Late on the 21st May 2016, Pep Guardiola’s three-year spell as the manager of Bayern Munich came to an end. It was an emotionally charged evening for him; an intense, edgy game against Borussia Dortmund in the DFB-Pokal final at the end of a long season which went all the way to penalties. As Douglas Costa finally struck home the winning spot-kick, securing the cup for the Bavarian side, the Spaniard broke down on the touchline. His head was placed firmly in his hands. Tears came. Feelings were poured out. And just like that, it was all over.
As someone who puts his heart and soul into football, Guardiola being reduced to such an evidently drained state was no surprise. Winning the cup would’ve been an enormous relief to him, but this seemed to be about so much more than just that. It was an outburst of everything he’d put into his latest German-based project. A true reflection of him, of his sheer meticulousness as a coach, of the expectations he places upon himself to do everything at his absolute best – the things that complement his wonderful mind to make him the best around at what he does.
They’re the reasons that he’s won so much at Bayern. It was quite fitting that he was invited to lift the trophy in the ceremony after the game by Philipp Lahm, a player who’s been incredibly vocal about his support for his manager and how he’s helped him to improve as a footballer even at such a late point in his career. He widely acknowledges the magnificent job that Pep has done. Even if, perhaps, for a number of reasons, there’s a significant portion of people who don’t.
A lot of that revolves around the insatiable demand for glory placed upon Guardiola when he joined. Following on from the historic treble win that the much-loved club legend Jupp Heynckes led the club to in his final season, there was already a huge shadow set to be cast over whatever the Spaniard would go on to do in Munich before he even arrived. His own reputation and past success at Barcelona was a significant burden to carry too; and because of Bayern’s size, status and financial wealth compared to most other sides in Germany, anything he achieved on a domestic level was bound to be played down as well.
Yet what he did in the country really shouldn’t be knocked. With that cup final win, Guardiola leaves Germany with seven trophies added to his name. Two of those were the 2013 editions of the UEFA Super Cup and the Club World Cup, competitions which they got in the position to win as a result of the previous success under Heynckes, but three Bundesliga titles and two DFB-Pokal trophies are awards that you could say were ‘fully’ his own.
In earning those Guardiola became only the third manager in the Bundesliga to ever win three consecutive league titles (Ottmar Hitzfeld and Udo Lattek, on two occasions, being the others), while also following on from his predecessor’s excellent work by turning Bayern into the first club to have ever topped the league four seasons in a row. And not only did he simply win the titles, because in reality that’s something of an expectation for them every season, the unprecedented, incredibly controlling manner in which he achieved them is something to go down in history.
They held at least a 10-point advantage over second place in all three seasons, scored a minimum of 80 goals every year, and the most goals they conceded was a mere 23. His side also recorded 25 or more wins in each of the campaigns; something that’s now only been done six times in the 53-year history of the tournament. Overall, his win percentage in the Bundesliga was an utterly ridiculous 80.4%. It’s easy to belittle Guardiola’s winning of the league due to the perceived lack of competition posed to them in a country they’ve largely dominated since the 1970s, but doing it in a way which few, if any others have ever done? Now that deserves the utmost respect.
And that ‘lack of opposition’ argument is something of a myth for the season that’s just finished, anyway. Thomas Tuchel’s wonderful Dortmund side had an exceptional year, not only just narrowly losing that cup final but also pushing Bayern all the way to the last couple of matchdays in the league. In fact, up to and including 2012/13, Heynckes’ final year at the Allianz Arena, BVB’s performance would’ve been enough to win them the title in all but four seasons of the Bundesliga’s existence. Yet their challenge was held off – and it’s pretty telling that even the worst league season of Guardiola’s tenure still saw them pick up more points than Tuchel’s team did.
Jürgen Klopp’s version of Dortmund, who with the exception of one freak campaign in his final year are widely recognised as Bayern’s most consistent challengers in the 21st century so far, were hardly a bad side to come up against for a short time either. Maybe it’s not quite the most competitive league for them overall, but it’s been a tougher environment for Guardiola to triumph in than many people are willing to acknowledge. Getting five out of the six major domestic trophies available to him in that time, and then only losing on penalties to Klopp’s team in the semi-finals of the DFB-Pokal in 2014/15, is truly remarkable.
