Bayern Munich doesn't skip a beat with Guardiola at the helm
MAR 25, 2014 4:55p ET
There was widespread panic among Bundesliga managers last summer that Bayern Munich, despite a record-breaking treble in 2013, would become even stronger under renowned perfectionist Josep Guardiola. Alas, it appears the competition’s worst fears have been realized.
With Tuesday’s 3-1 win at Hertha BSC Berlin, Bayern wrapped up their title defense in record time on the 27th matchday, one week quicker than it took Jupp Heynckes’ side. It was the club’s 19th consecutive league victory -- another record -- and 52nd game without a loss, six shy of AC Milan’s streak of 58 games from 1991-93 (a record among the “Big Five” European leagues). Plenty more records Bayern set last season will inevitably fall in the weeks to come.
While some warned it would be unfair to expect Guardiola to match Heynckes’ unprecedented success from last season, fewer are surprised he’s doing just that. The man simply knows how to win. Guardiola claimed 14 of a possible 19 titles while at Barcelona. He is now three out of four at Bayern thus far, only losing the pre-season League Cup to Borussia Dortmund.
Of course, it helps that Guardiola inherited a team that was already the cream of the crop. And with the additions of Mario Goetze and Thiago Alcantara to boot, you’d hardly be blamed for thinking anyone could fill out Bayern’s lineup card and see them to another title. Which begs the question: how much of the credit should really go to Guardiola?
Louis van Gaal, the last manager to win the Bundesliga in his first season (Guardiola is the fourth Bayern coach to do so) apparently still views himself as the one responsible for the team’s ascendancy. “I look at Bayern often, full of pride,” van Gaal recently said in a TV interview, because “they are still my players!”
There is a hint of truth in that. Van Gaal did introduce the possession-based game Bayern perfected the past few years, and did make stars out of youth products such as David Alaba, Holger Badstuber and Thomas Muller. If Heynckes is the good uncle who helped raise Guardiola’s current world-beaters, then van Gaal is the grandfather.
Still, Guardiola has raised the watermark just a bit higher this season. In just nine months, the obsessive stickler for perfection, so often seen wildly gesticulating on the sidelines with a four-goal lead, managed to tinker and mold Heynckes’ “Super-Bayern” into an even better, more flexible behemoth of a football team.
The historic success on the field is a product of his direction, meticulousness, innovation and lots of hard work.
For one, Guardiola’s Bayern play with more aggression than ever after adopting a 4-1-4-1 system with one defensive midfielder instead of two. Though it has made them more susceptible to counterattacks, Bayern have never had a tighter grip on the run of play. “Our game takes place in the opponent’s half even more now, and more in the center than on the wings,” says Muller.
When Thiago, Javi Martinez and Bastian Schweinsteiger all missed significant time in the first half of the season, Guardiola desperately needed an alternative in the center of the pitch. Necessity is the mother of invention, but Guardiola had already come up with a Plan B during training camp, one that quickly turned into Plan A full time.
Guardiola moved Philipp Lahm -- one of the world’s best full backs -- to the single pivot role, and the move paid off in spades. The Bayern captain impressed in the new position for most of the season, even after the injured trio returned. So much so in fact, that the public is now openly debating if Lahm should start in the midfield for Germany this summer.
Guardiola's diligent approach with all the players make him just as invaluable as his shrewd ideas. Sometimes, they're intertwined. One of his biggest successes came as a side effect of Lahm's displacement. Guardiola increasingly worked with Rafinha and trusted him to deputize for Lahm full time. It revived the little Brazilian's career. It even has given him a good chance to make the World Cup squad.
Quickly after Guardiola's appointment, Arjen Robben was quickly identified as a player who might not fit in Guardiola’s system and would be forced out after his Champions League heroics. instead, he's blossomed under it, arguably turning in his best season in Munich.
Above all, Guardiola’s incessant desire to win and improve -- the club’s very core ideals -- have made him the perfect fit for this team. “The positive fanaticism, with which this coach works, is truly a new dimension,” club chief Karl-Heinz Rummenigge has often said. “He has an unbelievable gift of getting his team prepared – tactically, physically and mentally.”
Guardiola, meanwhile, only reluctantly talks about his own influence. He’s also a champion of modesty.
“A coach is only good, because he’s at a big club, and has great players," Guardiola said before the Hertha match. "The players deserve the credit."
After the win, he offered: "We worked very hard for this title. When you win with a 25-point lead, people will think it's easy. But it isn't, especially after last season's treble... When you win 19 in a row, that speaks to the mentality of the team."
The work is far from over. With league play now reduced to a formality, Bayern will make a run at a second consecutive treble, the outlook for which couldn’t look more promising. Guardiola can now choose to rest his brightest stars on the weekends and save energy for the big matches remaining in both the UEFA Champions League and German Cup.
Plus, there’s the allure of breaking Milan’s record streak and, by doing so, becoming the first Bundesliga club to have an undefeated season. After all, that’s what perfection is all about.
“In my opinion we can always play even better,” Guardiola says, “I have a feeling we have the right players to take that next step.”
The competition will pray Bayern never get there.