At the first sign of real threat to their domestic dominance, Bayern Munich are splashing out to rejuvenate their squad. But, ahead of the critical clash against Borussia Dortmund, have they got the right coach in place?
Despite cruising to six consecutive Bundesliga titles and having a potential seventh on the horizon, Bayern Munich President Uli Hoeness has promised a massive spending spree to make the record German champions great again.
"We are in the process of rejuvenating our team," Hoeness vowed recently at a brokerage event in Munich. "It's the biggest investment program FC Bayern has ever had."
Bayern's president then boasted – worryingly for the rest of the Bundesliga – on the weekly Sport1 "Doppelpass” talk show: "If you only knew who we definitely have for the coming season..."
And lo and behold, last Wednesday, Bayern announced the signing of French World Cup winner Lucas Hernandez, 23, for a reported €80 million ($89.8 million) fee from Atletico Madrid – a Bundesliga record.
"Money rules football but the biggest share in major trophies is decided by players with personality on the pitch," Hoeness added.
Canadian talent Alphonso Davies, 18, already arrived to much fanfare in January, while Bayern have also wrapped up a deal for promising striker Jann Fiete Arp, 19, from former rivals Hamburg. Hernandez's World Cup-winning teammate Benjamin Pavard, who turned 23 last Thursday, is also set to arrive in the summer for around €35 million.
More new faces still to come?
In addition, Bayern could be ready to splash out another €80 million on Lille winger Nicolas Pepe, while Chelsea's Callum Hudson-Odoi, 18, remains firmly on the club's transfer wishlist.
Ajax Amsterdam's brilliant defender Matthijs de Ligt, 19, also appears to be a target, while RB Leipzig striker Timo Werner, 23, and Bayer Leverkusen midfielder Kai Havertz, 19, will naturally be linked with the country's leading and richest side as likely German internationals for the next decade. All the noises suggest Werner will be a Bayern player by 2020 at the latest.
Bayern's purchasing offensive is a major turnaround by their hierarchy, who were happy to keep their transfer treasure chest shut going into the 2018-19 campaign – despite knowing for some time that a new era was on the horizon, with replacments for veterans like Frank Ribery and Arjen Robben a priority.
Left in the lurch, with an aging squad in his debut season, Kovac's Bayern teetered alarmingly between transition and crisis in the autumn, while Lucien Favre's youthful, energetic and buoyant Borussia Dortmund built up a seemingly impregnable nine point advantage, including a rip-roaring 3-2 win in the first meeting between the two sides in November.
Taking Hoeness' transfer boastings at face value, you don't have to be a genius to realize Bayern's transfer investment could well spell the end of any realistic hopes of regular Bundesliga title races, which have been few and far between in recent years.
Furthermore, the Bayern hierarchy will have no further qualms, if they ever did, about their domination of the league and any long-lasting "damage" to Bundesliga competitiveness. Bayern's very public Champions League humiliation in front of the watching world against Jurgen Klopp's resurgent Liverpool showed, if it wasn't obvious already, that Germany's leading club side are currently light years away from winning their 'Holy Grail'.
Kovac's failed audition and its consequences
But even before Kovac failed his Champions League audition against Liverpool, there were serious doubts among the fan base as to whether the Croatian coach is the man to be trusted with the new influx of talent. Having built his reputation at Frankfurt using a deep defensive line and quick, counterattacking, rapier-like thrusts forward, his coaching philosophy always looked a poor fit for Bayern.
It is a philosophy that is largely alien to the club. Kovac was comfortable at Anfield in a 0-0 draw, very much in his defensive coaching element. But on home soil, Kovac's side looked bereft of tactical ideas, and it is the manner of that embarrassing European exit that weighs heavily in Bavaria.
While Robert Lewandowski's criticism of negative tactics will have stung, critics also point to Kovac's tactical naivety, alarmingly exposed during poor second-half showings in defeats against BVB, Leverkusen, and, most publicly, Liverpool.
Furthermore, Kovac's pedestrian outfit have performed the unthinkable for a Bayern side in recent seasons - dropping points against the Bundesliga's lesser lights. Their scratchy 1-1 draw against Freiburg last Saturday was the latest such result and allowed an equally nervous Dortmund to regain top spot after Paco Alcacer's late double clinched a dramatic 2-0 win against Wolfsburg.
However, given BVB's defensive fallibility, particularly against crosses, the momentum essentially still lies with perennial Bundesliga winners Bayern when the two sides meet in Munich on Saturday. Despite all the negatives, Kovac is favored to repeat the feat of another oft-criticised Bayern coach in Felix Magath, who walked off with a domestic double in his first season at the club. Former teammate and close ally Hasan Salihamidzic is still in situ as sporting director, basking in signing elite talent like Hernandez and Pavard, so Kovac would appear safe for another season.
Yet with Bayern still extremely vulnerable but awaiting a timely injection of fresh talent for the new campaign, Dortmund will know this season could represent their last chance to win the Bundesliga for the foreseeable future. After squandering that comfortable nine-point cushion, if the Black and Yellows do not pull it off this term, a decade (at the very least) of Bavarian Bundesliga dominance could be on the horizon.