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Rotation, possession, defense: Kovac’s tactics to beat Bayern Munich’s injuries

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Bayern Munich have lost three key players to injury this season, and head coach Niko Kovac has adjusted his tactical plans accordingly.

SL Benfica v FC Bayern Muenchen - UEFA Champions League Group E Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images

Pregame press conferences are often exercises in squeezing blood from a stone. But at the presser before Bayern Munich’s game against Schalke 04, head coach Niko Kovac dropped several hints about how he is responding to the tactical difficulties created by Bayern Munich’s injury situation, which has left the team with only one backup winger on offense and no backup at either left or right-back.

Rotation in the starting lineup has been a constant theme under Kovac, and he has made good on his promise to enforce a healthy rotation policy from game to game. The latest coup, of course, was Renato Sanches’s surprise start against his former club Benfica after Thiago Alcantara was unavailable, allowing Leon Goretzka to remain fresh for tomorrow’s game against his own former club. It was Sanches’s first start this season, and it went off spectacularly.

Kovac also rested Thomas Müller for James Rodriguez and again was rewarded with an outstanding performance. Kovac also at last silenced — at least temporarily — pundits speculating whether James is chafing at his time on the bench this season.

But there is in fact more to Kovac’s tactical plans than rotation. The coach is also instructing certain players to conserve their energy, finding a balance between possession and defense. When Kovac is on the sidelines, he thinking about far more than just the players on the pitch at that moment:

Many people think that the coach stands on the sidelines and watches the game like everyone else. We — the whole staff — always have to think ahead, keep our eye on the rotation. We have to find a balance. Every single player doesn’t want to accept that he’s tired. Success justifies us. Everyone will get playing time.

Joshua Kimmich, Kovac indicated, will correspondingly play a more defensive role against Schalke, as he did against Benfica on Wednesday. The reason is straightforward: since Rafinha is injured, Bayern currently has no one who can come on the pitch to replace either David Alaba or Joshua Kimmich should they exhaust themselves with offensive runs: “We have to budget our energy; you have to park it now and then. We have only two outside-backs.”

The watchword thus is conservation: playing creatively when in possession, but maintaining a defensive posture particularly on the part of the left and right-backs. That may translate into more central traffic through the midfield, if Thiago and Leon Goretzka bring the ball forward more often than the outside backs.

That puts a twist on Bayern’s traditional possession-based system. “Of course we want to have the ball as long as possible, but there is still an opponent,” Kovac said. “If we have the ball, we have to be creative,” he continued, but Kovac emphasized that defense is also key: “If you don’t concede a goal in the back, just one up front is enough. You can only be creative if you have the ball.”

Central midfielders like James Rodriguez and Thomas Müller are vital in this system. They truly cannot be merely offensive creators; Kovac expects both to drop back and share the burden of defense. Kovac highlighted precisely this versatility with respect to James’s performance against Benfica. James is, he said,

A fantastic footballer; he can do everything up front. He also played very well defensively against Benfica.

Creative up front with the ball, but defensive without it. That goes hand in hand with Kovac’s rigorous rotation policy, which he hopes will carry Bayern through until reinforcements arrive — a healthy Rafinha and Kingsley Coman, and a prodigious young dribbler from Canada and MLS: Alphonso Davies.

In the meantime, Kovac is fully focused on his task and not distracted by the noise:

I don’t read anything. I also don’t think about whether we might lose games sometime. I’m the same person I was in Frankfurt. But now at FC Bayern I’m perceived totally differently. That’s how it is.

But one last, all-important question: will Kovac, who does not drink alcohol, grant his players a visit to the Wiesn for Oktoberfest this weekend?

Hmm, we have to see. We’re playing again already on Tuesday after all. But we’ll definitely find an opportunity to celebrate the fifth season here in Bavaria.