Pep Guardiola and his quest to take Bayern Munich to the next level
Another season, and another chance to win the Champions League has slipped away. For a manager like Pep Guardiola, this is like a normal person being starved of their basic human needs.
Bayern Munich’s first leg semi-final showing at the Nou Camp against former club Barcelona, highlighted the gulf in quality between the two sides, not least in the attacking department.
Guardiola had the privilege of working with Lionel Messi, as well as Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez at their very best. Surely though, the former along with Neymar and Luis Suarez is undoubtedly the best collective front trio to coach in world footballing history.
The German giants, however, fall some way off the mark and the standards set by their semi-final victors. Although they won 3-2 at the Allianz Arena, one of their goals was a header from a corner, and two were strikes from outside the area, which goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen was unsighted for.
All five of Barcelona’s goals across both legs were the combined result of sublime play and dreadful defending. At the Catalan club, Guardiola was used to working with Spanish centre backs; who are comfortable in control of the ball.
It seems during his sabbatical, the studious coach focused on adapting new systems, theories and philosophies about the game, and which type of players suit particular systems and tactics. This shows in the variety of personnel he has within the ranks at Bayern, which when you carry out an analysis, it sounds good in theory.
There are small, technically gifted players in Mario Gotze and Thiago Alcantara, the latter who he brought with him from Barcelona. In Arjen Robben, he has a more direct outlet, capable of bursts forwards down the flanks or centre of the pitch; arguably his version of Messi in terms of effectiveness.
Thomas Muller provides the muscle, nous to be in the right place at the right time and physical goal threat up front. By Guardiola’s standards, this makes the World Cup winner something of a maverick, while traditional number nine Robert Lewandowski is also a different type of striker to ones he has managed before.
The signing of Xabi Alonso was a canny decision; he’s quite clearly a Guardiola player. On arrival, the Bayern boss would have known he didn’t have to work on him. Basque Country native Alonso is pretty much the finished article, having won the Champions League twice, and his passing range, ball retention and ability to read the game is a trait his coach values highly.
Adding to the engine room, Bastian Schweinsteiger is a vital cog in the machine and also adds a physical presence and the conversion of Philipp Lahm from full-back to holding midfielder was considered a masterstroke, due to his comfort on the ball.
However, in Jerome Boateng, Holger Badstuber, Dante and Mehdi Benatia, whichever two, or three as has been the case at times this term, plays there, there is a lack of understanding, and an almost foreign feeling to a Guardiola rearguard.
Javi Martinez has promise, though Guardiola must decide on his best position and whether he still has faith in the defensive player following a lengthy spell out with a serious knee injury.
Blooded by Athletic Bilbao, Martinez has all the characteristics to succeed at a high level, though whether that is at centre back or in a holding role, similar to Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets, is something Guardiola needs to address.
This summer could see a complete revamp. Players like Robben and Franck Ribery are coming to the end of their peak, and should this be made clear during the close season, Guardiola may decide to change tack. He has failed to win the Champions League with the system he is using at the minute; which blends his brand of ‘tiki taka’ with direct, counter-attacking football.
His former teammate, Luis Enrique has tweaked previous tactics at Barcelona, with more of an emphasis on playing percentages, silky, cutting-edge football and decisiveness. In possession and passing the ball around, Bayern’s approach has been slow and sluggish, though striking on the counter, utilising Robben when fit, they have been clinical.
So, does Guardiola find direct replacements for both Robben and Ribery, or different kinds of players altogether, similar to Barcelona’s attacking trident? It’s a tough one.
Both Antoine Griezmann and Gareth Bale would be great like-for-like replacements, and having sold Mario Mandzukic to Atletico Madrid last summer, versatile France forward Griezmann could be a realistic target. Guardiola would also likely find a way to get the best out of Bale as well.
An alternative, is to go back to his tried and tested approach. Both Gotze and Thiago are talented enough to play further forward in a fluid system, or one of them, more likely the latter, can operate in the role Iniesta has almost trademarked throughout his career.
Marco Reus would solve a lot of problems, though having plucked Gotze and Lewandowski from rivals Borussia Dortmund in recent seasons, this is a signing that seems unlikely.
An option which could work is Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette, who has shone this term, scoring a staggering 31 goals in 39 appearances, while Hoffenheim’s Roberto Firmino, who showcased his talent at the Emirates for Brazil against Chile recently, could be another alternative.
Just 23, he possesses the kind of versatility that Guardiola craves, and has shown prowess as a false nine. He could be Bayern’s answer to compatriot Neymar at Barcelona, and would form a potent attack.
If Guardiola pursues the template he utilised during his time in Catalonia, he may also move for Wolfsburg ace and assist machine Kevin de Bruyne, whose arrival may signal an obvious switch to a model designed around ball-retention.
At the back, someone like Inigo Martinez at Real Sociedad, has the potential to become a similar player to Gerard Pique, and has the intelligence to stabalise Bayern’s backline against trickier opponents.
It is now or never for Guardiola to make a decision for next season as another campaign passes by without Champions League success.