Flying Kiwis: Sarpreet Singh, 2019-20 Season Preview

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The Wellington Phoenix are, at the time of writing this, preparing to take on the Brisbane Strikers in the FFA Cup in Ufuk Talay’s first game in charge and he’ll likely be handing out debuts to a large chunk of his squad. Which means that it was almost exactly one year ago that the Phoenix were beaten by Bentleigh Greens in the same competition last season, a bit of a sloppy way for Mark Rudan’s tenure to begin with the club. Roughly 1200 people were there to watch that game. Sarpreet Singh played all ninety minutes.

He also played all ninety minutes last week as Bayern Munich were beaten on penalties by Tottenham Hotspur in the preseason Audi Cup tournament held at Bayern’s Allianz Arena. 67,500 people were in attendance for that one. A few days later he was an unused sub for the German Super Cup against Borussia Dortmund at the Westfalenstadion where 81,365 fans turned up to watch. In other words, Sarpreet Singh is in the big time now, baby.

Another example: Singh didn’t even start the Nix’s A-League playoff game away to Melbourne Victory last season. He was a 57th minute substitute with Max Burgess starting in his place and the crazy thing about that looking back with Burgie about to start his new season with expansion side Western United and Sarpreet Singh now on the fringes of the Bayern Munich first team is that at the time it was the correct decision. Burgess was playing great. But context can be a complicated thing in football, what makes sense at the time can look weird through the devilish goggles of hindsight.  

Currently Bayern Munich are on a quick training camp tour in Tegernsee (over by the German Alps), the final stretch of their preseason preparation, coming after the Super Cup and before the DVB Pokal begins next week. A five day camp with a full-strength squad with Niko Kovač putting the polish on his group before it all gets real. There are 21 players on the squad including four reserves and yet again Sarpreet Singh has done enough to have himself amongst that group… which is very funky because of the other three (Lars Lukas Mai, Paul Will & Kwasi Okyere Wriedt), only Paul Will has played any minutes for Bayern so far this preseason (the first half against Spurs in the Audi Cup final, a heavily rotated unit with the Super Cup in mind). The Bayern seconds have already played four games, with most of the young fellas who joined the team in USA having slipped back in there by now, so this all lends more credibility to the claim that Sarpreet is going to be a full-on first teamer this season.

If he is then it’s because of how much he’s impressed Niko Kovač through his first months with the club, because he signed as a member of the reserves yet other than one preseason camp when he first arrived he’s hardly had a chance to learn those bloke’s names. Instead he’s feeding passes to Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller in training. The theme of Sarpreet’s last few weeks remains: whenever he’s been offered up an opportunity, he’s taken it and demanded more. The fact that Niko Kovač keeps on giving him these new opportunities is as good an indication as there is that his rise is for real. But this quote helps too…

Niko Kovač: “Sarpreet Singh is a good catch. I was positively surprised. He was planned for the second team but he showed that he's already a long way ahead of many others in the second team. He and Alphonso Davies are much further ahead of the others”

Now, there’s some room for bad translation here… but take large note of the use of that word ‘was’.

Just like that A-League playoff game though, context is huge and for Sarpreet Singh here the context has been extremely fortunate for him… and it could change pretty quickly. It’d be silly to speculate on how many games he’ll play for the reserves or how soon he might make an official first team debut, those things we just take as they come. The number change was a decent clue that he might genuinely be a first team member soon but if he ends up back in the reserves then no drama there either – he’ll be playing regular games and building up a case to get back to where he’s just been. Whatever happens will happen and, considering where he’s come from, it’s all good regardless. This story is a goddamn fairy tale, dude.

What’s really interesting is how Sarpreet Singh fits in with the wider state of this club since a few things completely out of his control could hugely affect things. Bayern weren’t fantastic in losing 2-0 to Dortmund in the Super Cup. They had a lot of the footy but failed to carve out the chances they should have and were torn up on the counter attack. It’s only one game and it’s early days yet… but this does put more pressure on a gaffer whose not got the most stable presence at the moment. A poor start and Nico Kovač could be in the firing line and considering how much Sarpreet Singh’s rise since joining the club seems to have had with his specific impression on Kovač it’s fair to say that Aotearoa is cheering for him to do well.

