When Pep Guardiola was announced as the replacement to Jupp Heynkes as head coach of Bayern Munich, in January 2013, the former Barcelona man could not have fathomed that he’d have so much to live up to after last season’s treble. But as the second half of the season gets underway this weekend, Bayern look set for even more trophies.
As the Bayern players went to celebrate with their fans at the Camp Nou, Barcelona in May, last year, after having thrashed the Catalan side 7-0 over two legs in the Champions League semi-final, it would have been tempting to question the wisdom of the appointment of their new coach, Pep Guardiola, a few months hence. After all, the former Barca coach was one of the architects of the Tiki-taka style of play that had, up until that moment, dominated the hearts, minds and trophies of the European game for so long. But since Bayern had found a way of counteracting Barcelona, this surely meant that Guardiola’s method was now redundant and the last thing Bayern should do is employ a coach who might set back the Bavarians, tactically. Guardiola was not in charge of the Catalans the night that they were humbled by Bayern but his legacy remains. Barca played to Pep’s tune while Bayern’s style of play, under Jupp Heynkes last season was based on pace, fast transition and closing down the opposition. Given that Bayern went onto win the Champions League a few weeks later and beat a team in Borussia Dortmund, that play in a very similar style the point was that elite level football tactics had moved on from Tiki-taka and Guardiola’s way was already dated.
The reality is that football, tactics and methods of play aren’t like flares: they’re not hot one minute and not the next. They develop and evolve over time and upon Guardiola’s arrival he set about finessing their tactics and despite some key injuries has produced a team that at its best looks every bit as good as last season’s treble winners. At the conclusion of the first half of the season, Bayern enjoy a seven point gap over second place Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga table and a twelve point gap over the most recent challengers of Bavarian dominance, Borussia Dortmund. And this has been achieved despite playing a game less than the all but one of the rest of the league because they missed the final fixture as they were in Morocco winning the World Club Cup.
In Germany, it is very common for clubs to sign players without much input from the head coach. However, before Guardiola had even arrived he had directed the board to sign Mario Götze from Dortmund at the end last season. This move was untypical in the sense that Bayern do not usually yield to their coach so readily but at the same time it was bloody typical of a club that has become loathed throughout Germany for buying up the best players from other clubs.
Once he’d arrived in Bavaria, last Summer, Guardiola swooped (I’ve always wanted to use that word) for Barcelona’s Thiago Alcântara from under the noses of Manchester United. The deep lying midfielder sustained an injury at the start of the season but his presence put a bomb up the backside of Toni Kroos who has responded with some truly fantastic displays. The German international’s abilities to play big diagonals to the flanks over long distances with unerring accuracy has been one of the hallmarks of Guardiola’s Bayern.
Thiago was not the only injury problem at the start of this season, Fellow Spaniard Javi Martinez also missed the start of the season and after having decided to let the Brazilian Luiz Gustavo go to Wolfsburg, ironically so he could get more game time ahead of the World Cup, Guardiola took the unorthodox decision to play full back Philipp Lahm as a defensive midfielder. Needless to say, Lahm, being the player he is, accepted the role without complaint and made it his. Eventually, Martinez and Thiago returned to fitness and between them and Kroos, Bayern Munich pretty much own the middle of the park.
The young Götze also took his time to settle into the squad due to injury. Indeed there were some Bayern fans who did not take to the former Dortmund fan believing him to be, among other things, a busted flush already. They soon changed their tune after he opened the scoring in that pivotal 3-0 win over his old club in November. That win serves as an illustration of Bayern’s dominance over the rest of the league (although the scoreline would have been very different had Dortmund’s Robert Lewandowski taken his chances earlier in the game).
There have been hiccups in the first half to the season: an inexplicable 1-1 draw with Bayer Leverkusen which should by rights have been a comfortable win for Bayern and a manful, stymieing performance by Freiburg, earlier in the season who deservedly earned a 1-1 draw. In the Champions League, they went 2-0 in what was essentially a dead rubber against Manchester City only to lose 3-2. That performance led to some concerns that Bayern can sometimes take teams for granted but whenever I’ve seen them play they never take their feet off the gas in the must win games.
In a nutshell Bayern play with plenty of width thanks to Arjen Robben and the almost immaculate Franck Ribery who are fed by pinpoint passes from Kross, and/or Thiago. The pace and pressing of last season’s Bayern is still there and any suggestion that they are Barca Mark II are off the mark. In the Winter Break they have secured the services of Dortmund’s Robert Lewandowski (one of the worst kept secrets in the the Bundesliga) but scarcely need him thanks to the magnificent Croatian striker, Mario Mandžukić. That being said, Lewandowski is a more versatile striker than the orthodox Mandžukić which suggests that Guardiola is looking at playing a front four next season similar to Lucien Favre’s Borussia Mönchengladbach forward line of Herrmann, Raffael, Arango and Kruse.
As for this season, Guardiola looks set for at least one trophy, the Bundesliga, at the conclusion of his first season. Indeed, a domestic double is also not out of the question and judging by some of their performances in Europe I doubt you’d find long odds on them retaining their European title and doing another treble. As unlikely as that sounds, it is not unfeasible by virtue of the fact that when they choose, they are so bastard hard to play against. Still, two trebles in a row is a bit much… isn’t it?
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