In mid-January 2013 Bayern Munich proudly made the announcement that Pep Guardiola was to replace Jupp Heynckes as manager, a perceived match made in football heaven. After almost a year out of the game, Guardiola was in high demand. Every major club in Europe were monitoring the situation closely.
After 13 trophies in 4 seasons at the helm of Barcelona, his appointment guaranteed success. Moreover, the millions of fans that he acquired worldwide through his Barcelona side’s exquisite passing football meant he was held up as the saviour of artistic football, a tactical genius who promised that almost unattainable combination of consistently beautiful and successful football.
Guardiola’s CV ensured he had his choice of clubs, and in Bayern he seemed to have made the perfect choice. After coasting through their Champions League group, they led the Bundesliga by 20 points and had the type of high quality players that ensured Guardiola could implement his footballing philosophy without worrying whether his new troops would be up to the challenge. With Heynckes retiring at the end of the season, Pep seemed the perfect man to take forward the well oiled machine he had created and develop it even further.
In hindsight, perhaps the first thing to go wrong for Guardiola was entirely outside of his control. Put simply, Heynckes did too good of a job last season. The 67-year-old oversaw the most successful season in Munich’s history, winning an historic treble, winning the league by 25 points and most notably hammering Pep’s old Barcelona team 7-0 on aggregate in the Champions League semi final on their way to claiming Europe’s biggest trophy for the 5th time. From a situation where he expected to take over a strong team to make his mark on and lead to greatness, Pep found himself taking over unquestionably the best team on the planet. Nothing he could do would ever top last season in terms of winning trophies. Moreover, after their destruction of Barcelona, Bayern had made the football world fall in love with their powerful, fast, direct football. Tiki-Taka was no longer flavour of the month and so Guardiola would not have the free ride he had at Barcelona, where the fans immediately fell in love with his style of play.
Whether it was possible to improve upon the Bayern class of 2012-2013 is debatable, but Guardiola certainly did his best in the early months of the season. With the most notable change being the transition of Philip Lahm to a holding midfield role, Guardiola began to remind us of his tactical genius.
While always holding true to his patient short -philosophy, Guardiola showed a willingness to move players into different positions according to the weaknesses of his opponents and Munich took the Bundesliga by storm. Undefeated and 23 points clear in the league and safely through to the quarter-finals of the Champions League by the end of March, everything seemed very much on track for Pep to achieve European dominance with a second club.
April, however, turned into a month from hell for the German champions. A first league defeat away to mid-table Augsburg was followed up with a humiliating 3-0 defeat to rivals Borussia Dortmund, while their quest for a second European Cup in a row was emphatically ended in a 5-0 aggregate defeat to Real Madrid. Exactly what has gone wrong is open to interpretation, but here we look at five factors which could have impacted negatively upon Munich’s run-in.
1. Did Pep try to be too clever?
Though steadfast in sticking to his preferred style of play, Pep has been open to trying new things tactically and always looked for new ways to get the best from his players. This willingness to experiment saw the move of Lionel Messi to the centre of the pitch, the deployment of Sergio Busquets as a holding midfielder who could slot into the hole between his centre backs to create a back 3, and more recently the move of Lahm to the same role.
He has, however, attracted criticism at times for overdoing tactical changes which have sometimes led to as much confusion among his own players as the opposition. Bayern’s struggles against Manchester United in the Champions League quarter-finals marked the first time many fans around Europe began to doubt the previously unstoppable Munich. For the second leg Guardiola took the unusual step of naming David Alaba and Phillip Lahm as conventional full backs, only to have them play as holding midfielders alongside Toni Kroos, lining up in the centre of midfield, but dropping to the wings to act as full backs when defending.
The idea behind what essentially amounted to a 2-3-2-3 formation was extra bodies in midfield aiding ball retention even further. The lack of overlapping wing backs, however, left Bayern’s primary attacking threats Robben and Ribery isolated and unable to create space. Notably at 1-1 around the hour mark, Guardiola returned to Heynckes’ preferred 4-2-1-3 formation, and Munich went on to win 3-1.
