Guardiola’s Bayern still a work in progress
Bayern project can be cast as a narrow failure in its first two seasons
Pep Guardiola speaks to Lionel Messi at half-time during the Champions League semi-final at the Allianz Arena. Photo: Adam Pretty/Bongarts/Getty Images
“Raus mit applaus!” was the headline in the German tabloid Abendzeitung after Bayern Munich’s energetic but ultimately rather meek and bloodless exit from the Champions League. Beneath the headline (“Out with a shout!”), Pep Guardiola could be seen in familiar professorial pose, gesturing urgently at some minor detail of the grand plan - who knows, perhaps even one of the great yawning Sunday league-style gaps through the middle of his zanily configured defence.
It is easy to win every game from the safety of the pundits’ sofa, in José Mourinho’s formulation, just as few could hope to emerge unshaken from a meeting with Lionel Messi in full son-of-Zeus mode. But there will be a wider urge to talk Guardiola down a little now that his Bayern project can finally be cast as a narrow failure in its first two seasons.
The cult of Pep has after all been a constant counterpoint to his many successes. Much has been made over the past five years of Guardiola’s shining principles, his self-flagellating meticulousness, with awed descriptions of details as minor as his habit of eating only a few small cubes of cheese on matchdays. Perhaps, with football’s spotlight now shifting elsewhere, we can look forward to equally gushing paeans to Luis Enrique’s toast soldiers, Carlo Ancelotti’s Bombay mix and Garry Monk’s Bounty bar.
What is clear as Bayern prepare to reinforce an ageing team is that adversity can have a clarifying effect. In many ways Guardiola has become more rather than less fascinating with the revelation across successive semi-final defeats (combined score: 10-3 to the other guys) that those zealously followed principles of possession-based attacking football can leave his teams doubly vulnerable to more powerful opponents.
Real Madrid last year and Barcelona this are perhaps the only occasions in his coaching career Guardiola has faced more technically gifted opposition. Both times his Bayern have looked unbalanced, whirling about in a state of some confusion, like all-conquering Dalek warriors confronted for the first time with a bump in the carpet.
Guardiola was gracious in defeat in Munich. The most interesting part of his post-match press conference came when he took a breath and said of his own team, with some feeling: “We still don’t know . . . how good these players are.” It was a moment when the insistence that he will stay at Bayern this summer seemed particularly convincing. Guardiola is nothing if not a “process trainer”, a high-grade untangler of knots. What seems likely to keep him anywhere is the allure of solving a problem. And Bayern are now finally in the state they would ideally have reached already when he took over: a little frayed, a few moving parts exposed, as close as a modern-day uber-club is likely to get to a state of disrepair.
The liberating effect of defeat is that suddenly the manager has some space into which he can grow. Guardiola has often spoken of his admiration for Alex Ferguson’s ability to keep renewing his team and this is what is required as a well-funded but still ticklishly poised process of rebuilding gets under way.
Encouragingly, Guardiola has some form in this regard. At Barcelona he geared up for his best period by getting shot of Ronaldinho, Deco, Samuel Eto’o and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Something similar may be required to refresh this ageing champion team. Xabi Alonso, aged 33 and with more than 500 games under his belt, simply cannot run as he did once. Franck Ribéry is 32, Bastian Schweinsteiger a high-mileage 30. Philipp Lahm and Arjen Robben remain top-notch players but they are both 31. There is even a suggestion of a problem with Thomas Müller, who has had a fine season and remains soldered to his boyhood club but who, with Robert Lewandowski also playing, offers a Guardiola a jarringly un-Pep combination of two large, angular attackers.
There have already been some good signings, notably Thiago Alcântara and Juan Bernat, and Bayern have been linked with a busload more. Of those that chime with Guardiola’s methods, Antoine Griezmann from Atlético Madrid would offer the right level of speed and craft out wide, and his club-mate Koke some familiar Iberian pass-mastery. Sergio Ramos may be a more fanciful Madrid connection but he would be perfect as a mobile, ball?playing centre-half to help that risk-and-reward defensive shape make sense. On a similarly hypothetical note - there is no suggestion of it happening - a player of Eden Hazard’s gifts and relative youth would also be a perfect Bayern signing, a wide attacker with the speed and intelligence to respond to Guardiola’s liberating influence.
There are other options. Career Pep-ists will also be keen to see him bring through some talent from the juniors. At which point the names of players such as Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, the Danish central midfield prodigy, or Mitchell Weiser, a skilful and adaptable full-back, are usually mentioned. From an emotional point of view there would be no better way for Guardiola to refresh his team and his own legend than with some successful internal promotion.
Otherwise, it is in the basic shape and intent of his Bayern team that Guardiola may look to expand and improve. From the pat of the head offered to Messi at half-time at the Allianz Arena, it seems clear enough that Guardiola is still dazzled by, hugely proud of and basically a little goofy over the player he considers the best of all time. Understandably so. There is so much that is thrillingly good in that three-man Barcelona frontline, which has a chance now to rank its achievements alongside the best of the modern age, from Ronaldinho, Eto’o and Messi, to Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo, to the gold standard of Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Ronaldo.
However, maybe you have to fear, or even resent Messi a little, to configure your defence and midfield in a way that bites sufficiently at his ankles. Certainly while Spain’s big two remain this strong, Guardiola will need either to ratchet his team up to a similar level or find an alternative gear, a way of playing that spoils rather than competes with an opponent’s strengths.
Guardiola will have considered all this. In Munich he seemed energised not enervated by the prospect of getting to work on a team who are clearly in need of a little transitional working-over.