Where did it go wrong for Pep at Bayern?

In December 2013, Bundesliga Fanatic published my first article about Bayern München entitled Bayern’s Lost wunderkinds and while the response was rather positive, most of the readers wanted to me to accept the current situation because the results were going the right way and because Bayern were already cruising towards the Bundesliga title and the Champions League Round of 16.

However, after the trashing Die Roten just received at the hands of Real Madrid, I feel that I have the duty to highlight what a lot of the fans knew quite early in the season: The results were going the right way but the performances weren’t.

So what really went wrong for Pep Guardiola’s Bayern?  Was his tenure overhyped or was it a case of unwanted arranged marriage?

Formation

One of the first “surprises” brought by Pep to the all-conquering side of last year was the utterly useless and incomprehensible change from the 4-2-3-1 to the 4-1-4-1. Indeed, it is well-known that Pep likes to dig out special formations and tactics for the game’s history books, but in Bayern’s case, this research and radical change were not needed; why change a typical German formation very much in vogue, not only in the Bundesliga but also in international football (and especially within the German National Team)? This was clearly one of the first moves which transformed Bayern from the Kings of Europe to a boring pass-only team. Moreover, the same formation that Pep quickly discarded the foundation upon which Bayern conquered all of Europe and most famously thrashed Pep’s beloved Barcelona 7-0 on aggregate in last season’s Champions League semi-final. Finally, what is also incomprehensible about the radical formation change was that the coach moved players who were almost raised to play in this kind of formation to a new unknown, weird and difficult 4-1-4-1 that was openly criticized since early August by Bayern’s players  including the likes of Arjen Robben.

Playing with a single Defensive Midfielder

It is clear for all casual German Football fans that Toni Kroos, while definitely a wonderful player, is not a sechser; that much was clear for all to see during the 4-4 draw between Germany and Sweden during the World Cup Qualifying game. Moreover, what was also clear is that Bastian Schweinsteiger, considered rightly by many as one of the most complete midfielders on the planet, cannot play by himself in a purely defensive role. Enter Philipp Lahm. The German skipper who needs no introduction is a tried and trusted elite right back but, instead of playing him in his natural position, Guardiola opted to move him to a position in midfield where he spent most of the current season playing particularly well. So, was it also a wrong move? Yes. A look at Bayern’s games against Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup and against Arsenal, Manchester United and Real Madrid in the Champions League explains much on this subject; indeed it can be argued that not even Pep Guardiola is completely convinced with his decision because while Lahm proved himself to be an excellent distributor and deep-lying playmaker, his lack of physicality and vulnerability defending the counter attack was there for all to see as early as Chelsea’s first goal against Bayern in Prague this past August.  Lastly, the most curious case was that of Javi Martínez and, to a lesser extent, Luiz Gustavo, the only two pure defending central midfielders left in Pep’s squad at the beginning of pre-season. Instead of playing them in their natural position in the new 4-1-4-1 to protect the defense in a very attacking line up, Guardiola sold Gustavo and insisted on playing Martinez at centre-back even though the player had failed miserably in this position against Manchester City during the Audi Cup with Alvaro Negredo bullying him for the majority of the game.

Tiki-taka

The sentence “death by passing” was first used during Barcelona’s tiki taka revolution under Guardiola and then brought up again to describe Bayern’s way of playing this year. Many fans, pundits and bloggers were worried about a possible transformation of Bayern to a German Barcelona, winning their game by passing the opposing team to death. However, instead, during Pep’s first few weeks as manager of the Bavarians he insisted that Bayern was not Barcelona and that he would preserve a more German way of football in Bayern’s game and clearly stated that tiki taka was not the right way for his new team. Nine months later it is clear that Guardiola did quite the contrary, with Bayern’s possession numbers off the chart. While the performances where boring and a far cry from the electrifying attacks of the Heynckes’ era, the results went the right way in the Bundesliga, wrapping up the championship as early as March. It is now clear after two difficult games against a weak Manchester United side and after a historic trashing at the hands of Real Madrid that Pep didn’t transform Bayern into the all-conquering Barcelona of 2009 and 2011 but rather Bayern became a sad version of the team they destroyed last season. Indeed, Bayern, like the Barcelona of the late Tito Vilanova, has no problem brushing aside weak teams while using tiki taka but struggled massively against the very of best of Europe. In fact, Bayern performed badly in all but one of their biggest matches of this season, drawing against 10-man Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup, losing against Manchester City at home, getting trashed by Real Madrid also at the Allianz Arena and the only good result being the win against City at the Etihad Stadium. It was clear that tiki taka was dead, as Bayern München killed it in the Camp Nou in 2013, so why use it instead of the tactic that trashed it less than a year ago? More importantly, why use it against a team like Real Madrid which is very similar to the Bayern side that crushed Barcelona?

Change of player positions

When Louis Van Gaal opted to play Schweinsteiger in central midfield, the Dutch coach hit the jackpot as he transformed the current German international from a mediocre winger to a world-class central midfielder. Guardiola tried to do the same this year with Lahm, Martínez, Götze and even Müller to a lesser extent, and while the results were not catastrophic it is  safe to say that the changes have failed. Starting with Lahm, as I explained previously in this same article, his presence was great to the team offensively but using him defensively in midfield left the team totally vulnerable defending on the counter attack, albeit only against the big teams. In the case of Mario Götze, it is completely absurd that a 37M€ man dubbed the talent of the century by none other than Matthias Sammer remained a bit-part player during most of the season while being used in a variety of positions which were rarely his most natural one. Mario Götze is not Messi, he is not a false 9, he is not a winger; he is just a world-class central attacking midfielder, a world-class provider with an excellent eye for goal; and  it was Pep who didn’t let Götze fulfill his potential with Bayern in his first season at the club because while it was clear that the Wunderkind can be a pretty solid winger, his best games in a Bayern shirt all came from the attacking-midfield position. The Bavarian native was denied to play in this preferred  position against the big teams, playing as a central midfielder against United and even relegated to the bench in both of the games against Real Madrid.

In the end, there’s no truth in saying or even trying to argue that Pep Guardiola is not a world-class manager. However, after the humiliation against Real and all the bad performances since March, all that can be said is his style and his philosophy in football are not the ideal way to lead a team like Bayern München or any other team adopting the German football culture for that matter.

Champions of the Bundesliga but humiliated in the Champions League, Bayern München’s management will face a tough decision regarding the future of Guardiola at Die Roten after this season: either the Catalan manager embraces the German way and leaves the tiki taka behind or we might by seeing a new manager at the helm  of Bayern München starting this July; my vote goes for Thomas Tuchel.

Header courtesy of The Guardian Online

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