It may have taken nearly two months for him to figure out, but Pep Guardiola seems to have finally discovered the correct combination that brings the most out of the array of talent at his disposal at Bayern Munich. After a string workman-like performances and lackluster victories, Bayern finally appear to have turned the corner and switched gears with a pair of dominant displays.
A thumping 4-0 win over Schalke 04 at the Veltins Arena on Saturday night signaled the arrival of the Bayern Munich side that Bundesliga spectators were so accustomed to watching last season. After a few Bundesliga games, including the Supercup loss to Dortmund, Pep recently revealed that the most important thing he had learned in German football was to control counter attacks of opponents.
Bayern were finally able to curb them on Saturday night in the Bundesliga as the Bavarians’ played with potency and ruthlessness in attack that were only matched by their defensive prowess and positional perfection. Die Konigsblauen are a tough test for any side and are one of Germany’s four representatives in the Champions League. On their day, they are a highly competent side that can be lethal on the counterattack. Jefferson Farfan, Julian Draxler, Adam Szalai and star signing Kevin-Prince Boateng are capable of combining with devastating effect. However Schalke’s threats on the counter were completely nullified by Bayern. Time and again the Royal Blues were repeatedly shut down by a strong collective defensive movement from the Bavarians.
Pep started with what looked like his usual 4-1-4-1 on paper but Schweinsteiger seemed to have dropped deeper alongside Lahm in midfield as the two dominated the pitch imperiously. With their off the ball pressing game in full flow, Bayern were always two or three steps ahead of Schalke and snuffed out any hint of a threat when not in possession. The players in midfield seemed to have finally bought into Pep’s philosophy as they regularly shuffled their places in midfield and put in a very strong collective effort in defense. The convincing defeats of CSKA Moscow and Schalke showcased the true potential of Guardiola’s tactics, the same tactics that seemed to set the team back initially in the season.
Guardiola’s new 4-1-4-1 formation at the start of the season seemed to be fraught with problems as die Roten were forced to grind out wins in laborious fashion. They looked weak at the back, cluttered in the middle and blunt at the front. Thomas Muller, who typically thrives behind a striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation, seemed to look lost at times in the new set up while Ribery and Robben initially weren’t as threatening as they started from deeper positions compared to last year.
Since then the team has shown flashes of dominance for periods of 20-30 minutes in games while looking dormant for the rest of the 90. The pattern continued as injuries to Martinez, Schweinsteiger, Kirchoff, Thiago and Gotze meant that Guardiola was forced to try new combinations in central midfield. After the departures of central midfielders Tymoschuk and Gustavo, the new manager had to innovate as Lahm was shifted into defensive midfield. The move seemed to be successful as Bayern faced their first real test against Chelsea in the UEFA Supercup. The Bavarians were able to huff and puff past Chelsea in a thrilling match without the services of midfield talisman Bastian Schweinsteiger. Bayern were nowhere near their full potential in that game and they struggled to cope with Chelsea’s counter attacks but ultimately fought back impressively and ended up with the first piece of silverware of the season. The courageous win papered over some deficiencies of a growing Bayern side that were yet to hit their peak. As with any new regime, a new manager is often granted a grace period where he is excused for any minor bumps or slip ups. Mid-September marked the ending of this period as the groups stages of the UEFA Champions League commenced. Sammer’s criticism after the Hannover game and the subsequent debate within the Bayern hierarchy that ensued showed it was business time for Guardiola; the honeymoon period was over.
The team went on to respond to the criticism with aplomb. Bayern embarked on their Champions League title defense against CSKA Moscow in what was the first truly convincing win of the season. The Bavarians controlled the game throughout. It was the first performance of the season where Bayern played efficiently for the full 90 minutes. The Champions League opener and the subsequent victory in Gelsenkirchen over the weekend all but confirm that Bayern are well and truly back, and possibly even stronger than before. Tougher tests await die Roten, however. A red-hot Manchester City side who are finally playing up to their potential under Manuel Pelligrini await the Bavarians next Wednesday. The trip to the Etihad Stadium will be the perfect opportunity for Bayern to measure themselves against world class opposition and see where they stand. But regardless of what lies ahead, the Bavarians can well become a terrifying prospect for any opposition in Europe once all their weapons are available and ready for use.
Lahm, despite being a revelation in midfield so far, should be expected to slot back into his familiar right back position and relegate Rafinha to the bench in order to make way for Martinez in midfield. Guardiola seems content with Dante and Boateng as his center back pairing. It is therefore unlikely that Pep would sacrifice Martinez’s ball winning abilities in midfield by playing him in central defense.
With Thiago and Gotze also recovering from injuries and set to make their respective returns sooner or later, there are endless amounts of combinations and options for Pep to choose from. The comeback of such stars will further augment an already intimidating looking Bayern line-up. After recent changes, hiccups, uncertainty and criticism, Pep’s vision finally seems to be coming into fruition. Despite being faced with the unenviable task of bettering a treble-winning side, the former Barcelona coach may yet succeed with his tactical variations, wealth of options and spectacular vision.
Improving upon perfection always looked like being an insurmountable task, but Pep may have just figured out a way. The sky is the limit for Bayern Munich.