The world is always watching when you’re the head coach of Bayern Munich, but Pep Guardiola has more reason to watch his words closely than ever before. If he needed reminding of this, the media backtrack he was forced into during the squad’s winter training camp will have served him well.
As reported by the Agence France-Presse (h/t the National), Guardiola apologised for confirming that he would coach in England next season but not where, and thus casting uncertainty on the positions of various incumbent Premier League bosses.
It seems silly that clarity is needed, but that’s where Guardiola and Bayern are. Their domestic dominance is not even a question, so every aspect of their performance—and every word that falls from their soon-to-be-erstwhile coach’s mouth—will be examined forensically.
The battle is, of course, about maintaining the high standards which will allow Bayern to make a full tilt for the Champions League title.
Guardiola’s other most celebrated quote during the sojourn in Qatar—“We are not yet ready to win the Champions League” (as reported by Deutsche Welle)—seems to have been taken as defeatist or as an effort to deflate expectation in many quarters. In fact, it is a reminder from Guardiola to his players to be stronger, to fight harder, to ready themselves for the lofty challenges which will quickly arrive, with an in-form Juventus the first hurdle in less than a month.
The jury is out on whether they will be ready enough. As was the case last season, Bayern opened the Ruckrunde—the second half of the Bundesliga campaign—on Friday night, and again struggled to find their best rhythm.
That they travelled back south with three points rather than with their tails between their legs was in no small part due to the quality of the opposition, having faced an improving but limited Hamburg, as opposed to playing a red-hot, Kevin De Bruyne-inspired Wolfsburg 12 months ago.
Yet while Guardiola’s words from after that battering at the Volkswagen Arena still hold true to this year’s resumption (“We need match practice,” he said, via Goal.com), there were reasons for excitement.
A year back or even less, it was pretty much unthinkable that Bayern could thrive and threaten to the fullest without the wide duo of Franck Ribery and (especially) Arjen Robben. On Friday night, the incision of Douglas Costa and Kingsley Coman was the most arresting feature of the champions’ game.
It was something they had to think about, and something that they did think about. The wisdom in the club’s policy has already been confirmed, with Ribery’s latest comeback truncated just before Christmas after a 2014-15 season ruined by injury that drove Guardiola to distraction.
In the case of Robben, his renewed struggle with injuries over the last year is in the forefront of a few minds in the wake of his 32nd birthday.
That sense that Bayern are moving on was reinforced in the last few days with captain Philipp Lahm’s reiteration that he is planning to retire at the end of his current contract term in 2018.
Bayern’s emerging core is a young one. At the Volksparkstadion on Friday, they were driven by Thiago Alcantara—destined to be the team’s fulcrum if he can stay fit—behind the wing pairing of Costa and Coman.
It will be interesting to see how Carlo Ancelotti gets on with this group. Getting the Italian in early to shut down any post-Guardiola lull was important, but guiding the (at least part) regeneration of Bayern will be a different challenge to past jobs.
At Chelsea, he “squeezed a little more toothpaste out of the tube,” as former Blues boss John Hollins described it to this writer back in 2010 by coaxing career-best seasons out of 30-somethings Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard. This echoed his efforts in steering his experienced Milan team to the 2007 Champions League.
There’s plenty of miles to go until Ancelotti’s reign becomes central to Bayern, though, even it is already confirmed. The denouement and epilogue of the Guardiola era are yet to be written, even the internationally accepted line that the success or failure of his tenure will entirely rest on the team's Champions League fate is not the whole truth.
Much of Guardiola’s legacy is already safe. It should not be underestimated just how much the sheer spectacle produced under his charge is cherished by local fans and media, who see the beauty of the football played under the Catalan as a high watermark in Bayern’s history, at least on an aesthetic level.
It may not be fashionable nowadays to suggest football can be enjoyed on a level not entirely conditioned by results, but creating this feeling in an environment meticulously built for success is a not-insignificant achievement.
Bayern’s three-stage plan to create a recognisable ‘brand’ of football, to supplement the club’s image, which started under Louis van Gaal and continued under Jupp Heynckes, has undoubtedly reached its apex under Guardiola. That, already, is his legacy.
Yet as a man who played the vast majority of his career in La Liga, it will not be lost on Guardiola that his Bayern are flirting with the prospect of become their generation’s Real Madrid of the mid- to late-80s. "La Quinta del Buitre" built around Emilio Butragueno and Michel, were one of the most stylish sides to never be able to call themselves European champions.
Butragueno unambiguously described the failure to win the European Cup to this writer as “a scar that never heals” back in 2004.
Guardiola certainly does not want to feel that way, and those who suggest that he might be preoccupied by the prospect of his next challenge (which we expect to be in the Premier League) have no idea of his obsessive nature and his constant striving for perfection.
The injury sustained by Jerome Boateng at Hamburg, which Bayern announced will keep him out for “several weeks,” is a major blow, dredging up memories of the plague of casualties that hobbled through last season’s Champions League. Yet globally, Bayern are stronger.
Besides the additions of Costa and Coman, it’s easy to fool oneself into thinking that Robert Lewandowski has always been this brilliant for Bayern. In fact, he’s far more in rhythm than he was at this point last season, and his double in Friday’s win meant he has already matched his Bundesliga goal tally last season (17).
The quality is in no doubt. All that is ever questioned is whether Bayern can maintain the right intensity. We know that Guardiola has often done that by creating conflict, as a TZ video from a previous camp in Qatar two years go (h/t the Mirror, video contains profanity) reminds us.
It is far more likely that Guardiola and Bayern will feed off the chatter than be cowed by it.