The winter break may be a godsend to battered players, burnt-out managers and overworked ground staff, but, for football fans in Germany, there is only so much ski-jumping and luge you can watch. Millions of people up and down the country will have a big red ring around Friday 22 January – the day the Bundesliga finally resumes.
Another person who will be itching to get back to competitive action is Pep Guardiola. Six weeks without football can be a long time for a man with such obsessive tendencies. He will have had more than ample time to evaluate the first half of the season, tweak, retweak, and make several trips back to the drawing board, agonising over his masterplan for his assault on domestic and European success. It’s safe to say that Guardiola will be counting the days and hours until kick-off on Friday.
Bayern Munich begin the second half of the season with a trip to Hamburg on Friday night. For the club and its trainer, the match marks the beginning of their last few months together – with both parties looking to end the relationship on a high. Some sceptics and naysayers will be ready to declare Guardiola’s time in Munich as a failed mission if he does not deliver the Champions League in May, but they would be grossly mistaken to judge him so narrowly.
Since joining Bayern two and a half years ago, Guardiola has won two league titles, a German Cup, the World Club Cup, the Uefa Super Cup and has reached the last four of the Champions League twice. It’s an impressive record, but given the stature of the club and coach, not everyone agrees that it is a job well done. They argue that Bayern are expected to win the league and cup most seasons and point out that few fans are truly excited by the World Club Cup and the Uefa Super Cup. For Bayern and a few other clubs, success is – rightly or wrongly – measured on the Champions League, and for some onlookers, two semi-finals to date coupled with failure to go at least one stage further this season would constitute failure.
But surely no trainer, regardless of reputation and track record, can guarantee the Champions League. While José Mourinho may have managed it with Porto and Inter, he had less success at Real Madrid – who were arguably more equipped to do it – and was surpassed by the achievements of Avram Grant and Roberto Di Matteo at Chelsea. Carlo Ancelotti finally delivered La Decima to Real Madrid, but not at the first time of asking. And Arsène Wenger, one of the most forward-thinking managers to have worked in England, has been restricted to flirting with the trophy over two decades at Arsenal. Even Guardiola, who won the competition twice in three seasons with Barcelona, doesn’t ensure you will need to book an open-top bus at the end of May.
Nevertheless, the feeling persists that Guardiola was brought to Bayern to project the club’s domestic dominance on to the European arena and continue Jupp Heynckes’ excellent (if not a little surprising) work. If you share this opinion, then it is simple for Guardiola: win the Champions League this season, or mission failed. This viewpoint is unfair and lazy.
Football is more than winning or losing games and competitions. Granted, when stripped to its core, football is a team’s attempt to beat another team, but it is the layers around the core that make the game what it is. And while some of its qualities are directly associated with winning and losing – the drama, jubilation, agony, excitement and anxiety – for some the aesthetic, intellectual and innovational aspects of the game are where it’s at.
In any case, Guardiola has won five trophies, as many as most of his contemporaries over the same period, but unlike many other prominent managers, the fruits of his labour can be best seen on the pitch, and not only in the trophy cabinet. In contrast to some other managers, Guardiola does not solely rely on large spending sprees to change things. His only major signing when he joined was Thiago Alcântara, with the €37m deal to bring Mario Götze from Borussia Dortmund already in the bag. And while Robert Lewandowski, Arturo Vidal and Douglas Costa would improve the majority of teams, it is hardly the scattergun approach employed by other prestigious clubs in these affluent times.
Coming into a club that had just won the treble, and under a trainer as widely respected and popular as Jupp Heynckes, could have posed major problems. He could have been on a hiding to nothing: keep things ticking over and you’re accused of dining out on the previous manager’s hard work, but try to stamp your own authority on the team and you’re criticised for being foolhardy by trying to change a winning formula. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And Guardiola didn’t try to fix it, or dismantle it piece by piece; he tuned it.
Applying the term philosophy to football styles has become somewhat hackneyed, but it does fit with a band of managers whose brand of football is recognisable, regardless of results. Guardiola is undoubtedly such a manager. Whether you subscribe to his footballing ideas or not, you can identify a Guardiola team.
As soon as he touched down in Munich he was itching to get to work on the Säbener Strasse, the club’s training complex. He found the majority of the squad extremely receptive to his ideas and began instilling his tactical plans on them, picking out certain players for special attention.
The fact that Bayern went on to be dominant in the Bundesliga raised no eyebrows, but the style of play certainly did. It soon became apparent that the level of fluidity and fluency we became accustomed to seeing at the Camp Nou was neither fluke nor solely down to the La Masia graduates on the field. In his first season in Munich, Guardiola’s fingerprints were all over the team.
Predictably, the focus was on possession, but it could by no means be dismissed as tiki-taka. Instead of passing for the sake of it, Bayern used their possession to twist the opposition into knots, luring them into chasing and watching the ball being pinged to and fro, and then, when the time was right, the play would be switched to the opposing flank and they would go for the jugular.
Bayern and Germany needed Guardiola. He not only improved the players, but also challenge them tactically and physically. Experienced players such as Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Rafinha, and even those in the twilight of their playing career such as Claudio Pizarro all grew as players, achieving additional qualifications in their footballing education.
Under Guardiola, Lahm has gone from a versatile and consistent full-back to something close to a complete footballer and one of Europe’s finest midfielders, while Jérôme Boateng has blossomed into a progressive centre-back who is perfectly at ease when asked to serve as the only traditional defender on the pitch. Guardiola quickly saw the talent in Boateng and made it his mission to cut out his occasional lapse of concentration, with meticulous work and hours of coaching on the training ground.
Guardiola’s time in the Bundesliga has changed the country’s footballing culture. In recent years, Bayern have provided the core for the national team and Guardiola’s work with players such as Manuel Neuer, Boateng, Lahm, Schweinsteiger, and Thomas Müller has undoubtedly refined the tools Joachim Löw has at his disposal. In particular, Löw has already shown he is not too proud to take advantage of Lahm’s increased exposure to midfield roles and has assigned him similar duties when on international duty.
Neuer, Müller, Boateng and Lahm are four of the five players Guardiola has picked the most and the fifth, Rafinha, will be grateful for the way he has been revitalised under Guardiola. He mainly served as a back-up to Lahm at right-back under Heynckes, but the Brazilian, alongside David Alaba, has thrived under Guardiola, whose interpretation of the modern full-back is more of an auxiliary central midfielder who sits either side of a deep-lying pivot, usually Lahm or Thiago.
For many fans and followers of the game, football is more than winning and losing games. What happens during a match, and in particular how the match is played, is the prime reason for watching. While some may revel in a slick, passing game, others will lust for the cold-bloodedness of a well-executed counter-attacking game, or want to see a defensive tactical plan come to fruition. The journey to the final whistle is arguably more important than the score after it, especially in an era when so many teams are performing at a similar level and there are fine lines between success and failure.
While Guardiola may not have delivered European glory to Munich thus far, he still may do. But even if Bayern fall short once more this season, Guardiola’s tenure has taken the club and the national team forward – and in that regard he has been a resounding success.