20 minutes with former centre-back Robert Kovac who played under Thomas Doll for Borussia Dortmund finishing 13th in the league in 2007-8.
Interview adapted and translated from Ingo Durstewitz’s Interview in the Frankfurter Rundschau in May 2018 by Ben McFadyean May 2020.
Now 46, Robert Kovac had a successful playing career playing for 1. FC Nürnberg, Bayer Leverkusen, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich followed by a move to Juventus, then in the Serie B after a forced relegation due to a match-fixing scandal with which he was an instrumental player in the club’s promotion to Serie A in 2007 before going on to win the Croatian cup with Dinamo Zagreb in 2009. Robert became U21 Assistant coach of Croatia in 2012 and then assistant to Niko at Eintracht Frankfurt in 2017 followed by the same role at Bayern Munich in 2018.
Making 84 senior appearances for Croatia, one more than brother Niko, He was known as a dynamic midfielder with great vision and drive the former Croatia international took part in the 2002 and 2006 world cup and the European championships in 2004 and reaching the quarterfinals with the national team at the 2008 tournament scoring 14 goals in his 83 appearances. As a player, Kovac won the double of cup and championship with Bayern in 2002/3 and the Intercontinental cup in 2003.
In this insightful interview which was carried out during an impressive 2017-18 season where Eintracht reached the final of the DFB Pokal and whilst Robert was an assistant coach at Eintracht Frankfurt, the former Borussia Dortmund Centre-back talks about his expectations from any club he works for as a coach, gives insights into his emphasis on the defence and set-pieces in particular, he defines the Kovac coaching partnership and style and values as well as providing insights into his view of the modern game and his career aspirations as a coach and sheds some light on his playing career and how the game has changed:
Robert, you are the assistant coach at Eintracht Frankfurt would you dare to take on the head coach position?
I’m not the kind of person who likes to be in the public eye and have to explain everything. I enjoy working with my brother Niko as head-coach we actually have a lot of fun in this constellation. That also corresponds to my character and my temperament.
As a coach, you seem a bit more relaxed and casual than your brother. Is that a role, your character or is that a false impression?
No, it’s not wrong. It’s just the way I am. I’m different from my brother, Niko is a bit more serious, I’ve always been more the casual type. I think that fits into the whole situation: he is the head coach, I am the co-trainer. And the assistant coach is always the link between the team and the head coach. I try to talk to the players in a relaxed friendly way, get on their side. I have been a coach for 10 years now and think I can deal with the players pretty well.
So is the assistant coach a kind of player’s advocate, where the footballers can raise their issues, be heard?
Pretty much even when two brothers are coaching the team. But there will always be several points of contact in the coaching set-up like the athletics coaches as an alternative to myself – As an assistant coach, I’m in constant contact with the players and they approach me all the time. In terms of the way it works with Niko, some things we pass on, some things we don’t. It always depends. Because you have to see, many players don’t dare to go to the head coach. When you’re young, you’re more likely to go to the assistant, to physio or another confidant. And of course, you should not break the player’s trust, as you won’t get it back so easily and it’s one of your best assets as a coach.
How do the Kovac brothers collaborate as a team? You have worked together during some years now in Croatia and now at Frankfurt, has the experience of working together changed the relationship over the years?
No, nothing at all. It’s more of a bonding experience. Niko and I meet each other at eye level, he has the last word, but that’s clear, he’s the head coach, that’s the way it has to be. But we discuss everything, we have the same views on football, we have played football ourselves at a similar level, we have the same career. That is why we complement each other very well. Our relationship has actually improved over the years, which is normal with age you become less reactive and more adaptable.
It sounds like a great working relationship but how is it working with your brother, do you ever clash?
I wouldn’t say clash. Of course, we have differences in opinions, I represent my own point of view and he has his. At the end of the day, if we fail to agree, Niko has the final decision. We often after discussing all the options at length come to the same conclusion anyway. We work well as a team.
How do you work as part of a coach? Who takes the decisions? Who approaches whom, who comes up with the ideas? How does it work in practice?
We are pretty democratic in the way we make decisions. In a coaching setup, each of the coaches brings their ideas to the table. We analyse the opponents’ style of play and try to exploit the other teams’ weaknesses. All the coaching staff are entitled to bring their point of view and we discuss the options, and everyone gets their point across. At some point, a conclusion is arrived at and more often than not the right one.
You yourself played as a centre-back with top clubs like Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich and Juventus. Is the way you approach things coloured by your own experience as a player, how much of your focus is specifically on the central defenders? Are you keen on maintaining, as far as possible, a set back four or do you see value in rotating defenders? What is the Kovac approach?
The approach depends on the players at your disposal. Take Eintracht Frankfurt for example, when Marco Russ plays, he is 1.90m and so he has strengths in aerial duels, I mainly implemented him for his height and strength with the head. At other times, I might substitute him for Carlos Salcedo if I need a more technically strong centre-back and can then play Russ in a defensive midfield role or we also had the option of Simon Falette for when there is the need for a physical approach.