2. Tactical Stubbornness
In spite of his imaginative use of formations, the one thing that truly defines Pep as a manager is his unyielding commitment to his footballing philosophy. His Barcelona side wowed fans around the world over with their Tiki-Taka football for four seasons, with highlights including the historic 5-0 victory over Real Madrid and two comprehensive schoolings of Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in Champions League finals.
However, even at Barcelona’s height, there were teams who figured out a way to beat Barca. The two Champions League ties which Guardiola lost, against Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan and Roberto Di Matteo’s Chelsea, both followed a similar plot line. Both Inter and Chelsea surrendered possession and managed to score on the break, before soaking up seemingly endless pressure. The incredible effectiveness of Barcelona’s ball retention, however, made these cases rare. Attack was the best form of defence and Barcelona were difficult to hit on the break due to quick bursts of intense pressure whenever they did lose the ball. Moreover having most of the possession in a game and the slick passing ability of Xavi and Andres Iniesta, coupled with the Messi effect, meant that the goals tended to flow.
Guardiola’s unwillingness to adjust this tactic, however, has led to criticism at Bayern. Though successful in the Bundesliga, at the highest level it has become apparent that Bayern’s players are not tailor made for the style in the way Barcelona’s were. Though they remain top quality players, the likes of midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger and attackers Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery are more suited to Heynckes’ faster, more free-flowing style of play, as opposed to patiently waiting for an opening through which to play an immaculate final ball á la Xavi/Iniesta.
As a result, Bayern have at times looked toothless and out of ideas at times in the past five weeks. The move of Lahm into midfield seemed to be with the intention of him implementing this method of controlled passing and total control of possession , but ultimately failed, with the German looking increasingly lightweight in the centre as the games increased in significance, and with Madrid and Ronaldo targeting his hugely inferior replacement right back replacement Rafinha in the first leg of their semi-final.
While The weaknesses of Tiki-Taka were minimised by the brilliance of how Barcelona implemented it, the same can not be said of Bayern, and as a result they are hugely vulnerable against a team which is well organised and can counter attack with pace and power, á la Madrid last Wednesday.
3. The Pedestal
Outside of Pep’s control is that one huge disadvantage which befalls all winning teams and styles; other teams will study the most successful sides and attempt to emulate them, and more importantly look for a weakness. Guardiola has suffered a double dose of this this season.
Firstly, as outlined above, teams have had half a decade now to watch possession-based football and analyse its strengths and weaknesses. Sport moves on quickly and endless possession is no longer enough to mesmerise a team and force submission. This Bayern team, too, will have been studied endlessly by Europe’s top managers this season after their all-conquering 2013. Each player is known by fans and managers alike all over the world and the goal of each team this season will have been to better them and take their place as Europe’s top team.
Moreover, any team enjoying such success will mean that every team will raise their game when facing them, a key reason behind the fact that no team has ever retained the Champions League. The improvements in the performances of the Manchester teams when facing Bayern this season shows how much of a difference this can make.
4. Post League Blues
Since Munich wrapped up the league title away to Herta Berlin on March 25th , their record in all competitions reads: Won 4, Lost 4, Drawn 2. Not crisis form per se, but unimaginable for a team who had totalled four competitive defeats in the previous 18 months.
The loss of rhythm and consistency is another criticism of Guardiola, who has rotated his squad to a much greater degree in recent weeks, with Claudio Pizarro, Pierre Højbjerg and Mitchell Weiser among the players getting more regular game time. Last year Heynckes handled a similar situation immaculately, with the team going unbeaten in the 2 months after the league title was wrapped up and several squad players getting opportunities, but this term Guardiola hasn’t handled the issue with nearly the same efficiency, as Bayern’s recent slump began in the very next league game, a 3-3 draw with Hoffenhiem.
5. Non-Football Issues
It’s no secret that the death of Tito Vilanova will have affected Guardiola very deeply, as his relationship with his former Barcelona B teammate and assistant manager at Barcelona known to be a particularly close one. Guardiola was notably quiet and seemingly disinterested on the sideline when Munich played Werder Bremen in the days following Vilanova’s death and if he had had knowledge of his friends worsening condition, then it is understandable that his eye may have strayed from the ball.
Gary Walsh, Pundit Arena.