Grading the Top Four Bundesliga Team’s Seasons

This is actually the first time I’ve closely paid attention to the Bundesliga from the start to the end. While I plan to pay more attention to teams outside of the title race in the future, let’s focus on that for now. From comparing today’s table to the ones of previous seasons, this was easily the most thrilling title race in years. Just going back to the start of February, only three points were separating first and fourth. The season did eventually end with Bayern Munich winning comfortably. But it gives me hope that this league can remain competitive in the future, and if it can remain entertaining with multiple teams fighting for the Meisterschale, it could attract even more fans to German football. But instead of looking at the future, let’s look back on the season that’s just finished, and grade each team that finished in the top four.

Bayern Munich — A

I mean the winners can’t get anything less than the highest mark right? Bayern did have a shaky start under Nico Kovac, with the champions struggling to find their feet for the first few months of the season. Kovac was never going to last in charge. The Croatian never really fit the profile for a Bayern Munich manager, with his style of play leaning more on the defensive side. This was never going to work with a group of players still accustomed to the style of Guardiola and Jupp Heynckes. 

Kovac isn’t the only culprit to Bayern’s poor start. The club spent the whole summer looking for replacements for Frank Ribery and Arjen Robben; two players who defined Bayern Munich in the 2010s. After looking at Timo Werner, Ousmane Dembele and Leroy Sane, they ended up settling with Philippe Coutinho and Ivan Perisic on loan for the season. Both were talented players, and alongside Serge Gnabry, Kingsley Coman and youngster Alphonso Davies still left Bayern with a formidable selection of wide talent. The problem is the board knew this moment was coming. Robben and Ribery had been struggling with injuries for years and needed long term successors ready for the day they left. I like both Coman and Gnabry, but with Coman’s injuries and Gnabry unlikely to reach that world-class level, it instantly left Bayern lighter on the attacking end. 

Bayern’s Hinrunde is defined by Kovac’s sacking and the appointment of former national team assistant coach; Hansi Flick. As soon as Flick was appointed, the Bayern team looked transformed. Flick’s first game saw his team deliver their usual humiliation to arch-rivals Borussia Dortmund, with a comfortable 4–0 win at home. From here on, Bayern was playing their best football since Heynckes and only went on to lose two games. Those defeats were definitely anomalies. Bayer Leverkusen managed to beat the champions through some fantastic counter-attacking and resolute defending. While Borussia Monchengladbach did so through some massive luck. Both losses came in November, and from then on, Bayern only dropped points on one occasion. Super Bayern returned with a bang and managed to make the most exciting Bundesliga title race end with their usual comfortable lead at the top. 

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When excluding Lewandowski (we’ll get to him in the future), no other player looked better for Bayern than Thomas Muller. The World Cup winner fell out of favour with Kovac last season, struggling for consistent minutes. This wasn’t only due to their toxic relationship, but down to the form of Coutinho, who looked absolutely fantastic under Kovac. However, when Flick was appointed and seemed to get Bayern playing as they did under Heynckes, it meant Muller had to start. Coutinho definitely has that x-factor that Muller has never possessed in his career. However, Muller is still one of the best for chance creation and finding space, as well as maintaining the superior defensive work-rate. This is the happiest Muller has looked playing for his club in years, and his relationship with Lewandowski is still telepathic. In the 23 games Muller played under Flick, the German forward contributed to 24 goals. Muller has proved once again why he is indispensable to Bayern Munich. 

If we were just looking at Bayern under Flick, they’d get an A++, but we can’t ignore those first 10 games under Kovac. Bayern could indeed continue their stranglehold over the rest of the league if they adequately rebuild this team. Lewandowski, Muller, Neuer, Boateng and Martinez are all over 30, and there’s a chance Thiago could leave in the summer. They still need to sign additional wide players and hope Hernandez and Sule come back from their injuries without a drop-off. Bayern has to ensure they have a plan in place to continue their dominance in the league; otherwise, their competition could overtake them. 

