“The next Bayern Munich manager will also fail,” read a headline in Der Tagesspiegel this week after the Bundesliga club had sacked Niko Kovac 10 games into the league season. And although it had been coming, the 48-year-old’s departure raises more questions than it answers.
Which manager can succeed at Bayern at the moment is probably the most important one. It is a club that demands domestic success and would like to get to the Champions League semi-finals at least. Jupp Heynckes and Pep Guardiola have done tremendously well there in the past 10 years but the experiments with Carlo Ancelotti and Kovac have been failures.
On Saturday Bayern welcome Borussia Dortmund for the season’s first Klassiker and they do so in fourth. True, they are only four points behind the leaders, Borussia Mönchengladbach, and a single one behind Saturday’s opponents. Short term Bayern are surely able to recover from their rocky start but long term there is a question about where the club is heading.
The chairman, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, and the president, Uli Hoeness, have such a strong grip that it is very difficult for a manager to come in and do things his own way. “The besserwissers,” the article in Der Tagesspiegel called them. They know best and anyone who disagrees with them will struggle. The sporting director, Hasan Salihamidzic, does not appear to have any real say.
Hoeness is leaving on 15 November but Rummenigge is not about to depart. As for who will replace Kovac there is still a question mark after a week in which the hierarchy was split on whether to appoint Arsène Wenger. On Thursday afternoon Bayern claimed that they had turned down the Frenchman after a phone call between him and Rummenigge.
The most likely scenario seems to be that the caretaker, Hansi Flick, takes the role for a longer period than initially planned, possibly until the end of the season. His first game, in the Champions League in midweek, ended in a 2-0 win over Olympiakos but sterner tests await. “It happened very quickly,” Flick said. “It was clear that I would step in out of loyalty to the club. It’s an honour, but it’s a huge challenge.”
Flick joined Bayern in the summer after eight years as Germany’s assistant manager under Jürgen Klinsmann and Joachim Löw. He is trusted by the players – “a good guy,” as Joshua Kimmich said this week – and the hope is that he will get the team back on track after a string of lacklustre performances under Kovac this season.
It is remarkable to think that Kovac lost his job the month after overseeing the 7-2 victory at Tottenham in the Champions League but that performance was out of tune with a lot of the other displays this season. In the league they have lost against Hoffenheim and, in Kovac’s final game, 5-1 to Eintracht Frankfurt and have drawn with Hertha Berlin, RB Leipzig and Augsburg.
Off the pitch there have been the grumblings of Thomas Müller, who suggested he would be open to leaving the club he has been with for 19 years. The 30-year-old, incidentally, started Flick’s first game and it will be interesting to see his role in the coming weeks. Flick has an injury crisis in central defence, with Javi Martínez and David Alaba playing there against Olympiakos.
In better news, Robert Lewandowski is in tremendous form, having scored in every Bundesliga and Champions League game he has played this season. The number of matches stands at 15 – and he is the first player to have scored in the first 10 league games of the season.
Dortmund, meanwhile, are second but also seem to have been in semi-crisis all season. Perhaps the manager, Lucien Favre, set the bar too high last season when he ran Bayern close in the league. This campaign has been more of a struggle and there have even been suggestions that he is about to lose his job.
A 3-2 win against Inter, having been 2-0 down at half-time, has removed any immediate doubt about his job prospects but Dortmund are not as fluent as they were last season. Favre, who suffered a hamstring injury celebrating a Julian Brandt goal in the German Cup, has struggled to get the best from his attacking summer signings, Brandt and Thorgan Hazard, although the former showed glimpses of what he can do in the second half against Inter.
Jadon Sancho and Marco Reus are injury concerns for Dortmund but are expected to play. Dortmund have not beaten Bayern away in the league since February 2001, when Jürgen Klopp’s side won 3-1, and that was their first league victory there for 20 years.
Favre, however, is refusing to dwell on the past and said he was looking forward to the game and would play in his usual attack-minded style. “We have respect for Bayern but we are not afraid,” he said. “We have completed a third of the season. It was a difficult phase but it is better now and we want to continue like that.”
Saturday’s game may not, for once, pit the leaders against the team in second but the importance of it has been lost on no one.