Pep Guardiola, the illustrious Bayern Munich coach, has been in the job six months now, having taken over from the hugely successful Jupp Heynckes in June. While he was welcomed by many, and regarded as the ideal coach for the club, some fans seemed to have a combination of nostalgia for the Heynckes-era and doubts about any changes Guardiola might introduce. So the end of the first half of the season seems like a good time to examine how well has he done in those first six months, and what expectations fans can have for 2014.
Guardiola introduced several tactical changes in his quest to make Bayern the dominant European football club for the next few years. Most of these changes are either to improve levels of possession and control of the game or to increase flexibility and variation in attack (or both). Particularly obvious were the switch to a 4-1-4-1 formation, the high defensive line and the implementation of several players in new positions, all of which still remain controversial in some circles, in spite of the record results the team has achieved in the first half of the season.
4-1-4-1 (morphing in and out of 3-4-3 and 4-2-3-1) has been successful enough, and is well enough accepted by both players and board alike, to be likely to remain the preferred formation for the foreseeable future. It does contribute to higher passion rates, and it hasn’t been significantly exploited by any opposing team this season. Some key aspects of 4-1-4-1, and the high defensive line that goes with it, are worth a passing mention, but first of all it needs to be emphasised that, while 4-1-4-1 requires technically talented players to deliver it, it is not fundamentally flawed, and it has the potential to be the most powerful of all football formations.
4-1-4-1 can be defended adequately against the best opposition, and the Bayern defence should be capable of achieving this – but they are not quite there yet. The simplest defensive solution is a brief morph back to 4-2-3-1 under heavy pressure, but that is seldom necessary. The natural 4-1-4-1 defensive strategy is largely about delaying counterattacks, harrying strikers before and while they receive the ball, giving the attackers no time on the ball for defence-splitting combinations, and a goalkeeper who is very fast off his line. The only aspect of this that is close to perfect is the way Neuer comes out of his box to sweep up advanced passes that have crossed the high defensive line. Alaba and Rafinha are both quite athletic and fairly fast as left and right backs, working hard to track back when necessary. And the central defenders, Boateng, Dante and van Buyten, have adapted very well. (The howling errors that conceded two goals against Manchester City had virtually nothing to do with 4-1-4-1, or with any tactical formation, for that matter.) Overall, the back four are good and progressing credibly with Guardiola’s system.
The main problem is the player in front of the defence – the so-called No6. There are six or seven candidates for this role:
- Schweinsteiger – seemed, after a wobbly start, to be a reasonably good fit, but injury took him out of the reckoning before any conclusions could be formed.
- Kroos – the people’s suggestion, but Guardiola seems to use Kroos in that position only as a last resort, and is unlikely to move Kroos back there anytime soon.
- Kirchhoff – seems out of favour with Guardiola, and may even be loaned out, so not likely to be the main solution for that role.
- Hojbjerg – seems to figure in Guardiola’s plans, and is likely to be a future candidate for the role, but may have a loan spell in the meantime to give him more playing time.
- Alcantara – seems to be Guardiola’s main hope for the role, but Alcantara has a lot to learn to fill it effectively, and he is vastly superior further up the pitch, so the trial may be shelved.
- Martinez – many people’s expected candidate for the role, but Guardiola seems to prefer a player who can create more build-up play from the back, and Martinez does not yet seem comfortable in the lone role and is not looking like Guardiola’s first-choice, long-term preference there.
- Lahm – has played in that position many times for Guardiola and has excelled in both the defensive and attacking aspects of the role. He is perhaps not at his peak yet – he’s only playing there six months – but he seems to be the best option when up against top opposition.
It spoke volumes that, after the Manchester City game, Alcantara was moved up the field, Martinez spent a lot of time on the bench, and Lahm was reinstated as the defensive midfielder for the subsequent games. Unless some other player – possibly Schweinsteiger – can quickly convince Guardiola that he can cover the role in top games, Lahm is likely to remain the first choice there in the coming months, with Martinez and others only deputising in lesser games.
In midfield, the array of players is absolutely amazing. Ribery, Robben, Goetze, Kroos, Alcantara, Schweinsteiger, Mueller and Shaqiri constitute, as a group, one of the best attacking midfield squads in the world. Under Heynckes, the intelligent play and variation in attack was superb, but Guardiola has taken it a step further. He has incorporated an extra midfielder into the attack, and has integrated the striker’s role more into the midfield. This density of attacking players in midfield not only increases and retains possession, but also swells and varies the attacking threat. Moreover, the nature of Guardiola’s rotation of players – with each player contributing something a little different – adds to that variation. Guardiola’s game is often about variation stretching defences so that they can’t concentrate on and cover every possibility for 90 min; eventually something crumbles, leading to Bayern goals late in the game.
The change of striker’s role in 4-1-4-1 is conspicuous. The concept of a target man/poacher seems quite alien to Guardiola. He uses traditional strikers in a semi-midfield role and he uses false nines, to the extent that it is difficult to see much difference between the two. Could the traditional striker’s role be dead? Probably not – but it is unlikely to ever be the same again in Guardiola’s teams. If Lewandowski does indeed join Bayern next season, it will be interesting to see how he plays. It would be no surprise if he plays like Mandzukic does now, weaving in and out of midfield, swapping places with the wingers, and so forth.
