Another day, another foot-in-the-mouth statement from Niko Kovac. Ahead Tuesday’s DFB-Pokal clash with VfL Bochum, the Bayern Munich manager was asked his opinion on the recent clash between Liverpool and Tottenham in the Premier League.
In case this seems like a strange thing to ask a manager who does not even coach in the same country as the aforementioned teams, remember this: Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur were both Champions League finalists, and they both faced Bayern very recently. Therefore, they might be considered appropriate measuring sticks to judge Bayern’s quality — both in terms of tactics and in terms of personnel.
With that in mind, Kovac’s response was probably not what Bayern fans were hoping to hear. Asked whether Bayern could play a high-pressing style like Liverpool, Kovac said (via ESPNFC):
You need to have the player types. You can’t try to go 200 [kmh] on the Autobahn when you can only go 100. You simply must accommodate what we have.
We have different player types. We must find the right mix and I find that our Gegenpressing is also good, and, of course, it can always get better.
Is Kovac right?
It cannot be denied that Jurgen Kopp has taken Liverpool to an incredible level. In the last few years, he has turned the Merseysiders from Europa League hopefuls into the best team in Europe. It also cannot be denied that he has achieved this with the help of some incredible players — Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah, Fabinho, and Virgil van Dijk, just to name a few — and that Liverpool play some of the most intense and physically demanding football in Europe.
However, is the gap between Liverpool and Bayern Munich truly so great? Kovac says you can’t go 200 kph when your limit is just 100 — but does he really believe that Bayern lack the talent to play at such a level? Let’s consider the personnel for a second.
Just three years ago, under the stewardship of Pep Guardiola, Bayern Munich roared to a comfortable double and narrowly missed out on a Champions League final. Now, Bayern have undergone some changes since then, but the majority of the players from that season still remain — Robert Lewandowski, Thomas Muller, Joshua Kimmich, Thiago Alcantara, David Alaba, and Kingsley Coman were all part of a system that demanded that they work hard and counterpress with high intensity, and they’re not the only ones.
What Bayern did back in 2015/16 was no different to what the likes of Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling do for Manchester City today. Sure, those players are all a few years older — but apart from Lewy and Muller, all of them are under 30 (and Lewandowski himself is the fittest player at the club). In the meantime, Bayern have added players such as Serge Gnabry, who was part of a pressing-intensive system under Julian Nagelsmann at Hoffenheim, and Leon Goretzka, whose pace and stamina cannot be questioned.
So why exactly can’t Bayern Munich match Liverpool’s intensity? Leaving aside the comparisons to Guardiola, these same players were playing strong, possession-based football under Jupp Heynckes as recently as last year. What gives?
A tactical deficiency
Of course, Kovac continues to urge patience. Citing Klopp’s four-year tenure at Liverpool, he laments the fact that coaches are no longer given continuity in their roles. He said,
What are we talking about, eh? About continuity. About time. Which apparently you no longer have in football.
This seems to imply that Bayern will eventually hit an upward trajectory, given time and patience. However, the numbers and performances do not check out. The football that Bayern Munich are playing right now is objectively worse than what they played in the second half of last season. Just compare:
Bundesliga Ruckrunde 2018/19: 3.2 xG per game, 0.75 xG against per game (17-game sample; Understat.com)
Bundesliga Hinrunde 2019/20: 2.58 xG per game, 1.17 xG against per game (9-game sample: Understat.com)
Those numbers show an undeniable drop in performance from one season to the next, despite expensive transfer acquisitions over the summer. To be fair, Bayern also lost a key player in Mats Hummels, which may explain some of the defensive woes, but it definitely does not explain a 20% decrease in expected goals. That is the point where you begin to question the coach’s tactics.
Niko Kovac may ask for continuity, and he may ask for transfers, but it is still his responsibility to ensure performances. His insinuation that Bayern Munich are playing at the level of their players does not check out and warrants criticism. Kovac has definitely been dealt a rough hand, but he should refrain from making such defeatist statements in the future. When you’re in charge of a club that wants to win the Champions League, saying you can’t match the defending champs is a recipe for disaster.
What do you think of Kovac’s statements?
This poll is closed
It is a fair appraisal of the state of the squad — the board needs to step up and get better players.
He is making excuses — the squad can do better.