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BFW Analysis: How Kovac’s tactics compare with his predecessors

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Quick in possession, dangerous on the counter, solid in defense. Is this new-look Bayern the sign of a revolution under coach Kovac?

Bayern Muenchen Training And Press Conference - UEFA Champions League
Niko Kovac and squad in Lisbon for the Benfica fixture.
Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images

The two months, spanning the end of September to the last week of November 2018, will be etched in the memories of Bayern fans as ones to forget. This period saw us register a paltry 5 wins out of 12 competitive fixtures, the rest comprising of 3 losses and 4 draws. Niko Kovac received heavy criticism during this period from the likes of Stefan Effenberg, Lothar Matthäus, and other football pundits as well as a significant section of the fanbase, with the the ‘mini-crisis’ being attributed to Kovac’s intense rotation policy, the lack of a ‘proper game plan’ or even the shaving of his beard (although to a much lesser extent, haha!).

In hindsight though, it just seems to be a case of the players adapting to a new, more intense style of play to previous coaches. Now that the players are getting accustomed to the style, the wins are starting to roll in. Bayern have won 8 out of 9 games in the BL since then, and it finally seems like Kovac’s game-plan is working its magic.

So how exactly do Kovac’s tactics and style of play compare with those of Pep Guardiola, Carlo Ancelotti and Jupp Heynckes? Here’s how:

Formation

Niko Kovac has shown a preference to a 4-2-3-1 this season, with Thiago and Goretzka donning the dual pivot. This formation is quite similar to the one used by Don Jupp Heynckes in the 2012-13 season, where Martinez donned the 6, with Schweinsteiger wreaking havoc at the 8. Goretzka is given a bit of freedom to roam forward in this setup, where he can wreak havoc in the offensive third, much like Schweinsteiger back in those days.

Pep Guardiola shifted between an attack-minded 4-2-3-1 and a 4-1-4-1, favoring the latter to commit more bodies forward, which seemed to always let him down in the crucial periods, where counter-attacks exposed the team. Ancelotti on the other hand, preferred the 4-3-3, with James as the CAM. He also used Thiago extensively at the 10, and to quite a degree of success, as demonstrated in his Champions league round of 16 performance against Juventus in March, 2016.

Thiago is one player whose role has been redefined under Kovac. He has been a Bayern player under all the aforementioned coaches, but none seem to have utilized his rare and unparalleled ability at the ‘6’ better than Kovac. He has been a force to reckon with this season, with great vision and distribution from the back and some outstanding defensive play. This ‘fighter’ spirit has taken to him and is working wonders for the team as a whole, as the defense is shielded better, and Goretzka can venture further forward and wreak havoc with more freedom.

Tactics

There is still a section of the Bayern fan-base that would love to see Pep come back to Munich. Pep-ball was a very attractive brand of football, involving long spells of possession, a focus on beautiful passing and overloading the box with crosses from the flanks until something fell through. Bayern’s average possession under Pep in the 14-15’ and 15-16’ seasons was around 63-64% per Bleacher Report, the highest it has been in the modern era. Ancelotti’s style also relied heavily on possession, albeit lacking the flair (it’s hard to really list any notable improvements he made to the team). Pep’s heavy reliance on possession and high lines was also the reason for his downfall on the biggest stage, the UEFA Champions League. Teams like Atletico and Barcelona hurt us with their quick counter-attacks, and our defense was left very susceptible to conceding some sitters.

A shift to counter-attacking

The closest Bayern have come to a strong counter-attacking unit in recent memory was in the 2012-13 season, when we won the UCL under Jupp. The average possession stats for that year revolved around 61%, and we were happy to sit back against other big sides and soak in pressure only to retaliate in quick, fluid motions to disrupt play completely and decimate our opposition. A good reminder is the 2012-13’ UCL semi-final against Barcelona.

Robben finishes a quick-counter off a brilliant pass from Alaba.

Enter Niko Kovac.

Having transformed Eintracht Frankfurt into a counter-attacking beast last season (the same beast that slew Bayern in the DFB Pokal final), Kovac has been implementing the same philosophy at Bayern for some time now. Sure, we still mostly play a possession based style, but this Bayern side has been chiseled into one that can generate counters in the blink of an eye. Our average possession this season is around 60.9% (Whoscored.com), the lowest it has been in the past 7-8 years. Kovac however, seems to prefer a conservative defensive line, which has definitely minimized errors (although occasionally, we still do concede when Hummels or Boateng stray too far up the pitch). A more direct approach in attack has also meant our chances are now finished far more efficiently and urgently than before.

We look much more dangerous on the counter however, and this Bayern unit has been able to generate and finish off quick and brilliant counter-attacks in games all season. In fact, twelve of Bayern’s goals this season have been the direct end-products of quick counters, something that seems irresistible as we move on to the next-gen Bayern. A Bayern that can do well in possession, and hurt teams hard on the counter would surely be a sight for the sore eyes.

Goretzka finishes off a counter off of a pass by Alaba.

Style of play

Niko Kovac has employed a very gritty, direct style of play under his reign, and this seems to be the solution for the ever-so elusive cup competitions moving on. This season, Bayern have committed 110 fouls, received 37 yellow cards and 3 red cards (Whoscored.com). The defenders and midfielders are not hesitant to commit a defensive action when necessary, and barring some defensive blunders (which occur ever so often), the team has always been set up to concede as few goals as possible.

Bayern defenders forming a compact line with the midfielders.

In the graphic above, from the game vs Hoffenheim for instance, Hummels. Süle and Thiago seem to be focused on their man, while also setting up the offside trap nicely. One of many improvements Kovac has drilled into the team is conceding less from direct play.

Contrasting this with Pep’s style, we see that the players under Guardiola were complacent with the ball and believed that a gap would eventually fall through, resulting in a goal. The center-backs would thus press high up the pitch, trying to find out their fellow teammates through passing lanes and narrow spaces. This is what hurt the team so much against counter-attacking opposition. They lacked the grit, the awareness and weren’t ready for quick counters.

Kovac’s style of play is not very dissimilar to Jupp’s, just a little grittier, and ready to employ some dark arts if required. After all, we require wins, and if we have to grind them out, then there’s no other choice. An undeserved victory is still a victory.

The new Bayern manager is trying all he can to make this Bayern side play effective football. Not necessarily attractive, but effective football. Our players are winning an average of 65% of their duels, are ready to go into ‘fight mode’ for the team, and look more battle hardened and brazen than before. A move from long, ineffective spells of possession to quick, direct, fast paced football is on the cards. Sure, it may be too early to herald coach Kovac as our new tactical hero, but he sure is on to something here and I feel Bayern and its fans would be all the wiser to back him and give him support. After all, aren’t cup competitions his specialty?