The Bayern Munich head coach is doing all he can to win a seventh consecutive Bundesliga for the club. But Niko Kovac's fate will likely be decided by developments higher up the hierarchy, not on the pitch.
Niko Kovac made sure he watched a re-run of Bayern Munich's 3-3 draw against Fortuna Düsseldorf in November, the low point of Bayern's season thus far, coming just two weeks after a 3-2 defeat to Borussia Dortmund.
"We defended sloppily and didn't take our opponent seriously," admitted the Croatian ahead of Bayern's rematch with newly-promoted Fortuna, who had come from 3-1 down to rescue a famous point in the Allianz Arena. "Now we want to put right what we did wrong in the first game."
On Sunday, Bayern put four past the Rhineland club and conceded only one, returning them to the top of the Bundesliga after title rivals Dortmund had temporarily usurped them overnight. With only five games to play, Kovac's side are now just one point clear and boast a vastly superior goal difference (+17).
Since that humiliating draw against Düsseldorf, which saw Bayern slip to fifth, nine points adrift of Dortmund, Bayern have won 15 of their 17 Bundesliga games. They have fought their way back into a title race that they now lead.
Kovac has made a point of focusing on the football, which is easier said than done at a club nicknamed "FC Hollywood". In his press conference after the triumph over Dortmund last week, he criticized the media's habit of constantly digging for stories away from the pitch – in this case, a post-match party hosted by Jerome Boateng.
"Just let people do what they want to do," he said. "We play football, but [for you] it's only ever about side issues and sensation." And ahead of Sunday's trip to Düsseldorf, his handling of a mid-week training bust-up between Kingsley Coman and Robert Lewandowski was calm.
"The three of us discussed it together and both players apologized," he said, smiling serenely at reporters who insisted on asking about the cause of the dispute. "It was training, there are emotions. Let's look at it positively: it shows we're alive."
Very much so, and Coman in particular. Under Kovac,the Frenchman has begun to establish himself as a genuine successor to Franck Ribery – injuries permitting. On the opposite wing, Serge Gnabry has already replaced Arjen Robben. Both were trusted to start last week against Dortmund and both were on the scoresheet in Düsseldorf on Sunday. Kovac has overseen a significant part of the changing of the guard in these transitional years in Munich.
He has also provided an answer to critics who suggested that he lacks an offensive tactical plan, that setting up defensively to nullify the opposition might be acceptable at Eintracht Frankfurt but not at Bayern Munich. Big wins over Gladbach (5-1), Wolfsburg (6-0), Mainz (6-0), Dortmund (5-0) and now Düsseldorf (4-1) in the last two months show that Kovac's Bayern can also be devastating – although an overly-conservative approach cost them against Liverpool in the Champions League.
And yet the rumblings surrounding the Croatian persist. It's no secret that there are disagreements about Kovac at board level. The morning after the win over Dortmund, CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge emphatically refused to guarantee the 47-year-old's position, contradicting club president Uli Hoeness, who has suggested that even finishing second would not necessarily mean the end for Kovac.
The disagreement reflects the competing visions which Bayern's two alpha males have for their club, and Kovac has been caught in the middle. He's focusing on the football and shutting out the noise around him as best he can.
Even in the dressing room, rumors persist that all is not well. Lewandowski was hardly subtle in his criticism of Kovac's "too defensive" playing style after the elimination against Liverpool and, according to ESPN, teammates have unfavorably compared training under Kovac to sessions under Carlo Ancelotti. But Kovac has his advocates, too.
"Initially, it was: 'He's the perfect coach!'" said Joshua Kimmich in an interview with the Welt am Sonntag broadsheet this weekend. "At the start of the season, we were winning our games easily but then we got sloppy. There were lots of individual mistakes which the coach couldn't do anything about."
With five games remaining, Kovac is focusing on the job at hand – winning a seventh consecutive Bundesliga title and making and winning the German Cup final. But not even a domestic double may be enough to save him.