Niko Kovac and Bayern Munich Were Never Meant to Be

Bayern Munich have been one of the dominant sides of the decade; domestically and on the European stage. For the past 10 years, Bayern have attempted to form a style to keep their dominance in Germany for a sustainable period. It can all traced back to the appointment of Louis Van Gaal, a manager known for having a particular way of playing, that demands a lot from his players in terms of shape and offensive positioning. While Van Gaal did fail in entertaining the fans (something that would repeat in England) and bringing trophies in his second season, he nevertheless planted the seeds for what Bayern would become. He taught the likes of Thomas Muller, Bastien Schweinsteiger and Philip Lahm how possession football should be played.

After Van Gaal’s departure and Jupp Heynckes’ treble success, Bayern Munich landed the most desirable manager in the world: Pep Guardiola. The Spanish genius sought out to do precisely what Van Gaal was asked to do; define a possession-based, style of play for the Champions.

Pep’s time at Bayern was easily the most interesting of his career. He attempted to implement the same template he used at Barcelona. Which later, Guardiola quickly realised wasn’t possible, and changes were needed to be made. The Bundesliga is a league full of teams which can counter-attack with great speed and numbers. Pep was already used to teams trying to beat his Barcelona sides through quick counters, but German clubs were much better at doing this, especially during the rise of Geganpressing. Guardiola seemingly became paranoid, desperate to retain domination, while also keeping his Bayern Munich side defensively solid if a counter was to arise. He did this through the full-backs. Pep was lucky to have David Alaba and Philip Lahm as his primary full-back pairing; two players so comfortable on the ball, they could seamlessly play in midfield, a position the pair have played before. With Bayern having two of the most fantastic wingers in the world in Ribery and Robben dominating the flanks, it gave Guardiola the option to play Alaba and Lahm as half-backs. Most of the ball progression didn’t need to go through the midfield anymore. With Robben and Ribery being two of the best dribblers of the decade, it allowed Guardiola to give them more space to dribble, create and score, instead of the inside forwards he was using at Barcelona. Guardiola’s Bayern was more disciplined and structured than ever before. With the Bundesliga’s lack of competition during Guardiola’s three-year stint with the Bavarians, it allowed him to experiment with different formations, with the Spaniard at one point setting up his team in a 2-3-5, a real throwback formation. While this was impressive on paper, Bayern were already doing this in a lot of their games. The full-backs would come inside, the number 10 and one of the central midfielders (usually Kroos) would push forward alongside Mandzukic, and Robben and Ribery were left as the primary outlet on the wings.

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Guardiola did what his former manager could not; define how Bayern Munich should be for the next decade, with a focus on possession play, a high press and a more traditional striker who can link-up with the forwards, first Mandzukic then Lewandowski. I could go into a lot of depth in terms of Pep’s Bayern, but it was more to explain why Bayern fans have become frustrated since the Spaniard’s departure.

Ancelotti was first, and arguably where the problems began. This isn’t to say that he’s a bad coach, but he isn’t Guardiola. Ancelotti is at his best when he’s given a very talented group of players, that just need a push in the right direction. He’ll usually resolve some of the more apparent problems while making the attack function. His success at Real Madrid and Chelsea showed this, where he was given two fantastic groups of players. In Chelsea’s case, they recently missed out on their first European trophy, while letting their league form slip after Jose Mourinho’s departure. He did the same at Real Madrid and actually made them fun to watch after the frustration that was Jose Mourinho’s final season. Bayern weren’t bad under Ancelotti, but it didn’t feel like they weren’t getting better. He did win the Bundesliga as expected. However, a semi-final defeat in the DFB Pokal to Dortmund and a rather unfortunate defeat to Madrid in the quarter-finals of the Champions League did show a noticeable downgrade. Ancelotti’s short second season in charge saw them lose to Julien Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim and a rather embarrassing 3-0 defeat to PSG, which saw Ancelotti’s naivety exposed. Nagelsmann at only 29 already looked the more tactically astute manager, in a similar mould to Pep and being a Bavarian himself. He was who Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinze Rummenigge wanted more than anyone else.

The other reason for Ancelotti’s dismissal was man-management. As mentioned, Bayern weren’t getting better, and the team lacked the same edge they had under Pep, with more reliance over the talent Bayern have over the rest of the Bundesliga. The players were generally unhappy with how Ancelotti’s training sessions were so much more laid-back than under Guardiola, with Robben, Ribery, Lewandowski, Hummels and Boateng all particularly unhappy. Reports were surfacing that the players were having secret training sessions behind Ancelotti’s back because they felt they weren’t being pushed enough. The influence Pep has had on this team is clear, and a manager with the same tactical nous and flexibility was needed, to keep Bayern playing in the same way as seen during Guardiola’s tenure, to keep the players happy.

