Pep Guardiola – Three reasons he’s a success, even without a CL title

When Pep Guardiola was announced as the new Bayern Munich manager midway through the 2012/13 season, he was seen as the visionary that could take the club to the next level as the successor for the retiring Jupp Heynckes. But when the wily old German ended up winning the treble at the end of that campaign, expectations went through the roof upon Guardiola’s arrival with the Catalan then getting set to take over the best team in Europe and with plenty of potential to grow further under his tutelage.

Fast forward three years later, with Guardiola in his final months in Bavaria before moving to England to embark on a new adventure with Manchester City next season.  He has yet to win a Champions League to date. It’s the one title missing from his cabinet of achievements at Bayern and, by popular opinion, the competition that his time in Germany is being judged by the most, especially considering that the true lack of competition in the Bundesliga has meant league titles haven’t been the most difficult to achieve in recent years for his star-studded squad.

There are those who will consider Guardiola a failure at Bayern if he falls short in delivering the cup with the big ears this May in Milan, but to judge his Bayern tenure in such a narrow manner would be more than a tad unfair and wouldn’t tell the whole story about the ways that Pep has changed the club since his arrival.

Here’s the three main reasons he’s been more good than bad with the German giants that make him a success:

1) Several players have improved, some drastically, during his tenure.

It may well just be the progress players make as they get older, but there is no doubt that quite a few members of the Bayern squad that have been around longer than him have upped their game since he joined the club in June 2013.

boatengJerome Boateng has evolved into a complete all-round world-class defender and has improved his passing game ten fold playing in Guardiola’s possession-based tactical structure. He’s become much more reliable under Pep and the leader of the Bayern defense, something many doubted he’d ever become when he signed after a failed short stint at Manchester City.

David Alaba has also made strides of progress not only in his regular left-back role, but also in central defense as well as midfield. He’s even improved on one of his biggest prior weaknesses, his less favored right foot. He’s a more complete player under Guardiola,  capable of adding a whole lot on both ends of the pitch which has seen him become a very useful weapon when needed for Bayern. He has more freedom now than he ever did before and he certainly seems like he’s enjoying that freedom, evidenced the evolution of his game in the last few seasons.

Philipp Lahm has added a new side to his game and become a better, smarter overall player with greater positional sense under Guardiola by playing in central midfield for much of Pep’s tenure. It’s safe to say that the manager deserves credit for that given that it was he who drafted Lahm into that position in the first place.

Rafinha, who was just a minimally utilized squad player under Heynckes, is another player who’s come into his own and played an important part in the team since the German’s retirement. He’s built up a reputation as one of the better attacking right-backs in Europe while becoming an overall more reliable and responsible defender. He’s also become more versatile, as he’s spent time playing in the center and left side of the defense which has played a part in the improvement of his positional awareness, which was deemed a weakness of his before.

Thomas Müller has become a 20-30 goal a season player under Guardiola and his offensive productivity has gone up even when there were questions over whether a player like him could even fit in the type of football Pep likes to play. Arjen Robben has also brought back the version of himself in his first Bayern season with Louis van Gaal, if not an upgrade on that player, under Guardiola which speaks volumes about his quality that he’s managed to do so despite ageing and still having his usual injury issues to cope with.

Manuel Neuer, who was already the best goalkeeper in the world, has made plenty of progress in his ball distribution by playing the role of sweeper keeper the last few years and it’s made an already great all-round keeper like him even better. Under Pep he’s shown improvement in the one area where he maybe needed to work on and there’s no doubt that the attacking philosophy in place in the team has helped him to do so.

Others like Holger Badstuber, Javi Martinez, and Franck Ribery have had too much time injured and on the sidelines so we never really got the opportunity to see what Pep would have done with them if they were ever fit for a whole season, but all in all it is clear that Guardiola has done a lot of good work with improving the established stars who were part of the treble-winning squad with Heynckes. Ottmar Hitzfeld is one of the few that has vocally praised him for it and surely more are noticing it by the day just how much of an impact Pep has had on these players in terms of their development into truly world-class players.

2) Instilled an attacking, dominating philosophy in the team.

Many look back at Jupp Heynckes’ last season at Bayern with nostalgia and some sort of view that he assembled the perfect team. It’s a view that isn’t really based off their performances over the entirety of that campaign, but rather just a few standout matches in particular; namely the 7-0 aggregate win over Barcelona as well as the triumphs against Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, and Arsenal.

What people don’t seem to remember, or perhaps choose not to, are all the bad games from that particular season and there were quite a lot of them. Bayern labored to victory several times over the likes of Fortuna Düsseldorf, Greuther Fürth, and Hoffenheim from memory, whilst they even managed to lose to Champions League minnows BATE Borisov once.

