Pep Guardiola – Third time’s the charm


Stepping into his third season in charge of FC Barcelona, the wundercoach Guardiola was seemingly faced with a huge task of rebuilding the squad under his command. High profile departures like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thierry Henry, Yaya Toure all cast into doubt the immediate future of Barcelona’s sporting success. In hindsight we now know just how inconsequential those departures were as Pep Guardiola finally had the chance to truly mould the team in his own image. And what an image it was, as Barcelona once more won the Champions League in one of the most dominant final displays in recent memory.

If his tenure at Bayern so far has proven anything, it is that comparing his time at Barcelona and his time at Bayern should be done with extreme caution. The man, decried by a few as a proponent of „tiki-taka“ (a term he has voiced his distaste of), has proven again and again his tactical flexibility when faced with a new league, roster and an entirely different footballing atmosphere. Yet when trying to tell his fortune for the season to come, one must try to seek out a few parallels from his time with Barca.

Firstly and foremostly, the transfer policy is fundamentally different in Bavaria than it was in Catalunya. In Barcelona, Guardiola was frequently in the middle of power struggles and often his plans got caught in the fallout, Yaya Toure and Dmytro Chygrynskiy being notable casualties as Guardiola later admitted his desire to keep them players. This has not been the case at Bayern – despite a track record of discrepancies between „coach“ players and „board“ players (the volatile van Gaal period brings examples of Thomas Kraft and Luca Toni), the current Bayern board headed by Karl-Heinz Rummenigge has seemingly been nothing but accommodating of Guardiola and his desires.

This then leaves us with the deduction that the moves Bayern undertakes in the transfer market correspond to Pep Guardiola’s tactical plans. This certainly seems the case when viewed in the context of last season – Robert Lewandowski and Juan Bernat were immediately instated as first-team regulars, and the same can be said of Xabi Alonso, although we’ll touch upon whether or not this was planned in the first place. The two major acquisitions of this transfer window – Douglas Costa and Arturo Vidal – definitely point towards a general need to up the tempo and stretch play in Bayern’s overall game plan, even more so when one takes into context the departure of Bastian Schweinsteiger, a player of immense talent but with a tendency to slow down games and drop far too deep.

The way the roster has now been assembled also brings up another point – that Guardiola has further learned from his shortcomings over the last few seasons. The major downfall of his first year in charge of Bayern, the failure to control his dressing room and the subsequent crash against Real Madrid in the semifinals of the Champions League, seems now an impossible prospect as the main troublemaker in Mario Mandzukic (who has already moved on from the club he was only just sold to) and one of the possible „senior players“ who likely demanded the change in tactics, Schweinsteiger, have moved on from the club.  With Toni Kroos, the question wasn’t really as much in whether or not he was willing to work with Guardiola’s instructions but rather of would he still be there to do it the next season (and as we now know, he wouldn’t, having moved on to Real Madrid). His shortcoming in the second season – an overreliance on injured talent in Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben, David Alaba, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Javi Martinez and Thiago – also seems to have been tended to, with squad depth that is incomparable to seasons prior and a major upheaval in the medical department down at Säbener Strasse.

In general, though, the real strength of the roster that Guardiola can rely on this season is the variety of options in his disposal. Being bullied into a system by an unruly dressing room or an injury crisis seem unlikely, and as such, the combinations and permutations Guardiola, the notorious perfectionist, can come up with seem myriad in number. The lone weak chink in Bayern’s is the fact that there is only one bona fide striker in the squad, but Robert Lewandowski’s unparalleled all-round game up top should cover for it.

Whatever the individual gameplan designed for an opponent, a few traits can nonetheless be predicted from Guardiola’s plan for the season. The first is his eccentric interpretation of the defensive line. While teams are catching on to the fact that Guardiola favours a 3-man defense very high up the pitch, most do not understand why. His tendency to build play in a system where a defensive midfielder drops between the centerbacks while fullbacks bomb forward was evident in his time at Barcelona and, at times, in his first season at Bayern. However, at Barcelona, he did not possess a back line as blessed in both pace and ball-playing ability as he now does at Bayern. The immense talent of Carles Puyol allowed him to cope, but a Guardiola defender he was not.

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The five main options Guardiola has developed for his centerback positions – David Alaba, Jerome Boateng, Holger Badstuber, Medhi Benatia and Javi Martinez – are all exceptional passers of the ball, and, with a few slight exceptions, alert and/or agile enough to play in a high defensive line. Once again, the wealth of choice he has at the back allows him to implement a build-up system few others have ever had the chance to. Glimpses of this were seen last season, as whenever David Alaba or Jerome Boateng were fielded as the wide centerbacks, they loved occasionally going forward into midfield, creating overlaps and zonal numerical superiorities. Benatia and Badstuber are also capable of doing this, albeit with a bit less pace and purpose.

The player in the middle to tie it all together would be Javi Martinez. A key cog in the system that won Bayern the treble a few years ago, Martinez’ ball-winning abilities and quick eye for passing will once again be an integral part of Bayern’s buildup system. As the central defender flanked by more adventurous wide centerbacks, Martinez can use his physicality and superb ability to anticipate forward balls to quickly nip counterattacks in the bud, ensuring that long balls by the opposition cannot catch the Bayern team off-guard. He should also count on Manuel Neuer’s aggressive positioning outside his box, which is another key component of a high defensive line.

This ties together with the general defensive philosophy Guardiola is trying to cultivate. The concept of a pressing game has been dear to Pep ever since his very first games as a coach, but the increased physicality and aggression of the Bundesliga has been another challenge as well as an opportunity. Bayern’s pressing game was first brought about by Jupp Heynckes, but without the tactical nuance Guardiola is trying to set in. Heynckes’ job was to make the primadonnas, so accustomed to the biggest wages and trophy hauls in Germany, work for possession. Guardiola is now trying to make them do so with purpose.

