In defence of Niko Kovac's playing style

I like Niko Kovac the man. I hadn‘t really followed his development when he was still at Frankfurt but since he came to Bayern, I‘ve watched him much more closely. I like his unruffled personality, his calm demeanour under pressure, and his sometimes laconic irony when he reacts to probing journalist questions. In particular, how he handled the difficult time of oblique innuendo and open doubts that he was equal to the challenge of coaching Bayern last fall was admirable.

So I like the man, but do I like the coach? Let’s start with another manager. Just as so many others, so too am I a victim of Pep Guardiola’s football magic. He has completely bewitched me with his approach to football. He has taken the idea of systematic football to another level in a way that modern, tactical, theoretically conceived football will forever be associated with his name. During his three years at Bayern, the club arguably enjoyed its strongest and most consistently dominant spell in recent history. The team had everything that represents total superiority on the pitch: a complete proficiency at several tactical systems and the ability to freely switch between them, a dominant, possession-based playing style stifling any opponent’s own creativity, an off-the-charts passing frequency at insane accuracy, a controlled build-up play from the goalkeeper up, a constant exertion of suffocating pressure on the opponent’s final third – and, of course, a lot of created and converted chances. Goals, goals, goals.

Add to this that Pep Guardiola did not only improve his players all the time, he would also never let up. It seemed as if his players were never allowed a rest, not in training, let alone during a game. He was obsessive. He had his players so meticulously coached down to the most minute details that, take any eleven of them, they would form the perfect football machine: operating like a programmed computer, astonishingly broad in its range of possibilities, impressively accurate at any single one of them.

Arguably, Niko Kovac has only few of these qualities. He is a far more conventional coach. He has a preferred system with two centre backs, four players on the wings, one striker and a situational ‘mix-and-match’ approach to midfield. Offensively, he usually wants his players to press high, overload the flanks and create chances through a high cross or the deadly cut back from the opponent’s goal line. In his defensive setup, he sometimes can’t seem to decide. He wavers between a high counter pressing and wanting his players to fall back behind the ball quickly and occupy the open spaces. All in all, it’s nothing too fancy, nothing too special, nothing too intricate. The “difference that makes a difference” in his game comes from the quality of his players – and say what you will about the Bayern squad, its average individual quality is still miles ahead of most opponents‘.

Being infected with the ‘Pep virus’, I admit that find it hard to warm to Niko Kovac the coach. Yes, Bayern win most of their games, sometimes even comprehensively. But on the whole, I find his football a little bit too one-sided, too predictable and not ambitious enough. And mine is a common sentiment. Many an observer criticises that he always plays with two centre backs and never opts for a back three. They criticise his wing-heavy build up play relying on cross after cross after cross. They criticise the obvious absence of tactical adaptations during a game, his missing in-game coaching.

So why then, you ask, would I yet defend him and his playing style at Bayern?

Because having said all that, in light of the current circumstances at the club with him being questioned constantly both by the media and his superiors as well as the squad of players available to him, he makes the best out of his current situation.

Let’s look at the problem soberly, dissecting it bit by bit.

  1. Kovac’s offensive play is wing-heavy, relying on overlaps and crosses.

True, but look at the Bayern squad. Arguably, the four most important outfield players are the nominal top four men on the flanks Alaba, Kimmich, Coman and Gnabry. Maybe with the exception of Alaba, they all represent what’s gained wide currency at Bayern: they are young, they are quick, they are technically gifted and can take on opponents in one on one duels, and they are four of the primary representatives of where the Bayern bosses want to take the team in the self-proclaimed phase of transition the club is going through at present.

Compare this to the players available to Kovac if he opted for a more central build-up play: Martinez, James, Thiago, Tolisso, Sanchez, Goretzka. Undoubtedly, all of these players have their qualities, but – perhaps with the exception of Goretzka and possibly Tolisso – would you say that these names represent the future of the Bayern game or even most of the qualities I described above? I don’t.

Niko Kovac knows this too. Consequently, he plays the safe bet and builds his game on the players he knows will please the bosses and who he knows he can rely on to deliver an expectable, reliable performance game after game while not having to face awkward questions about why he didn’t play X or Y (like Gnabry in the 1:1 against Nürnberg for instance).

  1. Kovac relies way too much on crosses as the primary means of creating chances and scoring goals.

Agreed, a game based on frequent crosses appears uninspired, conventional, devoid of ideas and creativity. Crosses have a low conversion rate and often lead to an unnecessary concession of the ball. But first, if you use crosses frequently, all the low conversion rates taken together amount to a decent chance of scoring in total (and Bayern cross a lot). Second, Bayern have some capable players either to score directly from a cross, Lewandowski first of all, or to win the second ball. Third, the one area where Niko Kovac has arguably improved his team the most is set pieces. Nowadays, both Bayern’s corners and free kicks are a real asset to their game, they score quite a few goals this way. In practical terms, a set piece is quite similar to a cross and profits from the same strengths in ball delivery, aerial duels, positioning, and player movements. So what Kovac does is actually quite astute. He exploits the synergies in both these forms of play to his best advantage. All of this is supported by the fact that Bayern has a reasonably high number of xG per game as well as actual goals scored.

