Bayern Munich's performance against Arsenal in the second leg of their Champions League Last-16 tie may have seemed underwhelming, but it was proof of an even more mature, determined and focused team.
Pep Guardiola has taken what already seemed like a perfect team and made it even better. The team's tactical adaptability and constant search for perfection has them on course for an unprecedented treble.
Whether it is against another team that keeps the ball, a team that counters or an opponent that sits back and defends, Bayern have always found a way to win this season. Their ability to adapt and adjust to different kinds of opponents and in-match situations has been a cornerstone of their successful run under Guardiola.
Bayern were fantastic in the first half against Arsenal. They defended well as a unit and only allowed Arsenal to create a single goalscoring chance. They sat back when they needed and picked their moments to attack. When they did they did so in numbers, focusing on Arsenal's weaker left side and without allowing Arsenal to hit them on the break.
53% - More than half of Bayern's attacking play in the first half vs Arsenal came down the right flank. Plan.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 11, 2014
It was the perfect game plan to stifle an Arsenal side that needed to attack but was forced to adjust to Bayern's changing tactics. As a result, the attacking line-up put out by Wenger turned into a defensive one. They resorted to long balls to Giroud and could not get the ball long enough to create any meaningful chances.
When Arsenal upped their game in the second half and scored the equalizer, there was a sense that Bayern had finally lost their grip on the game. Bayern could have panicked. They could have conceded another one, and the tie could have gone completely up in the air.
Instead, Guardiola reacted perfectly. He introduced Toni Kroos as a stabilizing factor. Bayern absorbed Arsenal's pressure and slowed the game down. Arsenal were back to chasing the ball instead of the game and fatigue ultimately killed the tie.
Striving for Perfection
Last year, Bayern followed a 3-1 away win against Arsenal in the same round of the competition with a disappointing 2-0 loss at home. They just squeezed through on aggregate and nearly wasted all the good work they had done. They looked flat in that second leg and caught off guard. It was a game that could have undone their treble.
This year even that rare bit of complacency that crept in from time to time under Jupp Heynckes seems to have been completely removed. The team went into the Arsenal game with the right mentality and executed their game plan to perfection. Were it not for Thomas Muller's squandered penalty in the end, Bayern would have walked out deserved winners.
Guardiola's biggest challenge going into the season was to keep his players motivated after winning the treble, and he has found the perfect balance. Using his large squad to his advantage, he has created a healthy competition within the team that has pushed each player to reach an even greater level.
When you have a double-digit lead over the second-placed side in the league, it is easy to take one's foot off the pedal. Instead, Bayern have used their dominance and domestic superiority as a platform to challenge themselves. Every game is a new test and opportunity to improve on the last.
Platform for Success
Simply put, Guardiola has created a progressive environment where self-improvement and motivation is perpetually generated. The result is a long list of new records and dominant performances the likes of which have not been seen at the club since the 1970s.
Guardiola's neurotic quest for perfection has seeped into his players' minds and wiped away any inkling of complacency. Last year Bayern were incredibly motivated with rectifying their 2012 Champions League final defeat, and that urgency carried them towards the treble.
This season Bayern's motivation has turned into an obsession. Success is not just the reward for hard work but it is an absolute necessity.