BERLIN – Bayern Munich effectively won the Bundesliga title in November when it appointed Hansi Flick as coach.
Flick restored the joy of playing to a side that was uncertain and unbalanced under previous coach Niko Kovac, tightened a defense that was prone to mistakes and transformed the team into a relentless and efficient winning machine.
The 55-year-old former Germany assistant placed his trust in young players like Joshua Zirkzee, turned Canadian teen Alphonso Davies into an outstanding left back, converted David Alaba into an excellent center back, and got the best out of players like Thomas Müller and Leon Goretzka.
Flick’s side finally sealed the title on Tuesday thanks to a 1-0 win at Werder Bremen.
“This is just the first step,” said Flick, whose team is well-placed to reach the Champions League quarterfinals and has a German Cup final against Bayer Leverkusen on July 4.
The team had been spluttering under Kovac, dropping points across half its league games and losing two from the 10 played. Bayern’s defensive record was its worst since Jürgen Klinsmann was coach in 2008.
The club bosses finally fired Kovac on Nov. 3, one day after his team slumped to a 5-1 loss at his former side Eintracht Frankfurt on Nov. 2. It was Bayern’s heaviest league loss for more than 10 years.
Kovac had led Bayern to a league and cup double the season before but never had the full backing of the club’s leadership.
“It’s just not happening. Something has to change,” Bayern captain Manuel Neuer complained after the loss in Frankfurt.
Bayern put Kovac’s assistant Flick in charge “for the time being.”
He never looked back. He started with a 2-0 win over Olympiakos in the Champions League before leading Bayern to a 4-0 rout of highly fancied title challenger Borussia Dortmund in his first Bundesliga game in charge.
The team went on to score 16 goals in four games before 2-1 defeats to Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Mönchengladbach provided a setback.
But Flick didn’t panic, and Bayern hasn’t lost a game since. The only blot on his record since those back-to-back defeats in late November/early December was a goalless draw with Leipzig in February.
Bayern is currently on a 14-game winning run including the 3-0 win over Chelsea in London in the Champions League.
Flick’s points-per-game ratio of 2.72 across all competitions is even better than Jupp Heynckes’ from Bayern’s triple-winning season in 2013, and better than Pep Guardiola’s ratio the following season, when the Spanish coach led Bayern to its earliest ever Bundesliga title in March.
Flick didn’t keep his “interim” status for long. Bayern tied the 55-year-old to a new deal through June 2023 in April.
“When I was a player, it was all about success. You’d win 1-0 any way possible. Today, winning alone isn’t enough. I think that’s spot on,” Flick told the club magazine after signing.
There are also other reasons Bayern has won an unprecedented eight consecutive title, mostly tied to the club’s financial might. Lucrative sponsorship deals — including a deal with Qatar Airways that has been criticized by fans — helped Bayern post record turnover of 750.4 million euros ($845 million) and record profits of 146.1 euros ($164 million) for the 2018-19 season.
“Bayern’s development is outstanding, both in a sporting and financial sense,” club chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said when the latest annual figures were released in September.
It means Bayern can afford to compete for the world’s best players.
Brazilian star Philippe Coutinho arrived on loan from Barcelona last summer with an option to make the deal permanent for 120 million euros ($135 million) at the end of this season. But the playmaker has been unable to establish himself in the team.
Bayern also paid a league record 80 million euros ($90 million) to Atlético Madrid for French left back Lucas Hernández, who has barely featured this season due to injury. Fellow World Cup winner Benjamin Pavard also arrived from Stuttgart for a reported 35 million ($40 million) last summer and looks like a better investment.
Bayern’s recurring success also entices other players to join. Germany midfielder Goretzka joined on a free transfer from Bundesliga rival Schalke in 2018, while up-and-coming goalkeeper Alexander Nübel is also joining for free from Schalke from next season.
Nübel has been touted as a replacement for Neuer, though his performances have dipped since the transfer was announced. Luckily for Bayern, the 34-year-old Neuer looks as good as ever. He also recently extended his contract.
Meanwhile, Bayern’s rivals continue to disappoint. Dortmund came closest to challenging this season, but was ultimately undone by its own inconsistency. Bayern’s 1-0 win in Dortmund on May 26 ended any suspense in the title race.
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Ciarán Fahey on Twitter: https://twitter.com/cfaheyAP