Have Bayern Munich Finally Turned the Corner with Pep Guardiola?
A tactful smile was all it took to sum up Pep Guardiola’s mood on Saturday evening when he faced the press at the Veltins-Arena in deepest Gelsenkirchen.
"That was our best Bundesliga performance of the season so far" remarked the Catalonian coach, according to ESPN FC, to conclude what had been a successful 4-0 win over fellow Champions League dwelling Schalke, just days after a similarly comfortable encounter against CSKA Moscow in the Champions League.
Yet Guardiola’s evident satisfaction wasn't simply notable for the acquisition of another three points. During the emphatic win over the Royal Blues that afternoon his team looked as though it had turned a corner. And the ex-Barcelona coach had been desperately waiting for it.
For even though Pep took the job as football’s most in-demand coach, with a team that looked as though it could pick itself for the next three years to come, the start of his tenure on the Bavarian throne hadn't exactly gone to plan.
His opposite number—the charismatic Jurgen Klopp of Borussia Dortmund—didn't waste any time introducing him to German football. As his gang of prodigies reaped the spoils of a disorganised side to the tune of a 4-2 victory in the inaugural Super Cup, just two months after Jupp Heynckes—Guardiola’s predecessor—had piped them to the European cup.
Then the Bundesliga campaign began and with it the constant debates over just how Guardiola was trying to fix that which simply wasn't broken.
Where Heynckes had built a formidable juggernaut upon the basis of a strong back line and consistent midfield, the new coach was tinkering with tactics and ripping up the plans that had brought such exceptional success to the club not 12 months before.
The surprise purchase of Mario Gotze was seen as excessive by most fans, which as one can imagine then made the capture of Thiago Alcantara seem simply mad to the Allianz Arena faithful. Yet Guardiola pushed on, with the young Spaniard thrown straight in to a starting role in midfield, in front of established players such as Luiz Gustavo and Javi Martinez. This wasn't what Germany had expected from the best coach in the World.
Then enter Jose Mourinho, the proverbial thorn in Guardiola’s side, this time leading out a Chelsea team desperate to prove themselves against the best team and manager in European football. And they almost did just that.
In fact if it hadn't been for a late goal from Javi Martinez, which took the game to an inevitable conclusion through a penalty shoot-out, Bayern and their new coach would have finished their second final with nothing to show for it.
However, the fans weren't impressed at all and with a 1-1 draw with Freiburg just two days prior to the final. Pep and his side were not only far from convincing but also off top spot in the Bundesliga.
A pedestrian 2-0 win over Hannover then followed in which Matthias Sammer, the club’s sporting director, felt obliged to address the elephant in the room when he stated, according to Bayern's official website, that the side were "playing football without any emotion." Bayern may have got back to winning ways, but the threat of a crisis still lingered around the club.
Then suddenly things clicked. Like the final round in a Karate Kid movie, Bayern finally kicked into life against CSKA Moscow last Wednesday night and began playing with a tempo and synchronisation often reserved for one of Pep’s beloved Barcelona sides. The wax on/wax off transition was over and the European champions were finally ready for a fight.
That fight then came against Schalke, a side unfortunately synonymous with poor luck, in a match that saw Guardiola’s side finally show a glimpse of the vision their coach had been planning all along.
Philipp Lahm, Guardiola’s favoured pawn, commanded his new midfield role with ease alongside fellow Bavarian icon Bastian Schweinsteiger, while the contemporary high-line defence and intricate attack circled with devilish proficiency. Pep Guardiola’s Bayern had arrived and it was winning games in style.
Then came Hannover in the DFB-Pokal second round. A match in which Lahm and Schweinsteiger continued their excellent roles, this time with Thomas Muller, Xherdan Shaqiri and Claudio Pizarro as company in attack. The young German forward scored two goals, the experienced Peruvian striker got one and the Swiss prodigy created two assists. The cogs had been replaced, yet the machine still worked soundly: a fitting testament to the Catlonian tactician's progress.
“We’re on a roll and we need to build on that,” was the battle cry from current European player of the year Frank Ribery after the head-turning win last Saturday, per ESPN FC. “We want to win, win, win.”
A statement that would be taken as no more than simple hyperbole in most parts of the World, yet at this special club in the heart of Munich his preaching may well have an ounce of sincerity to it. Bayern may finally be ready for another record run of trophies, only this time it’ll be Pep Guardiola leading the charge.
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