So farewell then, Niko Kovac. After a year and a half of struggling, a few extended spells on the brink and nothing more than a measly league and cup double to show for it, the beleagueredBayern Munichcoach has finally been given the boot.
The timing may have caught a few people off guard, but the decision announced on Sunday night hardly came as a surprise.
A day earlier, the once mighty Bayern had been thrashed 5-1 away to Eintracht Frankfurt, marking both their worst defeat and their worst start to a season in a decade.
Niko Kovac was sacked by Bayern Munich but the game always seemed rigged against him
The Croatian was never able to win over the old guard and likes of Thomas Muller (left)
KOVAC’S RECORD AT BAYERN:
Games – 65
Wins – 45
Draws – 12
Losses – 8
Win percentage – 69.
With just one win in their last four league games and a squad rocked by injuries and ill-feeling, the consensus in the German media on Monday was that Bayern had no other choice.
The search for a successor will start in earnest soon enough, but for now, few are looking to dance on the Croatian’s grave.Kickermagazine described his sacking as a ‘liberation’, while Munich’sSueddeutsche Zeitungcalled it ‘a last act of kindness’.
Kovac himself, who reportedly offered his resignation just hours after promising to keep fighting, admitted that it was ‘the right decision’ for the club.
Despite the inevitability of it all, there is also a tangible sense of sadness abroad that the 48 – year-old has ultimately lost a game which always seemed rigged against him.
Kovac arrived at Bayern at one of the most difficult moments in the club’s recent history. After a decade of almost unprecedented success, crowned by the treble under Jupp Heynckes in 2013 and driven to new extremes in Pep Guardiola’s three-year tenure, the time was overripe for a change at Bayern.
Kovac, pictured at Serge Gnabry’s unveiling, successfully brought young stars through
Players such as Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery were already on their way out, while Thomas Muller, Manuel Neuer and others were approaching the back end of their careers. Bayern’s squad seemed older than it had been for a while, and several chances had already been missed to begin rejuvenation.
Kovac, having just turned Frankfurt from crisis club into cup winners, was charged with bringing fresh blood to Bayern’s first team. It is one of the great ironies of his tenure that, despite the seemingly endless problems, he was highly successful in this regard.
Under his leadership, Niklas Sule was transformed into a first-choice center back for club and country, Joshua Kimmich matured into an alpha male of Bayern’s dressing room, and Serge Gnabry was unleashed on the rest of the football world.
The Croatian led Bayern to the Bundesliga but his eventual sacking always felt inevitable
Where the Croatian struggled was in keeping the old guard on side. From the word go, there was the sense that someone of his relative inexperience would struggle to impose himself on the likes of Muller, Neuer and Robert Lewandowski. And so it proved.
Kovac survived a mini-revolt by the skin of his teeth after a 3-3 draw with Fortuna Dusseldorf this time last year, but dressing room disharmony was never far away .
‘You’re not in Frankfurt now,’ Real Madrid loanee James Rodriguez allegedly sneered at the former Eintracht coach. In February, just minutes after Bayern succumbed to Liverpool in the Champions League, both Lewandowski and Mats Hummels openly criticized the Croatian’s defensive gameplan on TV.
To make matters worse, Kovac also found himself at the center of a power struggle within Bayern’s board. With both of them on their way out in the next few years, president Uli Hoeness and chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge are both vying to secure their respective legacies at the club.
James Rodriguez reportedly took a swipe at Kovac, saying: ‘You’re not in Frankfurt now’
Despite the early success for Kovac, he was never seen as a glamourous big-name boss
Without a strong sporting director to deflect fire away from him, the coach suffered under the internal politics.
At times, it appeared they were fighting a proxy war over Kovac, who, despite being neither boss’s first choice, was always the president’s man. Rummenigge, whose vision of Bayern is less parochial than Hoeness’, made little effort to disguise his coolness towards such an unglamourous coach. At times, he seemed to actively undermine him.
In April, following the 5-0 demolition of Dortmund which marked the high point of Kovac’s reign and secured what had seemed an unlikely league title, Rummenigge went on TV to say that ‘nobody had a job guarantee’ at Bayern. Kovac bore the blow with his usual good grace, but most considered it to be below the belt.
Rummenigge’s sympathisers would argue that Bayern had spent 10 years reinventing themselves as a truly international club with a penchant for flair football, and that Kovac threatened to undo all of that with his return to a more conservative – and altogether more German – counter-attacking approach. The Croatian’s successor will be expected to bring a bit more swagger to the Allianz Arena.
Karl-Heinz Rummenigge (right) publicly undermined Kovac in television interviews
At the moment, the identity of the new boss remains a mystery. Joachim Low’s former assistant Hansi Flick will look to steady the ship in big games against Olympiacos and Dortmund this week, and the list of candidates should become clearer in the meantime.
Thomas Tuchel has long been on Bayern’s radar, Massimiliano Allegri’s name has been floated, and Rummenigge’s first choice is said to be Ajax’s Erik ten Hag.
Whoever it is will have to be someone with a little more star quality than Kovac. Even his most loyal supporters would admit that the 48 – year-old has often appeared out of his depth at Bayern.
Born and raised in straightforward Berlin, he was ill-suited to the political smoke and mirrors of life in Munich, and repeatedly put his foot in it with poorly chosen comments.
Kovac had a strained relationship with some senior players such as Robert Lewandowski
This season alone, he has irritated the Bayern board by talking out of turn about the Leroy Sane transfer and infuriated Thomas Muller by suggesting he is merely a back-up option. Last week, he even annoyed the Bayern fans when he said that former club Frankfurt had the best supporters in Germany.
None of those are sackable offences in their own right, but they are all symptoms of Kovac’s unease at Bayern. Despite quantifiable success, he always seemed to be losing the game.
‘If you win, you are doing nothing right, and if you lose, then you are in any case getting everything wrong, ‘said the Croatian in a recent interview withDie Welt, musing on the misery of the modern coach.
A few days later, his side thrashed Tottenham 7-2, but that was to be the last time that Kovac got nothing right. Since then, everything has gone wrong.