Ken Early: Guardiola failed in his main task at Bayern
Bayern’s idea was to dominate the Champions League as Guardiola’s Barcelona had
Pep Guardiola: let’s not pretend what happened at Bayern was anything other than a bitter disappointment for everyone involved. Photo: Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images
‘I’ve done my best here,” said Pep Guardiola after losing his third and last Champions League semi-final with FC Bayern. “But if you say that I had to win the Champions League, then I’ve failed. Go ahead and write that I have failed.”
Actually, the verdicts have been rather restrained. Last week, when Atlético Madrid knocked Bayern out, the crowd in Munich didn’t boo. They had too much respect for the effort they had seen from their team. But the fact that Guardiola and Bayern tried doesn’t mean they haven’t failed.
Guardiola’s Bayern dominated the Bundesliga so thoroughly that the three leagues they won under him rank among the least exciting title races in German history. But Bayern did not hire him to win the Bundesliga. They have 80 per cent more money than their closest rivals, Borussia Dortmund, and keep buying their best players.
As Felix Magath pointed out: “In these circumstances it would have been more surprising if he had not won the league.”
No, Bayern’s idea was to dominate the Champions League as Guardiola’s Barcelona had done. They wanted to stamp the name of Bayern indelibly on the era. Instead, 2013-16 will go down as an age of Spanish dominance unprecedented since the start of the 1960s.
Guardiola is certainly one of those guys who seems to have it all, and when such a figure suffers a setback there is often more schadenfreude than sympathy. And Guardiola has had an incredible career; the charge that he is “a failure” is absurd.
But the charge that he has failed at Bayern is not. And the notion that any criticism of the maestro must be rooted in envy of his perfection is laughable. Guardiola was good at Bayern, but he was far from perfect.
For a start, a perfect coach would not have been so quick to point the finger at others when things went wrong.
Marti Perarnau’s book Pep Confidential records that Guardiola spent the night of Bayern’s 4-0 defeat to Real Madrid in the 2014 semi-final cursing himself – not for having lost 4-0, but for having allowed his players to talk him into an excessively-attacking approach. This, he reckoned, had been the biggest mistake of his career. Ostensibly taking all the blame, he found a subtle way to share it with the players.
In 2015, it was the doctors’ turn to let Guardiola down. There had been rumours of discord between Guardiola and Bayern’s medical department for weeks by the time of the match at Bayer Leverkusen in April, when the coach reacted to Mehdi Benatia’s injury by turning around to his bench and ostentatiously showering the medics with sarcastic applause. A few days later, the medical department quit en masse, saying they were no longer prepared to put up with Guardiola blaming them for bad results.
Their replacements have fared little better. Guardiola seems unwilling to accept that injuries are part of the game. Last week, Bild reported that he had again lost his temper with Bayern’s doctors, demanding to know why they couldn’t get Arjen Robben fit when Atletico Madrid’s doctors had got Diego Godín back in action after barely a week out injured.
The coach reacted to that report by blaming a mole who, he claimed, had blabbed dressing room secrets “in order to hit me”. Disagreements in football are normal, he said, but usually they stay in the dressing room. A pity that last year he couldn’t remember his own rule about disagreements staying in-house, instead of publicly humiliating his medical team in a packed stadium.
These lapses could have been forgiven if Guardiola’s football genius had made the difference in more of the key moments.
“They say you defend well if you have 11 men in the box, like Bayern had with Trapattoni and Hitzfeld,” Guardiola said. “But my idea is completely different. I like to defend by playing the game 40 metres away from our goal.”
Bayern would play this way against mediocre German sides, winning easily and barely conceding a shot. But the defining international image of Guardiola’s Bayern will be of a superstar of world football – Ronaldo, or Bale, or Messi, or Neymar, or Suarez, or Griezmann – eluding through a high Bayern line and bearing down on Manuel Neuer. In the big matches, that 40 metres of space always seemed to work against Bayern.
There was one sure way for Guardiola to avoid the charge of failure. It was to stick around at Bayern until he had finished the job he had been hired to do. Instead, he joined Manchester City, who offered him more money and more control. At City he will face very different problems from the ones he faced at Bayern, and he can prove new dimensions of his greatness.
But let’s not pretend what happened at Bayern was anything other than a bitter disappointment for everyone involved.