The dust may be starting to settle after FC Bayern München’s Champions League exit and the end of Pep Guardiola’s reign may be near, but has the Spaniard’s legacy been decided?
The palpable sense of dejection at the Allianz Arena, home of Bayern, was never quickly going to be displaced by the fact there’s still two trophies to play for. Even if there’s a Bundesliga title and a German Cup up for grabs, the club having to wait another year at least to win their sixth European Cup is a notable disappointment.
In Pep Guardiola’s third season, the Bavarians have been conquered by Spanish opposition at the semi-final stage of the Champions League. On Tuesday, Atletico Madrid held out to progress on away goals, scoring at the Allianz Arena in a 2-1 defeat. The Spaniards, still in the hunt for the Spanish championship, triumphed 1-0 in the first leg.
Taking Bayern to a new level
When he was brought in by the German champions, Guardiola’s main objective was to bring Bayern’s play on to another level. It was the obvious step given Germany was nurturing a litany of perceptive, technically adept players. Barcelona had just enjoyed unprecedented and era-defining dominance under his guidance. As expected, he introduced several new concepts and structures. Ask anyone fortunate enough to watch one of his training sessions at Säbener Strasse, and they’ll talk of the Spaniard like a phenomenon.
Bayern’s football has become perpetually incisive, flexible and adaptable to suit different situations. Diego Simeone, coach of Atletico Madrid, described Bayern’s first-half performance as the best he has faced in his coaching career. By assimilating new methods and changing the thought-process of experienced players, Guardiola, to a degree, has democratized the knowledge within his squad. Such outstanding player tuition should reap the benefits for years to come.
Winning is demanded at Bayern
On the flip side, it’s important to recognize that one of Guardiola’s core responsibilities is to win – that fact cannot be escaped. Winning is a habit he has maintained in his three years in Germany – the Spaniard has won two (likely three) championships, a German Cup (possibly two) and shepherded Jupp Heynckes’ squad towards the Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup. Few Bayern coaches have dominated like Guardiola has in three seasons.
But some argue that winning the Bundesliga is consistently a foregone conclusion. This is a nonsensical argument. The German top flight remains one of the most tactically dynamic and competitive leagues in Europe. Guardiola’s sides have smashed almost every record in the book, such as, winning the championship at the earliest stage. They have played with a relentless intensity and, at times, spellbinding artistry in attack.
Borussia Dortmund – the closest challengers to Bayern in recent times – have recorded the best second-placed season of all time this year. So when did people start to dismiss the achievement of domestic league titles?
Bayern certainly don’t see it like this – domestic dominance is paramount to everything the club wants to achieve. Unlike at other clubs who have achieved European Cup success, Carlo Ancelotti, who will take over this summer, won’t be allowed to slack off in the league. A balance clearly has to be struck, and Guardiola has by and large achieved that in spite of issues in the semi-finals.
When Louis van Gaal had Bayern at the front line of the Champions League, his team flopped in the Bundesliga – so bad he was ditched before the end of the season. But Van Gaal did take Bayern to European Cup finals.
Guardiola’s Bayern side, following the elimination of Barcelona, were regarded by most as favourites for the competition, and to add just their second European Cup in 15 years.
But both previous semi-finals have stuck around when Guardiola’s impact is discussed. Bayern were naïve and structurally inefficient in the defeat to Real Madrid in 2013 – as Guardiola admitted in ‘Pep Confidential’. A year later, he experimented with aggressive, man-to-man marking against one of the greatest collections of attacking talent and brilliance the sport has ever seen. At the third attempt, Guardiola was largely blameless. Tactically his side was spot on, nullifying the threats of Atletico on the break, while peppering the box with enough quality to create chances. A missed penalty by the usually-reliable Thomas Müller could have made all the difference.
Legacy is the buzzword surrounding the conjecture around Guardiola’s time at Bayern. What exactly is considered a legacy at Bayern? And how is that quantified in modern football? “Titles are just numbers,” replied the Bayern coach, when asked about the importance of leaving with a haul of trophies. Championships and prizes are important, but process is everything to Guardiola. This mindset is shared throughout the club, too.
As was similarly the case before, the ideas and structures installed by Van Gaal required a late tinkering by Heynckes to get the best results. Van Gaal, for all his continued flaws, is arguably the most significant Bayern coach of the modern era. Without the Dutchman, there’s no Heynckes – and thus, there’s no treble. It’s not asinine to think Ancleotti’s grandfather-like effect could take Bayern closer to similar success.
Yet there appears to be a need to make constant comparisons. One has to be better, more successful than the other, more media-savvy than the other, ignoring the idea that ideas and visions are transient over many years. What is laid down now won’t dissipate the minute the Italian walks through the door in July. Bayern certainly don’t see it as a change – this is all part of the same strategy.
As the curtain is slowly dropped on his time in Germany, the former Barcelona coach was visibly emotional in his post-game press conference. “I’ve helped the players here, we’ve played as well as we could and I’m very satisfied with the performances that we’ve given. Maybe it just wasn’t enough,” said the Bayern coach. “I’ve done my best. I’ve given my life for this club from the first minute to the last. It is what it is.”
In other words, that’s football.
Having reached the semi-finals in every season as a head coach, Guardiola is judged by his own inflated standards and expectations. If he’s not innovating, he’s boring. If he’s boring, he’s not an innovator. Perhaps Guardiola’s Bayern are the beat team in Europe. Perhaps they’re not, and have rode their luck.
But the fact is that the German champions haven’t been able to prove that by winning the Champions League. That’s not to suggest they are or have failed. Maybe Guardiola’s success has come in some areas, while he has failed in others and been unlucky in certain situations. The considerable grey area around the ‘Pep Project’ makes establishing a legacy almost impossible.