From the day the announcement was made, I had never questioned Bayern’s decision to hire the worlds most sought-after manager until Jupp Heynckes’ machine trounced the very same Barcelona side built by his would-be successor. My fear that Guardiola would weaken Bayern’s tenacity with a more elegant, attacking but unstable approach came to fruition this past Saturday in the first competitive match of the German season, the German Supercup.
As Marco Reus tapped in the fourth goal from close range during the DFL Supercup, one couldn’t help but feel a sense of déjà vu from the 2011-12 Pokal final where Shinji Kagawa and company repeatedly tore through the Bavarian midfield in waves of counter attacks as Bayern crashed to a 5-2 defeat that night. This night was different, as Bayern played a new system with plenty of intricate passing sequences and ball hogging, but the score line was an eerily similar result to previous encounters between the teams. On the back of a glorious, all-conquering treble winning 2012-13 season, it was a strange sight to see Bayern suffer such a loss, and it came as a surprise. Many may blow off the result as the Bavarians getting the hang of the new system implemented by their new rock star manager, but certain doubts remain.
Bayern had to start the game without Ribery, Gotze, Neuer and Martinez who all had to sit out due to minor injuries. Schweinsteiger, who was not fully fit, did not start the game and was subbed in late on. Thiago and Kroos attempted to pull the strings in midfield behind attackers Shaqiri, Muller, Robben and Mandzukic. The experiment seemed to backfire badly as Bayern looked porous despite all their pressing and possession. Thiago played defensive midfield in the new 4-1-4-1 formation and was overrun by Dortmund’s energetic duo of Sven Bender and Gundogan in midfield. The Bavarians struggled to contain the swift movement of the buzzing black and yellow shirts. The goals came as they were caught out on the break, although two of the goals were a result of a comical error by the stand-in keeper Starke and a deflected own goal by Van Buyten.
Guardiola’s 4-1-4-1 seemed to lack any sort of cohesion defensively in the center of the park as too many players pushed forward and were caught out on the break. The formation seemed to be laden with problems. Thomas Muller, who usually thrives behind the striker or out on the wing, was largely ineffective in a more conservative role. Robben seemed to be pegged back and was constricted despite his two goal contribution. Bayern played a possessive game that was impressive at times but the dangerous wing play of last season was markedly reduced, although one might argue that this was due to Ribery’s absence on the left. The game was similar to Bayern’s unimpressive 2-0 win in the friendly over a second-string Barcelona side where Bayern were caught repeatedly on the break but were unpunished. Such problems were absent from the side under Jupp Heynckes; a side that was built on strong foundations of combining defensive solidity with possession, fluidity, and lethal attacking movements.
It may be ridiculous to press the panic button just yet in light of the relevance of the game and absence of key players. Bayern were without arguably one of their most creative players in Franck Ribery. The Bavarians have often struggled to create chances without him in the past and have always relied on his creativity and mazy runs down the left wing. Furthermore, the absence of Martinez and a fully fit Schweinsteiger was obvious for all to see on Saturday night. The duo formed the core of Bayern’s midfield last season. And lastly, Bayern were without their newly acquired asset in Mario Gotze, whose creativity and spark would surely add a new dimension to Bayern’s attack. Although the result is worrying, it is still very early in the season and the players are learning a new system they had to play in the sweltering summer heat wave.
But why is the system being changed? With Schweinsteiger and Martinez providing the very foundation of the side, Bayern were simply impeccable last season. Their combination allowed them to beat everyone and win everything. Despite the glaringly obvious, Guardiola seems intent on restructuring Bayern. Pep abandoned the 4-2-3-1 based system, which was based on a central pivot and has thrown caution to the wind with this new 4-1-4-1 where midfielders are simply crowded into attacking positions. Although it may be too early to judge, Guardiola’s system seems to lack stability despite its success so far against smaller opposition in the preseason. Doubts remain over its effectiveness against Germany and Europe’s finest. While Bayern can increase the goal tally against the Hamburgs and Augsburgs of the world with these new tactics, teams with the caliber of Borussia Dortmund are more than capable of exploiting the most minor of chinks in the armor of any given side. It is also frustrating to see fine players like Muller and Kroos being diminished and other players like Gustavo and youth players being completely pushed aside to accommodate Thiago, which to me despite his raw talent still seems like a needless purchase.
Although one can only hope that the players eventually adapt to the new system, the most worrying development of Saturday night was the new manager’s choice to leave Luiz Gustavo unused on the bench. Pep’s decision to leave out an accomplished defensive midfielder and Confederation Cup hero on the sidelines in favor of playing Thiago in defensive midfield, a position which he is unfamiliar with, was baffling. Another puzzling decision was to bring on the central defender Dante for Toni Kroos when Bayern were chasing the game. Guardiola’s new tactics and desire to restructure the midfield were always questionable considering the success of last season but strange substitutions and choice of lineup make me question his judgment and decision-making. Although it is still early days in the Guardiola era, one cannot help but feel that Pep may have lost the plot already. Having said that, Pep lost his first competitive match while coaching Barcelona, and at the end we all know how his first season ultimately turned out.