On Wednesday, Mario Mandzukic showed Croatia just what they were missing in his absence in their World Cup opener against Brazil. After serving a suspension for the 3-1 loss to the Seleccao, the striker scored twice and played a big role in a third goal as Niko Kovac's side hammered Cameroon 4-0.
Mandzukic's performance was no surprise for those who have followed his career. He first rose to international prominence two years ago at Euro 2012 and earned a transfer to Bayern Munich, where he's since scored big goal after big goal for the Roten. He is, by any objective account, a very valuable striker. But curiously, it appears that Bayern can't get rid of him fast enough.
A year ago, Mandzukic was a club hero. He'd displaced Mario Gomez, who'd scored 80 goals in his previous two seasons, in the starting lineup and redefined the striker position with his tenacious physical play. The Croatian forward was not as prolific as his predecessor, but his relentless pressing made opportunities for his teammates and he seemed to find the net at the key moments—his opener in the 2013 Champions League final a particularly memorable example. Mandzukic had it all: He was a favorite of coach Jupp Heynckes and loved by fans for his unwavering commitment.
Things changed drastically for Mandzukic after Pep Guardiola joined Bayern in the summer. Shortly after praising Heynckes for building the foundation of his team and vowing to make "very few" changes (via Marca), the Spaniard flipped the entire system upside-down. Mandzukic often found himself benched or substituted early, with the trainer preferring Mario Gotze, Thomas Muller and even veteran Claudio Pizarro in the striker position.
Rumors about Mandzukic falling out with Guardiola were present throughout the season, but despite the apparent bad blood, the striker contributed directly to 36 goals (26 goals, 10 assists) in all competitions, according to Transfermarkt. This tally was only exceeded by Thomas Muller, and Mandzukic's limited minutes meant that his contribution resulted in a goal every 92 minutes.
The final nail in the coffin of Mandzukic's Bayern career was hammered in May, when Guardiola opted to omit him from the squad to face Borussia Dortmund in the DFB-Pokal final. The coach was at risk of being found guilty of hubris on a staggering level, but fortune smiled in his favor and the Bavarians took the spoils with a 2-0 win. The result glossed over the fact that Bayern struggled in attack and only managed to force extra time after a legitimate BVB goal was not awarded. Had Bayern lost, serious questions would have been asked of Guardiola's decision that under no circumstances he would use Mandzukic.
Since the season's end, Mandzukic has come out publicly to request a transfer, citing (via Sportske Novosti, h/t Reuters) irreconcilable differences between his abilities and Guardiola's philosophy. The writing was perhaps on the wall when Robert Lewandowski's signing was confirmed in January, but Mandzukic's statement all but confirmed his departure.
Bayern will pay Lewandowski well to bring the brilliance he showed at Dortmund to the Allianz Arena, and his versatility and ability to play the ball (he was used behind a main striker in his first season at Dortmund) will make him a better fit in Guardiola's system. But the Pole is not simply an improved version of Mandzukic. To the contrary, his replacement of the ex-Wolfsburg man will actually see Bayern lose the option of a "Plan B" if Guardiola's number one game plan does not work out.
In the Champions League, especially the knockout rounds, Bayern often struggled to break down their opponents simply with passing and dribbling their way through opposing defenses. As a supremely physical target-man, Mandzukic offered them another option. When Bayern needed a goal in the first leg of the quarter-final with Manchester United, Mandzukic came off the bench and instantly made his mark, rising to set up Bastian Schweinsteiger’s equalizer as only he among Bayern players could. When Patrice Evra stunned Bayern in the second leg, it was Mandzukic who equalized within two minutes.
Throughout the season, Mandzukic's aerial supremacy produced goals for Bayern when his fellow attackers were stumped and couldn't find a way through defenses that instinctively played deep to deny the likes of Franck Ribery and Mario Gotze room to dribble and quick-pass their way into a scoring position. There were many times in which the German giants would just resort to crossing the ball towards Mandzukic, hoping for the best. And he very often delivered.
What Bayern will get in Lewandowski is a striker who perhaps is more compatible with Guardiola in that he is much more comfortable on the ball than his comparison, but who is not really a "Plan B". Lewandowski is a very physical forward but not as much as Mandzukic. And despite his aggressive, pressing play, Lewandowski rarely scores from headers and is not the target-man that the taller Mandzukic is. The swap is not a like-for-like and instead pushes Bayern further in the direction of the "one-trick pony" that was Guardiola's Barcelona.
Guardiola has never lacked confidence in his views on football, and will live or die by his philosophy. He undoubtedly will make some slight tactical adjustments this summer to make his team more competitive in the Champions League.
But with Mandzukic he had a means to check himself, a "Plan B" that he often used when opponents figured out a way to shut him down. With that option soon to be removed from the table, time will tell whether the trainer is found guilty of hubris or if he manages to escape again.
The distinction will be made on a knife's edge.
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