One manager (or club) winning that many major national cup and league titles over the course of three years is also a feat that’s never been accomplished in Germany since the Bundesliga’s inception. Over the course of this spell Guardiola has been, in so many performance-related ways, quite possibly the most successful manager in the history of club football in the country. Undermining that success seems slightly ludicrous.
Even more than the domestic side of things however, the most divisive factor surrounding the job that the Spaniard has done at the Allianz Arena revolves around Bayern’s performances in the Champions League. With Heynckes getting that trophy as part of the treble in his last year and the club having reached the final of Europe’s elite competition three times in four seasons at that point, Guardiola’s own previous record in the tournament on top of that meant that the expectations of performance on a continental stage were beyond sky-high.
And as we all now know, he didn’t win it. For him, that’ll almost certainly be his biggest personal regret. For fans of the club, it will be too. Combining probably the most intelligent, talented and tactically flexible coach in the game with a gigantic side like Bayern sounds like the closest thing you can get to a guarantee of a European trophy. But it still didn’t happen. That’s a big disappointment.
To deny that would be impossible. To decisively dub not winning it a failure however, and to then go on and label Guardiola one as a result, is something else entirely. Because not only does it show utter disregard for everything he did on a domestic level, it’s also a rash conclusion brought about by ignorance of any context surrounding how he did in the Champions League: on top of just how erratic the competition is and how tough it can be to win it.
The Spaniard still took Bayern to the semi-finals of the tournament every season anyway, so it’s not as if his side were regularly going out in the early stages against poor teams. It was actually the three different heavyweights from his own country of birth who went on to knock them out each time. And like with any football game, the end result of those ties is far from the full story of what happened.
In 2013/14, when Bayern went out to Real Madrid, they controlled the first leg away from home and were unfortunate to lose 1-0 at the Santiago Bernabéu. Throughout the course of preparation for the return game though, as mentioned in Martí Perarnau’s book, Pep Confidential, Guardiola “swithers between patience and passion and ends up going for passion”; drastically changing how he originally planned to approach the game. They ended up losing 4-0 at home, being destroyed by set-pieces and counter-attacks, Pep going on to describe his late changes afterwards as “the biggest fuck-up of my life as a coach.”
While he fully takes responsibility for that, he need not do so for how they went on to exit the competition a year later against his former side, Barça. With numerous key players like David Alaba, Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben all out injured, Bayern went into the tie with a heavily-depleted side. The notion of possession and controlling the ball remained intact, but with their most efficient sources of penetration absent things were heavily against them from the off. Without their best individuals, against a side who contrastingly had quite probably the most talented attacking trio of all-time, it would’ve been something of a miracle if they somehow managed to go through.
And that brings us to this season, where Atlético Madrid knocked them out. Though the defeat in the first leg was warranted and hard to argue against, they heavily dominated at the Alllianz Arena in the second and had the better chances by some quite considerable margin (Diego Simeone described their first-half performance in that game as “the best team I have faced in my career”). Saying that Simeone’s Atleti didn’t merit going through would be something of a disservice to them, but saying Bayern deserved to go out is very harsh. And if Thomas Müller had scored the penalty in the home game that would’ve put them ahead on aggregate then who knows how things would’ve turned out.
Ultimately they went out to the away goals rule though – and more often than not, it’s these thin margins that decide ties at the highest level. It’s for those sorts of reasons that judging success purely on whether a knockout cup competition was won or not is incredibly dangerous. There’s only so much control that a manager can ever have on a single game, and luck can prove to be a huge factor. Consistently progressing into the latter stages, hoping for a somewhat favourable draw and then doing everything you can to get the rub of the green is realistically the best that should ever be expected. The history books will say that it was ‘just’ three consecutive semi-final appearances, but things could’ve gone differently oh so easily.
If not for Heynckes’ prior success, maybe what he’s done would be looked upon in a different light more widely. It should be, really. Based on Bayern’s overall record in the competition since 1993/94 (the first season where there was both a group stage and a semi-final stage, to make it easier for comparative purposes), he’s actually done a lot more on the European stage than the majority of other managers at the club have.
