Though Niko Kovac has led Bayern Munich to the Bundesliga title, his long-term prospects are anything but secure. The Croatian, in his first year at Bayern, has both supporters and detractors in high places at the club.
By winning the Bundesliga, Niko Kovac has achieved what, at times this past season, looked almost impossible. But, by delivering Bayern a seventh-straight Bundesliga title, the 47-year-old has achieved nothing more than the bare minimum expected of him by his employer. However, he knew what he was getting into when he seized a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a young coach.
"Anything less than success is failure — I knew that. These 10 months were very instructive, very intense," Kovac said before Bayern's scoreless draw away to RB Leipzig last weekend.
A team past their prime
While Kovac certainly didn't go into the job wide-eyed and naïve, he probably hadn't expected his first season as Bayern coach to be as tricky as it turned out to be, despite the fact that he had inherited a much more unbalanced – and old – squad than any of his recent predecessors.
Take their matches against Ajax in the group stage of the Champions League for example; Bayern fielded a team with average age of 30 as opposed to Ajax, whose figure was 24. Not even club President Uli Hoeness nor CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge could argue the fact many in the current team have simply passed their sell-by date.
Not only that, but Kovac took the reins at time when a generational change was just beginning at Bayern. So he was presented with the difficult task of keeping aging stars Arjen Robben, 35, and Franck Ribery, 34, happy, while at the same time giving their designated successors Kingsley Coman, 22 , and Serge Gnabry, 23, enough playing time to actually have an impact. There were also other sources of tension in the team; like the fact newly signed Leon Goretzka was forcing his way into the first 11, cutting into the playing time of James Rodriguez.
The fact that veterans Thomas Müller, Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels all lost form – so much so that Germany coach Joachim Löw dropped all three of them from the national team – didn't help matters either. Furthermore, all of the big names at Bayern ensured there were no shortage of big egos in the dressing room.
"It wouldn't be a bad thing if things were a bit quieter," Kovac said at the press conference ahead of the Leipzig match.
The coach's defense-first mindset didn't endear him to his players either, and by Matchday 12, Bayern found themselves nine points behind Borussia Dortmund – something the serial title-winners haven't been accustomed to in recent years.
If you can't stand the heat…
"There are no job guarantees for anybody at Bayern Munich, and that's a good thing," Rummenigge told German broadcaster Sky last month, a day after Bayern had crushed Dortmund 5-0 to recover their usual perch at the top of the table.
"Everyone has to deliver at Bayern Munich – that is the Bayern Munich principle. You have to be able to deal with this pressure, and anyone who can't doesn't belong here."
A powerful critic
Rummenigge, who is seen as one of Kovac's biggest critics, thinks the coach should be doing more to further develop the team, and their style of play, because one thing is clear: The way Bayern were eliminated from the Champions League in the round of 16 demonstrated that they are miles away from the dynamic and passionate football currently played by their English and Spanish counterparts.
However, there are also arguments that speak for Kovac sticking around for at least another season. He did manage to pull the team out of their bad run of bad form in the autumn by rethinking his tactics and his rotation policy. With 42 points from 17 games in the second half of the season, Kovac led Bayern to one of the best Rückrunde in their Bundesliga history.
A question of trust
Winning the Bundesliga, an annual occurrence in recent years, will likely do little to silence Kovac's critics. However, should Bayern beat RB Leipzig in the German Cup final, this could help lower the temperature of the debate surrounding his future at the club.
The rebuild is well and truly underway, with the Bavarians having already invested around €118 million in getting youngerplayers in for the coming season; defenders Lucas Hernandez (23, €80 million), Benjamin Pavard (23, €35 million) and forward Jann-Fiete Arp (19, €3 million). This is not where the changes are likely to end either. But the biggest question mark now is whether senior management will be prepared to entrust the Croatian coach with completing the rebuild.
Kovac finds himself caught in the trap built by the high expectations that go along with being the head coach at Germany's serial champions.