So, why Niko Kovac? It’s the question that has perplexed me for nearly a year now, and after looking into it for a while, I finally figured that out. Jupp Heynckes returned to the club once again, and Bayern went back to their best. They were so good that Uli Hoeness desperately tried to convince him to stay on. Heynckes, understandably, said this was going to be the last time he managed a club, leaving Bayern to look at other options, to help continue the foundation that Pep established.

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Julien Nagelsmann was the first name on their list, but Red Bull were a step ahead of them, convincing Nagelsmann to move to Leipzig instead of Munich. Red Bull are ran so well, with some of the best talents in Germany to work with. This must have been a more exciting project for Nagelsmann than managing a rather difficult Bayern team. Thomas Tuchel was next on their list. Like Nagelsmann, Tuchel is a Bavarian and was clearly interested in the job. Yet, Bayern were taking too long in approaching the former Dortmund manager, leaving Paris Saint-Germain with an opening to take Tuchel from right under Bayern’s noses.

Bayern seemingly chose Kovac because that’s all they were left with. His CV wasn’t nearly as impressive as Tuchel or Nagelsmann’s. Kovac did help keep Frankfurt in the Bundesliga in his first season, to then finishing 11th and 8th and taking Frankfurt to two consecutive Pokal finals, winning his second against his future employers. This was an impressive feat, but the big question was could he effectively manage the best team in Germany and a group of players with incredibly high standards. At Frankfurt, Kovac was more focused on how to set his side up defensively and work on off the ball positioning. Kovac would need to change this, since Bayern are the most dominant side in the Bundesliga in terms of possession and shots, off the ball work wasn’t a priority. It’s where Kovac differs from Tuchel and Nagelsmann; two coaches who have shown the ability to build a cohesive and robust attack, with Dortmund and Hoffenheim being two of the best attacking sides during their respective reigns. Convincing the Bayern fans and board members that he was the right fit for Bayern was going to be extremely difficult.

Kovac’s final game in charge, a 5-1 defeat to Frankfurt, wasn’t the first poor performance we saw from his Bayern Munich side. In fact, it was seen from the beginning of his reign. Kovac had a very mixed start to his tenure. They began dropping points, failing to look comfortable in the final third. After winning their first 4 games of the season, they dropped points in 3 consecutive games, and the same problem can be seen in these games: a lack of quality chances. Their 2-0 defeat to Hertha Berlin perfectly showcases Kovac’s most significant issue when it comes to Bayern on the pitch. While Bayern did dominate the game, their shot map was a mess:

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Bayern just seemed to lack an attacking plan under Kovac, relying more on the experience of a title-winning team full of winners than his own ability to coach. This three-game stretch displayed how poor Bayern was at creating high-quality chances compared to the same team under Pep or even Ancelotti’s. His overreliance on Lewandowski was becoming more apparent as the match days were rolling by. The Polish marksman was the main thing keeping Bayern’s attack ticking, with Lewandowski not only winning the golden boot in the Bundesliga with 22 goals but also assisted 7. He created over a chance per 90, and his sheer quality not only kept Bayern as one of the best attacking sides in Germany but got a lot out of other players in the team. I find it highly unlikely that Gnabry would have finished with his impressive goal tally last season, if it wasn’t for Lewandowski dragging defenders with him, and dropping deep to create space.

Der Klassiker was by far lowest point for Kovac in his debut season, for perfectly exhibiting everything wrong with Bayern’s attack. Bayern struggled against their rivals for the first time in years. Dortmund were riding high at this point, looking unstoppable with Sancho, Reus and Alcacer having fantastic starts to the season. But this is a fixture where Bayern have always turned up, with their last defeat coming in 2016, where they were somewhat unlucky to lose. This time was different. Bayern did get an early lead thanks to Lewandowski and went on to have a positive first half, with Burki tested through efforts from Ribery and Gnabry. Bayern were dominant and played some of their best football of the season. But Dortmund’s character and determination showed, with Reus scoring two and Alcacer getting the winner, to put Dortmund in the driving seat for the title.

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Bayern were shambolic in the second half by their standards, only mustering Lewandowski’s goal and a few half chances from Ribery and Muller. Dortmund looked like they wanted it more, creating countless opportunities and could have easily won that game by more. Even after Alcacer’s goal, Bayern still had 18 minutes to get an equaliser, yet had no ideas in achieving that, neither did Kovac. Favre reacted to his team’s lack of goals by introducing Mahmoud Dahoud to add some energy in midfield and Paco Alcacer, one of the best bench options around. Kovac, on the other hand, reacted by bringing on Renato Sanches for Serge Gnabry, one of the only players with pace in the team and Sandro Wagner, a player who doesn’t add anything different to what Lewandowski can do. It was so uninspiring, especially when James Rodriguez was on the bench. It still surprises me that Kovac managed to last longer than that defeat.