In all of the 20 seasons from that point until Guardiola’s arrival, the Bavarian giants reached – at least – the semi-finals of the competition in 35.0% of the years. If you strip that down to just include the 16 occasions where they actually qualified for it, that becomes 43.8%. Those numbers are quite heavily inflated by that recent run of appearances in the final since the turn of the decade too; after winning it in 2000/01, they never even reached the semi-finals again until 2009/10. Yet the Spaniard did it all three times without fail.
So while Heynckes and also Louis van Gaal before him were the ones who helped to reinitiate Bayern’s run of consistent progression into the latter stages of European competition for the club, Guardiola has built upon it and kept them at the top table. All while balancing that with a never before seen level of domestic dominance and the rebuilding of the team to create even more great foundations for his own successor, Carlo Ancelotti, to follow.
That’s the other thing. There also seems to be this notion that the German club hired Guardiola with the expectation of him winning the Champions League. And while they would’ve undeniably hoped that he could go on to do it, because of the sheer difficult of doing so no sane board would demand such a thing from their manager. Pep was brought in to do much more than that: to create a legacy. To reshape the squad and evolve his players to new highs through thorough, top class coaching. To introduce brand new, revolutionary concepts to the club. To replicate what he’s done at Barça, effectively.
In that regard he’s been a huge success. Older players who either didn’t fit the style of playing or had surpassed their peaks like Dante (31 years old when he was sold), Mario Gomez (28), Mario Mandzukic (28) and Bastian Schweinsteiger (30) were let go and replaced at the right times, while their increasingly injury-prone pair of star wingers, Ribéry and Robben, have slowly been phased out of the side this year in favour of fresh talent. Meanwhile, other players already with the team like Alaba, Jérôme Boateng and the club’s captain, Lahm, have really developed as footballers in a number of ways under his tutelage.
He’s pushed a lot of his younger signings to reach new heights as well – Juan Bernat, Kingsley Coman, Douglas Costa, Joshua Kimmich, Robert Lewandowski and Thiago, all the age of 25 or under upon their arrival in Munich, notably improving. A couple of the older purchases have proved to be a bit hit-and-miss, though their experience and talent (which for the most part Pep still managed to mould to suit him) has proved vital to not only helping out the youngsters but also for balancing the team and ensuring the maintenance of short-term triumphs while the future is also being prepared for.
Throughout that gradual reshuffle Pep had also of course simultaneously implemented his instantly recognisable way of playing, something that the senior board members of the club have been desiring for some time. If you watched them without knowing who the team or players involved were, you’d be able to tell straight away that it’s a Guardiola side. Taking over Heynckes’ squad like he did and drastically changing the style, yet remaining incredibly successful regardless of that, takes some doing.
Tons of the tactical ideas within those alterations have been truly sensational; from getting his full-backs to dominate games by controlling the half-spaces to the consistent use of numerical overloads on one side to create qualitative superiorities on the other, there’s countless innovations that have been thought of and replicated in the building of this team. Many similar to those done with his Barça side, plenty wildly different. It’d be impossible to go through them all. Hell, it’d be tough to even try and name all the individual formations and shapes they’ve played in, let alone that. There was an incredible flexibility about them. This Bayern team is one of the most unique that you have had, and ever will have, the pleasure to see.
And that, away from all the trophies, away from all the glory, is the real beauty of Guardiola. It’s not just that he wins, it’s that he does it in a way that everyone remembers and that so many want to copy. To look beyond such a thing, purely at leagues won or cup semi-finals lost, feels wrong. There’s something very cold about it.
Manchester City’s appointment of Txiki Begiristain as their director of football in 2012, a role which he performed in Barcelona while Guardiola was there, shows that. They’ve been preparing for him for quite some time. They’ve wanted Pep for years. And having announced it earlier this season, he’s now heading off to England – where, much like Bayern were back in 2013, his new club will be hoping that the Spaniard can reproduce what he did at Barça. Except now they’ll also want him to do what he’s done in Munich, too.
Perhaps not winning the Champions League means that this side won’t go down in history quite as much as it should do. Maybe with time, if their accomplishments and the beauty of this side is recognised to its full extent, it will. Hopefully it is. Because over the last three years Pep has created a team worth remembering.