There were plenty of reasons observers could pinpoint for current VfL Wolfsburg manager Niko Kovač’s inability to succeed on a long-term basis as head coach at Bayern Munich.
One thing that always stood out, however, was the front office’s reluctance to empower the coach with the tools he needed to do things his way — allowing him to win or lose on his own terms.
In a weird way, the club’s reluctance to work cohesively with the coach was an eye-opener — and one that has led to a much more collaborative, communicative, and inclusive relationship between the coaching staff and the front office executives (even if another rough stretch in working with Hansi Flick was probably the final straw on the camel’s back).
Bayern Munich’s inability to make it work with Kovač helped lay the foundation to create the 2022/23 club roster — which looks pretty incredible as of now.
Even recently, Kovač commented to his close friends that he was essentially set up to fail during his coaching tenure at the club (per Sport Bild, as captured by @iMiaSanMia):
Niko Kovač has told friends in his close entourage that under the current circumstances at Bayern (big investments, coach getting his transfer wishes fulfilled + his own coaching staff), he would have stayed in charge longer than just 16 months.
Let’s take a look at some of the issues that Kovač encountered and how they set up Bayern Munich to evolve:
Lack of front office support
Coming off of needing Jupp Heynckes to salvage Carlo Ancelotti’s lackluster run as manager, Bayern Munich hired Kovač — one of the hottest names in coaching at the time — but failed to provide him with any of the tools he needed to run the system he wanted to run.
Bayern Munich really didn’t even really allow him to move away from the club’s standard 4-2-3-1, either. As far as transfers go, Kovač had no influence and no say. He was on his own, coaching players he did not necessarily want, in a formation that he did not necessarily believe in at the time.
His eventual firing was predictable very early on.
More than not getting any support from the front office, this was Kovač’s first major red flag. As a new coach, he was looking to establish a new culture, instill some discipline after Ancelotti’s laissez-faire attitude toward training, and try to implement a “New Ways of Working” plan (which famously included lukewarm water for practice sessions).
That plan flamed out spectacularly.
On the U.S. tour, the players revolted, ignored instructions to rest in their hotel rooms, and went out partying. Fearing that any type of punishment would cause him to lose the team so early in his tenure (just weeks in), Kovač was advised to let it go...which led to him losing the respect of the team anyway. Kovač held neither fear, nor respect from his team’s veterans.
At the time, the 2018 World Cup players were all resting at home and not on the tour, while Rafinha, David Alaba, Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben, Javi Martinez, Sven Ulreich and a host of kids represented Bayern Munich stateside.
Specifically, Rafinha, Ribery, and Alaba — allegedly — organized the mini-
revolt late night soiree. All three wielded power and influence over the younger players on the tour and seized the moment to strip the new manager of his control (unintentionally or not).
Kovač’s inability to relate to those veterans ended up setting the tone for Bayern Munich to look at the communication skills and player management skills more closely for future hires like Flick and Julian Nagelsmann.
While it might seem hard to think anything positive came of that, it let the club know that no manager was going to be able to come in and overpower the squad’s veterans without major ramifications.
Phasing out Müller
Benching Thomas Müller caused him to lose the support of many fans...and that was the true death knell for Kovač’s tenure. In an odd way, though, Hansi Flick’s reliance on Müller ultimately showed why the veteran was so important to everything the team did. It was a difficult period for the #MüllerMafia and Müller’s wife Lisa, in particular, but that reality check eventually paved the way for the Germany international to reclaim his spot and earn a contract extension.
Absence from the starting XI made Bayern Munich’s heart grow fond for Müller.
The point of this post isn’t absolve Kovač of blame or to fanboy his cause...it’s to show that his tenure helped put the club on the road to forcing change to evolve into its current state.
Kovač won a double at Bayern Munich during his first season, was terminated, and then went on to AS Monaco where he was successful — before running into front office conflict again. Now at Wolfsburg, Kovač has a chance to show he can still coach, but also that he has changed his ways to be more player-friendly.
If anything, Kovač’s might be heralded in Bavaria, but it was impactful in many ways.