By Oliver Trust
BERLIN, Oct. 22 (Xinhua) -- Niko Kovac has quickly learned that it takes diplomatic skills to manage a team of stars. The Bayern Munich coach has to address the club's need to simultaneously introduce young blood and keep the established stars happy and motivated.
Ahead of Bayern's third Champions League group match this Tuesday evening against AEK Athens, Kovac's central defense is a good example of the fact that his job sometimes requires a tricky balancing act. The Croatian is gently trying to break up the existing hierarchy and it seems Niklas Sule has become a serious rival for Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng.
The coach is following a dual strategy. Officially, he speaks about Sule almost being on a par with the 2014 World Cup winning duo. He never tires of saying that Sule still needs to improve and gain more experience, but also says that Hummels and Boateng are still among the world's best.
Following the club's official line is only one part of the story. Internally, Kovac has already indicated that Sule is on the same level. The 46-year-old has told the club's leaders that Sule is not only the man of the future but ready to take over the leading job in the Bayern defense.
29-year-old Hummels and 30-year-old Boateng are facing a battle as to who will partner Sule in the big matches. Both can already feel their young teammate breathing down their necks.
It is no secret that Kovac was pleased when German national coach Joachim Low picked Sule as his decisive man for the three-man central defense he employed in the recent Nations League defeat against 2018 world champions France. Sule played in the middle with Hummels on the left.
The Munich-based Suddeutsche Zeitung newspaper wrote about Sule having broken up the hierarchy of Boateng and Hummels. "The time of the fridge has come," the newspaper told its readers, adding that Sule not only has the stature of a large refrigerator, but also the speed required in modern football.
At present, Hummels and Boateng can still count on their experience, while Sule still needs more international games to develop further.
Former German international Jurgen Kohler says Sule still lacks cleverness when faced with small and agile opponents. The 1990 World Cup winner recommends he follow the example of Real Madrid great Sergio Ramos, "who is aggressive and loves tackling opponents".
But Bayern's World Cup-winning heroes have passed their peak and are enjoying their last days at the top, says Kohler.
Sule might be as impressed by Ramos' career as everyone else, but he is of a different ilk.
In contrast to Ramos, Sule favors a less risky game. 67 of 68 passes against France reached their target, as he never tried to leave the realms of safety first. That, he insists, is the style he likes best. His manager, former German international Karlheinz Forster, says Sule is very much his own man. "He is curious and determined to improve," Forster said.
Sule is keeping his feet behind the line when it comes to the competition in Bayern's squad as he seems to know his time has already come. "We have several options in nearly every position, and all are of great quality," he emphasized.
But Sule admitted he is getting used to his club's demand to perform well in every game and win. It appears he is focused on saying that he feels ready to follow in the footsteps of two of the greatest performers in German football.
Sule seems prepared to take the next steps and to do so in his own way. His former coach Markus Gisdol agrees. "He has retained a certain amount of ease and calmness, and that is exactly the reason why I'm convinced he will make it to a top international level."