BAYERN MUNICH

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Bayern still growing under Guardiola

Champions League: Bayern Munich vs. Viktoria Plzen.
Champions League: Bayern Munich vs. Viktoria Plzen.
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Thomas Hautmann

Thomas Hautmann is an editor and contributing writer to FOXSoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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As good as Bayern Munich have been, the best is yet to come.

Under Josep Guardiola, who took over in late June after taking a one-year hiatus from coaching, the treble-winning season of a year ago has quickly vanished in the rearview mirror. Bayern are hungry again, Guardiola is hungry again, and that is bad news for the rest of Europe.

Imposing one’s own character on an already wildly successful team, while not changing too much, is one of the hardest balancing acts in sports. Yet Guardiola has, so far, done so to perfection. Without revolutionizing predecessor Jupp Heynckes’ winning formula, Guardiola has switched to a more attacking-minded formation and implemented his own ideas. This isn’t Guardiola’s Barcelona 2.0. It’s much, much scarier than that.

With Guardiola employing a 4-1-4-1, Bayern excel even more at controlling the ball and suppressing opponents into their own half. The whole team plays further up the pitch; the wingers switch sides and move into the center constantly, while the speedy, technically-sound fullbacks join the attack, often all the way to the opponent’s touchline. The result: Bayern achieve even more situations in which they’re up a man, making it nearly impossible for their opponents to win the ball back.

A quarter of the way into the season, Guardiola’s vision is already coming to fruition.
According to WhoScored.com, Bayern lead all clubs in Europe’s top five leagues in possession at 71.8%, up a substantial eight percent from a year ago. They are second in pass accuracy at 88.9% (up from 87.4%) and third in shots per game with 19.6, up from 17.1 shots/game in 2012-13.

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So much for the saying if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It seems Guardiola is taking more of an Apple, Inc. approach. If it works, make it work better.

"Honestly, I was a little surprised how quickly the players adapted to my ideas," Guardiola said in a recent interview. "I thought we'd need considerably more time, but the level is already very, very high.”

In terms of production, Guardiola’s Bayern are still trailing Hyenckes’ team from a year ago, with its efficiency in front of goal considerably weaker. But after a somewhat sluggish start to the season -- only by Bayern’s lofty standards -- the team has found a higher gear in October.

Their first match this month -- a magisterial, beguiling 3-1 victory at Manchester City -- should have left the rest of Europe cringing in fear. Bayern let City chase the ball for practically the entire match, toying with their opponents as if it were a summer scrimmage. A beaming Bayern president Uli Hoeness said afterwards, “last year we had a super team. This year we have a super, super team. And a lot of that has to do with Guardiola.”

Three days later, despite hanging on to a 1-1 draw, Bayer Leverkusen's players came away shaking their heads. Captain Simon Rolfes quipped, “if I had to play like this every week, then I’d probably lose some of my passion for football.” This is Leverkusen, mind you, the Bundesliga’s third-best team. Though they trail Bayern by just one point, they looked miles away from Bayern’s class.

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It’s simply not fun to play against this team, and don’t expect that to change. In fact, Bayern will only grow stronger once they return to full strength; consider the fact that Javi Martinez, so important to Bayern’s successes from a year ago; Mario Gotze, the most precocious of Germany’s newest golden generation; and Thiago Alcantara, the Spanish wunderkind whom Guardiola nurtured at Barcelona and couldn’t live without in Munich, have combined for just three starts and eight appearances so far.

Gotze played his first full half in over two months this past weekend against Mainz, and promptly led Bayern to a 4-1 comeback win, having a hand in the team’s first three goals. Finally healthy, Bayern have yet another player who can decide a match at any given moment. Thiago and Martinez, who started practicing again on Sunday, will soon join him.

Bayern’s greatest asset, their flexibility, will then be on full display. Each of Guardiola’s midfielders -- fullback Philipp Lahm clearly included -- can play every position in the center of the pitch, giving him endless possibilities for system variations and in-game adjustments. This was already the case against Mainz, when Bayern woke up from a lethargic first half and ended up breaking the Bundesliga’s all time record for completed passes in a match.

The influx of more talent will also pose some challenges. In a World Cup year, Guardiola must be especially cautious with his rotations. Almost all of his players are internationals clamoring for starting jobs in Brazil next summer, and calls for playing time will grow louder as the games take on more importance.

But if anyone can balance change it’s Guardiola, and that’s bad news for everyone else.

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