Of course, it’s never easy for players to sit on the bench or the stands even, but you have to select the best option as a team and at Frankfurt, we were in the strong position of having four good central defenders, my experience as a defender means I will always have that focus but in our coaching setup all players in the squad are important for us and everyone gets their chance.
How do you and Niko prepare for a game, what is your approach?
We work collaboratively, at Eintracht Frankfurt the video analyst, who is Marcel Daum, prepares everything for us, Sebastian Zelichowski, the chief data analyst, acts as a scout attending the matches of the opponents and writes his reports. We then watch the last two games of the opponents together, taking into account the different views. We then develop a strategy for the match — that is our approach.
It’s well-known that you and Niko have great attention to detail as a coaching team and that you fine-tune the team to every last detail. The rapport you develop with the players is clearly a strength. At Eintracht, you could tell that they worked for you, even players who were brought on from the bench in the 89th minute and get two and a half minutes would know what they had to do and was expected of them. Is that a fair analysis, it’s all about teamwork?
There is always an emphasis on rapport but in the end, it’s about general tactics. My focus, in particular, is on the standard situations: free-kicks, corners and so on. Because they have to be right for a team to have success. In terms of substitutes, it seems obvious but when one player goes out, the other one has simply to know what is expected of him. That’s the crucial part, you need to prime the player to get the best out of them.
What I find so admirable is the way your team at Eintracht Frankfurt always gets back on its feet after a defeat and shows resolve to win. That’s what impresses me about Kovac teams, it’s remarkable.
What you describe shows the strength of character in our team, and one thing that I feel proud of is that we never give up, we always kept believing in ourselves. That’s what we’ve worked so hard for as coaches. And I believe you can see that the opponents have a certain respect for us. That’s nice to see.
Looking at football, on the whole, you have been around some top clubs in the Bundesliga but also in Serie A. Borussia Dortmund and Juventus for example, how has football changed in your eyes since you started playing in the 90s? You retired after the two-year stint with Dinamo Zagreb where the cup was won in 2009 and you then took some time off after your active career right?
After 20 years playing, I had overdosed on soccer, so I pulled myself out of the field for two or three years. It was good for me to get some time off. But I live and breath the game and at some point, I did feel the ‘twitch’ again. Football itself has developed enormously, especially in the athletic field, it has become even faster. It has also become more tactical, the coaches, in general, are better trained now, the players too. There is definitely more demand for professionals than before.
Has the pressure in the game generally increased? Arsenal head of academy Per Mertesacker recently raised the issue that the pressure is becoming very intense and can become a problem for some players, it is something to be managed, he got a lot of support from within the industry. What is your view?
The media pressure has increased, you are always in focus. That is not so easy. We live in a meritocracy, you have to perform all the time, that’s okay – the players are always in the public eye. Of course, the players are super well paid now, more than when I was playing and you can expect a lot for the salaries paid but they are still just people with feelings.
And nowadays it’s even worse with smartphones and fast access, you’re overloaded with information. In addition, everyone only wants to read something positive about themselves, and then there might be something bad, then again, and then it might even carry over into their private lives.
Take for example as Per Mertesacker says, the 2006 World Cup, that was the summer fairy tale for everyone in Germany, everything was great. But for the players, it was pure pressure, because the expectations were so high as the host country. Not everyone can handle that pressure. That’s why you have to help the players, and as a coach, my focus is on ensuring that the footballers get the psychological support and help they need.
You have worked as a coach with the Croatia U21 and the national team and now at Eintracht Frankfurt but never for longer than 3 years, you have shown remarkable adaptability coming to terms with new teams, thinking about your next role. How quickly can you actually build a bond with a club?
Take Eintracht when Anthony Yeboah and Uli Stein played here. They played the best football but didn’t win the championship. As a player, Eintracht stuck in my memory. When my brother and I came to Frankfurt as coaches, despite my admiration for that Uli Stein team, I had no idea what Eintracht means to the people of the region. Suddenly I realised the whole of the Hessia region is behind Eintracht, and no matter where you go, to Hamburg or Munich, there are Eintracht fans everywhere who love their club. That already overwhelmed me.
I am a big club coach, the attraction of working with a club with such a bond with the community cannot be underestimated but then I had that as a player in Dortmund and Munich, too. It’s a special affection that is attractive for a coach and brings out the best football and that’s what I am looking for in any club I work for.
Editors note: Two months later Robert and Niko joined Bayern Munich where the team won the double of DFB Pokal and Championship in 18-19 before Robert and Niko were dismissed in November following a 5-1 loss in the league to Eintracht Frankfurt.
Robert is currently on sabbatical and has been linked with a number of clubs in the Premier League and the Bundesliga.