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Niko Kovac explains tactical decision to start Thomas Müller on the wing

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Many were puzzled by Kovac’s decision not to bring Serge Gnabry onto the pitch until halftime, while Müller had a day to forget on the right wing.

NUREMBERG, GERMANY - APRIL 28: Thomas Müller, Serge Gnabry and Leon Goretzka of Muenchen look dejected after the Bundesliga match between 1. FC Nuernberg and FC Bayern Muenchen at Max-Morlock-Stadion on April 28, 2019 in Nuremberg, Germany.
Thomas Müller, Serge Gnabry and Leon Goretzka look dejected after the match against 1. FC Nuernberg, April 28, 2019.
Photo by Sebastian Widmann/Bongarts/Getty Images

Bayern Munich’s starting lineup in Nürnberg yesterday left much to be desired. Head coach Niko Kovac surprised many by benching winger Serge Gnabry and starting Thomas Müller in his place. Müller’s own usual spot was taken, meanwhile, not by James Rodriguez, who also remained on the bench, but by Leon Goretzka.

The lineup proved spectacularly ineffective, as neither Müller could break through Nürnberg’s tight defense nor Goretzka was able to link up with Robert Lewandowski. Kovac decided to replace Müller with Gnabry after halftime. In an interview afterward, Kovac explained why he did not start Gnabry in his usual position to begin with (Bild):

It was already our plan to play Serge from the start: only, he came to me in the morning and said he didn’t feel up to playing from the start, because he had a little bit of a muscular problem. That’s why we decided to move Thomas outside and to put Leon in the midfield.

Although Müller played brilliantly in the central midfield against Werder Bremen midweek, he struggled out right, as Kovac himself acknowledged:

Practically nothing came via the right side. When the opponent hangs deep, it’s not the ideal position for Thomas.

At halftime Kovac presumably thought that Goretzka would perform better where he was with Gnabry out right, and Müller could rest at least a half. Having given Goretzka a start — a rarity in recent games — Kovac also may have been reluctant to cut it short.

Mats Hummels also argued that the team’s performance as a whole was at fault for the disappointing result; the entire team was sluggish and sloppy in his view:

We simply didn’t play well. We had no pace there, were technically imprecise. Very imprecise. We lost the ball unforced countless times. I think every one of us on the team played a free ball out of bounds or right to the opponent’s feet. That is not the level that we expect of ourselves.