Bayern Munich have been uncharacteristically quiet in the transfer market. The German powerhouse signed midfielder Leon Goretzka way before the end of last season and then shied away from any further moves, apart from a deal with Vancouver Whitecaps for 17-year-old Alphonso Davies.
Naturally, the story of the summer was the arrival of Niko Kovač. The Croatian who won the German FA Cup with Eintracht Frankfurt in a dramatic final against Bayern back in May has been skyrocketed to a job many thought he could never get.
Reaching the top is easier than staying there. Kovač has to prove that he has what it takes to lead a group full of superstars. The 46-year-old has a natural authoritative aura to him which he immediately displayed in the first few training sessions at Bayern. Long-term success, however, depends on more than just locker room authority and charisma, especially at a club that has seen great managers like Pep Guardiola, Louis van Gaal, Carlo Ancelotti and Jupp Heynckes come and go.
To stay on top, which for every Bayern coach usually means winning the domestic championship and having a satisfying Champions League campaign, Kovač has to prove his tactical competencies. At Frankfurt, he enjoyed the comfort of managing an underdog team that would press hard in midfield and counter fast involving dynamic wingers such as Jetro Willems and Marius Wolf. At Bayern, he is going to have to come up with plans for long spells of possession. The German record champions are used to teams that sit deep, play with back fives and sixes and are not willing to engage in battles in open field.
Robbery remain crucial to Bayern
During the pre-season, it seemed that Kovač would continue the work of his predecessor Heynckes. He stuck to the 4-3-3 and focussed heavily on the involvement of his wingers, particularly the Joshua Kimmich-Arjen Robben pairing on the right side.
Bayern has relied on Robben and Franck Ribéry and their unique skills for years. Recently, Kingsley Coman joined the two, adding much needed fresh blood to the winger department. Bayern’s system revolves around the question of how they can move the ball to one of the attacking players on the outside to then break through the opposing defence.
In some of the pre-season matches, the two central defenders just ignored the midfield when playing out of the back and passed the ball straight to Robert Lewandowski who immediately attempted layoffs to the outside. The Polish centre-forward is extremely mobile and an expert in separating himself from defenders.
Since Bayern don’t have a real No. 10 in their squad, Lewandowski is needed as both a poacher and a playmaker. He did so at the end of his stint at Borussia Dortmund a couple of years ago and is expected to replicate the performance from back then.
What may concern some Bayern fans is the fact that Kovač seemingly makes no attempts to return to the Juego de Posición style Pep Guardiola once implemented. Since Guardiola left the club in 2016, these typical elements of possession football, including overloading half-spaces and making ball-near spaces tighter, have vanished. Bayern plays a more patterned style these days, with equal distance between players and mechanical build-up plays.
Nagelsmann is heading into his last season at Hoffenheim
If there’s one coach in the German Bundesliga that has found a way to outwit Bayern in recent seasons, it is wunderkind Julian Nagelsmann. The 31-year-old and his Hoffenheim team will meet Bayern in the season opener of the Bundesliga this Friday. Having already signed a contract with RB Leipzig for 2019, Nagelsmann goes into his last year at the club where he has grown to notoriety. And this last season couldn’t have more bumpy start. Hoffenheim’s entire creative department is on the injured list, with Nadiem Amiri, Kerem Demirbay, Lukas Rupp and Andrej Kramarić all unavailable for some time.
Nagelsmann is forced to improvise which he has done in the past quite masterfully, but an underdog like Hoffenheim usually need their best men to have any chance to win at least one point at Munich’s Allianz Arena. Nagelsmann will probably choose a variation of the 3-5-2 which he mostly used over the course of last season.
With several players positioned in the middle of the park, Hoffenheim may drive Bayern into playing through the wings even more frequently. The key for Hoffenheim is to then quickly move the block to the outside and shut down all running and passing lanes that could lead towards the penalty area.
If Hoffenheim are able to do exactly that and keep up the intensity over an hour or so, the crowd in the Allianz Arena might get anxious, expecting Kovač to react and mix up his tactical approach. That’s when his first Bundesliga match with Bayern could turn into his first true test. The 46-year-old does not have much credit going into this season. He has to deliver right away.