In Defense of Pep Guardiola and Bayern Munich’s “Tiki-Taka”

Maybe, just maybe, I am frequenting the wrong corners of the internet, but ever since Real Madrid edged out Bayern Munich at home in the Santiago Bernabeu last Wednesday, all my usual cyberspace abodes seem to have conspired together to develop a singular narrative – “Tiki-Taka does not work.”

There are several slight tangents to that particular view as well, most of which start with the other big proclamation, ie, “Pep Guardiola via tiki-taka has made Bayern boring.” And then there are the real deep dark recesses of the Internet where people are saying that while Pep Guardiola and tiki-taka might be synonymous they are not what embody Bayern. Because let’s face it, somehow or the other, fans on the internet understand what embodies Bayern better than Uli Hoeness.

Putting aside the somewhat incorrigible arrogance of using a 1-0 loss to Real Madrid (the record European Champions no less) at the Santiago Bernabeu as a referendum for the entire work that Bayern and Pep Guardiola have done this season, to me these conclusions make no sense whatsoever.

And not without reason.

The simple fact of the matter is that most people, who have not watched Bayern regularly over the past four years, somehow use the two games against Barcelona (and Juventus to some extent) last season as a blueprint for how Bayern must in actuality be playing. In truth those two games represented a significant departure to Bayern’s usual style of football, which was, whisper it, totally possession oriented.

I still remember vividly how Michael Cox of Zonal Marking asked the question before that semifinal: would this be the first time a side outpass Barcelona? Well, that did not transpire because Jupp Heynckes decided to adopt a slightly more reactive counter-attacking approach, mixed with physicality that completely overwhelmed a Barcelona side on the wane. Bayern went on to win the European Cup and in the process somehow managed to impress in the minds of the casual fan that they were the anti-Barca, a side less of possession and artistry than of muscle and athleticism.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Ever since Louis van Gaal bought his schoolteacher stick to Munich, Bayern have embedded themselves into the philosophy of possession football. In no uncertain terms have the club hierarchy often said that the Bayern of the last four years play the most beautiful football perhaps in Bayern’s history.

It is clear that this is a philosophy that Bayern identifies with strongly at this stage of their history, and it speaks volumes about why Uli Hoeness travelled all the way to New York to try to convince Pep Guardiola to take over the helm and continue the work a stony-faced Dutchman had started one fall four years ago. Even Guardiola recently said the same, “Bayern,” he said, “have bought me here to play my style of football. If they don’t like it then I will leave.”

What needles me further about this whole narrative is that tiki-taka, or the Guardiola way, has proved immensely successful for Bayern this season, so far. They have won the Bundesliga in record time, toyed with Manchester City in one of their more memorable European showings late last year and have also won the Club World Cup. They are in the German Cup final and although the odds look against them, still have a shout of reaching their third Champions League final in a row.

When was the last time a team managed that, despite having large groups of the squad missing in important junctures this season? By all perceivable accounts, that is a very good first season.  Maybe not excellent by Bayern’s recently bloated standards, but definitely a pass with flying colors.

The simple truth is that Guardiola’s style is Bayern’s next natural innovation. During their last period of sustained success in Europe which was in the late nineties and early noughties, Bayern were renowned as a counter attacking team. Ottmar Hitzfeld was the poster-boy to be followed by various degrees of non-success from such elites as Felix Magath. With the appointment of Van Gaal in 2009, Bayern took a conscious decision to move towards playing a different style of football – one of possession and who better to carry forward that baton then the man who has revolutionized it.

So what of the more pressing question? Are Bayern playing as well as they can? And the answer is, that of late, they definitely are not. But how much of that is down to Guardiola’s system? Very little, in my opinion.

Under Guardiola, Bayern have moved from the more rote-based Heynckes approach, into a team that is far more unpredictable. They can play in different ways, one of the hallmarks of strong teams. There is greater vertical interplay, and there is greater control, via more men over in midfield. All of this is positive progression.

What Bayern’s problem has been over the last few months has been the loss of form of some key players. Franck Ribery is the classic example. The Frenchman started the season well but has tapered off, after his injury. And so have most of his colleagues. In fact, bar Phillip Lahm and Arjen Robben and perhaps the injured Thiago, most of the Bayern players are experiencing a form slump. This is understandable; the players have had a long season and come on the back of playing two long years of very high level football. Plus Guardiola’s changes need time and energy to implement. On top of that, the news about Uli Hoeness will certainly not have helped the morale of the players.

All in all, Bayern came into the semifinals with Madrid on the back of some very unconvincing performances. They still ‘dominate’ games, but in a sterile way, lacking confidence to do the riskier things. Generally though, as soon as they score the team starts playing much better; in essence a large part of the problem is in the head as well. Which clearly explains why Guardiola refused to take his players to task after the Madrid showing. He knows that they need to be coaxed. The tools are there, they have to be put to use with confidence and freedom.

Every season has its blip. While paint-brushing last year’s brilliance, people often forget how Uli Hoeness came out and stated explicitly that the team was ‘playing like shit for a while.’ Thankfully last season, Bayern overcame that blip and grew in strength. This season, the blip has come at the worst possible time in Bayern’s quest for repeat glory and hence the hyperbole.

Perhaps there is time yet to cure cyberspace of its Bayern blues but first there is Tuesday and tiki-taka to look forward to. Franz Beckenbauer, though, could afford to give it a miss.

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Quazi Zulquarnain

There is no right, there is no wrong, there is only popular opinion. Follow me on twitter @nondeplume

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