It’s been a bit more than a week since Kovac to Bayern was announced and this single week has alone shown me that many tend to get Kovac wrong. The general opinion seems to be that Niko Kovac is a defensive coach who puts defence first and this is why he won’t fit in at Bayern. I would like to squash that misconception here and now. Yes, Niko Kovac has followed the notion that ‘Attack wins you games, but defence wins you titles’ at Eintracht and it has worked wonders. But this was the case last season and last season was special for many different reasons. Firstly, last season was Niko Kovac’s first proper season at a club. This did therefore make his tactics a bit juvenile and underdeveloped, which they definitely were. Another reason is that Eintracht’s defence was way better than its attack, so to deploy an attacking tactic last season at Frankfurt would have been tactical suicide.
Now, this common misconception does go hand in hand with another misconception. Many seem to believe Kovac’ formation, almost always a 5-3-2, to be extremely defensive, but it really isn’t. Few formations can be so altered and few are so flexible when it comes to transitions as Kovac’s 5-3-2. A formation with five defenders makes it very possible for the wing backs to act like wingers in attack. They can use the flanks as their corridors and can basically operate rather freely. Kovac rarely used wingers at Eintracht. Instead, his wing backs became his wingers. In this piece I will aim to explain Kovac tactics while at Frankfurt, dissect them to see what worked and what didn’t. Then I aim to look at Kovac possibilities at Bayern. How can he play? Will he still deploy a 5-3-2 or will he alter his tactics in order to accommodate Bayern’s more complete squad nature?
Right, beginning with a 5-3-2. Niko Kovac has this season used this formation in the majority of the games and this is in fact a very flexible and movable formation. Players can be moved around, special instructions can of course be given in order to alter it even more and if he likes, it can easily become a 3-5-2. A 5-3-2 tends to become a 3-5-2 anyways, but that’s in build-up. We will cover that later. First, let’s take a look at Eintracht Frankfurt’s defence.
One of Kovac’ apparent strengths at Eintracht has been his ability to set a reliable defensive tactic, a backline that’s movable, but still structured. It all begins with five defenders. The wing backs press the opposition using the pendulum principle. The pendulum principle is where one wing back presses the opposition’s winger or wing back. When he presses, there’s a big room behind him just waiting to be exploited by the opposition. To minimize the risks of this happening, Eintracht’s backline follows and forms a four-at-the-back behind the pressing wing back, thus maximizing structure and security behind the risky pressing. This is something that many coaches tend to do in a 5-3-2. Kovac and Nagelsmann are two of many that have deployed this pendulum principle to press rather high up the pitch.
In this system, the central midfielders help out with the pressing by covering passing options. The other players move across the face of the pitch to make it narrow for the man in possession and he will then find himself without any passing options. The pendulum principle is key to Eintracht’s pressing and defence. David Abraham is another key player in their defence. He acts like a classic libero and covers the space behind the back line if a ball would end up there. He also possesses the ability to spring counter attacks with his passing. Abraham is similar to Kevin Vogt at Hoffenheim. He is the leader of the defence, constantly telling his fellow defenders where they need to be and what they need to do.
When defending, Eintracht’s attackers, often two or just one, tend to lay off pressing, allowing the opposition time with the ball. This does depend on the opposition, however. When the opposing centre half is good with the ball, the attackers close down this player as much as possible, often trying to direct the ball to the other, usually a less skilled defender. They then let this defender drive the ball forward, marking any passing option, slowly setting a trap for him. They invite him into Eintracht’s half and then they pounce. Two or three midfielders attack the player in order to win the ball back. Then Eintracht counter-attack and overload the opposition by utilizing the flanks as viable options.
In attack, Kovac’ Eintracht uses a 2-3-5 where the wing backs have become wingers, ready to cross the ball into a flurry of big players. Behind these five, sit two more attacking midfielders who are ready to pick up loose balls. The central defender in Eintracht’s system, often Makoto Hasebe, pushes up and becomes a defensive midfielder who controls and covers the rather grand space between midfield and defence. He acts like an anchor and can very quickly fall back into the back line to create a more stabile three-at-the-back.