RB Leipzig — B

Julian Nagelsmann couldn’t have had a better first season for his new club. RB Leipzig has taken a step forward in terms of their play on the pitch. Before Nagelsmann’s arrival, the East German club was known as a counter-pressing side, able to hurt teams quickly with their youthful and athletic attackers. While Leipzig still excels in this area, they’ve changed their style to be a lot more effective in possession. They averaged 54.1% possession, a 4.6% increase to 18/19’s average. Their shots per game have slightly increased, as well as their pass accuracy. This change in approach did make Leipzig easily the second best-attacking team in the league. They still remained as direct and vertical as seen by previous Leipzig teams but are now taking advantage of the great ball players the team possesses. Leipzig has one of the most promising groups of defenders in Europe, with players who’ve been with the team since their promotion and some up and coming talent that has the potential to become the best in their position. Nagelsmann has enabled his centre-backs to have more of an involvement in possession. Take Dayot Upamecano has a prime example. In 18/19, the young Frenchman was averaging 41.8 passes per 90. Last season that went up to 67.4. When you discount Bayern Munich players, no one has made more passes into the final third than Upamecano. Nagelsmann is taking advantage of the talent at his disposal. We already knew all of Leipzig’s defenders were comfortable on the ball, but now we know they can aid in transition, as well as in defence. 

Until Flick arrived and changed Bayern for the better, it was becoming difficult to argue against Leipzig being the best-attacking team in the league. Nagelsmann has always enhanced every attacker he’s worked with. At Hoffenheim, Nagelsmann deployed such an attacking system to help the rather average forwards he had to work with at times. In 18/19, his Hoffenheim team were second in the league for shots per game with 18 but were quite unlucky when it came to putting the ball in the back of the net. The 32-year-old is now working with some of the best-attacking talents in Europe, which included Timo Werner. Werner’s final season in Germany turned out to be his best. His coolness in front of goal and creativity made him one of the deadliest forwards in the world. Christopher Nkunku had a real breakout season, assisting the most goals in the team and excels at finding space between the lines. Even Patrick Schick, a player who’s struggled for form since leaving Sampdoria, had his most productive season to date and became Werner’s preferred strike partner. 

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Nagelsmann having the number of talented defenders to choose from alongside one of the best holding midfielders in the league in Konrad Laimer, allowed him to play an extra attacker in midfield. Marcel Sabitzer has been outstanding in midfield. His physicality, drive on the ball and creativity gave the team an extra boost when playing against those deep blocks, while also having the work-rate to help his team when needed. Sabitzer has gone back to being a real goal threat too, scoring 9 and assisting 7. He might not make the headlines like some of his teammates, but his importance cannot be underestimated.

I’ve talked highly of Nagelsmann’s Leipzig, so why are they only getting a B? I guess it goes down to my own expectations. I wasn’t expecting them to win the Bundesliga, but I was at least hoping for Leipzig to stay on Bayern’s tail for a lot longer than they did. The problem seems to be how vulnerable they can leave themselves at times. There have been multiple occasions where Leipzig deservedly drop points. A four-game stretch which included defeats to Freiburg and Schalke, where Leipzig was beaten in the quality of chances created by two teams who don’t possess the same elite attackers. The way Leipzig overload the opposition with players pushing forward can leave them vulnerable to teams who can counter them through fast, vertical balls ahead. Their young crop of defenders doesn’t yet possess the in-game intelligence as some older defenders, which will come as they develop.

Next season will be huge for Leipzig. It’ll be their first season in the Bundesliga without Werner leading the line, and it puts a lot more pressure on the other players to deliver the goals. I fully expect Leipzig to spend that money as wisely as ever, but an apparent drop-off is expected when you lose a player of Werner’s ability. Nagelsmann is used to losing his best players, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Leipzig does remain as competitive as they were last season. 

Borussia Dortmund — D

Borussia Dortmund’s window for winning a title is becoming even smaller. BVB have spent a lot of money on players who will help right now as well as the future. Mats Hummels returned to the club, adding some needed experience to a backline which collapsed when facing an immense amount of pressure. Thorgan Hazard and Julian Brandt arrived for decent fees to give Reus and Sancho even more support in the final third. There were of course questions in how you fit all of these players together, but the number of options Dortmund had at their disposal instantly made them title challengers again. Sancho was only going to get better, Hakimi was still there for another year, and Reus just came off his most productive season in years. Bayern was at their weakest, and no other team possessed the same level of talent as Dortmund. 

