In light of the ease with which his team won the Bundesliga title, Pep Guardiola’s first year at Bayern Munich was always going to come down to the very last game of the season. Unfortunately for him and the club, that last game will now be the DFB Cup final against Borussia Dortmund on May 17, not the Champions League final in Lisbon.
“Guardiola, who won the treble with Barcelona at the first attempt, can at least still save the double,” German tabloid Bild wrote on Thursday. “To save the double, at least” would be a curious turn of phrase under normal circumstances but it adequately describes the level of expectation at Säbenerstrasse. If Guardiola wins the final against Dortmund, the crushing defeat by Real Madrid will be forgiven and forgotten. If he doesn’t - and if a defeat is interpreted as a consequence of coaching mistakes - discontent will fester.
Guardiola’s main problem, the unenviable task to improve on Jupp Heynckes’ treble season apart, was perhaps the fact that the team did play well enough in patches to raise hopes of another triumph on all levels. He did win the European Super Cup, against Chelsea, and the Club World Championship in Morocco, but sadly his team never quite played as brilliantly as in the autumn of last year after they came back from the winter break. The 3-1 win at Manchester City in October set a new benchmark in terms of excellence but Bayern fell well short of it in subsequent big games.
The board can see past the Madrid disappointment, if many fans and the media can’t. They value Guardiola’s obsessive attention to detail, his work ethic and a sense of style that has given them more international appeal than ever before.
Thiago Alcantara’s loss to injury was a key factor in that, as well as a discernible lack of freshness and diminished performances from key players like Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dante, Mario Mandzukic and Franck Ribéry. The more defensive approach adopted by teams such as Manchester United and Real Madrid exacerbated Bayern’s problems as well.
The board can see past the Madrid disappointment, if many fans and the media can’t. They value Guardiola’s obsessive attention to detail, his work ethic and a sense of style that has given them more international appeal than ever before. They also, by and large, buy into his footballing ideas. Forget all stories that quote criticism from Franz Beckenbauer. The honorary president changes his opinions on a weekly basis and hasn’t been anywhere near the centre of power for the best part of the decade. The Kaiser’s verdicts are at worst an irritant but they have zero actual bearing on Guardiola's work or standing within the club.
As things stand, Guardiola’s win percentage in his first season in charge (80.3 per cent) is not much worse than that of Heynckes last season (84.9 per cent). And on a tactical level, he’s introduced new variations on the 4-2-3-1 system, with Philipp Lahm playing really well in a holding midfield role and with full-backs that can double up as central midfielders. He also had Bayern playing route one, with long balls in the 3-0 win at Dortmund. All of these tweaks and improvements naturally pale into comparison with the helplessness that Bayern showed against Real Madrid but it’s futile to contemplate if a more defensive set-up would have worked better against the Spaniards. The oft-repeated impression that Heynckes‘ side was fundamentally more direct is wrong: he only used counter-attacking in the ties against Barcelona.
Süddeutsche Zeitung made the pertinent point that Guardiola was not hired to repeat the treble. When Bayern signed him in January 2013, he was expected to push a team that had come fairly close in recent years over the line in the Champions League. No one could have anticipated that he would actually take over Bayern at their peak, as the European champions. The laws of gravity, as well as those of Champions League football (there has been no successful defence of the title) suggested that the most likely way from there was down. Paradoxically, Guadiola’s job will be easier in 2014/15. “The rebuilding in Munich begins now,” Süddeutsche wrote, “it’s what they brought him in for in the first place”.
Bayern's Philipp Lahm has excelled in a holding midfield role this season (Getty)
It looks as if the Spaniard will be able to use the semi-final exit in very much the same way José Mourinho is set do after the 3-1 defeat by Atlético: both coaches will convince their respective boards that they should be given more power to mould their squad according to their wishes in their second season. Bayern don’t expect a clear-out in the summer. But there will be more pressure on under-performing players and those who don’t fit into Pep’s system than on the coach himself.
Elsewhere in the Bundesliga:
“If Hamburger SV don’t take advantage of the chance to beat a Bayern this vulnerable, they don’t belong in the Bundesliga, “ Beckenbauer said on Tuesday night. In Hamburg, however, they’re rather worried that Guardiola’s team will bounce back strongly from the Madrid defeat on Saturday. “They will be hurting and they won’t roll over,” said HSV sporting director Oliver Kreuzer, who also professed doubts about his own side’s chances to stave off the drop. “We will give our everything and it will have to be painful for Bayern in our stadium,” vowed captain Rafael van der Vaart. It’ll probably be more painful for the hosts, though, judging by their recent performances. If VfB Stuttgart (at home to Wolfsburg) pick up any more points from their last two games, the best Hamburg can do is to defend 16th spot against Nürnberg and Braunschweig to give themselves one final chance in the relegation play-offs.
At the other side of the table, third-placed Schalke 04 (at SC Freiburg) are under pressure from Bayer 04 Leverkusen (4th, at Frankfurt) and Wolfsburg (5th). “I expect everyone to perform at their best,” said S04 sporting director Horst Heldt. The best might not be enough in any case for manager Jens Keller, however: there are persistent rumours about a new coach coming in in Gelsenkirchen. Leverkusen, meanwhile, need to hold off Wolfsburg and sixth-placed Borussia Mönchengladbach but seem to have registered one important win already: Cologne-based Express reported that Bayer will sign Nürnberg striker and alleged Arsenal-target Josip Drmic, who also had an offer from Gladbach.