The recriminations from Bayern Munich’s Champions League semifinal exit at the hands of Barcelona are unlikely to be short-lived.
For the second year in a row, Pep Guardiola’s side have come up short against Spanish opposition in the last four. In 2014, Bayern were beaten 5-0 on aggregate by Real Madrid, which included a humbling 4-0 defeat at the Allianz Arena. This season, it was a 5-3 aggregate defeat against Barcelona, although the tie was effectively over after the first leg when the Spanish champions-elect scored three times in the final 15 minutes.
In the return meeting, Mehdi Benatia’s early goal briefly provided Bayern with hope of a miraculous comeback, but Neymar’s brace put Barcelona 2-1 ahead at half-time and in an even more commanding position. Goals from Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller in the second half at least gave Bayern victory on the night, but by then Guardiola’s former club had changed gear into neutral to secure their place in the final in the German capital Berlin.
The convincing way in which Bayern were dispatched by Barcelona has led to some calls for Guardiola to be sacked after two seasons as coach, or that the squad requires a major overhaul. Unfortunately, due to the nature of modern football, such knee-jerk reactions are inevitable. But it is unlikely to be the reaction of the Bayern board.
There were certainly things Guardiola will acknowledge he could have done better over the two legs. But there were also things beyond his control, such as coming up against the best attacking trio in world football in Lionel Messi, Neymar, and Luis Suarez.
Injuries also counted against Guardiola, with key players who would have made a potentially game-changing contribution missing the tie.
New signings will be required, that’s for certain, but talk of a major facelift for Guardiola’s squad is unnecessary.
Here, we take a look at some of the issues and areas Guardiola may seek to address during the summer to ensure Bayern, who were 1/2 with Betfair at the time of writing to beat Freiburg this weekend, are in a position to go one better in 2015/16.
SIGN A NEW STRIKER
The contributions of Lewandowski and Müller have been vital to Bayern’s success this season, and there is certainly no reason why either of those players should be replaced. The issue is that there is a lack of quality back-up, and that is a particular problem when Guardiola starts with both Müller, who is not naturally an out-and-out striker in any case, and Lewandowski as he did in the two legs against Barcelona. It means his only option to change things is to bring on the 36-year-old Claudio Pizarro, whose best days are behind him.
It’s fair to say that Chelsea have managed with just three strikers this season as well, and had a veteran in the shape of Didier Drogba. They also didn’t progress as far as Bayern in the Champions League, but have been similarly dominant in their domestic league. Yet. a big difference with Chelsea is that only one of Diego Costa, Loic Remy. and Drogba starts in Jose Mourinho’s system. When fit, that man is Costa. It then gives Mourinho two options on the bench to change the course of a game. But Guardiola hasn’t got that sort of luxury when he only has Pizarro to call upon. It also leaves him short in the event of an injury to Lewandowski or Muller, or even both of them.
SIGN A NEW WINGER
The absence of both Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery for the two legs against Barcelona deprived Bayern of a goal threat and of the ability to create chances for Lewandowski and Müller. Dutch winger Robben has been in sensational form for Bayern this season when fit, but both he and Ribery are now the wrong side of 30, and their fitness issues are not going to significantly improve. If anything, they could find themselves more susceptible to injury lay-offs.
There is nothing to suggest Robben and Ribery can’t still be key players when they are available, but Guardiola needs to give himself another option. He clearly isn’t a major fan of Xherdan Shaqiri after allowing the winger to join Inter Milan in the January transfer window and at this stage, there seems a lack of trust in Mario Götze to operate in a wide position following his fleeting appearances as a substitute against Barcelona.
Interestingly, Bayern have been linked with a move for Manchester United winger Angel di Maria. The Argentine is the type of player who can offer the same direct running threat as Robben and he is capable of slotting into Guardiola’s system at Bayern. He has also experienced a largely frustrating first season at Old Trafford, and there have been reports he is unhappy. While swap deals are increasingly rare at the highest level, Bayern have players who they could offer in exchange, including Götze. Other Bayern players to have previously been linked with a move to United include Müller and Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Another option, and an obvious one at that, is Wolfsburg winger Kevin de Bruyne, who destroyed Bayern in the first game after the Bundesliga’s winter break. He also has the likes of Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain on his trail, and he has proven over the past 18 months at Wolfsburg that he is ready to step up to a major club again following a disappointing time at Chelsea. Bayern are well versed in plucking the best Bundesliga talents from their rivals, and De Bruyne fits into that category.