However, something changed in Bayern’s form. After that defeat to Dortmund and a subsequent draw to Dusseldorf, The Bavarians suddenly awoke from their 6-month slumber, and turned into the ‘Super Bayern’ we know and, at least, admire. From December 1st to the end of the season, Bayern only dropped 9 points, losing a single game. This run included scoring 5 goals or more against Meinz, Gladbach, Frankfurt, Wolfsburg and Dortmund.

This improved form and title win would make you believe that Kovac had turned it all around, but that still wasn’t the case. Two toothless and rather abject performances in the Champions League against Liverpool showed Bayern at their worst in Europe since their demolition by the hands of Real Madrid in 2014. The Bundesliga Champions failed to register a shot on target during their 0-0 draw at Anfield, placing them in a position where they just needed to win at the Allianz. The problem with treating your away legs as damage control means there is even more pressure on you to win at home than before, and if your opponent does manage to score in your own back yard, it makes that mountain even steeper. Kovac’s approach here screamed naivety. Liverpool is one of the best teams in Europe, and assuming they can’t score at the Allianz is ridiculous. The best teams in European competitions know how to win both home and away. This remarkably unambitious approach has been used and failed by many coaches. Mourinho did it with Manchester United during a round of 16 encounter with Sevilla, where they earned a goalless draw in Seville, only to lose the return leg in one of Mourinho’s worst games as a manager. Valverde did the same against Roma in 2018 and against eventual champions Liverpool last season, hoping a strong home victory would be enough to secure the tie. It’s ignorant and frustrating to see coaches still see the away leg as a game where keeping a clean sheet is all that matters.

Their defeat at the Allianz to Liverpool was the final straw for many Bayern fans, with the most worrying element of the loss being how far behind Bayern looked compared to Klopp’s team. Bayern lacked the same intensity we saw under Pep and were by far the second-best team in both legs. The gap between Jurgen Klopp and Niko Kovac was enormous at this stage. Even with Bayern’s improvement in the league, it was a huge step back in terms of Kovac being the right man for the job.

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Even Bayern’s change of form during the second half of the season did raise some doubts. Did Kovac suddenly get the players on his side with his approach being implemented on the pitch, or did the players suddenly remember they are supposed to be the Champions and need to prove that for their own reputations? The latter seems to be accurate, with reports surfacing that the Bayern players agreed to do everything to ensure they remained the Bundesliga holders.

Kovac’s biggest crime as Bayern coach was easily the collapse in his relationship with Thomas Muller. Personally, I do not like Muller at all. While he is clearly a talented player, he is not at the level to have as much power at Bayern Munich as he does. Muller commands a lot of influence in the dressing room and was one of the leading figures in Ancelotti’s dismissal, not satisfied with his lack of game time. The former Milan coach did actually play Muller a lot during his first season, but Bayern decided to add one of the best number 10’s in the world, with James Rodriguez arriving on loan. It was the first time Muller faced apparent competition in the squad, which he didn’t like. He then does what he usually does, and talks to reporters, which lead to more pressure on Ancelotti. The point is as Bayern coach, you should never leave Muller out of your first-team plans. The World Cup winner has recently been forced out of the national team by Joachim Low, a decision I respect and appreciate.

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So just like Rodriguez’s arrival, Muller was again unhappy to see himself dropped after Philippe Coutinho arrived on loan; an incredibly talented player who was an improvement over the ageing Muller. Kovac even admitted that he wouldn’t field Countinho and Muller together because it would be “too attacking.” It was evident by the start that Coutinho had to the season, that he would be preferred, looking more like the player we all adored watching at Liverpool. Coutinho clearly enjoyed working with Kovac, saying, “He is a top coach and a great guy who likes to work hard.” Coutinho’s presence in the side seemed to be an attempt by Kovac to push his own authority, but he clearly lost. Kovac even referred to Muller as “emergency nail,” showing just how Kovac was ready to change the norm in Munich. Kovac did later backtrack on this comment, which says everything you need to know about Muller’s influence. During Van Gaal tenure as Bayern coach, he famously said “Muller always plays,” a statement that rings forever true as the years go by. Ancelotti was sacked for not playing Muller, and Kovac is another to attempt to cross the German forward, only to lose the battle, and his job.

