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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 October 2018

Niko Kovac: Bayern Munich's 'C-List' manager so far producing A+ grades

Flawless results, successfully reintegrating forgotten players and impressing the squad's veteran stars ensures a fine start for the German champions' new manager

Niko Kovac's start as Bayern Munich manager is even better than that of Pep Guardiola. EPA
Niko Kovac's start as Bayern Munich manager is even better than that of Pep Guardiola. EPA

Third-choice is not a happy label to live with, and when Bayern Munich in April announced Niko Kovac was to become their least experienced manager for almost a decade, the phrase hung about him as a sceptical question mark.

It hardly helped that, explaining their decision, Bayern’s executives rued they had been unable to persuade the veteran Jupp Heynckes to stay on, and had contacted Thomas Tuchel to find he was already committed to Paris Saint-Germain.

Seven games into the season, though, the C-list Kovac is producing A+ grades. Bayern, top of the Bundesliga, seek to maintain their 100 per cent record in defence of the league title Heynckes guided them to in May against Augsburg on Tuesday night.

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Kovac’s Uefa Champions League debut on a touchline also passed off successfully at Benfica last week with a 2-0 win, and he has his first silverware, thanks to a thumping 5-0 win over his former employers, Eintracht Frankfurt, in the German Super Cup.

Occupying the summit of domestic football has become the minimum requirement for the club who have lifted the last six Bundesliga shields, but Kovac, 46, has levered Bayern to first place with enough signs of purposeful management to hear approving noises from the executive floors of the club’s headquarters.

Opponents had sensed that, with a new, young man in charge, and several of the club’s senior German players suffering post-World Cup gloom, Bayern might at least start the campaign vulnerable.

And the opening fixtures have been peppered with aggressive duelling, at a cost of injuries to Rafinha, the full-back and Kingsley Coman, the winger. But Kovac’s Bayern have been robust, and calm, in response.

They have also thrown up some pleasant surprises. On the scoresheet in Lisbon last week, one Renato Sanches. It had been a shock even to see the 21-year-old on the teamsheet.

The Sanches saga over the past 18 months has been assuming all the makings of a too-much-too-young parable. The Portuguese midfielder, who won Euro 2016 as a teenager having just become a Bayern signing for an initial €35 million (Dh151.3m), sunk out of the first team alarmingly soon, and finished last season on loan but scarcely deemed good enough for the bench at relegated Swansea City.

Kovac then took on the rebuilding of his morale. “He will feature regularly for us this season,” promised Kovac, who knows the player’s emotional 90 minutes in Lisbon, where he was cheered even by supporters of his old club Benfica, now looks like a shrewd, morale-boosting piece of man-management.

Neither Carlo Ancelotti, sacked last September by Bayern, nor Heynckes, the emergency replacement for Ancelotti, solved the Sanches issue.

Not has Kovac yet, and a minor muscle problem may stall the player’s renaissance for a week or so, but the sight of the midfielder playing with confidence and growing authority made a powerful point. The third-choice manager made made the C-list Sanches feel he belonged again.

There have also been votes of confidence in the likes of Niklas Sule, the giant central defender who stands back in the hierarchy from the regular pairing of Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels.

There is trust in James Rodriguez, who came to Bayern on a two-year loan deal from Real Madrid 13 months ago, and continues to be a valuable addition to the creativity of a squad already blessed with an abundance of forward-thinking talent.

That talent pool, of course, is a manager’s blessing, but it needs handling dexterously. Part of Kovac’s task is to deal with a diverse array of individuals, to coax the best out of footballers closer to his generation, like Arjen Robben, 34, and Franck Ribery, 35, and from the next, like Sanches or Leon Goretzka, the 23-year-old who was the club’s sole major recruit, from Schalke, in the summer. Goretzka marked his first Bundesliga start for Bayern, the 3-0 win over Stuttgart, with a goal and an assist.

“You notice he is still a young coach because he can think like a player does,” said goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, who missed most of last season with a broken foot, of Kovac. “And you sense he knows how hard it is when a player is left out. But he makes everyone feel they have an important role to play.”

That view is echoed by Ribery, a senior figure in the dressing-room and not always the easiest of men to manage. “He definitely has the personality for a big club like this,” the French winger told Kicker magazine. “He knows how to talk to players, and what makes them tick.”

The weekend’s 2-0 win over Schalke gave Kovac a small milestone: a better start to his first campaign than even the feted Pep Guardiola enjoyed when he took over as Bayern’s manager in 2013.

Come Friday, Kovac's first season will have lasted longer than Ancelotti’s second did. If he can push Bayern beyond the last four of the Champions League, then nobody will talk of him as the third-choice manager who got lucky with his timing.