George Bernard Shaw once argued that without change, progress is impossible. Turnover and change are necessary for football teams and the likes of Liverpool and Napoli have been lauded for effectively doing so in recent years but it is not without pitfalls.
We have witnessed the decade of Guardiola, post-Cruyffian football epitomised by high tempo, high pressing, positional football. Having seen both Germany and Spain make early exits from the 2018 World Cup, the footballing post-mortems have begun in earnest.
It may be an aberration but critics are not for waiting; with many now wondering from where the next great evolution of football will emerge. It may be like trying to read tea leaves but it is with this evolution in mind that Bayern Munich have appointed Niko Kovač as their new manager.
Bayern Munich have a history of possession football from Louis Van Gaal’s reign, prior to the arrival of Pep Guardiola in 2013. Even Jupp Heynckes reverted to the positional football of Guardiola’s second season upon his return last season. Niko Kovač is an ex Bayern player who has previously managed Eintracht Frankfurt and the Croatian national team.
Kovač achieved great plaudits when his Frankfurt team upset Bayern in the DFB Pokal Final in 2016; sitting deep, pressing well and counter attacking superbly. The German press have queried whether Kovač, deemed a “reactive coach” often seen to be swimming against the tide of possession-based football, can successfully transform this formidable Bayern team.
The implication of course is that Kovač is very capable of managing smaller sides to upset victories, but can he handle a super-team like Bayern? It should be remembered that Kovač is a tactically astute coach with a philosophy based on direct play which has already worked exceptionally well in the Bundesliga.
The Croat brings a different footballing philosophy to Bayern Munich and it resonates well in the recent climate of World Cup upsets. Upon his unveiling, Kovač stated that:
the trend [in modern football] is clearly towards players who combine the skills of a sprinter with those of a juggler… Switching the play, both offensively and defensively, naturally depends on speed.
This corresponds with the view of interim Spanish manager Fernando Hierro who recently described the football’s newest styling as “a lot of direct balls and quick transitions. Everything is changing”. The question remains: have Bayern made a forward thinking innovative move or have they grossly misinterpreted the footballing landscape?
The 2018 World Cup in Russia witnessed a sea change in footballing principles. Possession oriented teams like Spain and Germany departed early and with the most successful football moved towards a style of play based on quick transitions from defence to attack and vice versa.
France dominated with the powerful Olivier Giroud as a starting striker while omitting dynamic players such as Kingsley Coman and Anthony Martial. Similarly, Belgium performed well with large target men such as Marouane Fellaini and Romelu Lukaku, players highly suited to direct play and counter attacking.
The biggest question remains: why would Bayern choose Kovač now? The former Eintracht Frankfurt man has been chosen ahead of Julian Nagelsmann, the soon-to-be 31-year-old manager of FC Hoffenheim, who was widely linked with the Bayern Munich manager’s job. Nagelsmann is a disciple of Thomas Tuchel, following on the Guardiola school, and somewhat ironically has been nicknamed a “mini Mourinho” due to his meticulous approach.
Nagelsmann shot to prominence in recent seasons due to his success at Hoffenheim where his philosophy revolved around pressing high to cause turnovers followed by attacking overloads. Were Bayern to favour a direct progression of managerial succession, Van Gaal to Guardiola to Nagelsmann sounds like the next step.
As early as January however, Bayern appeared to have ruled out Nagelsmann deeming him too inexperienced to manage Bayern’s superstar squad while his failure to guide Hoffenheim out of their Europa League group raised questions about his European pedigree. It is also highly possible that Bayern have set their target on changing their footballing landscape, and Kovač might be the best way to achieve this.
Post Cruyffian, possession football has dominated football mindsets yet like every evolution, teams eventually find ways to defeat it. Xavi Hernandez has stated that Spain have struggled in recent times against teams who play a 3-5-2 formation, finding difficult to press high against five passing outlets at the back.
Similarly, Bayern Munich have lost eleven games in the last two seasons and it was often against teams deploying a 3-5-2 formation. This would point towards teams finding ways to defeat possession football and a more direct style with quick transitions might be the most adept manner of progression.
The desire to pivot footballing philosophies can be dangerous, though it must be noted that teams such as Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspurs in the Premier League have made fantastic, forward thinking managerial changes in recent years that have drastically changed the culture and outlook of their clubs.
Should possession football be on the wane towards a style more based on direct play, Bayern Munich may very well be ready to lead the pack and dominate European football while the other teams look to catch up.
It will be interesting to see how Kovač performs at Bayern. He has previously succeeded managing underachieving teams content to sit back. This will not suffice at Bayern Munich and Kovač will need to adapt his style to appease not only the fans and the players, but also the highly involved board of directors. Kovač might do well to remember the words of his young rival Julian Nagelsmann, who last August told newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung:
Thirty percent of coaching is tactics, seventy percent is social competence.
Perhaps Carlo Ancelotti excelled with social competence as Bayern manager, but it seems that he did not have the correct balance for Bayern’s players and fans, something which Kovač needs to right immediately.
Bayern’s choice of manager is admirable, though people will continue to wonder whether they should have hired Nagelsmann and continued their former traditions.
For now, Bayern deserve our support in their quest towards advancement and the next wave of footballing brilliance. After all, change is good for any team and without change, we will never see progress.