I can’t really blame Kovac for resigning. Even if he didn’t, there was a high chance he was going to be sacked. A squad relying more on individual quality than a tactical blueprint, taking Bayern Munich from the most dominant team in Germany to one that could be toppled and falling out with key members of the squad. I do genuinely sympathise with the situation Kovac was in, but the Bayern job, like many big club jobs, is different. There are different standards, players have higher demands in terms of what the coach should be doing, and they expect a certain level to be playing at. I still believe Kovac isn’t a bad coach. It’s just his style of coaching isn’t suited for a club of Bayern’s expectations. He arrived as the third choice option. He was always going to struggle to win over the fans, the players and the board. Kovac and Bayern were so different that it’s hard even to think that this was going to work in the long term. This was an appointment that felt wrong from the beginning, and even if I did hope he would find his feet in this massive job, it’s clear that this was never going to work out.

 

Are Leipzig Good Enough to Win the Bundesliga?

It’s a question that many have asked since Nagelsmann was announced as head coach back in 2018. The 32-year-old managed to turn Hoffenheim from relegation candidates into regular top 4 challengers. The number of goals he got out of the likes of Belfodil, Szalai and Uth made me wonder what he could do with genuine elite talent. We’ll be looking at Leipzig’s start to the season, to see why they are currently at the top of the table.

Leipzig’s history is short, yet full of controversy. Before the Red Bull takeover, RB Leipzig were formally known as SSV Markranstadt and playing in the 5th division of German football. The exact reasons for choosing Markranstadt isn’t certain, but I can guess it’s down to a few things. The club were stuck in the 5th division of German football, and right next to them was the city of Leipzig, with a population of nearly 600,000 people. It was an untapped market and gave them the chance to invest in a club which could become a global brand, providing a city with a football club to match its size. I can imagine RB Salzburg was in the owners’ thoughts, making, socially, a clear path from Austria into the Bundesliga. From their formation in 2009, it took them only 6 seasons to reach the Bundesliga, climbing the football pyramid with ease, thanks to a clear plan and massive investment.

It’s difficult to talk about RB Leipzig without even mentioning why nearly every fan in Germany despise them. It all begins with the name. The ‘RB’ stands for RasenBallsport, which translates to lawn ball sports. It ensured they didn’t break the league’s strict laws of no branding in club names, but through abbreviation, could keep their brand recognition. It’s things like this that really infuriate German fans, putting the importance of corporate needs over the fans, a part of the game that Germany empathise. While Red Bull’s lack of subtlety is frustrating, it’s the way they managed to work around the 50+1 rule. It was first inforced in 1998, to ensure football fans wouldn’t be treated as customers, remaining the majority voice at their respective clubs. Bundesliga clubs do possess a lot of members, with Dortmund having over 140,000 fans who pay an annual fee of €62. Once again, Red Bull found a way around this. RB Leipzig only have 17 members, all Red Bull employees, paying over €800 annually. It ensured they could legally play in the Bundesliga through bypassing all of their rules, without having the same routes as other clubs in Germany.

Football is a working-class sport, originating from hard-working men attempting to take a break from their lives through sport. It had the easy viewing for everyone to get into but had that extra level of sophistication, which made it extremely popular Germany, Austria and Hungary. Red Bull made it look so easy to abolish real fan ownership and build a club in their own image.

I sympathise with these views, but part of me finds it really hard to hate a club when they are just so good at finding talented players and managers. Their first season in the Bundesliga included some of the brightest talents in Europe. Naby Keita broke onto the season and dominated the midfield through high defensive actions and showing himself to be one of the best prospects for any Champions League club. Marcel Sabitzer was always seen as one of Austria and Red Bull’s brightest prospects, and moving to a more competitive league helped his development. Their crown jewel was young German forward Timo Werner. At only 20, he was alongside more experienced forwards like Aubameyang and Lewandowski in the race for the Golden Boot. While full of future prospects, they had players who were there during their stint outside of the Bundesliga. Emil Forsberg arrived as a promising 21-year-old and proved to be a fantastic creator. Yussuf Poulsen and Diego Demme both came in 2013. I’ve expressed my love for Poulsen, having a skill set that combines well with any goalscoring forward. Being coached by Ralph Hassenhuttl, RB Leipzig were aggressive, energetic, young and plenty of fun to watch during the 16/17 season.

