THE EUROPEAN landscape has barely changed this season: PSG, Juventus, Barcelona, Ajax, Benfica, Liverpool and City all at the top. The once exception among the top leagues is Germany, where Borussia Mönchengladbach lead the Bundesliga and Bayern Munich are struggling to hit their best form. Bayern’s recent 5-1 defeat in Frankfurt proved to be the final straw for the Bayern politburo and just 24 hours after their worst league defeat in a decade, coach Niko Kovač was dismissed. It was no great surprise, for the rumblings have been getting louder that Kovač was just “two games away from the sack”.
Bayern have lost two of their last four league games and also produced two scrappy performances that yielded four points. It was not a major crisis, but for a club like Bayern, where expectation is astronomical and internal politics can determine the shape of a managerial career, there was a sense of inevitability about Kovač’s departure. Asked about his future, he commented: “My feeling is not important. Those who make the decisions are the ones that you should ask.” He knew.
Hard to please
Bayern may be in something of a transition, but Kovač’s approach did not endear him to the grim-faced suits high in the stand. It did seem as though the jury had been out on him since day one. When did Bayern last totally take to a manager? There were stories that Carlo Ancelotti was unpopular with some key players, resulting in the inevitable “he’s lost the dressing room” comments. Bayern’s management were also sceptical about his tactical approach. Pep Guardiola, who left in 2016 after three Bundesliga titles, had a rocky relationship with the club’s medical department and after he left, some players criticised his regime. Guardiola failed to win the Champions League with Bayern despite reaching three consecutive semi-finals. In 2019, Bayern went out of the competition at the last 16 stage, their worst showing since 2011.
The team that lost to Eintracht Frankfurt on November 2 included five players over the age of 30, but defensive mistakes and the loss of Jerome Boateng to a red card didn’t help. Frankfurt’s direct style exposed the Bayern back line but players like Thomas Müller, who supposedly wants to leave the club, and Philipp Coutinho, had poor games. Müller, Joshua Kimmich and Alphonso Davies were all played out of position and the general standard of passing was sub-optimal.
So embarrassed were Bayern they closed the public training session at Säbener Straße the day after that crushing defeat. The session was led by Kovač but later in the day, he was shown the door. Bayern are currently in fourth place, but it is looking like a far more interesting Bundesliga campaign. It’s too early to assume that Bayern are in some sort of decline, but their current placing is the lowest they’ve been after 10 games in 10 years and their 18 points is their least impressive total from a possible 30 since 2010.
It’s difficult to write Bayern off even in their most distressed state, especially as their next coach will undoubtedly inspire a new boss bounce. The club has a winning culture, picking up 14 major trophies in the last 10 years, including the UEFA Champions League. With Kovač gone, they are looking for a new man. There are a number of contenders, with José Mourinho, Massimiliano Allegri, Arséne Wenger and Ralf Rangnick all mentioned as possible successors.
If they are going to make it eight successive titles, Bayern will need to fight hard in 2019-20. At present, Borussia Mönchengladbach are enjoying their time at the top, winning four out of their five away games and seven of their 10 games. Gladbach have adopted a “high press” style that is fast and furious and usually operates in a 4-3-3 formation that exploits the flanks to over-run opponents. It works well against most sides, but they’ve lost to RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund. Gladbach host Bayern on December 6, a game that will provide some indication of where both clubs stand and, most importantly, if Die Fohlen can mount a serious and sustained title challenge. German fans will be only too aware that last season, a lot of people thought Borussia Dortmund were going to end the Bayern reign.
Gladbach have one of Europe’s most talked-about coaches in Marco Rose, a Jürgen Klopp disciple who was successful at monied Red Bull Salzburg in Austria, winning the Austrian Bundesliga in 2018 and 2019. Gladbach also bought well in the summer, using some of the € 25 million received from Borussia Dortmund for Thorgan Hazard. They hired prolific crosser Stefan Lainer from Salzburg (€ 10 million), Breel Embolo from Schalke (€ 10 million) and Guingamp’s Marcus Thuram (€ 9.5 million). Thuram, son of French World Cup winner Lilian Thuram, has scored five goals in the Bundesliga this season and has formed a good on-pitch relationship with Alassane Pléa. Also making a strong impression is Denis Zakaria, who cost the club € 10 million when he joined from Young Boys Bern in 2017. The 22 year-old Swiss international has been compared to Paul Pogba and Toni Kroos, so he could be the next big sale.
Gladbach last won the Bundesliga in 1977 and since their golden era when they went head-to-head with Bayern Munich, they have experienced some tough times. They were relegated from the Bundesliga in 2007 but won promotion back to the top flight in 2008. In the past eight years, they have not finished below halfway in the table. However, Gladbach are not in the same financial league as Bayern Munich so a title win would be comparable to Leicester City’s 2016 Premier League win. The club describes itself as conservative and stable rather than rich.
Although there is a sense of realism about what can be achieved, coach Rose is aware that the German Bundesliga is a different proposition from the Austrian league. “I know what the expectations of me were – here comes a guy from Austria, who worked at Salzburg, let’s see how he does in the Bundesliga. If results don’t come fast then there’s a lot of pressure. But I believe it is already clear that there is a certain plan behind how we play football. We are being rewarded with results right now and that means we all believe in the plan at this early stage.”
Did Bayern ever truly believe in the Kovač plan? He wasn’t the first choice for the club, but his performance at Eintracht Frankfurt, including a DFB Pokal final win against his future employers, was enough for Bayern to hire him. Who will replace him? Over the next few days and weeks, the Bavarian public will be looking for the footballing equivalent of smoke from the Vatican.