It’s why the Bayern Munich manager plans with a back three this season; why Philipp Lahm is no longer a fullback; and why he ordered the acquisition of Thiago Alcantara last summer. It also explains why, at Thursday’s press conference, Guardiola’s forehead folded into more wrinkles than usual.
Where last year Guardiola was spoiled for choice, midfielders are suddenly scarce goods in Munich at the dawn of the new Bundesliga season.
Thiago and Bastian Schweinsteiger remain out for an uncertain amount of time with knee injuries. French winger Franck Ribery hasn’t practiced for weeks. World Cup champion Toni Kroos was offloaded to Real Madrid. Javi Martinez, who Guardiola planned to use as the heart of the new backline, tore his ACL in last week’s German Super Cup loss to Borussia Dortmund.
Coupled with the injury of right back Rafinha and the suspension of Jerome Boateng for Friday’s opener against Wolfsburg, the personnel crisis has thrown a giant monkey wrench in Guardiola’s plans.
"Tomorrow, we don’t have any right backs. I have to adjust," the manager told reporters Thursday. "I don’t want to ask my players to do something they are not comfortable with."
He may have to, at least for now.
David Alaba is in line to deputize in his preferred midfield role, while Valencia signing Juan Bernat will likely play on the left wing. But with Dante and the regenerated Holger Badstuber the only remaining defenders on the squad, Guardiola needs to either get innovative or revert to his old system.
Lahm figures to steadfastly remain in midfield, unlike on Germany’s World Cup-winning side. That would leave either newcomer Sebastian Rode or the promising 19-year-old Pierre Hojbjerg, both learned midfielders, to slot in at right back.
"Our build-up play is better with three defenders, but with a four-man line you’re maybe more stable. All systems have their pros and cons," Guardiola said, before acknowledging he hasn’t made up his mind for Friday.
To ease his dilemma, help may be on the way.
Guardiola wouldn’t comment on transfer rumors Thursday, but had publicly called for another defender when Martinez went down. According to overwhelming media reports, Bayern are courting Roma’s Mehdi Benatia, lauded as one of Serie A’s top defenders last season. The Morocco national team captain would be an expensive "notlÃ¶sung," or stop-gap solution, carrying a price tag of a reported $40 million. Other names tossed around are Atletico Madrid star Diego Godin and Athletic Bilbao’s Ander Iturraspe, who, like Martinez, can play both in midfield and defense.
No matter how it plays out, Guardiola expects a much tighter Bundesliga race than his first season in Munich.
"The next two months are going to be very dangerous, very, very difficult," he admitted, "but if we’re in good position by the winter break, I think we will play another good season, like last season."
Bayern fans are well aware that their record after World Cups is rather ordinary. They’ve won the Bundesliga just twice after the previous six World Cups, often due to slow starts. With Bayern’s large contingent of international stars still lacking match fitness after a long summer, Guardiola is preaching patience.
"I already said in Dortmund that we are not in our best form," Guardiola said. "We have to find a different solution for the situation that we’re in."
That solution? "Run, run, run. Simply play, and run," Guardiola said with a forced smile. He knows it’s usually his opponents who do the running.
Starting with Wolfsburg on Friday, Bundesliga clubs would be well-advised to attack this tired and worn thin squad. The opportunity is there for the likes of Dortmund, Leverkusen and Schalke to gain a step on Bayern, but it won’t be there for long.
The time will come when Guardiola welcomes back Thiago, Ribery and Schweinsteiger — the midfielders he loves, and needs.