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They’ve remained relatively consistent since their first season in the Bundesliga, finishing 6th in 17/18 and 3rd last season. Finishing 3rd and returning to the Champions League is a positive season, but it did feel like a transition into a new era, spearheaded by Julien Nagelsmann. The former Hoffenheim manager is one of my favourite coaches in Europe, being able to turn a weak Hoffenheim side into a fun yet effective side in Germany. However, what was holding him back was the personnel. Last season, he was stuck with Ishak Belfodil, who was basically moving clubs every season and only managed 4 goals for Werder Bremen in 17/18. Nagelsmann’s teams create a vast amount of chances that it’s difficult for any forward who starts over 20 games not to get at least 10 goals. Mark Uth might be the perfect example of Nagelsmann supercharging strikers. The German contributed to 22 goals in 17/18, earning him a move to Schalke once his contract expired. However, he only scored 2 goals in 15 games in his first season for Schalke. If Nagelsmann could get a lot of goals out poor to average players, it makes you wonder what he could do with Timo Werner and Yussuf Poulsen, who just had the best seasons of their careers.

The defence was the other area which did hold Nagelsmann back. His sides have usually played a 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2 with a very high line. To perform a system like that, you need to have genuinely elite defensive talent, something the 32-year-old just didn’t have at Hoffenheim. Last season, Hoffenheim gave away more penalties than any other side with 7 and gave away the most fouls per game with 13.9. In teams that play high-lines, you expect a lot of fouls to be made, in an attempt to recover the ball when the line is beaten, but the frequency in which they were taking down their opponents is concerning. Now at Leipzig, he has four extremely talented centre-backs. Willi Orban has been at the club before their promotion in 2016. While the club captain is an essential figure for the team, he backs that up with being a terrific defender, comfortable in possession and commanding his backline. The French trio of Dayot Upamecano, Nordi Mukiele and Ibrahima Konate are all extremely promising defenders. It’s a testament to how good Red Bull are at spotting talent. They arrived for a combined fee of £23 million, with Konate arriving on a free transfer. The club could manage to sell these players for over £70 million each, showing how they’ve remained to find value in the market, even with such a well-known brand like Red Bull behind them. All are comfortable on the ball and possess extreme athleticism to help them cover the distance needed to play in a Nagelsmann side.

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So how have Leipzig played in the first few games of the Bundesliga? While I don’t think they’ve been the best team in the league, they’ve been the most impressive. The main reason for this is because of the opposition they’ve had to face, with the Red Bull-owned club already playing Frankfurt, Monchengladbach, Schalke and Bayern Munich in their opening 6 games. I’ve watched three of these games and so far have been impressed with what I’ve seen. Nagelsmann has been extremely flexible in terms of formation and personnel. Against Frankfurt, Nagelsmann lined his side up in a 3-4-3, to match Adi Hutter’s team in terms of formation. Thanks to Leipzig having extremely athletic defenders, it allowed them to double-up on Frankfurt’s wing-backs Filip Kostic and Erik Durm, their opponent’s most prominent attacking threats. In breaking them down, Leipzig used Christopher Nkunku and, after an hour, Emil Forsberg, to run into the space that was left from Frankfurt’s marauding wing-backs. The pair completed 5 dribbles, showing how effective they were in moving the ball into the opposition half.

Their game against Borussia Monchengladbach saw some changes, with Nagelsmann switching to a 4-4-2 and bringing in Kampl and Forsberg for Mukiele and Nkunku respectively. These changes allowed them to deal with Gladbach’s weaknesses, being their lack of width and the full-backs. Rose usually lines his side up in a 4-3-1-2, with Thuram often drifting to the left. Leipzig countered this through their compact shape. It made it difficult for Rose’s players to break them down, and with the press from Leipzig’s front men giving them no time on the ball, it showed just how much work Rose has to do in turning this side into a Champions League regular. Their defenders lacked mobility and Leipzig used that to their advantage. Poulsen and Werner were consistently making diagonal runs into the box, making it very difficult to defend against Nagelsmann’s side. Werner’s hat trick was a combination of superb chance creation and elite finishing. Leipzig haven’t been topping the table in terms of shots and chance creation, but their forwards are consistently getting chances in fantastic areas. Even if Werner’s shots are of weak locations, his finishing is unrivalled in Germany, meaning he will be able to put all sorts of chances away.

