Football has always turned on fine margins, but in the superclub era, those margins are growing ever finer. More and more, reputations hinge on one game—and that can mean on one bounce of the ball, on one referee’s call, on one moment of brilliance or one dire mistake.
Bayern Munich are expected to win the Bundesliga. Deloitte's latest Football Money League report into football finance shows their revenues (€474 million) are 69 per cent greater than those of the next wealthiest German club, Borussia Dortmund. If they don’t win the league, it means something has gone wrong (which doesn’t make it easy).
Pep Guradiola arrived in Munich in 2013 after a season in which they had won the treble; he was expected to somehow do something similar but to win it better.
72nd minute: Bayern trail by two goals.— Bleacher Report UK (@br_uk) March 16, 2016
114th minute: Bayern lead by two goals.
Football, bloody hell! ⚽️💯 pic.twitter.com/2psI4AJ17L
He will not be judged on what is likely to be a third successive Bundesliga triumph this season. That was taken as a basic requirement however good Thomas Tuchel’s Dortmund have been.
He will be judged on the style with which he wins it. And in that regard, with his innovative formations and the moments of extreme beauty Bayern have produced, he is scoring highly. But that has become almost a side issue. Europe, more than anything else, is the key.
With 20 minutes remaining on Wednesday and Bayern trailing Juventus 2-0 on the night and 4-2 on aggregate, it seemed Guardiola’s reputation would take a severe blow.
There would have been an irony had the Manuel Pelligrini-led Manchester City, who Guardiola will replace in the summer, progressed further in the UEFA Champions League—just as there was when Jupp Heynckes won it after learning Guardiola would replace him at Bayern.
That, up to a point, shows how ridiculous the financial environment has made modern football. This is Guardiola’s seventh season as a manager. In the first six, he won the league title five times and advanced at least to the Champions League semi-finals each time.
That is an extraordinary level of sustained achievement. Yet so dominant are Bayern in Germany, so great are their financial advantages, that it felt as though one game could see his time in Germany written off as a failure. Anybody can have an off day.
And in the first half on Wednesday, Bayern were off.
David Alaba has perhaps never played as poorly in a Bayern shirt as he did before half-time. Mehdi Benatia looked clumsy and nervous. Manuel Neuer’s penchant for playing out of his goal, rather than the advantage it usually is, came to seem absurdly reckless. Xabi Alonso was hesitant and irritated. Arturo Vidal, Thomas Muller and Franck Ribery slipped into the sort of petulance that hints at a sense of entitlement—an unfortunate trait that predates Guardiola at Bayern but was also a feature at times of his Barcelona tenure.
Juventus didn’t just go 2-0 up; before half-time, they also had a goal wrongly ruled out for offside, and only a combination of Neuer and the post denied Juan Cuadrado what would have been his second goal of the night.
There were a number of near-misses in the second half and even at 4-2 in extra time. Defensively, Bayern were in shambles. What was most alarming, and what will encourage those who face Bayern in the quarter-finals, is it looked as though Bayern would be undone by an inexcusable softness for the third season running in the Champions League (although that is to cast last season’s defeat to a brilliant Barcelona in the worst possible light).
This, it was hard not to think, is what happens when you win your league so easily. The style becomes more important than the substance. Why Juventus might be immune from that is intriguing—the result perhaps of their dreadful start this season, a sense Italy has a point to make in Europe and the legacy of Antonio Conte’s furious commitment not merely to winning the Scudetto but obliterating the opposition.
They don’t like to be pressed. Push hard and push high in controlled bursts and you will rattle Bayern. Close down Neuer's options and he can be turned from sui generis genius into something not far from a liability.
Their high line and their commitment to getting men forward to support the attack means they can be vulnerable to direct running counters—something Angel Di Maria demonstrated two years ago as Alvaro Morata did this season.
Massimiliano Allegri has offered the blueprint; it’s up to other clubs to follow it.
Getting the tactics right isn’t enough, however. Bayern are not as good as Guardiola’s Barca in some absolute sense. But they are flexible, and their attacking options are more varied.
According to WhoScored.com, Bayern had 75 per cent of possession. And there were times, in the second half particularly, when it appeared they were struggling in the way Guardiola’s Barcelona could struggle.
Bayern 4-2 Juventus FT(AET): Shots(OT) 26(7) - 16(11), Possession 75% - 25%, Rating 7.32 - 6.78 https://t.co/4iqb6DOv1U— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) March 16, 2016
Against a packed defence, against two banks of four, they ended up passing sideways. The buildup was too slow—something that clearly agitated Guardiola on the touchline—which meant everything was too horizontal. There was a lack of depth to attacks.
It’s hard to generate directness when the opposition essentially lies flat. But as Juve became less able to spring forward in those bursts of high pressing that had so enlivened their first half, as they wearied at the constant effort of tracking Bayern, it became apparent this was not Barcelona vs. Inter 2010 or Barcelona vs. Chelsea 2012 redux. Bayern had the option of whipping in crosses.
That is the major problem for the defending team. Against a side that passes endlessly, even one with a dribbler of the capacity of Lionel Messi, it’s relatively safe to sit deep, denying the opposition space in dangerous areas. But if you’re defending against a team crossing to a player as good in the air as Robert Lewandowski, you need to push out and prevent him meeting crosses that will allow him to head at goal.
Twenty-seven of Bayern’s 41 crosses didn’t find their target, per Squawka. But vitally, one of Douglas Costa’s and one of Kingsley Coman’s did, yielding goals for Lewandowski and Muller.
So Bayern—flexible, varied and vulnerable—advanced, and Guardiola is spared the sort of storm of criticism an exit in the last 16 would inevitably have provoked. But while it’s ludicrous so much should be invested in one game, it's also true Bayern are unlikely to get away with defending so poorly again.