It will be hard for any Bayern Munich supporter to find a silver lining after exiting the Champions League the way they did against Real Madrid on Tuesday.
The 4-0 loss in the second semifinal leg was their worst at home since losing to Arminia Bielefeld in the Bundesliga in 1979. It was also the first time they have lost by four goals in European competition.
Sure, Real Madrid were the favorites after their 1-0 win at home in the first leg, but it was the manner in which Pep Guardiola’s team performed that leaves a feeling of abject failure and disappointment.
Yet the result should not be turned into a referendum on Bayern’s season which, this performance aside, can largely be considered a success.
Bayern won the league with seven weeks to spare, a league record, and they are also in the German Cup final. A domestic double and a semifinal run in the Champions League is a rare accomplishment, even for clubs as big as Bayern.
The expectations were enormously high to begin with. Bayern’s treble-winning campaign combined with the arrival of the most successful coach in the modern era brought with it great expectations of sustained success. Not just domestically, but in Europe first and foremost.
From the beginning, however, Guardiola mentioned that it would take time for him to put his stamp on Jupp Heynckes’ squad. When Bayern won the league it was Heynckes whom Guardiola credited.
Indeed, Guardiola inherited a squad that even ten months into his reign still has Heynckes firmly inscribed into it. Maybe not on the surface but underneath Bayern are still adjusting to Pep’s vision.
Yes, Guardiola began implementing his ideas firmly, and many of them have taken shape in the squad and how they carry out his instructions on the pitch. Bayern’s possession game has become even tighter, and a greater emphasis is placed on retaining the ball and pressing high up the pitch.
That said, the shortcomings of these changes that have risen to the forefront in the last month should not be confused solely with Guardiola's vision for the team. Instead, it should be an accepted understanding of what is still a transition period.
As talented and deep as Bayern’s squad is, Guardiola has had to adapt to a different football culture in Germany. He has had to compensate for several key injuries throughout the season, find a way to keep his players motivated after winning everything there was and the league earlier than anyone else and along the way get them to fully subscribe to his methodology.
Perhaps Philipp Lahm’s post-match comments, per Bayern's official website, sum up the strain of that transition perfectly, "I don’t think we played well tactically in the first half. The game was too open. That’s fundamentally not the way we play our football."
Last week, despite losing, Bayern controlled the game. They were in it for 90 minutes. The second leg effectively ended as a contest in the first half. It could very well be that Bayern players are still finding their feet against an opponent of Madrid’s calibre, something that they have not really been tested with this season.
Or perhaps it is simply a matter of the players lacking the necessary psychological components to match the ambition of yet another final. Bayern’s chief executive, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge alluded to as much after the game, per Bayern's official website:
We didn't have quite enough passion to cause our opponents serious problems. You get games like these, but we need to hold our nerve. We've been a little spoiled because we made the final twice in a row, and three times in the last four years.
The level of focus, form and fortune required to reach consecutive finals, never mind win the competition, is often overlooked in moments like these. But there is a reason no club in over 20 years has won back-to-back Champions League titles.
In a sense, Guardiola is a victim of Bayern’s recent success, and expectations of immediate replication of that success across the board might have been a bit unrealistic.
But maybe the most important lesson from this loss was to put a spotlight on some necessary adjustments on a seemingly perfect squad. If this Bayern team is not yet fully Guardiola’s then some changes need to happen to make it so.
In Thiago and Mario Gotze, Guardiola brought in two players in the summer that very much fit his system and style of play. Next season we may see a transition away from the reliance on players like Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben and Bastian Schweinsteiger and with it more playing time for Gotze and Thiago.
But if a team can set a record for the longest unbeaten run in league history, set a record for most consecutive Champions League wins and have a coach with the best start in club history, and do all that in a transition year, then surely things are not as bad as they appear.
The big picture certainly favors a more optimistic outlook on Bayern’s season than perceived in the immediate aftermath of their elimination. The Madrid result is but a blip in what can be considered another successful year for the club.
As Bayern have done before, and will inevitably do again, they will accept the outcome, look inside themselves and analyze where the adjustments have to be made to ensure they improve and progress.
You can guarantee that somewhere on Saebner Strasse, Guardiola is methodically watching tapes of the game and taking notes.
Follow Cristian on twitter @cnyari
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