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The two games so far have shown Leipzig to be flexible, aggressive and clinical. Like every team in the Bundesliga, the games against Bayern Munich were going to show just how good Leipzig were when facing better opposition, and for 45 minutes, it did not look good. I haven’t spoken about it yet, but in all their games so far, Leipzig’s press is consistent. Whatever formation was deployed, they would always press in a 4-2-4, with Forsberg moving over to the left, Poulsen and Werner in the middle and Sabitzer on the right. They plan to force their opponent into the flanks. He’s tried this against Bayern before, to some success. In their 3-1 defeat to the champions in August 2018, Nagelsmann used Joelinton and Szalai to keep pressure on the central defenders and force them to play the ball to the full-back. Hoffenheim’s wing-backs and wide midfielders would then aggressively press Bayern, and for a lot of the game, it was effective. The problem was Bayern were just too much for Hoffenheim, but trying a similar tactic against them once again might work considering the players Nagelsmann now has to work with. But that game was Kovac’s first game in charge of Bayern in the league. The team have since grown in quality and showed this at the Red Bull Arena. When Leipzig did try and press Bayern from the front, Bayern’s midfield duo of Kimmich and Thiago, the best midfielders in the league, found space and exploited the room that was left from Leipzig’s pressing. Both were at their usual best in this game, Kimmich especially, who created 6 chances from midfield. It wasn’t just in midfield where Leipzig were exposed, but in attack, where Lewandowski’s goal perfectly showcased this. Whenever one of their forwards were in possession, Bayern were quick to outnumber them, usually making it a three against one, to recover possession. This is what happened for Bayern’s goal. Sabitzer had three men around him, and when dispossessed, Klostermann attempted to recover the ball, but Muller was quick to get it back. A fantastic pass from Muller and a great run from Lewandowski to show some naivety from Nagelsmann, and Bayern continued to dominate the first half. Leipzig did get back in the game through a Forsberg penalty, but the half didn’t scream optimism.

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The second half is where Nagelsmann shined in his tactical adjustments. His players were being completely outclassed in the centre of the park and needed to fix it. He did so by taking off Klostermann and bringing on Diego Demme, to add numbers and ensure they could compete with Bayern. They switched to a 4-3-3, with Mukiele moving over to right-back. This was when Leipzig started creating chances, while remained stable at the back. Yet, they still weren’t exceptional. A lot of the opportunities they created just weren’t of high quality. Mukiele had a decent chance with a shot from the right side of the 18-yard box, but it was a routine save for Neuer. Sabitzer attempted to a shot from long distance, and while it did have some spin on it, it wasn’t going to trouble Germany’s number one. While this approach might have worked against a weaker team, Bayern are more than that. Thiago and Kimmich are so difficult to simply bypass. This game felt like a lesson for Nagelsmann.

So, can RB Leipzig win the Bundesliga this year? They definitely have a chance, but Bayern look too good to beat at the moment. Leipzig still have room to improve. Amadou Haidara hasn’t played much this season, and Tyler Adams is still yet to return, a player who could seriously make a difference in the middle of the park. Nagelsmann will have to be more open to rotation his key players if he wishes to compete on all fronts. This team is very aggressive, and I worry how often they might be caught on an off day, similar to how easily Schalke beat them at the Red Bull Arena. Nagelsmann should either change the approach for specific games or use the vast number of players in the team. Ademola Lookman and Matheus Cunha have rarely featured, and definitely have a part to play this season. If Leipzig wish to win the league this season, they’ll have to hope Bayern’s form begins to plummet and Dortmund remain unlucky. On the bright side, I do expect Leipzig to improve over the next couple of years, and the team is still young enough to stay competitive. Bayern still have a massive rebuilding job on their hands, so even if Leipzig do falter, their chance will come.

3 Teams To Watch in the Europa League

With the round of 16 only drawn today, it’s now time to look at 3 teams to watch in this year’s competition. While the Champions League is far more popular, and for good reason, the Europa League does deserve some recognition. I wanted to wait for the round of 32 to finish, because the group stages contain a lot of poor opposition, so waiting for good teams to appear seemed like the right thing to do.

Eintracht Frankfurt

Let’s begin with a team that have been very good this season. Frankfurt currently sit 7th in the Bundesliga, only 7 points behind the Champions League places. After their DFB Pokal win over Bayern Munich, they lost their manager and replaced him with Adi Hutter. The Austrian had earned plenty of attention thanks to his success with Salzburg and then beating FC Basel to the League with Young Boys. It was seen as an incredible feet, and meant he was given the chance to manage at a club with promise. He has done an excellent job so far. Frankfurt play a 3-5-2, a formation that gives good width while still given the side plenty of numbers if possession is lost. Thanks to his attackers being so good, it has allowed Frankfurt to build their entire team around creating chances for them. Thanks to having a good distributor in Hasebe, it means they can counter attack very quickly, and it has made them so good to watch in that regard. Only Dortmund have scored more goals on the counter attack than Frankfurt’s 5. They also take 64% of their shots in the 18 yard box, the highest in the league. It’s proof that this is a team that knows how to create good chances, and are very difficult to stop. They’ve carried this form into this year’s Europa League compeition, scoring 13 goals in open play, the joint second in the competition. They’ve also scored the most goals from set pieces, just showing they take advantage of any chance to score a goal. It’s a reason why they are such a threat this year. This side are full of goals and not many defences could deal with them.

