With Pep Guardiola on his way out at the end of June, the best way to end his tenure at FC Bayern München is European glory. What does FCB need to win the Champions League?
The main answer could be tinkering with the system that Sir Pep has put in place since he joined in summer 2013.
The missing trophy
Winning the Champions League is the elephant in the room with Guardiola as a coach. He won a treble at Barcelona, and so did his predecessor Jupp Heynckes in Munich. Whether you like it or not, it will be the measuring stick used to evaluate his three years at the helm.
Forgetting that reality is easy for football fans who wish to minimise the importance of semi-final losses against Real Madrid and FC Barcelona in the last two years.
Pep brought the question up himself when he held a press conference on 5 January to explain why he will not renew his contract.
“With a Champions League win, my time here is complete”, said the coach. The Bundesliga is the most important title. It shows how professional we are. The Champions League is momentum.”
His players want that momentum.
“Our aim is always to go for the maximum and get all three titles, but we know how difficult that is, said Philipp Lahm. Of course it would be perfect to go home with all three titles at the end of Guardiola’s time, we all have that aim.”
When the voice of the players makes it that clear, there is no room for interpretation.
Less ideology, more realism
Getting there is difficult, though. Winning the Champions League requires beating the best teams in Europe. Luck is needed, but avoiding obvious tactical mistakes also helps.
If the friendly Bayern lost against Karlsruher SC on 16 January is an indication, few lessons have been learned. A friendly remains a friendly, but what I saw in person in Karlsruhe reflects what we have seen for two and a half years: possession-first football with the sole aim of controlling the opposition, without the ability to prevent dangerous counterattacks.
It feels strange to witness a second division side generating the best scoring chances. It feels even worse when you realise that the trend has been developing.
Eintracht Frankfurt nailed it when parking the bus against the Reds on 30 October 2015. Since, many teams have put 11 men behind the ball and succeded in choking Bayern’s attack despite the addition of CoCo’s firepower. Hannover did well enough that it took a penalty for the Bavarians to win 1:0.
Within Pep’s Juego de Posición, FCB sends its players forward so much that one slip (Javi Martínez in Karlsruhe) can lead to a goal deficit.
Balance and ruse are rather what make champions. Bayern lacks those two assets.
The team is not balanced. In fact, it is the worst in the Bundesliga with 15.8 aerials won per game, according to WhoScored.com. It stands in 24th position out of 32 in Europe with 11.8 aerials won per game. This is an unacceptable weakness!
Bayern also has just one league goal on the counterattack (and one in Europe) despite the amazing counter skills of Douglas Costa, Thomas Müller, Robert Lewandowski and Arjen Robben. Also unacceptable.
Why are the two points so important?
Because there always is someone who finds a way to defend and win against the best attacking teams, in any championship and in any discipline. Pitching wins baseball championships. Defensive lines win Super Bowls in the NFL. Mike Tyson lost fights to guys who stood up to him. Even snooker players use defensive shots to avoid defeat.
In football, solutions range from better play without the ball, to spending less time in the final third and regaining possession from better positions.
Practicing corners and rediscovering the art of air battles go hand in hand. It would feel like a “regression” or “winning ugly” to some, but it could also win a sixth Champions League title.
What about ruse? Without a dose of realism, Pep’s system leads to attacking FC Barcelona when down 0:1 with 13 minutes to go instead of counting on the return leg at home to win the tie.
Ruse leads to switching to a defensive mode, preserving the manageable score and looking for second-leg solutions. Pep needs this kind of realism in his arsenal.
Put Thiago in charge
Playing a more direct brand football would also help Bayern’s cause. Nobody does it better than Thiago Alcântara. He has to hold the keys to the midfield and boss the passing game.
An in-form Thiago makes decisive, incisive passes that create scoring chances. He has to play a bigger role in the second half of the season.
Better squad management
Pep Guardiola could have a 100% healthy squad within a month, as Mario Götze, Franck Ribéry and Medhi Benatia are set to return in mid-February.
No more rushed comebacks, bitte. Gradual returns are the only logical solution to a permanent injury crisis. If the coaching and medical staff do not remember how it is done, let me explain. A player has to be subbed in for 15-20 minutes a couple of times. Then, he should play for 45 minutes once or twice as his fitness improves. He can only have a start after that, especially if his name is Ribéry or Robben.
Guardiola’s swan song will soon begin in Munich. He should care a little less about football ideology and a little more about his legacy. Everybody will have fond memories of a Champions League won at San Siro if he does that, as not even that other FCB can resist Bayern at its best.
Wouldn’t that be sweet?