Much has been written on Pep Guardiola's footballing philosophy, but unless you have been living on the moon for the last decade or so, you would have heard that the Catalan's fundamental coaching criterion is retaining possession of the ball.
Guardiola has gained a glittering reputation for successfully packing his teams with ball-playing midfielders, first at Barcelona and now in his debut season in the Bundesliga at Bayern Munich—often foresaking a typical striker for an extra body who is comfortable on the ball in midfield. The current Bavarian version of "tiki-taka" is certainly not rocket science: The ball is passed among the ranks from man to man—ideally on the floor.
Remember the old footballing adage, which Guardiola adheres to: "It's very hard to concede goals if you have the ball." Panicky punts forward are permitted in emergencies only. Ball retention statistics have increased under Guardiola, with 70 percent in Bundesliga matches the standard.
For all the emphasis on attractive football the win is still ultra-important for Guardiola, who revealed in a press conference recently ahead of the Manchester return leg: “First come the titles, then comes the style.’’ Guardiola is able to mix and match his star-studded squad at will—only once in 51 competitive outings has he kept the same side for two consecutive games.
Rotation isn’t a luxury afforded to Joachim Low on his fourth crack at securing a major trophy with the German national side. Fight that urge to feel too sorry for "Jogi," he is able to call on the nucleus of a solid "Bayern Block" with goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, "Mr Versatile" Philipp Lahm, defender Jerome Boateng, midfielders Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos and roaming attackers Thomas Mueller and Mario Gotze.
Borussia Dortmund's Mats Hummels and Marcel Schmelzer are classy defenders, while Marco Reus (seven goals in 19 games) adds style and substance to a potent attacking mix. The experience of Lukas Podolski, Per Mertesacker and Mesut Ozil from Premier League side Arsenal will bolster Low's squad for the opening joust against Portugal on June 16.
In the past, German tactics were traditionally shaped by a deeply ingrained "Kampfgeist" (will to win); other virtues of physicality, endurance and discipline were taken for granted. But Germany has evolved under Low from an effective "tournament team" into a side that is definitely one of the most exciting and aesthetically pleasing to watch.
Over the last decade, Germany has produced a constant stream of players with high technical ability. Bayern and Germany’s captain and vice-captain (Lahm (30) and Schweinsteiger (29), respectively) are the standout players of this "older" generation and are still going strong.
Under Low, Germany has predominantly played 4-2-3-1, with record goalscorer Miroslav Klose spearheading the attack. After finishing as runners-up in Euro 2008, the Germans travelled to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa with high hopes. Crushing, free-flowing, counter-attacking victories against the hapless England and Lionel Messi’s Argentina showed what Low's men were capable of before slipping to the Spanish in the last four.
Success at the 2012 Euros should have been the crowning glory and a first major trophy since lifting Euro 1996 in England under Berti Vogts. In Ukraine, Germany blew it once again against the Italian "bogeymen" in the last four, this time succumbing to a Mario Balotelli brace.
Why always Italy, the German media asked? Low took full responsibility for this defeat and was criticized for tactical incompetence, as he dropped Marco Reus for an extra midfielder (Kroos) in a vain effort to thwart Italy's maestro, Andrea Pirlo.
Low’s default tactics still favour a reactive counter-attacking system—relying on bursts out of defence at break-neck speed. In the blink of an eye, it becomes a 4-3-3 with attacking midfielders pushing on, or even a 4-2-4, with mercurial playmaker Ozil weaving his magic close to the lone striker, generally Klose if fit. Game-changers with an eye for goal—like live wires Gotze and Reus—are brilliant tactical options for Low to have up his sleeve, and both can slip seamlessly into any attacking formation.
In the sapping heat and humidity of Brazil, you simply cannot afford to give the ball away and be chasing. Low will stress the importance of ball possession to avoid added wear and tear on his players. Extensive travel times and acclimatisation periods will also have a draining effect after an already arduous European club campaign.
Jogi's squad will be confronted with unfamiliar playing conditions and more short passing—"Guardiola light"—will need to be incorporated into Die Mannschaft's Plan B.
Last autumn we already had a whiff in Cologne of a tactical shift to Guardiola light, using Ozil as that en vogue false nine (no out-and-out striker) in a routine qualifying victory over the Irish. Gotze, Reus and Mueller have all performed this role either for club or country.
According to a report by Randall Hauk in the Telegraph, Low said his side will prepare "like a world champion," and the team will have a training camp in Sudtirol from May 21 to May 31 before the manager decides on a settled side, tactics and formation. The 54-year-old coach is sure to have a keen eye on the on-going recovery of his on-field leader Sami Khedira of Real Madrid, and he will also be sweating on the fitness of the ageing Klose, who will be 36 by the time the tournament comes around.
Guardiola’s rampant side wrapped up the domestic title (undefeated at that time) at the earliest ever juncture in Bundesliga history on 26 March. Pundits soon asked if this was the best Bayern side ever. Will the record German champions repeat their historic treble of last year under Jupp Heynckes?
A key premise of the "Beautiful Game" that thankfully remains unchanged is that the result still hinges on scoring more goals than the opposition. Rest assured, the journalistic knives will be out for Guardiola and his much-heralded system if the Champions League holders cannot turn around that narrow 1-0 defeat in Madrid. Despite enjoying 72 percent of possession, the Reds were pretty anaemic in front of goal and left the Bernabeu without a crucial away goal.
The defensive midfielder plays a crucial role, whether it's in the various guises of Schweinsteiger, Kroos, Lahm, Thiago Alcantara or Javi Martinez. This pivot is crucial in build-up play, often dropping deep to increase the options and spread play.
Pass accuracy is paramount to Guardiola, typified with an astounding 91 percent completed passes in the recent draw in Manchester. Thiago, a big-money purchase from Guardiola's former employers Barcelona, has been sorely missed in that influential role, as the Bavarians have had to get used to the sour taste of defeat since the Spaniard's untimely injury.
We also witnessed in the emphatic 3-0 home defeat to Bundesliga rivals Borussia Dortmund how Bayern's approach can sometimes leave them over-exposed to the counter-attack. Real Madrid brutally carved open the Munich back line and could have won by more than Karim Benzema's goal—despite being starved of the ball in their own backyard.
Germany’s Achilles heel is their defending. Despite blasting a record 36 goals in 10 qualification matches, the critics chose to concentrate on the 10 conceded—seven of which were shipped against the Swedes. You don’t let slip a four-goal lead at home without having a few issues to address.
Having arguably the world's best goalkeeper in their ranks should help matters. Manuel Neuer is a modern-day goalkeeping quarterback: He is adept at receiving back passes and accurately distributing the ball—a role he performs outstandingly at club level. With the goalkeeper technically acting as "libero," thereby adding an 11th outfield player, you are creating a man advantage in your own half.
Expect Low to keep a higher defensive line with increased use of the offside trap—also utilizing his keeper’s speed off his line to nullify opposition attacks—giving added confidence and security to that suspect defensive unit with a view to keeping opponents far away from the business end of the pitch.
Hummels and Mertesacker could be a solid central-defensive combination who would harness all the key ingredients of speed of mind and body, experience, ability and composure into a less fragile-looking back line.
Tactical Subtleties: Did you know that Low insists on two men on the posts when defending corners? This has caused some friction between Low and star goalkeeper Neuer, who is not used to having company on the line for his club side. The imposing keeper likes to dominate his penalty box and has admitted to feeling restricted by the presence of two defenders so close to him.