Ken Early: Laughing Germans may spell the end for Guardiola

Barcelona defeat puts pressure on manager set up to struggle by Henyckes’s treble

Many neutrals find Chelsea a hard club to like, but one night in May 2012, they were briefly Germany’s second-favourite team.

Chelsea were playing Bayern Munich in the Champions League final in Bayern’s Allianz Arena. The match was regarded as a formality by most of the home support.

As the teams lined out on the field, Bayern’s fans produced a giant mosaic that read: “Our city, our stadium, OUR CUP!”

A couple of hours and several Bayern penalty misses later, it was Chelsea's cup, and the suspended John Terry was cavorting in his full kit. Scattered across that field of desolation, the shattered Bayern players lay prostrate with despair.


It is impossible to overstate how funny this spectacle was to the rest of German football. The Bundesliga bullies humiliated in their own stadium. And nobody felt the sting of that humiliation more than club president, Uli Hoeness. Within hours of the defeat, Hoeness had made up his mind. The manager, Jupp Heynckes, had blown it. Bayern needed to change.

Beyond redemption

They started the next season in superb form, winning 13 of the first 17 league matches. Though Heynckes didn’t know it, he was already beyond redemption. Three days before the end of the winter break, Bayern announced that he would be replaced in the summer by Pep Guardiola.

It looked a masterstroke by Hoeness. He had hired the world’s most-respected coach, the architect of the brilliant, futuristic Barcelona team that had dominated Europe for years. Hoeness believed that Guardiola could take Bayern over the threshold of European domination that had been beyond Heynckes.

For his part, Guardiola had cleverly positioned himself at the helm of football’s coming force, a club that looked better set up than almost any of its continental rivals to dominate the next couple of years.

Then Heynckes threw a spanner in the works by winning the treble.

The greatest trophy haul in Bayern’s history cast Hoeness’s plans in a different light. Guardiola was coming to a team that had proved it didn’t need him. The challenge was no longer to take them to the next level, but to maintain the standards set by his suddenly illustrious predecessor.


His new players had won everything there was to win, but Guardiola hoped to motivate them with the challenge of learning a new style of play. He set about their re-education with the intensity that is perhaps his defining quality. The European champions were subjected to a new, more demanding style of coaching. Pep will sometimes stop training every few seconds to correct mistakes – an interventionist approach that some players appreciate more than others.

We know this thanks to Pep Confidential, a book by journalist Martí Perarnau, whom Guardiola allowed to chronicle that first season. One of the ways in which Perarnau tries to show how Guardiola is different from most coaches is by revealing his elite social connections. This is a football manager who talks tactics with Garry Kasparov and swaps ideas on innovation with elBulli chef, Ferran Adrià.

Another of Guardiola’s pals is the Columbia university economist Xavier Sala-i-Martin, who provides one of the most interesting insights in the book: “Pep wants to prove to himself that he is capable of playing like Barça, without the players that he had there. I’m not talking in terms of playing style. It’s more about his ability to dominate matches, to be the superior team, the one with total authority over the game. He wants to show that he can build another, equally dominant team.”

That ambition remains unfulfilled. This was the subtext to José Mourinho's remarks last Friday, to the effect that any manager lucky enough to have Lionel Messi could win the Champions League.

Mourinho also claimed that certain clubs dominated their leagues to such an extent that you could put the kitman in charge and they’d still win the title. Bayern clearly fall into this category, which is why nobody in Germany was taking Guardiola very seriously when he insisted on Friday that a campaign in which his team won the league and reached the semi-finals of the cup and Champions League had to be considered a “super, super season”.

Guardiola does not lose often – 21 per cent of the matches he’s lost at Bayern have been Champions League semi-finals – but when he does he takes it hard. Last season, he was devastated after losing 5-0 to Real Madrid in the European semi-final, blaming himself, Perarnau tells us, for a “monumental f**k-up”.

The match last Wednesday against Barcelona was not really like that. For 75 minutes, Bayern mostly got it right. Then Messi took control, and Guardiola was a powerless spectator.

But the fact that this humiliation was not of his making does not make it any less real. There was an indication of Guardiola’s defensive mood in his question to the press: “How many times have Bayern won the treble? Just once. Just once.”

He might sometimes wonder where Bayern get such an inflated opinion of themselves. He could have pointed out that they have won just two of the last 38 European Cups. But the statistics can’t drown out the sound of the rest of Germany laughing. And no Bayern coach survives that sound for long.