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Flick has found Bayern's switch

Manager proves he is far more than stop-gap originally thought

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When Bayern asked Hans-Dieter Flick to hold the fort after the dismissal of Nico Kovac, his body of work registered barely a blip on the radar’. Photo: Getty

When Bayern asked Hans-Dieter Flick to hold the fort after the dismissal of Nico Kovac, his body of work registered barely a blip on the radar’. Photo: Getty

When Bayern asked Hans-Dieter Flick to hold the fort after the dismissal of Nico Kovac, his body of work registered barely a blip on the radar’. Photo: Getty

The dependable Hans-Dieter Flick, to whom Bayern Munich turned in the uncertain days after Nico Kovac's sacking last November, was originally envisaged as a stopgap. Through his eight years as assistant to Joachim Low with the German national team, he was typecast as a caretaker, a natural understudy, a test driver to keep the engine purring until the Bavarians could parade a more headline-grabbing appointment. That was until his team won 19 of 20 games to seize an eighth-straight Bundesliga title.

Tonight, as he clutches a contract until 2023 and the prospect of the club's first Champions League triumph since 2013, he is that Bayern rarity: a true untouchable.

To study Flick's record is to make anyone question the cult of the super-coach. For six years, Bayern were smitten by the reflected glamour offered by Pep Guardiola, Carlo Ancelotti and, to a lesser extent, Kovac, who had made his name by leading Eintracht Frankfurt to their first trophy for three decades.

None of them, though, could steer the five-time champions of Europe beyond a semi-final. To convert domestic dominance into continental glory, the club needed to recall the example of Jupp Heynckes, the architect of Bayern's 2013 treble, and realise that their most effective coaches tended to be cut from more traditional cloth.

Heynckes was far from flashy in his methods, and a man whose limited kudos was so out of kilter with Bayern's vaulting ambition that they announced his departure six months early, as if to pave the way for Guardiola's entrance on a golden sedan chair. He turned that snub into a motivating force, winning the Bundesliga by a record 25 points, the German cup final against Stuttgart, and a Champions League at the expense of Dortmund, having thrashed Guardiola's Barcelona 7-0 in the semis. It was a lesson for Bayern to be wary of the quiet man scorned.

A similar defiance can be detected behind Flick's trajectory of the past nine months. When Bayern asked their then assistant to hold the fort after the dismissal of Kovac, his body of work registered barely a blip on the radar, with the club tempted by the pursuit of Zinedine Zidane, Thomas Tuchel or former midfield linchpin, Xabi Alonso, who had since taken over the second team at Real Sociedad. But then they discovered that the side fashioned by Flick could not stop winning, wrapping up a once-precarious title with two matches to spare. The answer to their troubles, it turned out, had been hiding in plain sight.

Evidently, Flick's players adore him. The influence of Thomas Muller had been waning in the death throes of Kovac's reign, but the encouragement by Flick of a more pressing style has restored him to the pomp of old. "He has always been very clear in what he tells us," Muller explained. "But I didn't expect him to have the complete package to become Bayern's coach."

Far from pandering to the superstars, Flick owes his success partly to the affinity he has cultivated with more peripheral players. Kingsley Coman is unlikely to start tonight's final against PSG, with Flick preferring Ivan Perisic on the left flank, but he has never felt as if he did not matter. "When he took over, Hansi told us that he had a lot of confidence in us, that we had to trust ourselves even though it was a difficult time," the French winger said.

Much has been made of Muller's role in both the 7-1 humiliation of Brazil at their own World Cup and the 8-2 rout of Barcelona in Lisbon this month, a scoreline that all but toppled one of the European game's most fabled dynasties. But there was another common denominator in those two results: namely Flick, whose transformation of Bayern was pre-dated by his stint as deputy to Low, excelling in both his tactical input and his emotional rapport with the German squad.

His talent for drawing the best out of Muller and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer is underpinned by his knowledge of their qualities at international level. Similarly, his faith in Serge Gnabry and Joshua Kimmich is informed by his subsequent three-year role as the German association's technical director.

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The Bayern that Flick knew as an aggressive, if unspectacular, midfielder in the 1980s have changed beyond recognition. The innovations of Uli Hoeness, seamlessly restored to the presidency in 2016 despite serving almost a two-year prison sentence for tax evasion, have rendered the club a corporate behemoth, so financially resilient that they paid off their loan on the Allianz Arena 14 years early. Their self-generated revenues and affordable season-ticket prices have made them the envy of the sport.

But for anyone managing them, the pressure to curate a reputation for remorseless excellence can be overwhelming. It was for Kovac, who paid the price the moment Bayern's hold on the Bundesliga slipped last autumn with a 5-1 defeat by Frankfurt. Flick, having studied the club's capricious ways inside and out for the past 35 years, needed no tutorials about the type of job he would inherit. Through his modesty and his gift for fostering esprit de corps among disillusioned players, he was the perfect cultural fit at the perfect time.

Flick's reinvention of Bayern, manifested in a 55-goal haul for Robert Lewandowski this season, looks poised to yield their sixth European crown.

He has injected a degree of attacking verve few thought possible, with the club scoring 39 times in their past nine European games. Unlike PSG, whose brittle defence can often be their undoing, there is barely a flaw to be found in Bayern. It is the understated Flick who has proved the missing piece. He had been out of front-line management for 14 years when he made this latest position his own.

The staggering late bloom in his career suggests it can be wiser to toil in the shadows than to risk shrivelling in the limelight too soon.

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022]


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