A lot has been said about Bayern’s perceived inability to deal with long balls over the top. One key element missing from the formula has already been mentioned – Javi Martinez worked superbly as a central defender a year ago in the DFB-Pokal final against Dortmund. However, last seasons injury crisis had another, subtler effect than the lack of options in the first XI. It also led to the forward line being overplayed with little to no rotation – a fatal flaw in a season following the World Cup. As a result, the players responsible for the first actions in the defensive phase, the forward players, were, at times, sluggish and tired. Without sufficient intensity in pressing up front, opposition players can pick out their pass far more easily, leaving the defenders exposed. This is something Guardiola is trying to avoid, having witnessed how Bayern’s defenders coped with one-on-one situations during the crucial Champions League run last season. Therefore, and rather counterintuitively, the addition of Douglas Costa in particular is a very effective remedy to Bayern’s defensive woes. You can catch all the Champions League action on Skysports ,use Sky Contact to book your package now.

We’ve discussed the issues Bayern has had in the defensive side of the game – namely, lack of players and fitness – and a few of these can also be attributed as contributing to the impotence of Bayern build-up and attack in key moments during the last season. Xabi Alonso was a huge culprit, as despite his considerable talent in passing the ball he was frequently found to be too slow both in possession and without it. The lack of alternatives for his position, coupled with his own declining fitness, led to fatal mistakes like the one in Porto. Alonso is still a bit of an enigma in this regard – was Pep truly playing Alonso because he was the perfect fit for the regista role or did he simply have no other perceivedly better alternative. The injuries of the Spanish duo of Martinez and Thiago and the purchase of Vidal seem to indicate the latter.

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With Xabi Alonso likely to be phased out and his passing role to be distributed amongst the centerbacks and midfielders in equal measure, it seems that the central midfield will be marshalled by another Spanish-speaking duo – Thiago and Vidal. The two are, in the sense of the classic German definition of the Doppelsechs, very well complementing each other, but considering the system around them, their roles will be much more varied and versatile. The two bring finesse as well as aggression to the midfield, ensuring a perfect balance of power and beauty. Bayern’s central axis will be fittingly centered around Martinez, Thiago and Vidal – the MTV to rival their contemporaries BBC and MSN.

Out wide Bayern has a rather assymmetrical setup. As Philipp Lahm will no longer be needed in central midfield, he is very likely to be shifted out wide again, but not as we are accustomed to seeing him – instead he will adopt a wide midfielder role, staying tucked in unless needed to overlap on the flank. The need to play a false“ midfielder in this role on the right has been demonstrated by Pep’s few experiments with Sebastian Rode and Pierre–Emile Højbjerg filling the same duties. The reason Guardiola can use a tucked-in wide player on the right is having possibly the best winger in the game today, Arjen Robben, stationed ahead of the traditional wingback position. In fact Bayern now have two left-footed explosive wingers with Douglas Costa joining the club. Being supplied and assisted by runs from Vidal, Lahm and Boateng will leave Robben with immense creative freedom to do what he does best.

In stark contrast, on the left wing Juan Bernat, having enjoyed a hugely successful debut season, will man the entire flank on his own. This is perhaps a bit too much to ask of the young wingback who at times has problems with his offensive contribution being too predictable, but with Alaba’s newfound role as a libero-inspired wide centerback, Bayern simply doesn’t have other players to use in that role. Bernat will continue to be the solid, adequate player out wide – think Adriano, but with a lot more room to develop into due to his very young age. In the end, his job is to facilitate and enable creative play from David Alaba and Thiago, ensuring that they have a passing outlet and room to charge into.

With Bernat manning a single flank by himself, Guardiola can play a fluid front duo. This is very likely to consist of Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Müller, whose combination play only gave glimpses of its potential last season. Two immensely versatile footballers with the intelligence to match, Müller and Lewandowski can all drop deep or out wide as well as use their physicality to enable Bayern a pronounced presence in the box. With Franck Ribery reduced to a fringe player thanks to injuries and age, only Mario Götze can offer another option in the left-hand channel. With Götze, his tactical value is unquestionable – few German players have his knack for quick combinations – but his form and desire are something that only he himself can maximize.

Bayern’s most likely system of play next season.

There are still many variables to consider – the possibility of Joshua Kimmich or Sebastian Rode mounting a challenge for the first team, Douglas Costa continuing his blistering pre-season form, Xabi Alonso being used in a system where he is shielded more forcefully, Rafinha continuing his status as the unsung workhorse in the squad – but in all likelihood, injuries notwithstanding, the 3-4-3 system as described in this article is the framework unto which Pep will place most of his trust. In any case, Bayern will have one of the most tactically exciting set-ups in Europe, and considering the individual talent on display, it could very well be the make-or-break season for Pep Guardiola’s career as a coach. Perhaps the most telling aspect of his personality and tactical doctrine is that this immense pressure to succeed will only make him bolder in implementing further tactical experiments and seemingly out-of-left-field formations.

One Response

  1. ‘the current Bayern board headed by Karl-Heinz Rummenigge has seemingly been nothing but accommodating of Guardiola and his desires.’

    Martí Perarnau’s book, ‘Pep Confidential’, which provides an insightful, fly-on-the-wall, first hand account of Pep’s working methods during in his first year at Bayern Munich, stated that Toni Kroos was sold without the consent of Guardiola. Whilst your point remains broadly true, I feel this should get a mention.

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