the goal line while Coman moves inside toward the penalty area.
Alternatively, Alaba could steam forward on the outside left, allowing Gnabry to drive inside and overloading the opponent’s right side:
In both these hypothetical scenarios, one of Bayern’s two center-backs (and Süle could easily replace either of them), anchors the defense while the other and one of either Alaba or Kimmich stay behind in support. It so happens that both Alaba and Kimmich have played as center-backs in the past, and both have the speed and mobility to do so in a temporary back three that could potentially have to move to defuse a counter-attack.
Now Sebastian Rudy’s place in this lineup becomes apparent: as a defensively oriented distributor, Rudy is the perfect candidate to shift between offensive and defensive roles in either system, similar to the part played by Makoto Hasebe. In fact, Rudy played exactly this role at Hoffenheim under Julian Nagelsmann. Süle likewise played typically as one of three center-backs under Nagelsmann in a 3-5-2 system identical to Kovac’s own.
Hence Bayern’s roster is already very well suited to implement Kovac’s vision. But at Bayern, the 3-5-2 will not necessarily be a conservative formation — that is, the 5-3-2 or 5-4-1 that such lineups frequently collapse into when on the defensive. Instead, Kovac can unleash an additional attacker on opponents while maintaining defensive composure. Kimmich in particular seems like the perfect candidate for an advanced, offensive role. At least on paper, that looks like a mouthwatering prospect.