The name of Pep Guardiola was perhaps the most respected in the entire football world when he resigned from his position as Head Coach of Barcelona in order to take a sabbatical from the game. After enjoying an illustrious playing career with the Spanish giants, he was promoted from managing the club’s B team in the summer of 2008. Unmitigated success was soon to follow. By the time of his departure, he had overseen the most successful managerial spell in Barcelona’s history, picking up 14 trophies in the process. His average of 3.5 trophies each season is absolutely outstanding and the fact that his team played such dazzling football only increased his stature within the game further.
However, carrying out the job with such dedication and a constant search for improvement meant that after 4 years at the helm, he had become too mentally fatigued and needed a break. Whilst fans were highly disappointed, none begrudged him this rest. It did however, allow us all to analyse objectively the team that he was leaving behind.
When Ronaldinho was named World Player of the Year almost a decade ago now, he declared that despite the award, he was not even the best at Barcelona. According to him, Lionel Messi; still relatively unknown at this stage, was the greatest on the planet. Throughout his reign, Guardiola was able to reap the benefits of having the little Argentine at his disposal.
In the earlier part of his career, Messi had played on the right flank, cutting in towards goal at every opportunity. Pep soon saw how this was not obtaining the best out of his prize asset, and so he created a new role just for him. The ‘false number nine’ became Messi’s own, and Barcelona’s entire style of play revolved around him. An outrageous amount of success was achieved by the Catalan club since Messi found this new position, and as such they very rarely had to change their tactics.
The forward’s goal tally was rising exponentially, with nobody in world football seemingly capable of stopping him. Having apparently banished niggling injuries to the past, he would play the full 90 minutes almost every week and incessant victories would follow. However, Guardiola’s sabbatical also coincided with Messi picking up troublesome knocks that greatly depleted his acceleration and agility. An operation was forced upon them, leaving Barcelona without their star man. The eyes of the world fell on the rest of the side, and as we have seen, they could not deal with the loss.
Messi’s absence exposed a glaring lack of any form of a plan B, and to some extent, the lack of another striker at the club. Cesc Fabregas, Alexis Sanchez, and Neymar all tried their hand at the role, but they are all midfielders or wide men by trade. The style of play had been so ingrained into them by Guardiola’s coaching that they could not change their ways. But without the talismanic Argentinian, results just would not come.
Aging figures in the dressing room such as Carles Puyol, Xavi, and Dani Alves were all suddenly exposed as not being able to reach their impressive peaks of previous campaigns. Despite the much revered academy of ‘La Masia’, there did not seem to be a natural replacement for any of these players coming through that could fit straight into the team. It may seem harsh to lay the blame for this entirely at Pep’s door, but the fact is that he did not purchase sufficient options during his time at the Camp Nou, choosing instead to stick with what gave him immediate success.
The elder statesmen in the dressing room can still produce staggeringly good performances, don’t get me wrong, but the frequency of these has been seriously depleted. Xavi for example simply can’t play 3 times in seven days anymore, and Puyol has been troubled with injury all year. So while Guardiola left Barcelona with a legacy of 14 trophies in 4 seasons, it is perhaps the longer lasting effect on the future team that bears the greatest weight.
After his year off from football, Pep joined Bayern Munich. The German juggernauts are no strangers to success themselves, having won the treble only the previous season. While the outgoing coach Jupp Heynckes had not built a dynasty to compare with that of Barcelona, Guardiola would have to achieve simply great things for his appointment to be regarded as a success. It would not be just the Bundesliga that was required, but for him to do something that no manager had yet succeeded in; retaining the Champions League.
Bayern under Pep have absolutely waltzed away with the league title, winning it at a canter and going unbeaten until very late in the campaign. Once the Bundesliga had been secured, all thoughts turned to European competition. It was paramount that his team reached the final in Lisbon and were victorious. Club stalwarts such as Phillip Lahm and Bastien Schweinsteiger had performed admirably throughout the season and, with the help of the maverick figures of Ribery and Robben, reached the semi-finals with relative ease.
Facing Real Madrid over 2 legs exposed the side’s deficiencies to a great degree. A second Guardiola team in succession fell victim to an over-reliance on plan A. Their usually incisive possession transformed to one with a more monotonous rhythm, not too dissimilar to Barcelona at their worst. Unable to break through a stubborn Madrid back line, they were hit with vicious precision on the counter-attack. This too was suffered at Guardiola’s Barcelona. He repeatedly seemed to fail to recognise his sides’ defensive shortcomings and so they both had the trait of a soft underbelly.
Their exit at the hands of Real Madrid left his position in doubt. It was not just the fact that he had failed to retain the trophy with Bayern, but the manner of their defeat in the Allianz Arena also. Losing 4-0 at home was a shock to all the locals after they had seen themselves dish out a similar punishment to Barcelona last season.
The failure in Europe caused questions to be asked of Pep’s long-term capability to coach the Bavarian giants. Robben and Ribery who provide the key attacking threat for the team are not getting any younger and by showing a lack of faith in Shaqiri, there is not an obvious replacement for either on the horizon. He did well to sign the impressive Thiago from Barca, and he has looked an extremely good prospect for the side in seasons to come. However, in moving Lahm from right back to central midfield, he has exposed how sorely the German captain will be missed when he is gone. They seem to lack solidity at the back when he is in midfield, and miss fluidity in the centre when he plays in defence. The question should be raised whether Pep; should he stay on as manager, will let the situation fester as he did with Puyol and Xavi at Barcelona.
Quite simply, he needs to make additions where it is clear they need them most. Lewandowski is known to be arriving this summer, but that is not enough. A young winger to fill in for Robben or Ribery should be a priority, along with a combative and technical midfielder in Schweinsteiger’s mould. Issues in central defence are clear for all to see, and strengthening here is a must, as is making a decision on where he prefers Lahm to play. If Pep does indeed remain in his position but not address these issues, then I foresee a very similar shockwave emanating from Bayern when he does eventually leave. Surely he does not desire for this to be his legacy?