This shouldn’t be taken as a criticism that Heynckes’ Bayern wasn’t a good team, far from it. On their day they were a team that found a mix between physical and technical quality and were very strong on counter-attacks, which was what they were built to play at the time. But they weren’t the complete package. Far from it, as evidenced by the rather large number of below-par displays. They only turned into as such when Pep rolled into town.

Guardiola brought to the team the attacking philosophy that brought him so much trophy-laden success at Barcelona a few years ago and as a result he’s formed Bayern into one of the most dominant teams on the planet if not the most. They average more possession and higher passing accuracy per game than any other team in Europe, including Barcelona, as well as shots per game which makes them quite the offensive threat to anyone.

Bayern dominate and create plenty of chances in most of the games they play across all competitions which is a testament to the enhancements Guardiola has made and the ideas he has brought along with him in order to make an already very strong team before him an exceptional one. He’s managed to bring and teach a style to a different country where the footballing culture is not the same as in his native Spain, teach that style quickly and have it mastered and successful with it.

3) Under Pep, Bayern have also become more tactically versatile.

Aside from being known as an attacking manager, Guardiola has also developed a reputation for being an innovator and someone who’s not afraid to try new things. He’s also known for taking risks albeit sometimes a bit too much and unnecessarily. He’s tried out many different formations during his Bayern spell. From 4-3-3 to 3-4-3, from 4-2-3-1 to 3-4-2-1, from 4-6-0 to 3-5-2, he’s pretty much tried it all.

Not just formations though, he’s learned to better adapt to his players’ strengths than before and as a result added more tools to go in with his footballing ideas. He’s mixed his usual central possession-based style with vertical wingplay, frequent long balls out the back to try to catch opponents off guard, and quicker ball movement to utilize the pace in Bayern’s attack and ensure more created chances each game, especially against the more compact defenses. He’s become a better tactician for it and his Bayern team have become more dangerous and enriched in their repertoire of options. He’s revolutionizing the way the game is played and taught in Germany just as he did in Spain, and only with time will that become more and more apparent.

Guardiola has had other positive impacts as well, including his transfer work as he’s brought in and molded several quality young players like Thiago Alcantara, Juan Bernat, Joshua Kimmich, Douglas Costa, and Kingsley Coman into the team. There’s been a couple of misses in there too and the overall work with the youth in Bayern’s academy hasn’t been so impressive, but he’s still introduced several new individuals that could be lynchpin players in the first team for years.

Most managers will agree that the league always takes center stage above all other competitions, as it’s where consistency shines over the course of a season and isn’t the case in cup formats like the Champions League. Guardiola has kept Bayern’s domination of German football intact by keeping them comfortably at the top so he’s managed to achieve his first and foremost objective, albeit with little competition for the title within the Bundesliga.

He’s also made it to back-to-back Champions League semifinals however before going out to eventual winners Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively. He’s achieved that despite rarely having anywhere near his full squad available during his tenure, which means we never truly got to see what Guardiola could have done to tackle the Spanish giants with all his pieces strapped up and ready.

The Champions League is more competitive and tougher to win now than it was during Guardiola’s time at Barcelona and even Heynckes’ treble season. While there is a lack of regular, serious English presence compared to the previous decade, the likes of Juventus, Atletico Madrid, and PSG have taken their place while the Spanish giants are always there and packed with more world-class stars each year. It’s increasingly more difficult to win the competition each season.

Results wise, Guardiola has achieved the minimal expectations set out for him at Bayern but many will refuse to call him a success without a Champions League trophy in Bavaria. The margins are so tight and hard to push your way through the knock-out stages at this level that it’s almost impossible to actually expect a title in a competition that’s so dependent on peaking at the right time, being healthy and having some luck too. When one considers the points mentioned above, it’s almost unfair to expect the trophy with Bayern’s seasonal injury crises which have derailed their chances. Now compare that to the 2014 Real Madrid and 2015 Barcelona sides who were in full gear by April/May in contrast and you’ll see the exact difference.

Maybe this will be the year that Guardiola will get this team to the promised land and win the Champions League before he departs for England, but when considering everything he’s done and brought not only to Bayern but to German football, it won’t be the decisive factor in whether or not he’s a success or failure. It might leave a black mark on his overall reign and something left to regret, but it doesn’t outweigh his positives as he’ll depaart Germany as one of Bayern’s most successful managers of all time.

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Edin Halilovic

Edin is a Bosnian currently residing in the United States whose interest in the Bundesliga and German football in general has been increasing heavily in recent years. Follow him @edinh_96