It made my expectations of Dortmund a lot higher. They’re getting desperate, and it’s showing. Anything below a title challenge or a cup final should automatically mean the season is a failure. Still, their performances in the second half of the season do offer some encouragement, especially with how inconsistent they were during the hinrunde. Dortmund stuck with their 4–2–3–1, but looked so slow and were lacking that speed which made them surprise challengers in 18/19. Brandt wasn’t starting enough, and the number nine position still seemed so uncertain, with Paco Alcacer looking better off the bench. Dortmund wasn’t winning against teams they usually steamroll. Paderborn, Werder Bremen, Freiburg and Union Berlin all managed to stop Dortmund picking up three points. 

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January was the big turning point for Dortmund, and not all of it is down to Erling Halaand’s arrival. Lucien Favre opted to change from the shaky 4–2–3–1 to 3–4–3. The system benefitted a lot of players in the team. The full-backs, Raphael Guerreiro and Achraf Hakimi turned into deadly attacking options. Hakimi was back playing on the right, and became a driving force with his incredible speed and dribbling to breeze past opposition defenders. Guerreiro became an excellent goal threat, ending the season with an impressive 8 goals and 2 assists. The centre-backs also benefitted from this change in formation. Dortmund usually uses their centre-backs to play line-breaking passes through midfield. Issues began arising when these passes were being intercepted, leaving Dortmund very vulnerable. Having someone of Piszczek’s experience in the backline really helped, especially when Akanji was as bad as he was at times. The attack, of course, benefitted from with an extra man in defence. It allowed Sancho and Hazard to play more like second strikers than typical wingers, and Brandt was given the freedom to move all over the pitch to find pockets of space to exploit. 

Halaand was a massive difference-maker in the number nine position. Not only due to his age, but how good he is right now. Halaand, similar to Zion Williamson in the NBA, looks as if he was born in a laboratory. The former Salzburg forward is fast, strong, incredible in the air and can score all types of goals. It makes him the perfect number nine right now, with the only major drawback being his lack of defensive work rate and chance creation. But the system seems to be built for their new superstar. Dortmund isn’t a team that defends through pressing from the front (they’re 9th in the league for passes allowed per defensive action with 11.70). BVB primarily win the ball back through counter-pressing in midfield and quickly playing it to their talented attackers. Halaand is also surrounded by some of the best creators in Europe. Sancho, Hazard and Hakimi all reached double figures for assists, allowing Halaand to play more as a poacher. 

If you just look at their results from the new year onwards, Dortmund would be second, but the season still resulted in zero silverware and more question marks on where Dortmund are actually going. Dortmund has spent a lot of money on players to help the team win now. Axel Witzel, Matts Hummels, Thomas Delaney, Thorgan Hazard and Emre Can alongside some of the veterans already in the side, meaning they have to make the most of the talent they currently have. I’m more optimistic about Leipzig’s future than I am Dortmund’s. Leipzig has a young and innovative manager with a group of young players who still have room for improvement. Dortmund’s team right now doesn’t look like it’ll be together for much longer. Hakimi’s loan has expired, Sancho is likely to move on, and I have no idea if Hummels can remain a starter for another season, with his physical abilities declining. Massive question marks loom over the manager. Lucien Favre has done a lot better than I ever expected of him, but next season could be his last. This is their last chance to win the title again before the team completely collapsed either through sales or age. 

Borussia Monchengladbach — A

When Marco Rose was announced as Gladbach’s new coach after the departure of Dieter Hecking, it was hard for me to contain my excitement. Gladbach had come off another season where they failed to show consistency from beginning to end, looking certain for top four in December but dropping down the table as the season progressed. Rose’s arrival felt like a real sign of intent, even when last summer included the sales of Thorgan Hazard and Michael Cuisance. The former being the team’s best scorer and creator while the latter a potential star in the making, leaving the club to join arch-rivals Bayern Munich. 