FRESHEN UP THE MIDFIELD
The addition of younger legs into the Bayern midfield would give them increased impetus. Xabi Alonso turns 34 in November and is perhaps not as mobile as he once was, especially against such a fast-moving attack as Barcelona’s. And there also has to be a question mark over the future of Bastian Schweinsteiger at the Allianz Arena. Schweinsteiger is no longer as influential as he once was and has been into battle time and time again for Bayern, with his legs perhaps starting to feel the effects of that. A change of scenery could have an invigorating effect on his career, and he will have no shortage of options, if it is decided to make a change.
Of course, Guardiola will hopefully have Thiago Alcantara and Javi Martinez available for a larger portion of next season, and that will increase his midfield options, while also injecting some younger legs into the team.
There has been talk of Bayern bidding for Borussia Dortmund midfielder Ilkay Gündogan. The Germany international is a fine player and seems a perfect fit for the type of midfielder Guardiola likes to have in a holding role. Yet there would have to be a concern over Gündogan’s fitness record, especially given the injury problems which have afflicted Bayern this season.
That brings us neatly on to the injury situation and the hope, probably even expectation, that Bayern’s problems will not be as severe next season as they have been in this campaign.
It wasn’t just Robben and Ribery who were missing from the semi-final against Barcelona, there was also David Alaba. Now whether a left-back would have made a huge difference to the outcome is debatable, but Alaba has established himself as one of the best in his position in the world, and so you are always going to miss a player of that quality.
Guardiola has also pretty much been denied the services of Holger Badstuber throughout his time as Bayern coach. A serious knee injury kept Badstuber on the sidelines for the best part of two years, and he then endured more misfortune when a thigh injury ruled him out for a further four months. The injuries mean he has not been allowed the opportunity to develop into the type of defender who can be a mainstay of the Bayern defence for years.
This season has also seen Martinez missing for around nine months due to a knee injury. It can be argued that Martinez has not always seemed to be Guardiola’s cup of tea, but he has the talent to be a key player in Bayern’s future. Capable of playing in the sitting role in midfield or at centre-half, Martinez can be used however Guardiola wants and he showed in the 2013 Champions League final how effective he can be. Having him available for a full season again would make a huge difference. The same can be said for Thiago Alcantara, whose impact this season has been restricted by injury. Though he did feature against Barcelona, he is still building his way back up to peak fitness and he will surely be better next season.
There was also clearly some unrest in the camp given the way Dr. Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfart left the club in the wake of the 3-1 defeat by Porto in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final, amid accusations he was to blame for the injuries being suffered by Bayern’s players this season.
IMPROVE SQUAD DEPTH
Even when Guardiola was coach at Barcelona, there was always a feeling that he operated with a squad which seemed to be bordering on the bare minimum when it came to numbers. It feels the same with Bayern, as there is a core squad of around 20 players, supported by untested youngsters Guardiola regularly calls upon. When injuries hit, that does leave you short on experienced options to bring in as replacements.
Now, there is certainly a strong argument to be made for not having your squad overloaded with players who will be unhappy if they are not playing regularly. But many of Bayern’s European rivals work with squads where there are two players for every position, and the German champions’ current squad seems to be a couple of players short in comparison. There is also clearly no point in bringing in players for the sake of boosting the numbers, but rather than a complete overhaul of the squad, what Guardiola really needs to do is augment it with two or three extra players, in addition to changing two or three members of the squad.
HOPE FOR A MORE COMPETITIVE BUNDESLIGA
Guardiola may not have won the Bundesliga title in record time as his predecessor Jupp Heynckes did two years ago, but being crowned champion before the end of April does not necessarily help with subsequently trying to progress beyond the Champions League semifinals.
You only have to look at the way Bayern’s results in the Bundesliga have suffered a downturn since the title was wrapped up, and that can only have a negative impact on other competitions. It is hard to suddenly switch the mentality around from knowing there is little riding on the outcome of a match to competing for a place in the Champions League final.
This is not to say Bayern should not be lauded for how they have won the Bundesliga this season, but the title race was effectively over by the winter break. It didn’t help matters that Bayern’s likely chief rivals Borussia Dortmund endured a wretched first half of the season and were never in a position to mount a title challenge.
In the past four seasons, Bayern have won the Champions League, been runners-up in a penalty shoot-out against Chelsea in a game they are probably still wondering how they didn’t win, and reached the semifinals twice.
It is the sort of record that would be the envy of the majority of clubs across Europe, with perhaps only Barcelona and Real Madrid also likely to be dissatisfied with such an achievement.
Yet for all the quality in Guardiola’s squad, and the way they have dominated the Bundesliga, the Champions League is still an incredibly competitive tournament, especially once you reach the knockout stages.
Getting to the last four and no further should not be treated as a reason to make sweeping changes at a club unless there is an underlying issue which makes it necessary. Guardiola should be given the opportunity to lead Bayern into a third season and prove he can take the club to a Champions League final.
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