Crisis? What crisis? In recent weeks, Bayern Munich‘xs chaotic search for a new coach had been cause for quiet embarrassment. Now, it transpires, they had their man all along. The man to succeed Jupp Heynckes, Bayern confirmed on Thursday, will be Niko Kovac.
‘We are very happy to have secured the services of Niko Kovac,’ said Bayern sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic. ‘We are convinced that he is the coach for the future of Bayern.’
The 46-year-old former Croatia international, who has turned heads with his work at Eintracht Frankfurt in the last two years, is now set to take charge in German football’s hottest dugout.
‘This is Bayern’s likeable answer to the millions of Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain,’ declared one Bild columnist. As likeable as Kovac is, it is difficult to shake the notion that, after Pep Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti, he is a slightly underwhelming choice.
Kovac, after all, is hardly an international superstar. A reasonable two years in charge of Croatia and an impressive spell at Frankfurt is the extent of his CV. The last time Bayern hired such an inexperienced coach was in 2008, when Jurgen Klinsmann took the job on a wave of optimism. He lasted less than a season, dismissed after a complete and total breakdown in his relationship with the club.
Bayern’s search for a successor to Heynckes, though, has been anything but easy. The truth is that the only suitable coach for the club at the moment seems to be Heynckes himself. After he refused to suspend his retirement for longer than a season, it has been slim pickings for Bayern.
The club bosses have also not made it easy for themselves. The search has provided a handy stage for the power struggle between chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and president Uli Hoeness, while the insistence that Heynckes’ successor must be a German speaker dramatically reduced the shortlist. This far down the rabbit hole, securing Kovac comes as quite a relief.
Kovac, meanwhile, should not be underestimated. At Frankfurt, his sharp tactical brain and calm leadership have worked wonders. When he took over two years ago, Frankfurt were within inches of relegation. Now, they are challenging for a place in the top four.
It is not for nothing, then, that both Bayern and Dortmund were interested. It is not for nothing that Bayern are reportedly set to pay £1.9m to buy the Croatian out of his contract with Frankfurt. It is a buyout clause which, when taking his first job as head coach of a club side two years ago, Kovac allegedly negotiated specifically for an offer from Bayern. That alone says a lot about the man’s ambition.
In some circles, and particularly in Frankfurt, Kovac has been mocked for his decision to leave for Bayern. It was only last January that he gave an interview to Kicker complaining of how little contracts meant in modern football.
‘A five-year contract is worth no more than a six-month contract these days; it’s very concerning,’ he said back then. The quote has been hauled out this week as proof of his hypocrisy, but can anyone really blame him? When Bayern come calling, you don’t say no.
The question is, can Kovac live up to the huge expectations of managing Bayern? This is a club at which your every move is scrutinised, where a domestic double is par for the course, and where you must satisfy a whole array of prima donnas, whether they are in the board room, the dressing room or in the stands.
As if that weren’t enough, Kovac is also charged with beginning a middle to long term renewal programme at Bayern. Heynckes has worked wonders this season, but he has done little more than kick Bayern’s transitional problems into the long grass. Like Klinsmann a decade ago, Kovac is expected to build the next generation.
On the face of it, it seems an impossible task. Yet Kovac does fulfil certain basic criteria. Born and raised in Berlin, he is a native German speaker, and he has first-hand knowledge of Bayern from the inside. He also has an extremely close relationship with sporting director Salihamidzic, which may preclude any immediate political squabbles.
‘Niko was a player here, he knows the people, the DNA and the structures of the club very well,’ said Salihamidzic on Thursday.
Kovac’s CV, though short, also bodes well. At Croatia, he picked up experience of being thrown into the deep end, leading his country as his first full job in management.
At Frankfurt, meanwhile, he has shown that he can build something new, balancing a popular core of long-serving players with carefully chosen newcomers.
At Bayern, he faces the same challenge on a far larger scale. The fact that Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery look set to stay another year could prove a double-edged sword for Kovac.
If things go well, their experience and standing within the squad could help him establish himself. If they go wrong, Robben and Ribery, along with fellow senior players such as Thomas Muller and Jerome Boateng, will surely force him out. If they did it to Ancelotti, they will do it to Kovac.
Kovac is no novice when it comes to experienced divas, however. At Frankfurt, he has got the best out of Kevin-Prince Boateng in a way many more experienced coaches have failed to do. In fact, Boateng has so much respect for him that he suggested Kovac as a potential Bayern coach as early as last January.
‘I think that he would suit Bayern perfectly,’ Boateng told Sport1. ‘He used to play for them, and still has good relationships with people there. I don’t think it is too early for him to go. For me, there is no too early.’
At Bayern, they will be hoping that Boateng is right. They must believe that Kovac is good enough to retain their current level of success. They must believe that for him, there is no too early.