Gladbach spent the money from these sales wisely, while taking some risks in young attacking players. Ramy Bensebaini and Stefan Lainer (who played under Rose at Salzburg) added some much-needed creativity and drive from full-back. Marcus Thuram and Breel Embolo arrived to effectively replace Thorgan Hazard’s output. Both were gambles in different ways. Thuram had only played for one of the worst sides in Ligue 1, so transitioning to a bigger and better team could have been a challenge. Embolo had already played in the Bundesliga since 2016 for Schalke. However, the Swiss attacker has struggled for form and injuries. A change of scenery could have helped Embolo, but he’s a player you don’t want to rely on throughout the season. Both have had great seasons. Thuram contributed to 18 goals in his debut season in Germany while Embolo contributed to 13 and played over 1500 minutes, the first time he’s done that in his career. 

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Last season was the most consistent Gladbach have looked for a long time, and a lot of that goes down to how Marco Rose has improved the players and the style. What made Rose at Gladbach so enticing was the number of talented players he was working with. You have some of the younger talents in Denis Zakaria, Florian Neuhaus, Laszlo Benes and the previously mentioned Marcus Thuram and Breel Embolo. All have either been highly touted for years or have shown glimpses of brilliance. The squad also contains some older talents. Patrick Herrmann, Lars Stindl, Yann Sommer and Christoph Kramer were there to help give the side some needed experience and leadership. Rose managed to get incredible output out of many of these players. Denis Zakaria finally started to look like the elite talent we all knew he could be. Patrick Herrmann contributed to 12 goals, the most he’s provided since the 14/15 season. What was most impressive was the way the team still managed to remain consistent even when missing key players. For the last few games of the season, Zakaria, Thuram and Plea were all unavailable, meaning Rose had to deploy a front line including Jonas Hoffman, Breel Embolo, Lars Stindl and Patrick Herrmann. A lineup which would’ve been scrutinised had it been under any other manager. 

Rose’s Gladbach is actually pretty similar to Nagelsmann’s teams in a sense. Both focus on transitioning the ball as quickly as possible. The Foals do it through the full-backs, especially Lainer. The Austrian defender plays more akin to a winger than a defender, topping the team for shot assists, passes into the penalty area, successful crosses and progressive passes. Lainer has been a creative hub for the team, and while I have my issues with him regarding speed and defensive effort, it’s hard to deny he has been a success. Thuram is the other significant addition who gave Gladbach another dimension. The team went from averaging 13.2 aerial duels per game in 18/19 to 16.7 last season. Thuram is a very unique winger. He has the acceleration to flourish against full-backs while having the size and strength to cause matchup problems. The team loved sending those long diagonal balls straight to Thuram. The Frenchman is a very efficient attacker and formed a deadly partnership with Alassane Plea. Gladbach didn’t score the same crazy amount of goals as Leipzig, Bayern and Dortmund. Still, considering the difference in talent, credit has to be given the coach and players for being able to keep up with such fierce competition. 

The only area where I worry for Rose’s team is defence. Monchengladbach faced 13.7 shots per game, putting them at about league average. They had the 3rd best defensive record in the league, conceding 40 and only bettered by Leipzig and Bayern. However, when you look at the post-shot xG, Gladbach starts to come off as very fortunate. They should have conceded around 47 goals based on the chances they were giving away, which is extremely rare. This miraculous record can all be credited to Yann Sommer being the best keeper in Europe. When ranking goalkeeper seasons in the last decade, David De Gea (17/18), Lucasz Fabianski (18/19) and Alisson Becker (17/18) all spring to mind as some of the best goalkeeper seasons in recent history. Yann Sommer is another to add to that list. If it weren’t for some of his heroic performances, I doubt Gladbach would be playing in Europe’s elite competition next season. 

Gladbach is the team I’m the most optimistic for next season. The team was gradually improving throughout the season, so I expect Rose and his players to match the big three throughout the rest of next season. The younger players are only going to improve, and the more experienced guys are still at an age where they aren’t on the decline. There’s the possibility of Zakaria or Thuram being moved on for massive profits, which wouldn’t be the worst idea if a suitable replacement is already brought in. 

