The most decorated manager in recent years and the team who turned European football on its head in a sensational season in 2012/2013; surely that’s the perfect combination? Pep Guardiola and Bayern Munich seemed to be a match made in heaven, and with Guardiola’s promise to Bayern fans that he’d keep elements of the playing style that annihilated Barcelona’s tiki taka in the Champions League semi-final last season on the way to a first Champions League win since 2001 after disappointment in two of the three years prior.
12 months later and Guardiola’s men have been dumped unceremoniously out of the Champions League at the semi-final stage by Real Madrid, in a similar fashion to that in which they thrashed Barcelona a year previous. What’s gone wrong?
The question is complicated to answer. Bayern stormed to the earliest league title ever won by a team in the Bundesliga in the 51 years the league has been contested; celebrating first place in late March; but since Christmas, the signs have been there that the team has struggled in some games. Indeed, they’ve scraped past some fairly poor opposition – needing a last minute Thiago stunner to beat relegation threatened Stuttgart, for example – and have probably only dominated a few games, despite what passing statistics may tell you.
That’s right: passing statistics. Pep Guardiola has turned Bayern into a very interesting tactical side who use the ball very cleverly, but this has come at a price. Guardiola’s Bayern lacks the cutting edge of Heynckes’ treble winners, despite arguably having a better squad at his disposal. His side has been functional and generally excellent at what they do, which is to leave opposing teams without a sniff, but are no longer the exciting team that took Europe by storm. They sleepwalk into games, often falling behind or at least gifting several opportunities to lesser teams before getting it together in the second half. That’s not a problem when not playing against the top teams, but against the likes of Dortmund and Madrid in the past few weeks, the game has already been out of sight by the time Bayern have been able to wake up, and this is a problem that Bayern need to figure out if they’re to challenge for serious honours next season.
Another issue is Pep Guardiola’s misunderstanding of momentum. When Heynckes won the title in 2013, he carried on playing a strong team in the Bundesliga, realising that an out of practise team wouldn’t edge past Dortmund in the Champions League final or Stuttgart in the DFB Pokal. Guardiola has rested key men, and has suffered as a result, with players going off the boil and form dropping. Indeed, Bayern have been in poor form ever since winning the league, and that’s clearly no coincidence. Guardiola’s made odd decisions; he can’t decide on a focal point, swapping between Mandzukic, Pizarro and any of his attacking midfielders who he thinks might be able to do a job up front. He’s shown petulance, flying off the handle at a Guardian journalist after the first leg in the Quarter Final against Manchester United for absolutely no justifiable reason. Guardiola isn’t the likeable coach he was a year ago.
This is all overly critical. For balance, Guardiola is still clearly one of the best managers in the world and he’s getting results with a great squad. But like Mourinho at Chelsea, there’s a question over how he’s doing it. Guardiola’s style has moved from the excellent to the cynical since taking over at Bayern, seemingly caring more about results than the end of playing excellent football and expecting results to then come, which was always the aim early on at Barcelona. Guardiola rightly deserves more years at Bayern, and if he gets the chance to mould the squad closer to something he’s used to working with, may yet enjoy the dominance he had at Barcelona; but the media love-in is misguided and frankly quite irritating. His achievements in Germany have not been exceptional yet. Inheriting the best squad in the world speaks for itself, but he hasn’t managed to come close to matching Heynckes’ Bayern, which is a high bar to meet, but arguably the expectation if Bayern wanted to bring in the best coach in the world.
Bayern have a long way to go under Guardiola and they will probably at least go a long way to reaching that level of dominance, but the jury definitely needs to remain out on Bayern’s progress or lack of for now.