To look at their most important players starts and finishes with their attackers. Luka Jovic, Sebastien Haller and Ante Rebic. Let’s begin with by far their most notable player, Serbian forward Luka Jovic. The Benfica forward has been one of the breakout stars of the season, with Jovic already being linked a big move to Barcelona. There are justified reasons why. He has been a monster in front of of goal this season, scoring 14 goals in 15 starts in the Bundesliga this season. What is most impressive is where he’s shooting this season. Per 90, he’s been taking 3.6 shots a game, with 3.1 inside the box. They are numbers similar to Mauro Icardi, a man who lives in the 18 yard box. What is so great about him is just how good he is at scoring. A simple observation yes, but still very true, thanks to his strike partner being so good, it always leaves him with the chance at goal, and he just hits it with so much power. He’s fast, strong and good in the air, and it makes him one of the most wanted players around.

His strike partner, Sebastien Haller, has arguably been better in the Europa League this season than Jovic. The French man has been very good this season, but thanks to Jovic earning all the praise, it has let fly under the radar. Haller has scored 11 and assisted 8, putting him in the top 10 scorers and the top 5 assisters in the League. I mentioned that having him has made Jovic better, and it’s true. It’s similar to the relationship built between Timo Werner and Yussuf Poulsen. One who is the goal scorer, and the other helps said goal scorer get the opportunities. It’s arguably the reason why Werner hasn’t succeeded at international level. He doesn’t have someone like Poulsen next to him, to allow him to find space as easily, and doesn’t allow him to play as more of a poacher. Haller has done exactly that. He is winning a crazy 7.7 aerial duels in the Bundesliga, the most in the league. His shot numbers aren’t exactly great, but that isn’t the point. His purpose is to allow Frankfurt to transition as quickly as possible, and for a side that isn’t exactly Champions League level, it works really well. He is an incredibly important player, and hopefully gets the credit he deserves.

Finally, let’s touch on Ante Rebic. The most experienced forward out of the trio (he’s only 25) has also been very good this season. While he has played as a winger for Croatia and has a forward for Frankfurt, he has been playing as a number 10 primarily this season, and has been a great addition to the strike force. Rebic is by far the best dribbler out of the trio, completing 2.6 dribbles per 90, comfortably the most for his side He is very importantly in driving the ball and adding an element of unpredictability to his side. It’s what makes him useful to have. Jovic is a great goalscorer and Haller is a great vocal point, and Rebic is great at driving at defences, with power and speed making him a handful for many defences.

This attack is what makes Frankfurt in my opinion, one of the favourites for the tournament. Their attack has the versatility to be able to deal with nearly any defence that comes their way. Their game against Inter Milan is a must watch, because it could truly be an upset and a showing from a side that has performed so well in the Bunesliga this season.

RB Salzburg

While I have definitely gone on way too much on Frankfurt, let’s look at the team that have scored more than one of the best attacks in the compeition, RB Salzburg. Salzburg were a team they I never used to think much of. I just presumed they were a feeder club for many clubs across Europe. They had an eye for talent, which saw players like Sadio Mane and Naby Keita go through their ranks, before moving on to bigger clubs in Europe. But that all changes last season. They were so good in the Europa League last season. They managed to finish above runners up Marseille in the group stages, going unbeaten. Their run in the competition was a difficult one, yet they still managed to reach the semi finals, where they couldn’t pull one over Marseille one last time. They beat Real Sociedad, Lazio and Borussia Dortmund in the competition. They have a talented squad, and most importantly, an amazing coach. Marco Rose has been seen as one of the most exciting young coaches in Europe. The German is another young German coach with a style and philosophy that is seen as the future of the game. After beating Man City, PSG, Benfica, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona to win the UEFA Youth League with Salzburg’s youth side, he was given the job for the senior side. He has a win percentage of 70% for Salzburg, and is looking to win another Austrian Bundesliga . To describe him as a coach, his insperations seems to be Tuchel and Klopp. It’s understandable since he played under Klopp and has worked with Tuchel. If Klopp’s football is heavy metal, then Rose’s should be heavier metal. It takes pressing to another level. They primarily play a 4-3-1-2, but Rose is still very flexible depending on who he plays. Salzburg play directly to their forward Dabbur, thanks to Ramalho a very good passer, averaging 8.7 long balls in the Europa League. They attempt to then play the ball quickly in and around the final third, with Hannes Wolf and Minamino/Gulbrandsen trying to exploit the space that is made. Their full backs are the ones who give the side their width, with Laimer and Ulmer mostly playing as wingers. The first thought when seeing and describing this is usually the risk it involves, with so many players advancing forward. It is risky, but when your side counter presses as well as Rose’s does, it isn’t so bad. The main reason why they play such a narrow formation is for this reason. When they lose the ball, they will have so many numbers, that it makes retrieving the ball much easier. It makes them such a threat, that no wonder they reached the semi finals last season. They have been outstanding in the competition so far. They were in a relatively tough group, with Celtic and RB Leipzig. Yet they managed to win every game. Only previously mentioned Frankfurt and Salzburg managed to do this. It’s why I’ve mentioned first here, because they have been the best sides so far in the Europa League. Salzburg did carry this on into the round of 32, with a comfortable 5-2 aggregate final score against Brugge just showing why they are so high regarded.