Revenge for Bayern? Chelsea vs Bayern Munich – UEFA Champions League 19/20 Preview

This is another of the many tasty clashes in this year’s Champions League. Chelsea’s young and hungry side under Frank Lampard, against a weaker, yet still deadly Bayern Munich team under Hansi Flick. The last time these two met in Europe’s premium competition was back in 2012; a game where Bayern was outdone by an extremely defensive Chelsea. Will the result be the same; or will Bayern get their payback? Let’s find out.

This season for Chelsea was arguably their biggest since Roman Abramovich acquired the club at the turn of the millennium. The Blues were under a transfer ban for breaching UEFA’s rules of signing players under eighteen. It meant they couldn’t offer the near-unlimited pot of cash they’ve been able to offer every season. What made matters worse for Chelsea was the expected departure of Belgian superstar Eden Hazard, which left a massive creative void in their team from the get-go. The team already had apparent issues under Sarri. They only way to address their problems in defence, full-back and striker was from within.

It’s why Frank Lampard’s appointment was genius in a way. It had nothing to do with the football (which was far from perfect at Derby), but the effect it would have for the players, and especially the fans. Chelsea has always come across as having one of the most impatient sets of fans in the league. They weren’t willing to give Conte or Sarri the time needed to improve a group of players that weren’t nearly good enough to win a title. Lampard is a legend at that club, who would at least keep the fans on his side, no matter how bad the performances got. He also seemed willing to play the young players who were desperate to show they had something to offer. Chelsea’s academy had been seen as an afterthought for years, only there to make a profit on homegrown players. The higher-ups at the club always said they wanted to see the youngsters given a chance; which made the appointments of Sarri and Conte baffling. Both coaches who demanded support in the transfer market and who stuck to a small core of players. I just wanted to see Reece James, Mason Mount, Fikayo Tomori and especially Tammy Abraham, given a chance in the first team. They all showed how they were good enough to play a full season in the Championship, and in Tammy and James’ case, be the best player on their team.

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The young players have been the story of the season and for good reason, but some of last season’s underperformers have really turned it around. At the beginning of the 18/19 season, a midfield three of Kante, Kovacic and Jorginho looked unstoppable. However, in practice, it didn’t live up the high expectations set by people like me. Originally it was about Kante. Many fans still saw Kante as that midfield destroyer which helped Leicester win the league in 2016. Kante proved he was an exceptional passer, with a high level of match intelligence in making runs into the penalty area. Sarri realised this and turned Kante into the player he was always meant to be. The problem was Jorginho, and especially Kovacic.

Jorginho was criticised for not getting enough goals and assists by many pundits, but that’s not what he does. Jorginho is one of the best in starting attacks. His xGBuildup has always been great, with the Italian top of the Chelsea squad with 11.15. The defensive side of the game was his issue. A lot of teams (Arsenal being the best example) aggressively marked him out of the game, and Jorginho just seemed to lack the ability to change his game and adjust, similar to what the likes of Thiago Alcantara or Kevin De Bruyne would do. Kovacic under Sarri can best be described as restricted; stuck in a system that didn’t allow him to show the best parts of his game. Kovacic is one of the best dribblers in the league but looked uncertain of what he was actually supposed to be doing in Sarri’s system. Lampard has reinvigorated both of these players; justifying the combined £100 million spent on the pair. They’re both playing to their strengths. Jorginho is still starting attacks, as well as putting in a lot of defensive work. Kovacic has looked the player we’ve all wanted to see in England, putting up an insane amount of dribbling and off the ball work. A real asset to the team.

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I’d say Chelsea have performed how I thought they would. They’re in the top four race; given a lot of their younger players minutes and been a joy to watch, especially during the first half of the season. This is where the problems lie for them now. The blues’ overall performances have dropped off a lot since their 2-1 defeat to Manchester City. Since then, the results have stopped coming, and their firm grip on fourth place has loosened. If it wasn’t for Tottenham and Manchester United underperforming, I doubt Chelsea would still be in the Champions League spots. Why exactly have they been a lot worse? Chelsea has had defensive issues all season, but a lot of that is down to the open style they play and Kepa Arrizabalaga being the worst goalkeeper in the league. These issues have been present since the first game of the season. The reason why Chelsea’s form has dropped off is down to their attack, or lack of it. Lampard has managed this team rather poorly in terms of the minutes being shared. It’s the same issue present under Sarri, but a lot worse. Abraham, Hudson-Odoi and Mount have been heavily relied upon through vast stretches of the season. These guys are still really young, and Lampard has looked close to burning them out. Abraham has struggled with slight knocks, which has made his level of performances drop as the match-days pass. Mason Mount started the season in fine form, but he’s looked exhausted over the last couple of months. I don’t want any of them to suffer the same fate as Rashford; a young player relied upon so heavily that his manager will do anything to have him on the pitch, even to jeopardise his future.