  1. Kovac is very hesitant to try a back three instead of four.

True, but see 1. At the moment, he is best advised to prefer a flanks-focused game. A back four always allows him to play four real wing players (two fullbacks and two wingers), whereas a back three usually limits this number to two (the two wingbacks).

  1. Kovac’s in-game coaching is minimal to non-existent. He doesn’t intervene and adjust Bayern’s game when necessary.

True. But on the whole, his tried and tested strategy I laid out above usually works and results in a win for his team. He knows this too. He can do the maths. If his plan A hasn’t worked till halftime, no matter, just keep at it and more likely than not, it’s going to be successful in the end (this is putting it a bit simply, but you get the idea).

  1. Kovac can’t seem to establish any kind of defensive stability in his team. Bayern concede way too many unnecessary goals.

True, and this is the area that I find most bewildering. He seems unable to stop the defensive errors particularly of his centre backs. Whether it’s due to lapses of concentration, tactical deficiencies, lack of motivation or really simply just age, obviously Kovac hasn’t been able to get to the root of the problem. The problem is compounded by the lack of alternative players to him. Boateng, Hummels, Süle - any two of these three always play and they all are susceptible to the odd glaring mistake. So in a sense, Kovac’s hands are tied. He has no alternative players to choose from and can’t stop the frailties of the ones available to him. All he can do for the time being is to manage the misery and hope for the best.

The bosses are aware of this, too, and consequently, defence is the one department where they have already invested massively (Hernandez, Pavard) in hopes of fortifying the team for the next season.

  1. Kovac relies too much on the individual quality of his players and not an advantage stemming from a superior system.

True, but look at it this way: what is the fundamental nature of a ‚system‘? In essence, a system is a set of interlocking elements acting regularly (i.e. recurringly following certain rules) in a way that is discernible, analysable, and thus predictable.

In terms of a sport, chess might be the ultimate example of a completely ‚systematic‘ contest. Every single figure’s range of behaviour is completely determined and the number of alternative options limited by the board’s size and layout. For any given constellation of the figures on the board, all possible future scenarios of the game can be calculated. For every move, there is an ideal counter move. There is no room for spontaneity or creativity or surprise. As a consequence, the entire game is completely predictable. He who has the bigger computer wins.

In terms of football, in theory, the coach with the more systematic approach to the game would actually be at a disadvantage because his actions and the actions of his players would be predictable and could be prepared for and countered. On the other hand, the coach who maybe fashions only a very ordinary, run-of-the-mill style of play with no surprises but tries to bring his players into positions where the game-changing difference comes from them, their creativity and skill (and not the system), might actually follow the more rational approach.

  1. Kovac is not ambitious enough, he is not one for the dramatic changes or for taking the courageous but possibly more risky approach to a game (cf. e.g. Bayern vs. Liverpool second leg).

True. But consider his situation at the club. I believe that you have to evaluate all his tactical and personnel choices for the team in light of his standing at the club with U. Hoeneß and K.-H. Rummenige, the team, the media and his own hopes of a continued employment after this season. We know how Hoeneß’s mind works. He is given to impulsive quick-fire decisions. I’ll remind you of what he said about the conlusion to let Juan Bernat go after one bad game and about the release of Carlo Ancelotti, who lost his job after a crushing defeat in Paris. Kovac doesn’t want to be the next casualty in line, so he rather plays it safe and risks losing in an uninspired fashion than to go all in and possibly be humiliated by the opponent with a fitting scoreline to boot.

Consider also his standing with the team, especially his veteran and star players. I think it is fair to say that they probably don’t really rate him as a coach. He doesn’t have the natural authority that comes with age, success and trophies. He is a young, up and coming coach from Frankfurt (as James is keen to point out) whom it takes 70 minutes in a game to finally make an inspired decision (Mrs. Müller). This speaks volumes. Then there is the K-H. Rummenige quote that they suggested to him to stop rotating his starting lineup. Take all of this together and it seems only natural that he would rely on a set first eleven with and a rather conventional strategy. At least I can’t really blame him for that.

So all in all I think that with Kovac there is some ‘method to his madness’, as they say. I don’t think he is a bad coach. He has a good chance of becoming a great coach even. I just think he probably isn’t the right coach for Bayern now. Not just yet.

Which poses the question of who could follow him in his place? Interesting, but probably another discussion for another day. Unless… Pep Guardiola isn’t coming back, is he? :wink:

Looking forward to your opinion!