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Flashback: When Jupp Heynckes was bashed like Niko Kovac

An old article by one of soccer’s leading commentators illustrates how some things never change and gives perspective on the struggles of coach Niko Kovac.

Photo by Maja Hitij/Bongarts/Getty Images

Football is a strange game, especially for coaches. One day, you can be hailed as the greatest in the world and a tactical mastermind, and a few days later be derided as a fraud, inept, cowardly — or all of the above. In his short tenure as manager of FC Bayern Munich, Niko Kovac has experienced both both ends of the spectrum, but recently he’s been bombarded by more and more of the latter: unrelenting criticism.

While the disappointment of losing to Liverpool in the Champions League stays fresh in people’s minds, Kovac has been severely criticized for a “spineless” performance against the Premier League leaders. Many in the fanbase are calling for him to lose his job over the loss, despite a lack of potential replacements and the extenuating circumstances of the tie.

Therefore, it’s time to gain some perspective.

We dug up a piece by Raphael Honigstein that was published in Sports Illustrated a few years ago. It concerns one of our most legendary figures, Jupp Heynckes. Honigstein is one of the few people in the media known to give astute commentary on Bayern Munich, because — in contrast to many others — he actually knows the club and knows what he’s talking about.

That said, the Sports Illustrated article he published just over seven years ago, on March 10, 2012 makes for hilarious reading with the benefit of hindsight. Honigstein writes,

Bayern is second in the Bundesliga but has been poor since the winter-break. So poor that a three-point-lead over Dortmund has turned into a seven-point deficit and that the club finds itself at the verge of elimination in Europe at the “last 16” stage. (The first leg in Basel was lost 1-0). So poor, in fact, that Heynckes’ departure in the summer has been treated as a fait accompli by sections of the Munich press.

Bild used to do Bild things, even back then:

Bild reported board level discussions about his successor; president Uli Hoeness liked Schalke 04 manager Mirko Slomka, we were told, whereas CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge was said to be impressed with Swiss coach Lucien Favre, the architect of Borussia Mönchengladbach’s renaissance.

It seems like history has a habit of repeating itself:

Bayern, to the surprise of many, reacted very strongly to the story. The club issued a news release, stating that it “condemned this outrageous, baseless media speculation in the strongest possible terms,” adding that it reserved to take legal steps against “this kind of rumor journalism.”

Heynckes the tactician?

As we read further, Honigstein explains that Heynckes was hired to be the anti-van-Gaal, following Louis van Gaal’s disastrous meltdown the year before. However, back in the dark ages of 2012, the move didn’t seem to be going so well. Alas, Heynckes’ tactics were disappointing:

The real problem now is not that he’s turned out to be something different. He hasn’t. The problem is that Heynckes’ modus operandi has fallen short in the light of opposition (Dortmund, and Basel, even) who are able to reach a higher tactical and collective plane thanks to the work of their younger, more technically devoted coaches. Bayern, under Heynckes, have more balance than Van Gaal’s 2011 version but there’s precious little by way of a real game plan, only the traditional, regressive reliance on the individual brilliance of his best players.

For fans who started supporting Bayern after 2012, or have forgotten what it meant to compete for a title, Honigstein should give a sense of perspective. This is how Bayern’s treble-winning manager was being looked at back in the day, a little over a year before he would go on to win everything there is.

While reading the following sections, one begins to wonder if the article even came out in 2012, or is perhaps some kind of elaborate hoax. Every point of criticism Honigstein brings up against Heynckes is one that Kovac has faced in his time as coach, except the one about him being a bit old.

Bayern will beat most Bundesliga teams, even the better organized ones. But when the opposition defend with intelligence and threaten on the break, Bayern struggles — more than it should. It’s as if the reservoir of the tactical input from the Van Gaal years has been used up. After successfully curbing the excesses of attacking soccer, Heynckes has completely failed to put anything new in its place. His Bayern just muddle through, essentially.

Doesn’t that sound like Niko Kovac? Or, rather, the criticism that is leveled against him? If Honigstein wanted to, he could replace a few names and phrases and publish the article in 2019 without a hitch. “Kovac was brought in to be anti-Guardiola but has failed to give Bayern an identity” — something like that. No one would be none the wiser.

Let’s gain some perspective

Reading that article from 2012, you would never guess that the same manager being so roundly criticized would go on to win the treble a little over a year later. People remember Heynckes for his legendary 2013 triumph, while forgetting all the pitfalls that he navigated to get there.

Bayern Munich currently finds itself in a difficult spot. We are in transition: some legends are leaving, the coach is relatively young and inexperienced, and the squad is in need of renewal. That is not, however, a reason to burn the house down or turn on the people running the club.

Supporting a football club has its highs and lows. Bayern currently finds itself in one of these lows, and the fanbase, incited by the media feels the need to lash out at the people trying to guide Bayern through these difficult times.

This is not an apologia of Kovac or an attempt to argue why he should stay. That can be found here, if you’re interested. This article merely serves to provide some perspective to people who have none, or have forgotten what things used to be like. There’s no guarantee that Kovac will pan out like Heynckes did, or that the club will recover from apparent doldrums any time soon.

Be that as it may, we must understand that what is happening now is not a reflection of what may happen in the future. Football is funny like that. So let’s keep hope, stay critical but supportive, and allow management to do their thing. As fans of Bayern Munich, that’s the least we can do.

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