Let’s move onto Bayern Munich, who look unshackled under new manager Hansi Flick. The former Germany national team assistant has got this Bayern team pressing again, and the players look a lot happier than under Kovac. There have been some results where Bayern have been unlucky, their draw to Leipzig and defeats to Leverkusen Monchengladbach were games where Bayern had the better chances. It was a classic case where, on another day, Bayern would have left with the three points. Since November 9th, Flick’s first game, Bayern have undoubtedly been the best team in Germany. They’ve achieved the most points, have the best xG difference and are matching their xPTS. Their results are back to matching their high level of performances not seen since Heynckes’ final season.

Besides their increased intensity (they only allow 6.35 passes per defensive action), Flick has transformed some of the players in this squad; either back to or into world-beaters. Let’s start with Muller. The World Cup winner epitomised a great German attacker. He might not be as silky on the ball as Brandt; or as fun and dynamic as Leroy Sane, but it’s hard to argue against Muller being Germany’s most intelligent attacker. The way he finds perfect shooting opportunities in the box or picks his other attackers with a fantastic pass is nearly unrivalled. Muller has always performed, but previous managers simply didn’t know what to do with him. Muller doesn’t have the pace or trickery to play as a traditional winger but doesn’t play like a regular number ten. Flick simply solved this problem by playing him as a winger and a midfielder, depending on the opposition. Coutinho might be better than Muller at many things. But Muller’s pressing and work-rate, combined with his efficiency, making him a favourite of Flick’s. He’s already racked up 14 assists in the league this season and tops the team for shot assists.

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Alphonso Davies has arguably been the breakout star of the Bundesliga. There was an amount of uncertainty surrounding this move. It was interesting to see a prospect from MLS join one of Europe’s elite, in a squad severely lacking in wide talent. But funnily enough, Davies has mostly played as a left-back, allowing David Alaba to cover at centre-back. From performances alone, you couldn’t tell Davies was playing out of position. He’s putting in a lot of defensive work (over 6 tackles and interceptions) while still being a lot of fun in the final third. The Canadian international’s speed and skill have practically given Bayern another winger. Since he regularly starts Bayern’s attacks further away from the opposition half, his involvement in ball progression is apparent. He tops the team for xGBuildup with 13.03 (since Flick’s first game) and tops the team for completed crosses. I don’t think anyone expected Davies to look this good at only 19.

I struggle to see Chelsea advancing to the quarter-finals. Bayern is playing their best football since not seen since before Kovac, and Lewandowski has looked unstoppable. Lewandowski has unarguably been the best forward (that isn’t called Messi or Ronaldo) in the last 5 years. Lewandowski does everything you want from your striker. He takes a large number of shots, with many inside the penalty area, while holding the ball up well in the box. My favourite part of Pole’s game is how he has this art of playing the defensive line to perfection. Lewandowski has scored a lot of goals where you just have to question if he’s even onside; only to watch the replay and see his sharpness shine, always that extra yard faster than his opponents. There have been apparent comparisons between Lewandowski and Timo Werner; the two leading scorers in the Bundesliga. The big difference for me is Lewandowski makes the players around him better. Even when Lewandowski is having an off-day, you can trust him to drag defenders to open up space for his teammates.

If these teams were drawn together during the group stage, I think the match would have been a lot closer. However, Chelsea has gotten a lot worse in attack, while their defensive issues have remained ever-present. Bayern looks miles ahead of their last round of 16 game, being their spineless defeat to eventual champions Liverpool. I have no idea if Flick will remain at the club after this season, but he is an option that is at least worth considering.

 

 

 

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.