When Pep Guardiola retires, there is little doubt he will be remembered amongst the greats of football management. Few would be able to take a sabbatical in the manner in which he did, yet still be first call for any chairman looking for a new man in charge; few would be able to pick their moment to leave arguably Europe’s number one side, seemingly justified in his journey to become the greatest. Yet Pep has done both of those things, and as he struggles to impose his intricate style of play on his new chargers at the Etihad, it is perhaps more notable that Bayern Munich, and to an extent Barcelona, struggle to build on what the Spaniard left behind.
Match that Pep
Truth be told, Guardiola never truly won the support of the top men within the echelons of Bayern Munich. Arriving at the Bavarian capital following the remarkable treble winning sign-off from Jupp Heynckes, the hottest name in managerial real-estate had quite a task to live up to. The all conquering side of the veteran coach had enthralled the demanding Allainz Arena crowd with a brand of football that rarely settled below a flat out gallop. In a season in which his team broke a total of 30 records within German football, few nights will live as long in the memory as when they dismantled Barcelona 3-0 in their own back-yard to complete a 7-0 aggregate victory in the semi-finals of the Champions League; this of course was the Barcelona managed by a certain Pep Guardiola.
“Bayern are not right. This is something that we have known for weeks. The disappointment is huge. I can’t change what I feel and what I feel is we must play with the ball and attack as much as possible.”
Franz Beckenbauer on Pep Guardiola, May 2014
Not to be perturbed however, Guardiola arrived in the following weeks determined to stamp his style upon the side. Philipp Lahm would be converted from one of the world’s most established right backs to a defensive midfielder, whilst the duo of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry, widely perceived as the best wing partnership in world football, would become no more than members of the supporting cast of Pep’s ‘tika-taka’ style. The volatile French winger, on the cusp of World Player of the Year prior to his arrival, would only make 50 appearances in the following three seasons – injury did admittedly play a part, but even when fit he was no longer an automatic choice.
There were of course advantages. Pep demands perfection. Few exemplify the fruits of his methods to the extent of Jerome Boeteng, who went from Manchester City outcast to a player many proclaim as the best central defender in the game. Licence to play is the key element. All of Pep’s sides are defined by passing from the back, and in Gerard Piqué and the aforementioned Boeteng, there are perhaps no finer advocates of this style. In John Stones the coach now has his latest project, and should the English centre-back be given the time and patience to grow, he may yet be the best of the bunch.
In Lahm, Guardiola possessed who he claimed to be the most intelligent player he had ever worked with. Having captained Germany to the 2012 World Cup as a right-back, many looked on aghast as a player reaching his 30th birthday was asked to completely re-invent himself as a defensive midfielder, especially considering the Bayern squad contained such names as Javi Martinez and Bastian Schweinsteiger. To label the Lahm experiment as a success of Guardiola‘s ideology though would be naive; perhaps exemplifying his three years in charge, though working within the domestic format of the game, he was exposed in the latter stages of the Champions League, and Bayern failed to progress past the semi-final’s of Europe’s elite competition during the tenure of Guardiola.
“He is still a young coach. He lacks experience. Sometimes he (Guardiola) talks too much, football is very simple. You can’t make a mistake in the semi-finals of the Champions League, you have to have the big names, your best players, on the field.”
Franck Ribéry on Pep Guardiola, September 2016
Other question marks remain over his ultimate success. It is easy to forget the example of Mario Götze, who arrived parcel-wrapped for Guardiola soon after his own announcement. The golden boy of Jürgen Klopp who had inspired Borussia Dortmund to both the German title and Champions League final was reportedly requested for personally by the incoming manager as a statement signing; a player who he would drive his side to success in the manner in which Lionel Messi had at Barcelona. Götze will retire as the player who scored the winning goal in a world cup final, yet will always seem a talent unfulfilled; though he assisted the only goal in the most recent Klassiker, it was for the yellow and black of Dortmund, where he returned last summer to re-ignite the ashes in a stalling career.
Struggles in Bavaria
As Bayern Munich stumbled to defeat against Dortmund, their first under new manager Carlo Ancelotti in the Bundesliga, they conceded top spot in the league for the first time in 425 days, a staggering 39 consecutive matchdays. Ancelotti arrived as the antithesis of his predecessor: where it had been essentially ‘my way or the highway’ for the past three seasons, Bayern players would be given a new sense of freedom by a manager praised by many as the greatest proponent of man-management in the sport. Zlatan Ibrahimović lists him as the greatest coach he has worked with, whilst Cristiano Ronaldo reportedly led a team of players begging Florentino Pérez not to wield his infamous axe on the manager who he led Real Madrid to ‘la Decima’.
“I feel free and I am fully motivated. Carlo Ancelotti is a gift for the club. Since Ancelotti has arrived, I feel more trust.”
