Bayern Munich appear to have it all figured out. A five-point lead at the top of the Bundesliga table; a mere four goals conceded, coupled with a goal difference of +33. They sit top of their Champions League group and are practically assured of a place in the knockout round. Even on an individual level, where injuries have hampered superstars Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, FCB’s helped Robert Lewandowski to an astonishing 14 goals from 11 league appearances. Apart from one night in north London, everything has gone to plan this season for die Roten.
Yet despite their outward dominance, Bayern are caught in limbo. Pep Guardiola, the Barcelona mastermind who signed on to manage the team in 2013, sees his contract run out at the end of the season. And no one knows if the coach, who has already led his side to two Bundesliga titles and one German Cup, will remain at the club.
There are some who believe he should move on. Leading the league just isn’t enough for a club of Bayern’s stature, and a five-point lead over a resurgent Borussia Dortmund doesn’t feel nearly as comfortable as the 11-point cushion they maintained during much of last season. Losing that Champions League match to Arsenal, who’d yet to earn a point on the competition, was a wake up call. Despite another effervescent start, perhaps Bayern isn’t actually moving forward.
The team’s Bundesliga lead might be lessening, but Pep’s critics are grasping at shorter straws than they were last season, when pointing out the coach’s flaws felt justified. Because even while his team coasted to first, the lack of league competition made that title all but inevitable. Dortmund were atrocious for the first half of the season, Schalke were nowhere to be found, Bayer Leverkusen were settling into a new system, and Wolfsburg faded in the final third of the campaign. But even against weakened competition, Bayern was exposed as a side that, despite almost always dominating possession, at times appeared confused as to what to do with the ball. Their sheer talent pulled them through, but the critics had fuel. Many remained unconvinced about Pep’s tactics.
Those doubts were proved right in the Champions League. That tournament is where Guardiola has most needed to get it right, but, much like the previous season, where Bayern embarrassed themselves in a 5-0 aggregate loss to Real Madrid, the tactics failed again. Despite dominating possession against Barcelona in the first leg of the semifinal, Bayern couldn’t muster a single shot on target, and a late surge led by Lionel Messi led to a 3-0 victory. The Bavarians managed a victory in the second leg, but Pep’s return to a three-man backline intent on pressing forward sacrificed attention to defense. Neymar’s two goals meant Barcelona went through to the final.
We’re only a third of the way through the new season and months away from the Champions League final, but there’s much to suggest that this season, Pep has, indeed, got it right. The scorelines alone reflect Bayern’s unrivaled power: not just 4-0s past Köln and Stuttgart, not just a 5-0 against Hamburg, but 5-1s over both Dortmund and Wolfsburg, two of the best teams in the league. Not only are the goals flying in, but the shaky defense is tightening up. The solidarity at the back is surprising considering Pep keeps changing the lineup and making everyone guess as to what formation he’ll be using, but it’s likely the mystery helps unbalance the opposition.
What’s clear, though, is the way three players pursued by Pep have elevated Bayern’s play. Thiago Alcântara was Pep’s first acquisition, bought from Barcelona two years ago, and after a long injury layoff, the Spaniard is dictating the side’s possession and passing. Meanwhile, Douglas Costa and Kingsley Coman, both brought in this summer, are the perfect complements to Lewandowski, providing the crosses necessary to notch all those goals.
The three could be considered the final pieces of a puzzle Guardiola’s been trying to build for years, but it’s still Pep’s mindset that keeps his side constantly chasing perfection. The manager encourages a little unrest in the dressing room in the belief that healthy competition helps keep his players at their best. Last year’s injury crisis didn’t allow his players to challenge each other, but if Guardiola keeps this year’s squad healthy and fighting for places, Bayern can be even more terrifying.
Naysayers remain, of course. Naysayers will always remain. They’ll say Pep can’t get this team a Champions League trophy, and that’s the silverware that’s truly important. But the dramatic improvements Pep’s reinforcements have wrought, combined with the entire team’s enhanced understanding of his preferred tactics, suggests Bayern should do everything in their power to convince the manager to stay.
Meetings will be held during the Bundesliga winter break, meaning Pep and the club won’t yet hold that coveted Champions League trophy. Pep won’t decide based on whether he’s reclaimed that crown. But from what we know about him, the silverware is prioritized by his teams and their fans, not by the man himself. What Guardiola seeks is perfection, a perfection that won’t be found in a knockout tournament, where one mistake, a harsh penalty or an offside goal, can define a team’s future.
Perfection might not be achievable, but the challenge certainly is. For the remainder of this season, he’ll drive his team to be as close to flawless as possible, but after that? What Bayern wants is purely academic. This decision is down to Pep. He has seen this side dominate, he has seen his chosen players integrate, he has seen his possession play pay off. He won’t need to stick around to watch them clear the final hurdle. Not when there are new puzzles to solve.
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