Pep Guardiola Is the Tactical King in 3-Dimensional Chess Game for Bayern Munich

Jonathan Wilson@@jonawilsFeatured ColumnistNovember 20, 2014


Football wasn’t always like this. In fact, it isn’t usually like this. What’s happening at Bayern Munich at the moment is brilliant and perhaps unique: a revolution being played out on global television screens every week.

Pep Guardiola is ferociously intense and, it seems, increasingly prickly, while the hagiographic tone of Marti Perarnau’s recently published book on his first season at Bayern, Pep Confidential, meant there was much rolling of eyeballs.

But the fact is the former Barcelona head coach is operating at the limits of what tactics can achieve.

He is in an avant-garde so far ahead of the main body that it seems, at times, he is playing a different sport.

As Barcelona have bought celebrity players and adopted a quasi-broken team in Guardiola’s wakeseven behind the ball and see what the vaunted front three of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez can dothe focus and ferocity of their pressing has much diminished from their peak.

MANU FERNANDEZ/Associated Press

As Carlo Ancelotti does a remarkable, if not yet entirely convincing job of finding coherence in a jumble of superstars; as the Premier League sideswith the exception of Chelsealive on in their seasons of transition, Bayern are pretty much the only side at the top of the game doing anything tactically radical.

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To watch Guardiola in action on the touchline is to see how quickly his brain works, how he is constantly coming up with new ideas.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Perarnau book is how Guardiola is racked with self-doubt, how he will come up with a plan for how his side should approach a particular game and then rip it up and start again.

At times during matches, he seems to be playing some complicated three-dimensional game of chess in which only he can see the board.

On television, of course, much of what he is saying and doing is lost. Even in stadiums, only a fraction of what he is doing can be understood, but even that sliver is fascinating.

Alastair Grant/Associated Press

For example, when Bayern won 2-0 away at Arsenal last season, Kieran Gibbs, the Arsenal left-back, was injured after 31 minutes and had to be substituted.

Guardiola immediately shifted Arjen Robben from the left flank to join Mario Gotze on the right, doubling up on poor Nacho Monreal.

A substitute coming on will often take a few minutes to adjust to the pace of the game and Guardiola sought to take immediate advantage.

Sure enough, six minutes later, a move down that flank led to Wojciech Szczesny committing the foul that led to him being sent off.

Then, in the second half, once it became clear Mesut Ozil had effectively shut downseemingly both mentally and physically exhaustedGuardiola overloaded on his flank.

And those were just the obvious switches, the ones which could be seen in the chaos of the game without recourse to statistical analysis.

The stream of instructions was constant; Guardiola spent the whole game seeking every possible advantage. That must make him exhausting to play for, yet his players seem to regard him with something approaching adoration.

Matthias Schrader/Associated Press

In every game, it seems, the setup is different. For years, the accepted wisdom has been that the system of the future, the zero point to which tactical evolution was headingat the highest level at leastwas a team with 10 interchangeable midfielders.

Bayern aren’t there yet, but at Roma their formation was almost a 2-7-1, which overwhelmed Rudi Garcia’s team in a swarm of pressing and passing.

That’s what the constant changes of shape are there to do: exploit weaknesses in the opposition’s defensive shape and leave Guardiola’s side best equipped to close down their preferred routes of building attacks when out of possession.

Of course, there are times when it goes wrong, such as against Real Madrid in the second leg of the semi-final of the Champions League last season. In that regard, it’s unhelpful that Bayern are so much better than the rest of the Bundesliga.

But the risk is part of the joy of it. If playing with the sort of sophistication Bayern do were easy, everybody would be doing it. But it’s difficult, and it can go horribly wrong.

And that, of course, is why we should appreciate the efforts of a coach pushing at the limits of the game.


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