FC Bayern München surprised many when they announced that Niko Kovac will replace veteran Jupp Heynckes at the helm next season.
Taking charge of the Bundesliga giants is one of the biggest jobs in football, but how much do we know about the 46-year-old former Croatia captain who has just been tasked with guiding their fortunes?
Kovac the player
During his time as a player, Kovac plied his trade in the midfield, gaining a reputation as an accurate passer and a strong tackler.
He started his career at German club Hertha Zehlendorf after breaking through from the youth team, but soon moved on to bigger things with Bayer 04 Leverkusen in the summer of 1996.
He also played for Hamburger SV, Red Bull Salzburg, Hertha Berlin and, most notably, FC Bayern München. In all, he won three Bundesliga titles and two Austrian Bundesliga titles.
Kovac also enjoyed a distinguished international career. He made his debut for Croatia in 1996 and went on to earn 83 caps for his country, captaining them at the 2006 FIFA World Cup and UEFA Euro 2008.
Kovac the manager
Kovac retired from the game in 2009 and did not take long to start his managerial career, taking charge of the second squad of Red Bull Salzburg, Red Bull Juniors, from June 2009 to April 2011 before being promoted to an assistant coach role with the first team under Ricardo Moniz.
In January 2013, he was named head coach of Croatia national under-21 team alongside his brother Robert. Tasked with qualifying for the 2015 UEFA European Under-21 Championships, the siblings did so with ease.
Kovac would not get an opportunity to take the youngsters to the Championships, however, as he was named caretaker manager of the Croatia senior national team in October 2013, replacing the sacked Igor Stimac.
Croatia managed to qualify for the 2014 World cup in Brazil, but did not make it to the knockout stage after round robin losses to Brazil and Mexico. Kovac’s contract was terminated in 2015 following a 2–0 loss to Norway.
In March of 2016, the Bundesliga came calling. Kovac was appointed as the head coach of Eintracht Frankfurt, making his debut for the club in a 3–0 loss to VfL Borussia Mönchengladbach.
Frankfurt were fighting a relegation battle as the season drew to a close, but Kovac ensured their survival by guiding them to victory in the two-leg relegation play-off against 1. FC Nürnberg.
This season, Frankfurt are a transformed side in the Bundesliga and currently find themselves in fifth place on the table with 46 points, just six points behind FC Schalke 04 in second and still in with a shot of Champions League qualification.
Since becoming a manager, Kovac has a win percentage of 45.57% after 158 games managed in total.
Bayern made it clear they would only consider German-speaking manager for the job, so Kovac had an advantage over many of the other candidates. While he played for Croatia, he was born in Germany’s capital city – the son of Yugoslavian immigrants.
Kovac seems to have a knack for knock out competitions. He led Frankfurt to the final of the DFB-Pokal last season, losing to Borussia Dortmund, and has a chance to go one better this year – his team faces Schalke in the semi-finals next week and he may yet meet his new club Bayern in the final.
Back three preference
Kovac typically uses a 3-4-2-1 formation at Frankfurt. If he hopes to take that to Bayern, the team will have to change formation, as they usually line up with a back four under Jupp Heynckes.
Kovac’s brother Robert will join him at Bayern as his assistant. He has served in that role since their time with the Croatian under-21 side five years ago.