Since Bayern Munich clinched their eighth successive Bundesliga title on Tuesday there has been much talk of the German top league being a boring procession for the Bavarians each year and that this is the ‘new normal’. On closer inspection though the record eighth league triumph was anything but plain sailing for the Rekordmeister.
Having fulfilled his brief the season before with the double, Bayern coach Niko Kovac was looking forward to marshalling the Bayern ship to further success this season, but like Captain Edward J. Smith of the Titanic, he was unaware of the perils before him and like Captain Smith, would soon be in trouble.
A 2-2 draw with Hertha Berlin on the opening night of the season wasn’t the ideal start but wins over Schalke and Mainz looked to have the club sailing in calm waters again. However, the signs of disharmony were starting to appear with some unconvincing performances such as the 3-2 win at Paderborn, a 2-1 home defeat to Hoffenheim, the 2-2 draw with Augsburg and a 3-2 win over Olympiakos in the Champions League.
Kovac drew public criticism from CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge following the win in Greece, who rebuked him for reckless play and in a thinly veiled dig said, “I don’t think the performance we produced will bring us serious success this season.”
The writing looked to be on the Sabener Strasse wall and when Bayern struggled to overcome Bochum in the DFB Pokal and then were hammered 5-1 by Kovac’s former club Eintracht Frankfurt. That writing very quickly turned into a termination of the trainer’s contract.
“The performance of our team in recent weeks and the results have shown us that there was need for action. Uli Hoeness, Hasan Salihamidzic and I had an open and serious conversation with Niko on this basis on Sunday with the consensual result that Niko is no longer coach of FC Bayern,” Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said in a club statement.
Rumours were rife that Kovac had ‘lost the dressing room’ with a number of players unhappy at his management and taking their gripes directly to Uli Hoeness and asking for a change. Telling Thomas Müller that he was a back-up player and confessing that Frankfurt fans were the best in the league didn’t help his cause.
Hansi’s Steadying Hand
Bayern initially entrusted assistant Hansi Flick with the job of steadying the ship and he couldn’t have got off to a better start with a 4-0 win in der Klassiker. He did suffer back-to-back defeats to Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Mönchengladbach, but there wasn’t a reason to panic as the club had been unlucky in both games and were seen to be back playing ‘good football’.
With fourteen games played though, Bayern were 7th in the table a full seven points behind surprise leaders Gladbach. On being handed the job, Flick promised to make the changes necessary to get Bayern back on course.
Defensive solidity was a priority, but not an easy one with Niklas Süle and record summer signing Lucas Hernandez out with long-term injuries. Bayern conceded 20 goals in the opening 14 matches under Kovac, but since then have leaked just 11 in Flick’s 18 Bundesliga games thus far.
Although through necessity, the rejigging of the back four have proved a stroke of genius with Alphonso Davies at left back, David Alaba showing world-class ability as a centre back, Benjamin Pavard blossoming at right back, and Jerome Boateng back to his imperious best. Boateng has gone from being told he didn’t have a future and should find a new club to being the cornerstone of the back line and finding a new lease of life at the club.
The Thomas Müller question was also one which Flick quickly answered. At his very first press conference he made it clear that the player marginalised by Kovac was very much part of his plans. “Thomas is important for the club,” he said. “He’s won everything there is to win here. He’s an important identity figure for Bayern Munich. On the pitch, he’s very intelligent – he can carry players along with him and lead.”
Like Boateng, Müller restored that faith in bucket loads. He started five of Niko Kovac’s ten league games on the bench, whereas under Flick it’s been just twice out of a possible 22. In that time the World Cup winner has stormed the league for assists and has a career best of 20 with seven goals.
The positive change under the new trainer was clear with Bayern’s legendary triple winning coach Jupp Heynckes an early admirer of the Flick effect. “Bayern made a wise decision by signing Hansi Flick as head coach,” Heynckes told DPA. “For me, he is the ideal coach because he has already had a lot of experience in various positions in football in the past. His qualities are professional competence, leadership in all areas, seriousness, solidity and an excellent public demeanour. I wish him and Bayern the greatest success in all three competitions.”
Aside from a 0-0 draw with RB Leipzig on matchday 21, Bayern have won every single one of their Bundesliga games since the defeat to Mönchengladbach. The style and swagger returned, Lewandowski banged goals in for fun (provided mostly by Müller), Davies and Alaba morphed into world-class players in their new positions and Bayern’s competitors for the title fell by the wayside in the Bavarians wake.
Safely back in port
So, Bayern ultimately took the title, but it is very much case of ‘what could have been’ had the club not had the wisdom in handing the job to Jogi Löw’s former Nationalmannschaft assistant and their former midfielder.
“I would like to congratulate the team and our head coach Hansi Flick and his coaching staff very warmly on winning the Bundesliga title” Rummenigge enthused following Tuesday’s title coronation. “Without question, this is a season played in special conditions that nobody wished for, and which hopefully will remain unique.
“Hansi Flick, his coaching staff and the team have had a brilliant second half of the season despite these difficult circumstances, not only in terms of our victories, the points we’ve taken and the many goals, but also to our way of playing. We want to give our fans trophies and at the same time inspire them with attacking football. That’s been achieved. FC Bayern have deservedly won the league for the eighth time in a row.”
I’m not saying that had Hansi Flick been the captain of the Titanic, he would have steered around the iceberg, but he certainly takes the lions’ share of the credit for steering Bayern out of trouble and back to where they believe they belong.