"I need to adjust to the players, not the other way around," Pep Guardiola told reporters (via Goal.com) at a press conference one week before he took the helm at Bayern Munich.
The Barcelona legend's actions were quite to the contrary. The Bayern team he inherited was balanced. Jupp Heynckes had created a technical team that was comfortable keeping 60-75 percent of the possession yet solid enough at the back to have conceded just one goal in the final five games of their run to the Champions League title. Bayern had skill in possession, bite in attack, the athleticism to overwhelm all opponents with strength and speed and a fortress of a defense. Guardiola could hardly go wrong, it seemed.
But he did. He changed the system.
At the end of a month of preseason training, Bayern played their first competitive match under Guardiola, the DFL-Superpokal with Borussia Dortmund. The trainer was a bit short of staff, but the fact that his central midfield consisted of Toni Kroos, Thiago Alcantara and Thomas Muller speaks volumes. It was a cavalier approach to play without a defensive midfielder, and Bayern were handily beaten 4-2.
Over the next month, Guardiola began to experiment. He was new to the job, and key players like Javi Martinez and summer signings Thiago and Mario Gotze were injured. In the meantime, Philipp Lahm was moved to midfield with Rafinha filling in at right-back.
The trouble was, what Guardiola initially used as a stopgap measure became his go-to plan. Martinez, who months before had forged a rock-solid partnership with Bastian Schweinsteiger in defensive midfield, was used sparingly at center-back as Rafinha, ostensibly the least talented senior player in a star-studded team, remained a starter. Lahm, widely regarded as the best right-back in the world, remained a proficient-but-not-world-class midfielder.
Guardiola's system worked, or at least it seemed. They were winning, and that's all that mattered. And the trainer's tone changed. In October, he warned (via The Advertiser) his players that they would have to adapt to his philosophy or be benched.
The trouble was, Bayern's results masked their deficiencies. The average Bundesliga team is nothing next to giants like Real Madrid, so while the 2012-13 treble winners were able to walk all over the likes of Nurnberg and even Schalke, those results were no indicator of how the Bavarians would fare in the latter stages of the Champions League.
Bayern of course did win some big matches in the fall, but in each instance, the result was not an endorsement of Guardiola's system. Their penalty shootout victory over Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup in August spoke well of the club's nerves and winning mentality. Tactically, though, they struggled as Jose Mourinho's side dropped deep and hit them on the counterattack.
Both of Chelsea's goals came on the counterattack. Bayern got their first equalizer through a shot from Franck Ribery scored from about a mile out, a goal that had nothing to do with tactics. Their second equalizer came through Martinez, who was criminally ignored as a midfield player throughout the campaign.
The other big results Bayern earned in the fall were their 3-1 win away to Manchester City and their 3-0 victory in Dortmund. The City result was emphatic, but Guardiola's system was never really tested. An early, non-tactical long-ranged blast from Ribery set them on course for victory. Possession football rarely struggles when the team employing that strategy have the lead; the trouble is getting that lead in the first place.
In Dortmund, Bayern got their opener through more ordinary circumstances. But they also faced a BVB side that had just brought Manuel Friedrich out of retirement a week prior, which was ravaged by injuries and had half a first team available. Bayern got their goal after half-time, and when BVB went all-out in search of a late equalizer, the Bavarians grabbed two late goals.
The Chelsea, City and Dortmund results were great wins for Guardiola's team, but any experienced coach should know that there is much more to football than results. The Bayern trainer missed some lessons that would later come back to haunt him.
By the time of the midseason break, Bayern were coasting in the Bundesliga. They had to negotiate single-elimination DFB-Pokal matches with 2. Bundesliga side Kaiserslautern and perhaps soon-to-be 2. Bundesliga side Hamburg, which were no difficulty. The only matches that really mattered this spring were in the Champions League. And it was in these matches that Bayern struggled.
Bayern beat Arsenal 2-0 at the Emirates in the round of 16, a rare match in which Guardiola started Martinez in midfield and Lahm in defense. Their performance in the second leg, though, was underwhelming as they were held to a 1-1 draw.
In the quarterfinals, a Manchester United side that was mid-table in the Premier League managed to take the lead twice against Bayern, whose possession football neutered their attack and whose extremely high defensive line left the club exposed on the counterattack.
When Bayern met Real Madrid in the semifinals, the ruse was up: Bayern were found not to be a new incarnation of the world-class team they were a year before, instead looking like a confused side that had forgotten how to attack and defend.
Bayern lost the first leg 1-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu, their goal unsurprisingly conceded on the counterattack after a run on Rafinha's flank. Guardiola replaced him with Lahm in the second half, but by that time, the damage was already done. For all their possession, Bayern hadn't the slightest bit of penetration. And when they lost the ball, Real's lightning-quick counterattack combination of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema hit them ruthlessly.
Following the Real loss, Guardiola finally reverted to his initial line, that he needed to adjust. At a press conference last Friday, he said (via Goal.com): "We need to attack more and I need to find a balance between my ideas and the footballing culture in Germany."
Ahead of the second leg, Guardiola made the wise change of putting Lahm at right-back. But he left Martinez on the bench, opting for a holding midfield duo of Schweinsteiger and Kroos—one that Louis van Gaal and Joachim Low can both attest is a disaster against counterattacking teams like Real. Surely enough, Bayern were caught out on the counterattack time and time again, even in the opening minutes. Guardiola's zonal marking system failed as Sergio Ramos scored twice from set pieces, and a quick counter resulted in Real scoring a third before half-time. The coup de grace came when Cristiano Ronaldo caressed a low free-kick under a wall that never should have jumped, not from such close range.
Bayern now face a resounding identity crisis. Once impervious to attack, their back line now resembles a colander. Their defensive midfield no longer keeps a tight gap to the back four. Muller and Gotze still don't know their roles; both have been used in all three attacking midfield positions, central positions and as strikers. In an oft-used central midfield trio, Kroos, Schweinsteiger and Lahm still have no idea how they are to penetrate defenses: All offer similar skills on the ball, none of which include dribbling in tight areas, pace and quick 1-2s. And with the rest of his team utterly impotent in attack, Arjen Robben has reverted to his old, selfish ways.
Winning the Bundesliga in record time will not save Guardiola from scrutiny. He failed in a colossal way on Tuesday, his Bayern losing at home to Real not only for the first time in their history, but by a flatly humiliating margin.
It therefore is perhaps a blessing in disguise that Bayern were defeated so emphatically. Their weaknesses were visible all season long, yet either ignored or unnoticed. After Tuesday's humiliation, there's no way Guardiola can ignore reality: If he is to be a success at Bayern, he absolutely must adapt and evolve his system so that it plays to Bayern's strengths and counters the strengths of opponents.
Sporting director Matthias Sammer and honorary president Franz Beckenbauer, who while speaking as a pundit on Sky criticized Guardiola in March (via Marca) and again last week (via Eurosport), will surely demand sweeping changes.
Bayern still have one game of significance left to play this season, the DFB-Pokal final against Dortmund. After the Real debacle, it could be a final assessment of Guardiola. Never before has he had to change his tactical approach as he does now, never has he been under such pressure to perform.
The BVB match could decide whether he remains at Bayern coach or is dismissed just one year into his three-year contract.
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