Hansi Flick was originally supposed to manage Bayern Munich for just two matches after taking over the lead role from Niko Kovac in early November. After winning those two matches, which included a 4-0 win over Dortmund, his contract was extended until at least Christmas. Finally, a month into the suspended Bundesliga season and following a series of matches that culminated with a 3-0 win over Chelsea in the Champions League, Flick was signed permanently through the 2023 season. Flick’s record of winning 24 out of his first 27 matches is impressive enough on its own. Yet beyond the win percentage and pressing principles, Flick’s most meaningful contribution is in reconnecting this current side to the intangibles and psychological dominance that defined the club in the past.
Flick used the low expectations surrounding his initial appointment to his advantage. The 55-year-old was a low-risk placeholder after the club sacked Kovac, with the board reportedly eyeing bigger names like Mauricio Pochettino. The skepticism was appropriate as this was Flick’s first top-level management job since 2005. We can fill in the pieces now that we have the proper hindsight: Flick, as Joachim Low’s assistant with the national team from 2006 through their World Cup-winning run in 2014, played an adjacent role to the rise of this modern generation of German football. He provided structure to Low’s free-flowing approach, finally convincing his boss that the team should practise set-pieces before heading to Brazil in 2014 (Germany scored five goals off set-pieces, the most in the tournament).
The only other time we heard from Flick during that tournament was when he announced that Germany could mark Lionel Messi. Otherwise, there was only the directness of the unanimous praise he receives from other German football figures. Former Bayern manager Jupp Heynckes spoke of his “professional competence.” Low joined in, adding that Flick has “great competence and also empathy,” as if his qualities were so obvious that any praise was meaningless.
It feels of a different season now, but it was only November when Bayern bottomed out with a listless 5-1 loss to Frankfurt. Despite his early sacking, Kovac did win three trophies in his short year-plus run as manager. But the winning lacked inspiration, more due to superior individual talent than any deeper cohesiveness. Their 3-1 loss to Liverpool in last season’s Champions League round of 16 showed how far they were from other top European sides. Kovac’s struggles was another example in the difference between overachieving with a midtable side and stepping into one of the biggest brands in European soccer. Ultimately, it is not so much about innovative tactics as it is about inspiring a locker room of world class players, and their egos.
“Our team has won the championship, the DFB Cup, and the Supercup,” said Kovac upon getting sacked, a reminder that he actually had success despite what felt like a failure.
It’s difficult to single out any individual player to define Flick’s success as the entire roster was immediately re-energized. Robert Lewandowski’s 45 goals in 39 matches provides a direct route to winning. Thomas Muller has scored more goals in past seasons than his current 11, but in having the structure of Lewandowski up front, world-class pace on the wingers, and power behind him, this current iteration may be the best expression of his free-ranging style (he’s also averaging a career-high 1.22 goals-plus-assists per match). There are the other Bayern characters we’ve come to know over the years. David Alaba remains one of the most versatile defenders in Europe. Jerome Boateng anchors the backline. Even at 34-years-old, Manuel Neuer is still quick off his line in snuffing out counters, composed with the ball at his feet.
Though two distinct developments have powered this current run. Flick freed Joshua Kimmich from being a lone defensive midfielder in a 4-3-3 to having a partner in a midfield two of a 4-2-3-1, letting him control matches from box-to-box. And while Thiago may be the most skilled midfielder in Europe, his injury gave Leon Goretzka an opportunity to add power and physicality alongside Kimmich. That’s not to say that Bayern can’t turn on the style in tight spaces. But in emphasizing transitions and dominating space over possession, this is the truest expression of Bayern since Heynckes’ treble-winning side in 2013. Any top side can win trophies, but transcendence is in reinforcing a club’s foundational character.
Alongside the midfield duo is Canadian left back Alphonso Davies’ rise from a player of mythic pace to debates as to whether he’s actually the best left back in the world right now. That argument is partly an internet meme, as no 19-year-old is the best at any position. Liverpool’s Andy Robertson redefined how integral a left back could be in the attacking phase, yet his crossing appears traditional when compared to Davies. Davies, who has been clocked at 22 miles per hour during a match, scores goals in addition to chasing down the likes of Erling Haaland. He is creating his own archetype of a goal-scoring left back in real time. Muller said that Davies’ weakness in defensive positioning doesn’t matter due to his recovery speed.
It was just 15 months ago when Low announced that Muller and Boateng would no longer feature for the national team after a disastrous 2018 World Cup campaign in which they finished last in their group. Low admitted then that he had focused too much on possession at the expense of transitions, those traits synonymous with the German game. Even Low is coming back around on Muller’s form, suggesting that the striker could represent Germany in next year’s Olympics. Indirectly this time, Flick is once again giving Low a structure to build upon for the national team.
Do you remember the optimism we had as the Bundesliga resumed last month, about how Dortmund or even Leipzig could pip Bayern for the title, a symbol of the exciting, pressing teams taking over the league?
Instead, Bayern have outscored opponents 17-4 since the restart. But it’s also in their own approach in suffocating opposition in their own half, through Lewandowski and Muller as opposed to young, developing prospects in their early 20s. Their 1-0 win against Dortmund was billed as the highest expression of the modern, pressing game. Bayern are now second favorites to win the Champions League if the competition were to return. Heightened by being the only league on television for the past month, they are the most on-form team in Europe as we close out this season.
We return to questions about the health and viability of the Bundesliga with one team so dominant. But there is a renewed purpose to this Bayern side, an uptempo, powerful blueprint for others to emulate. The best domestic teams should represent an expression of the highest movements and values that define their leagues, not just winning due to higher budgets or superior individual talents. Bayern’s style feels aspirational within the context of post-pandemics and ghost games, that this is the level that a team can reach within the new normal.