Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

Is The World's Best Manager Good Enough For Bayern Munich?

Illustration for article titled Is The Worlds Best Manager Good Enough For Bayern Munich?

On July 27th, just months after the end of Pep Guardiola's first campaign as coach of Bayern Munich—one in which his team won four titles and dominated the Bundesliga like a counselors' team in a summer camp league—Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Bayern's chairman, did something strange. While discussing whether Bayern's players might suffer a World Cup hangover, Rummenigge said, among other things, that "FC Bayern will never fire Pep Guardiola." On the one hand, it was a challenge to Bayern's World Cup stars, suggesting they couldn't hide behind the manager if they failed to perform. On the other, it was a preemptive defense of Guardiola. This isn't the first time Rummenigge has defended his manager, who has been criticized by fans, pundits and ex-players throughout his first year at Bayern, but this was different. Why mention Guardiola's job security at all? And why do it before the season even began? Rather than put to bed the ongoing, whispered speculation over Guardiola's future, Rummenigge lent credence (again) to the idea that not all is well in Bavaria, that Bayern might not be completely satisfied with its manager or vice versa.

It's never good when your boss makes guarantees about your continued employment (just ask David Moyes). Pep must have heard these comments and wondered, What must I do? The thing is, there's not much he can do. Another Champions League win probably wouldn't quiet the haters. What is certain, however, is that watching the Guardiola predicament play out will be one of the more interesting subplots in this Bundesliga season.

How did it come to this? Guardiola might have been the world's most renowned coach going into the 2013-14 season, but his new gig came with the world's most unreasonable expectations. Bayern had just finished the greatest season in its 114-year history, and the Bayern brass expected Guardiola not to just maintain the standard set by Jupp Heynckes, who led Bayern to German soccer's first treble in 2013, but put his own stylistic stamp on the team.


To complicate matters, Heynckes' retirement was a bit muddled. He never seemed completely ready to leave Bayern, even as the club courted and signed Guardiola. If you weren't paying attention, you could be forgiven for thinking Bayern had preferred Guardiola to Heynckes, reputation to results. So Guardiola didn't start his tenure in Munich with the absolute maximum of goodwill. He was an outsider replacing a hero.

In the end, Guardiola came pretty damn close to defending Heynckes' treble, falling in the Champions League semifinal but winning the league and cup double. While you can forgive Guardiola for not winning the Champions League (you can't win 'em all), his tactical approach and style of play frustrated critics. "The most recurring criticism [has to do with] him breaking his word early on," a long time Bayern Munich supporter, Kristina Koch, told me by email. "He came to the club saying that he would adapt his system to the players, not the other way around, just to then squeeze players into roles that didn't fit."

The sum of those roles equaled a style of play resembling a less well-tuned version of the suffocation-through-possession strategy Guardiola's Barcelona performed so well. This, with a lot of lateral passing and little outside shooting, was in sharp contrast to Bayern's pack-of-wild-dogs, jugular-focused attack under Heynckes (the directness of which was, incidentally, similar to 2014 Real Madrid's). This is a team that wasn't broken, but one that Guardiola had come in and fixed anyway. In May, Franz Beckenbauer said the team was "going to end up being unwatchable, like Barcelona." After the first-leg defeat to Real Madrid, another former Bayern legend, Stefan Effenberg, said "Guardiola's system reached its limit."

Guardiola's failure to respect the remaining Bundesliga fixtures after winning the title in March opened him up to additional criticism. He played scrubs and youngsters instead of the stars, whom he saved for the Champions League. When his team lost 3-0 at home to Dortmund, he was accused of failing to understand Germany's soccer culture, where "fair play" is an often-discussed sporting ideal. "I've always taken pride in the fact that Bayern teams played to win after they've secured the championship in the past. I know there were games when the team showed up hungover, but that was another football generation," said Koch. "Bayern owe their titles in 2000 and 2001 to the fair play of other teams: Unterhaching [2-0 vs Leverkusen on the final match day] and Stuttgart [1-0 vs Schalke on the second to last match day, respectively] had nothing to gain and still went for it."


Now that the excitement of Guardiola, Year One has begun to wear off, it'll be interesting to see whether and how much the Catalan pushes back against his critics. The season just began, and, refreshingly, he's showed a willingness to adjust his tactical approach, playing with three in the back throughout preseason. (He then undermined much of that work by fielding an under-strength squad in the Super Cup, which Bayern lost to Borussia Dortmund.)

Whether Guardiola can continue to manage a locker room with 25 first-team players—one that he doesn't have complete control over, signing-wise—is another factor. Although Bayern are doing great transfer business this offseason, Real Madrid are the European team over the last few years with a worse case of Shiny New Thing Syndrome; neither team is afraid to buy players it doesn't necessarily need just to have them. Götze is the prime example here. (You could scratch your head, a little, at Shaqiri and Thiago, too.) A great player, obviously, but did Bayern need him, or was it more of a case of Bayern not wanting Dortmund to have him? Regardless, the team's depth is a final catch-22 for Guardiola, allowing him to field a competitive team in all competitions but restricting the opportunities for young players emerging from the academy.


Maybe the real problem is that Guardiola is one of Bayern's shiny new things. He's a prestige piece. He's been shoehorned into a system that isn't designed for him and might run just fine without him. Though it's crazy to think Bayern would fire Guardiola at the end of the season, it wouldn't be surprising if, titles or no, Guardiola packs up at the end of the season and moves to a place where he's needed just a little more, a place where all he has to worry about is what he's best at: winning.

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