A lot more could be added, but the abovementioned suffice to cover most of the more obvious tactical changes. And, perhaps surprisingly, although these are obvious changes, the players – if judged by the opinions they’ve voiced – seem to regard none of these tactics as major changes; it is all little more than the fine-tuning of the Heynckes machine.
One of Guardiola’s great achievements – one which will probably remain underappreciated – is his successful rotation of players. In reality, Bayern had so many injuries to key players in the past six months that it could have become a crisis in another manager’s hands. A manager with a rigid preference for a starting XI and little idea of how to utilise and increase the versatility of players would have seen a drop in performance when several key players were injured – especially when introducing changes to the system. Week after week, however, Guardiola always fielded a top performing team that never seemed unduly to miss any two or three players who were injured, and that was not merely a matter of Bayern having a large squad, but more a result of intelligent management. The era has arrived when the top European clubs need big squads with a great depth of quality, in order to play lots of games at the optimum performance level and to cover for injuries, suspensions and dips in form. The concept of a rigid starting XI and bench has been superceded.
Indeed, on the matter of form, Guardiola has used the competition for places to keep almost every player with that hunger for playing time that pushes them to give 100% in every game. And he seems to get on will with all the players, bringing harmony and a good team spirit into the squad. Many players are even playing their best football ever. Arguably, Rafinha, Robben, Kroos, Ribery and Boateng are even better than last season, while virtually every other player is at least as good as he was last season. This is partly because Guardiola’s system suits some players and partly due to individual tips which Guardiola is passing on to the players. At any rate, to be extracting the best football, individually and collectively, from the squad is a great basis for challenging for titles.
It hasn’t been all positive in the past six months. Early in the season, Bayern’s high levels of possession in the opponents’ half seemed to be compressing the opponents into a park-the-bus style of play – even opponents which wouldn’t naturally play like that. Moreover, the Bayern attack had very poor shot-to-goal conversation rates, delaying the conviction that Guardiola’s system was effective. Then there were the draws and defeats. Bayern conceded two unnecessary draws in the Bundesliga and succumbed to two cup defeats in the six-month period. The defeat by Dortmund was in a game that came a little too early in Guardiola’s reign, at a time when some of the new manager’s tactics hadn’t bedded in, and the triumph over Dortmund in the Bundesliga a couple of months later more than settled the score. The defeat to Manchester City in the Champions League was an embarrassment, but the nature of it – gifting City two goals through individual defender’s schoolboy errors – meant that Bayern only needed to tighten up rather than restructure. A great indicator of Bayern’s health in recent seasons is the fact that they have rarely been outplaye; in spite of the draws and defeats under Guardiola, the fact remains that they have never been outplayed since he took charge.
What can Bayern fans expect from the remainder of the season? Considering the rate at which players are getting their contracts extended, it would be surprising if Bayern bought any new players in January, and still surprising if they made many major purchases in the summer. A few may be loaned out – particularly Kirchhof, Weiser and Hojbjerg – and a pre-agreement with Lewandowski for a summer transfer may be confirmed, but that should be all the business that is transacted in the January transfer window. A few players may be released in the summer. There is some unfinished trialling to establish which players can contribute most within the system which Guardiola has introduced, and to determine which positions within the system certain players can fill best. Can Schweinsteiger re-establish himself as a first-choice starter at No6, or will he play further up the field? Can Martinez deliver on the many fronts that the lone No6 needs, or will he become a central defender once again? Can Badstuber give Boateng and Dante enough competition to keep them on their toes? Van Buyten has had a great season, but it can hardly be expected that he’ll be able to push Boateng and Dante enough next season, or cover for them, and all these things may help define whether Bayern buy another central defender – which is about the only position still needing the reinforcement of another top player (assuming that Lewandowski does arrive).
As more players return from injury, how well will Guardiola manage the squad and keep rotating enough players? The 7-10 point cushion in the Bundesliga, and the success of rotated players in the first half of the season, give Guardiola some luxury when it comes to resting players and giving the main 16-18 players ample playing time. It is likely that, if Hojbjerg is not loaned out, Guardiola wants to give him increased playing time to ascertain how big a role he might have in the future at Bayern, before loaning him out for next season. Weiser and Green may get a few games too, in spite of the bulging squad. Around a month before the end of the season, Heynckes, who had previously rotated very well, stated openly that rotation was over, and he’d play each game with the strongest team available. It will be interesting to see whether Guardiola does the same. It is possible that he won’t do that, because he has players who make somewhat different contributions, and he may continue to tailor the starting XI tactically for each different opponent.
A few weeks ago, Jamie Carragher said that Alex Ferguson was worth around 10 points per season to Manchester United, and in his absence United are missing those points. His motivational influence, reading of the game and ability to adjust tactics during a game, among other things, squeezed about 10 points out of games across the season that the team might easily have dropped. There seems to be a lot of truth in the statement. Almost certainly, Guardiola is also worth quite a few points per season in the Bundesliga. His preparation for matches and ability to change tactics mid-match have already turned games around, and converted one point into three on occasions. In cup matches too, Guardiola’s skills, meticulous attention to detail and comprehensive preparation mean that almost no other team in Europe can beat Bayern over 180 min. In single-leg ties, only Bayern can beat Bayern. Without being arrogant, fans can realistically hope that Bayern win the Bundesliga and reach the finals of the German Cup and the Champions League. Whether they take the three trophies remains to be seen, but the season looks promising – largely thanks to Guardiola.
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