Kovač is a funny fella. Very big on discipline and that comes with some cute little touches of personality, from the rule that players have to arrive ninety minutes before training, to the strict sleeping tracking that goes on (including recommended bed times), to the suggestion that they drink room temperature water… apparently. He has, however, eased up on his mobile phone ban coming into his second season: players are now allowed to pop a cheeky selfie in the gym for the ‘gram.

Where things will really get stinky for Kovač is at a board level. Club president Uli Hoeness is a big fan of Kovač and something of a mentor for him but Karl-Heinz Rummenigge is much less of a fan, preferring his super team to have an experienced super coach. So the balance of power between those two could therefore have an indirectly huge effect on Sarpreet Singh’s situation (and talk that Hoeness is thinking of retiring at the end of the year make it sneaky). But that’ll only come into focus if Kovač isn’t getting the results on the paddock.

Kovač did fine in his first season in charge. Bayern won the league for the seventh season in a row (holding off Dortmund by two points) as well as claiming both the DFB Pokal and Super Cup… although they did get tumbled out of the Champions League in the round of 16 by Liverpool. Good but not great by Bayern standards. Hence the club have sorta hedged their bets by bringing in Hansi Flick as assistant – seeing him as a bridge between the players and a pretty demanding manager. Flick was an assistant for the German national team so he’s already a popular fella and with Kovač wanting to implement more of a high-energy pressing style, including changing the formation to a 4-3-3, a bridge isn’t a terrible idea. Although the cynics will say he’s also a potential caretaker if it comes to that.

Getting into the playing side of it, that 4-3-3 shape is a bit of a new one as the gaffer ramps things up having survived his first year in charge. One major casualty is likely to be Thomas Muller, who just had a great season playing as a second striker… a role that doesn’t exist anymore. So now he’s a backup striker and a possible winger instead. And clearly it’s those wing roles where Singh creeps into the picture. Throughout the preseason Singh was played overwhelmingly as a left-winger and it’s important to remember that theme about context because as impressive as Singh’s rise has been, it’s been accelerated at least in part by the departure of both Arjen Robben and Frank Ribery at the end of last season. Two long-term wide players for this club leaving a bit of a vacuum behind them. There’s Kingsley Coman, sure. Serge Gnabry and Alphonso Davies too. But that’s about it.

Hence why Bayern have been linked with Manchester City and Germany winger Leroy Sane pretty much all summer. Kovač even admitted it… which got him a dressing down from Rummenigge in the press for speaking out of turn. But with Sane so far declining to sign the new contract that Man City have put on the table, that transfer is starting to feel rather imminent. Might even be confirmed by the time you read this and with Sane in town that would push Singh one spot further down the pecking order. Remember too that when he made the bench for the Super Cup game that was with Gnabry out injured.

Elsewhere the club also sold Mats Hummels back to Dortmund, let a grumpy Rafinha leave on a free, and didn’t kick up a fuss as James Rodriguez’s loan expired (James’ tardiness was the whole reason for the stricter training arrival times this time). In response they’ve spent €115m on two first team players, both young French defenders: Lucas Hernandez from Atletico and Benjamin Pavard from relegated Stuttgart. Hernandez is injured and has only this week gotten back into actual training but he’s a top shelf defender who’ll slip into the first eleven soon enough while Pavard can play across the backline, which is nice.

Still, that’s left their backline in a bit of a clunky state in the meantime. Joshua Kimmich and David Alaba are similarly versatile and they were the starting fullbacks against Dortmund in the Super Cup. Hernandez will probably knock Jerome Boateng back to the bench when he’s ready, starting alongside Niklas Süle… but it does feel like they’re maybe a defender short still. Like how they also seem a winger or two short. And, while we’re on the topic, they didn’t look so flash in midfield the other day with Javi Martinez unavailable. At least Manuel Neuer has those goalie gloves secured, thankfully.

That could all change with the transfer window staying open until 2 September in Germany, giving Bayern another four weeks or so to bring in reinforcements (and Sane would be a pretty bloody outstanding one of those). For now though there’s not a lot of breathing room for Niko Kovač and his lads. Borussia Dortmund look to have pretty seriously improved their squad (even after selling Christian Pulisic) and that Super Cup victory has plenty of pundits in Germany talking up a genuine title race again. Gotta love that as a fan of competitive football… maybe not as much as a fan of Sarpreet Singh though. Just gotta see how it all goes.

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