The first player that has to be discussed is Munas Dabbur. The Israeli forward has been the stand out player of the tournament so far, scoring 7 and assisting 1 in all 8 games they’ve played. His importance to the side cannot be underestimated. While the striker playing beside him has been changed around, he has stayed an ever present. He takes a team high 3.8 shots per 90, and has created 1.7 chances. He is an all round forward who is able to not only score, but able to bring others into play very effectively. Salzburg will hope that he is able to bring this form into their game against Napoli, if they are to get anything out of that tough tie.

When bringing up the counter press in this side, Diade Samassekou has to be given plenty of praise. While he offers nearly nothing in attack, his defensive work is just out of this world. The Mali midfielder has been putting in 7 tackles and interceptions per game. I don’t think I have ever seen numbers like this on a player, when you realise that no other player in the competition has reached that number, it tells you just how good this guy is at recovering the ball. In a system where doing that is vital to not only keeping the ball, but helping with attacking the opposition.

Salzburg are such a threat because of the way they approach games. These players know the system and have the intelligence and energy to pull it off. Their aggressive and fast style of play makes them a difficult opposition for anyone.

Sevilla

Sevilla, who after having a relatively poor 2017/18 season, bounced back with a bang. While their form has dropped off since the new year, the fact they were top of the league as recent as November. We’ll start with the summer, which saw the arrival of their new coach, Pablo Machin. He did an excellent job at Girona. He ensured that a newly promoted side finished 10th in the league. While they didn’t score many goals from open play, they managed 19 goals from set pieces, with only Madrid scoring more from those situations. For a promoted side, taking advantage of opportunites like that is vital. You will not have much of the ball and need goals. It’s also easier to teach set pieces than it is to teach a different system. Machin did well and was given the chance at a team with more resourses and better players. He turned Sevilla into a counter attacking machine, a side that moved the ball quickly and created great chances for a group of forwards who have shown plenty of talent in their career. They’re also midfielders with an eye for a pass, with Banega and Sarabria both helping transition the ball further up the pitch, and Navas and Escudero giving good width for the side. They are so forward thinking in an attacking sense, that it makes them very vunerable defensively. While they have scored an impressive 40 goals, they have conceded 32, the most out of the top 10 in La Liga. Their approach is very much of Wenger’s Arsenal in its later years, if the opposition scores 2, we’ll score 3. They are a great side to watch, and while the form of some players have dropped (especially Andre Silva), they have had their best season since Sampoali’s top 4 finish.

They have been very good in the Europa League so far this season. They reached the round of 16 by winning 4 games and losing 2 in the group stages. They weren’t at their best in this period, but considering the group stages took place when Sevilla were doing well in La Liga, it makes sense why they didn’t do better. Their tie against Lazio in the round of 32 were Sevilla back at their best. Thanks to heroic performances from Banega and Kjaer, it gave Sevilla an away goal and a clean sheet, giving Sevilla the upper hand. They then went and beat the Italian side 2-0 in Spain to advance to the next round. Now that any hope of a title is out of the water, it leaves them with more focus on this compeition, making it a very important goal for the season.

To look at key players, one must begin with Ben Yedder. The frenchman is a very good forward and now under Machin, is getting the chances to show. He finds great positions in the box and is able get in between defenders, thanks to his small figure, makes him a stiker you have to keep your eye on . He has scored 6 goals in the competition, the most for his side, and is by far their most threatening forward. Another player who will shine in this competition, as he has done in the past, is Ever Banega. The Argentine had already won the competition during his last spell for Sevilla, and hopefully and help his side do the same. He’s been putting in 3 tackles and interceptions, creating 3 chances and completing 1.7 dribbles. He is so important for Sevilla when it comes to transition, with his calmness and experience key in helping move the ball higher up the pitch. He, like Sarabia, is also an excellent creator. It’s what makes their counter attacks so threatening. They are able to find their dynamic forward precise passes, and is why they are so dangerous in the break.

While question marks can be made on how they are defensively (mainly due to personel), they are still a side who are very dangerous. If you do not attack them enough, they will punish you for it.