Firstly, congratulations to Atletico Madrid on making the Champions League final. The achievement of the third team in Spain is simply remarkable given their rapid and regular turnover of players and the lack of a true star name or two amongst their squad. Fernando Torres has been rejuvenated away from the spotlight of the Premier League; Koke continues to be the local hero; Gabi is the captain most teams would dream of and the one big name, Antoine Griezmann, works just as hard as the most unknown of names. Diego Simeone will be beaten by the other fairytale of European football, Claudio Ranieri, to the Fifa Coach of the Year award, much as he was when unfashionable Atletico won the league and reached the Champions League final (and came within 5 minutes of winning it) in 2014 when Joachim Löw took Germany to the World Cup and did something against Brazil in the semi-final or something? Anyway, Simeone is the most under-rated manager in the world and has done frankly incredible things season on season in the Spanish capital. Huge respect is due to him and his team and I wish them all the best in the final.
Bayern Munich, on the other hand, are left counting the cost of a defence which, despite millions of Euros worth of investment, still leaks goals at the top level at a rate which would make Simeone rip his beard out. In 2013 they had the best team in the world, loved by everyone (well, outside Germany at least), managed excitingly by Jupp Heynckes. Heynckes chose honourable retirement after that final to allow Pep Guardiola to come and take over his masterwork, or at least that's what the official story is, and since then Pep has damaged his own stock and brought the Bayern team crashing back down to *just* Rekordmeister. He took over the most exciting, fast paced team in the world with some of the biggest stars and a style which was setting the trend against the possession teams which had ruled since Pep’s Barcelona and instead of embracing that style the Catalan decided to turn the team into his own creation.
Pep’s Barcelona were the most exciting team in the world because they moved the ball so quickly and took so many good, calculated risks (and were certainly helped by arguably the best squad ever to grace a football pitch) that teams couldn’t cope. Yet just before Guardiola resigned the club were starting to look behind the times and the 7-0 thrashing handed to them on aggregate in the semi-finals that year certainly proved that they needed reinventing. Every team needs to evolve but the Bayern side at the time were trend-setting. Instead of going with the trend his predecessor set up, Guardiola turned the boat back towards a safe harbour of possession based football and in the process made Bayern one of the most boring teams in the league to watch. Beyond a few thrashings of minions and a few truly stunning performances his team have really not hit the heights of excitement that Heynckes’ team produced almost weekly.
And so on to why Tuesday night was a disappointment. It might not seem the most logical headline after what was was arguably Bayern’s best performance of the 3 years Guardiola has been in charge. The speed with which they pressed; the urgency, fluency and excitement with which they attacked; the passion, the drive, the desperation to win and show the world that Atletico’s defence weren’t all that. And they succeeded. Other than a few moments in the second half during which they conceded (and should have conceded again, if Torres could take a penalty) they dominated the game, the ball and the chances as they usually do, but for once they gave the opposition no chance and also took risks with the ball that Guardiola teams are generally encouraged not to do. The reason last night was a disappointment was because it was so much better than Bayern have played at any point in the last three years and was arguably the most undeserved of their Champions League exits.
Looking at stats will only get you so far; yes, Bayern have become Rekordmeisters of Germany; yes they scored loads of goals and barely conceded any; yes they have been German champions three times (miraculous happenings in the next 2 weeks notwithstanding). But what they haven’t been is exciting or enjoyable to watch. They dominate possession to the point of boredom; if a team in the Premier League got 70% possession you would expect them to be scoring 3 or 4 goals every week and the pundits would be quick to criticise too many sideways passes for the sake of keeping the ball. In Germany, the feeling was much the same. Shortly after Guardiola announced he would be taking over at Manchester City this summer Bayern fans revealed a banner reading “Pep war gar nie unser Ding (Pep was never really our thing)” and the feeling remains that he has taken the club if not backwards then certainly in the direction of a Xabi Alonso pass- sideways.
The squad that Guardiola has built has the potential to win the Champions League with just a little bit of defensive coaching and a slightly less loose approach to positioning at key points of a semi-final (yes Boateng, I’m looking at you). Ancellotti will have the tools he needs to take this team to the next level and with the rumoured arrival of Mats Hummels there could be even greater potential there. Either that or he could be joining Mario Götze on the plane to Madrid or Milan, but I doubt he will ever be welcome back at Signal Iduna Park if that transfer goes through as expected.
Looking forward Bayern have a great chance to use the squad Guardiola built and the technical ability he instilled in his players to push on and finish the job. His team showed what they are capable of, finally, in Guardiola’s last hurrah in Europe this season and it might have taught him that caution in possession is not necessarily always the answer. As Atletico and Leicester have shown, having a lot of the ball is no longer a requirement for winning a football game and if City are to make progress under Guardiola he will need to address 2 areas of his philosophy: the lack of organisation in his defences despite some of the best personnel in the world; and the speed of build-up and regularity of penetration. If he can learn from anyone that speed is everything, it is former Bayern boss Louis van Gaal who has had decent success at Manchester United but has been slated in the media and by fans for his “boring” team and their lack of goal scoring penetration.
So was Pep a failure? In many respects he wasn’t, particularly domestically, but his inability to bring the Champions League to Bavaria will haunt him and, if he succeeds at City, this will certainly be a stain on his record. But it would be an impressive stain, if only because the statistical history never reflects excitement. In the opinion of many Bayern fans, however, Guardiola has not only not taken their beloved club forward he has arguably also lost some of their identity as the German giants with his foreign transfer import policy. Time will tell if his squad can be turned into European champions by Ancellotti, but if they are then memory will look even less kindly on this Guardiola Bayern.
Editor and Guardiola fan...