Movement is pivotal in attack for Frankfurt. While one of the two strikers can afford to be a tad stale, the other one have to be in constant motion to keep things stirred up in the box. Ante Rebic is an expert at this as he tends to challenge defenders even though he’s way off receiving the ball. This does create space for his peers in better positions to receive the ball in a dangerous position. Rebic’ role in Eintrach’s system is similar to the one Thomas Müller had at Bayern. He creates space through clever movement and often gets on the scoresheet as well through that very movement.
Kovac’ system relies on movement and interchanging positions too. Marius Wolf, the German who has been stellar this season in midfield, tends to help out on whichever flank he wants in order to create an overload. His precise passing mixed with his dynamic movement makes him a real key in unlocking the opposition’s defence. Marius Wolf has been deployed as an attacking midfielder of late and operates right in front of Kevin Prince Boateng. He tends to drift out wide to create a trio up front when in possession of the ball and has formed a brilliant partnership with right back Danny da Costa, whose overlapping runs have become standard in Kovac’ system.
Now, let us take a look at how Niko Kovac could and should play at FC Bayern, for there are many options to choose from, obviously more so than at Eintracht Frankfurt. Let us begin with the goalkeepers, where Manuel Neuer (if fit) should be the obvious choice. Kovac likes his goalkeepers to be quick of their feet, which Neuer has specialized in. In defence he will most probably deploy a trio, or a dreierkette as it’s called in Germany, with Boateng, Süle aand Hummels, three quick and agile defenders with good passing feet. Boateng should play in the middle and Süle to the right, but that shouldn’t matter too much as none of these three is left footed. Defensive midfield should be Javi Martinez, the Spaniard who has blossomed again under Jupp Heynckes. Javi Martinez is the luxurious version of Omar Mascarell, a defensive midfielder with a fantastic right foot.
Kovac could deploy a Viererkette, four at the back, with Javi Martinez dropping down to create a Fünferkette, five at the back, when defending. Jupp has done this repeatedly this season and Kovac is no stranger to flexibility in game. If he doesn’t do this, it’s a great tool to have for them. Javi Martinez defensive flexibility might therefore become key next season. Thiago and James Rodriguez should form an attacking pivot in front of Javi Martinez. Leon Goretzka will most certainly play a part, and so will Corentin Tolisso, but Thiago and James should be the two main figures in midfield.
This is mainly due to the lack of wingers in the squad and in the formation. James drifts out to help the wing backs, just like Marius Wolf does at Eintracht, and becomes the key man in attack, if Kovac chooses an overloading tactic at Bayern, that is. Lewandowski teams up with Thomas Müller in attack, the duo we’ve all wanted to see play regularly. Lewandowski and Müller do make each other better in many different ways. For example, Müller’s rather frantic movement makes up for Lewandowski’s in the box antics. Müller might drift wide in this system to create a 3-4-3 in attack, which would be devastating to say the least.
Considering overloads has been Bayern’s main thing for many years, which is why Müller has become so important for them, a 3-4-3 should work wonders. With Thiago and Javi Martinez “pulling strings” in the middle, Müller and James as inside forwards and two attacking wingbacks that both possess great feet for crossing, this could be a match made in heaven. James drifts inside and finds space, thus allowing Alaba to exploit the space he has left behind, Thiago steps up to help out. The opponents have to concentrate on these extremely capable players and forget about Thomas Müller outside the box. The cross arrives and Müller is there to finish it. How many times have we not seen this exact situation? How many more times under Kovac?
3-4-3, or a 5-3-2, is how I’d like Bayern to play under Niko Kovac. This formation brings out the best in him and makes it possible for him to utilize Bayern’s dominance. It also makes pressing much easier. With the pendulum principle, explained above, Bayern could win the back ball fast and then hit their teams on the counters fast. But, apart from Eintracht. Bayern does also have the individual ability to unlock any defence in Bundesliga. The way towards that is 3-4-3.