Franck Ribéry on Carlo Ancelotti, September 2016
For the first time in four years then, Bayern Munich will be facing competition on the home front and this time not only from Dortmund. Sitting a-top of the table are RB Leipzig in their first ever Bundesliga campaign. Whilst not the miracle story many would have you believe considering the money pumped into the organisation by Red Bull since being founded just six years ago, the upstarts of German football mean business. Targeting primarily young players out to prove a point, their dramatic, last-gasp victory over Bayer Leverkusen which sent them top exemplifies the team ethos which has seen them likened to the Leicester City side which won the Premier League in such outstanding fashion. Perhaps most known on these shores for the big money signing of Oliver Burke from Nottingham Forest, he perfectly encapsulates the type of player they have been targeting: young, ambitious and, in a sense, unknown by the more traditional giants of the game.
The warning signs for Bayern though had been there. After a scintillating 6-0 victory over Werder Bremen on the opening day of the season, the campaign has perhaps been more characterized by home draws against the likes of Köln and Hoffenheim. Being condemned to runners-up spot in their Champions League group also brings to doubt the adage that Carlo Ancelotti brings guaranteed success in Europe.
Few would argue that for Bayern to be at their best, they rely on the ethos of team rather than star individuals. Though contentious at the time, it is telling that even when sweeping aside all before them, the Ballon D’or remained a competition of two between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Undoubtedly, they have star players; Robert Lewandowski can rightly claim to be amongst the best ‘pure’ strikers in the game, whilst Manuel Neuer continues to revolutionise the meaning of a goalkeeper. It is the core foundation of Müller, Alonso, Lahm and before them Schweinsteiger though who propelled them to previously unchartered territory; all are out of sorts or have left the club.
Most striking is the case of Thomas Müller: recognised as one of the most lethal finishers in the game, the home-grown hero has so far failed to find the net in the Bundesliga. The blame for this lies purely at the feet of the player; employed initially on the left, whilst being given the licence to roam centrally, Ancelotti has simply asked him to mirror the role he plays so effectively for his country, which sees him ranked 10th in their list of all-time scorers. In the case of Alonso and Lahm, it is a case of game management for the aging pair. The latter in particular looks a shadow of the player he once was, and it is surely a matter of time before one of Rafinha or Kimmich is asked to fill his role. Alonso, though still having the quality, looks a little lost in a side that seemingly can’t decide whether they are a side intent on keeping possession or punishing teams on the counter.
This then brings us back to the issue of Guardiola‘s legacy. In meticulously drilling his players to put possession above all else, he set his side up in a way in which counter-attacking football does not come naturally. Alonso is struggling, but so are other midfielders such as Thiago and Renato Sanches. Whilst both are young, that have both been seen is as established enough to command considerable transfer fees; the duo have also performed at the highest level, with Sanches coming so close to inspiring the unfancied Benfica to a suprise victory over his new employers in last season’s Champions League. Both are earmarked as the cornerstones of this Bayern side for the next decade; they need instruction though. Sanches has the rare ability in one so young of being able to drive his team from his own half, combining elements of pace and power so desired in the modern game. Though admired by Pep Guardiola, the recent winner of the World’s Best Young Player award would not necessarily fit in a side groomed in the ‘Pep’ mould, and is therefore struggling in a Bayern side not yet successfully transitioned.
“It is not easy for anyone, at the age of 18, to be playing at the highest level. He has a great future ahead.”
Pep Guardiola on Renato Sanches – April 2016
Barcelona also had to change following Guardiola‘s four-year tenure. It is easy to presume the transition was successful, picking up the La Liga trophy under the late Tito Valanova in the 2012-13 season. Vilanova though was hired from within, and therefore simply sought continuation of his mentor’s progress. The following season, when coached by Tato Martino, an Argentine not forged in the ‘school’ of Barcelona, the club the season ended empty handed and the manager soon was sent for the exit door. By choosing Luis Enrique as his successor, they picked a manager not long forced out of Roma, but whom would understand the way of the club. This indicates perhaps, to continue the success of a Pep team, one has to continue to play in his style; an at-times prolonged possession based attack.
“If Barça had played their own style but not won the title, it wouldn’t have been a failure. But we didn’t win and we didn’t play well either.”
Tato Martino, May 2016
To blame Pep Guardiola wholly for a drop in form for a club following his departure would be naive. First of all, any club struggles when a successful manager leaves; just look at the case of Manchester United still seeking an identity over three years after Sir Alex Ferguson left. Furthermore, it takes players time to acclimatise to the tactics of any manager, let alone one who may depart quite so much from the style of such a meticulous and unique predecessor. There is no doubt however that for Pep, everything has to be done his own way, and that is not necessarily the way of the likes of Ancelotti and Martino, as they will readily tell you. Ancelotti is fortunate he is at a club who will give him the time and space necessary to turn his fortunes around – especially considering they themselves were not overly happy with the style of football deployed by Guardiola.