It's been exactly a month since Bayern Munich won the Bundesliga title in record time, with seven matches remaining. On March 25, the defending treble winners appeared to be the best team in world football, winning almost every game in all competitions. Since then, though, their record is mediocre at best: Three wins, three losses and two draws in eight fixtures in all competitions.
In football, the word "crisis" connotes an extremely dire situation, one far worse than that that of a team that has won three titles this season and could yet win two more. But Bayern are in a crisis of sorts, one of identity.
As explained in depth in this recent article, Pep Guardiola's tactics don't suit his players. His brazen unwillingness to adjust his approach based on the qualities of the opposition or the strengths of his available players has left Bayern playing below their best, the proven and substantially higher benchmark having been set a year ago.
Depth and individual skill alone were enough to beat modest Bundesliga sides on the regular, but Bayern were found to be playing well below their ability when against an elite Real Madrid as they lost 1-0 in the Champions League on Wednesday.
Tactics are not Bayern's only problem; motivation is also a key concern.
Many will be quick to point out that since winning the title, Bayern have gotten the results they have needed in the matches that have mattered: They labored past Manchester United in the Champions League and comfortably beat Kaiserslautern in the DFB-Pokal. But the momentum and rhythm that come from winning on the regular ought not to be underestimated. Form is not simply a switch that can be turned on and off at will. Not at Bayern, at least.
Although there is something to be said for sparing players the potential to be injured in meaningless games, Bayern's recent slump regardless of who has played suggests that Guardiola has erred on the side of playing too conservatively.
It perhaps is better to risk injury than to sterilize an attack by disrupting the rhythm of key players. Besides, it's not becoming of champions to lose to teams like Augsburg and be beaten 3-0 at home by rivals like Dortmund. Although irrelevant to their Bundesliga campaign, such results are not meaningless: They slash the confidence and arrogance that Bayern thrive upon and change the club's identity from one of record-setting champions-elect to something far less convincing.
Guardiola's predecessor, Jupp Heynckes, found the right balance in keeping his players fit, in-form and motivated last spring despite winning the Bundesliga in then-record time, with six matches to spare.
The eventual treble-winners went undefeated with 11 wins in their final 12 matches, despite the presence of many substitutes and reserves during Bundesliga fixtures. Heynckes' men kept their rhythm and form last spring, their confidence turning into classical Bayern arrogance as they out-skilled and out-muscled every opponent in their path. There were some close calls as focus waned, but every time (except once) they were able to find their way to victory.
In the end, Bayern handily won the treble. And although a repeat treble remains conceivable this spring, nerves in Bavaria become more strained with each match.
There are already rifts forming at the club. In March, honorary president and club legend Franz Beckenbauer berated Guardiola's tactics after a disappointing performance in which Bayern sealed progression to the Champions League quarterfinals following a 1-1 draw with Arsenal. Speaking as a pundit on Sky (via Marca), the World Cup-winning player and coach said:
Beckenbauer again came out with criticism for Guardiola following the Real loss. He said, via Marca:
"Possession means nothing when the opponent has the chances. We can be happy that Real only scored one goal."
Guardiola's philosophy on football is one that clashes with that of legendary club figures like Beckenbauer, CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and recently disposed president Uli Hoeness.
The Spaniard's tiki-taka tactics bear no resemblance to those employed by Heynckes and rather are much more similar to those of Louis van Gaal, who set a high standard himself. With a less proven and much less talented team, the Dutchman won the domestic double and reached the Champions League final in his first season. He was sacked a year later after a series of disappointing results that ultimately stemmed from his suicidally aggressive tactics.
To an extent, the writing was on the wall when Guardiola was signed; it was foreseeable that he might have similar problems to those with which Van Gaal struggled. But before his first day on the job at Bayern, Guardiola told reporters at a press conference (via Goal.com) that he would have to adjust to the players at his disposal:
"Barcelona players have different qualities to those of Bayern," he said. I need to adjust to the players, not the other way around."
To this date, Guardiola has done just the opposite. He inherited the best team in the world and drastically changed its tactics and even the positions of its proven players. Among other shocking developments, Philipp Lahm was moved to midfield and Javi Martinez to an often substitute role in defense.
Once a team whose athleticism was world-renowned, Bayern are less physical under Guardiola. In his post-match press conference (via NDTV) on Wednesday, the trainer praised Real's superior athleticism:
"Madrid have athletes. They are footballers, but they are real athletes," he said. A year ago, Bayern hoisted the Champions League trophy after being yellow carded more than any other team, their high-intensity pressing and willingness to foul bullying all challengers.
Exactly how much the Bayern board knew about Guardiola's plans before committing him last January may forever remain a mystery, but surely the executives knew there was risk that the coach—who although enormously successful never had to make massive changes at Barcelona—might not have the flexibility to make good on his promise and adapt to his team.
Amid mounting criticism last week, the trainer was remarkably aloof in a press conference. He said (via ESPN), flatly:
"I have to accept the criticism… I am here to help the club, and if the club do not want me, a handshake and no problem for me."
Guardiola's nonchalant attitude is perhaps warranted given that many clubs in Europe would be delighted to have him as coach and would pay him extraordinarily well, but atypical for a Bayern trainer. And although most officials have declined to disrupt the club by publicly criticizing Guardiola, such an attitude surely cannot be appreciated by such passionate and hot-headed figures as Rummenigge and especially Matthias Sammer.
Signing Guardiola was a big step for Bayern and also a big risk. And now the board members' greatest challenge is solving the club's current identity crisis. Rummenigge and company may soon have to make some difficult decisions regarding the future of their coach and/or some of the club's longstanding players.
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