As Pep Guardiola embarks on his summer holidays, he will have plenty of food for thought when he reflects on his first season at Bayern Munich. On the surface it would seem to have been a remarkably successful one. His team captured a league and cup double, and progressed to the semi-finals of the Champions League.
For any other side this would be seen as a successful season, but this is no ordinary club. With probably the strongest squad in Europe coupled with huge financial resources, success and trophies are customary for the club nicknamed FC Hollywood.
The job was always going to be a hugely tough one. Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern had swept all before them with a physical counter-punching style of football played at a relentless high intensity. The question for Guardiola was simple - how does one improve on perfection? His remit was to build on the strong foundations left in place by his predecessor, while adding his own ideas to make Bayern an even more dangerous and well-rounded side.
When appointed he said all the right things about keeping the identity of Heynckes’ all-conquering side. In his first press conference as manager he told the media ‘I have to adapt and not vice versa. There is no need to change much here.’ However, if Guardiola is honest with himself he will admit that he tried to change things too fast. He seemed to dismiss the old system and start again from scratch with his own ideas.
It is one thing to implement a tika-taka possession based passing style at Barcelona. After all this is a club that has had that brand of football ingrained into its D.N.A. ever since Johan Cruyff prowled the dugout. But to do so at Bayern, a team that had achieved such tremendous success with a significantly different style of football, presents a wildly different string of challenges.
Despite sweeping all before them in the Bundesliga, the suspicion was that Guardiola’s Bayern could be slow in possession, and lacked the cutting edge that had been the hallmark of the treble winning side. In March, after a 1-1 daw with Arsenal in the Champions League, Franz Beckenbauer, president of Bayern, complained that ‘They’ll become like Barcelona, who are unwatchable because they pass the ball backwards on the goal line.’
The 5-0 aggregate loss to Real Madrid in the semi-finals sent shock waves around Europe. Significantly, it showcased the weaknesses in Guardiola’s vision for his Bayern side. For all their possession, they were unable to fashion many clear-cut chances in the face of an organised defensive shape from Real. And when Madrid got hold of the ball, they were able to use their pace to brutally expose the high defensive line that is a hallmark of all Guardiola sides.
Bayern legend Lothar Matthäus was forthright in his appraisal of his old team’s problems: ‘You cannot get them to play Catalan here. There were too many changes. The ship begun to go off course.’ Even Guardiola himself admitted after this defeat that he still had to work to win over the players to his vision of football, telling the press ‘I must convince the players and coach them that way.’
However, one must not go too far in criticism of Guardiola. After all, he broke record after record, winning the title earlier than had ever been done before. The tailing off in form at the end of the season was more due to players subconsciously relaxing than any tactical faults. But the stark reality is that this season’s Bundesliga offered no viable threats.
Their nearest rivals, Borussia Dortmund, were crippled with injuries. Bundesliga success is a prerequisite for any Bayern manager. It is expected, rather than hoped for. It is in Europe that the manager is judged.
For perhaps the first time in his trophy laden managerial career, Guardiola finds himself under pressure going into next season. He must find a way to combine his specific style of football with the German way.
Bayern is a club that sets extraordinary high standards, and is not shy in dismissing managers who fail to live up to them. Guardiola will be hard at work to ensure he does not become one of them.
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