Analysis: How is Pep Guardiola transforming Bayern Munich to play the Barcelona way?
By switching Lahm to a sole holding midfielder the new coach has forged a more attacking line-up
Wednesday 02 October 2013
What do you do with a team of champions? It is the problem facing both David Moyes and Pep Guardiola this season, the hardest balancing act in sport: what to change, and by how much, in order to impose their own character while not losing what made the side so successful.
While Moyes might be criticised for the limits of his ambition at Manchester United, no one can say the same of Guardiola. His goal, as Brian Clough said in an equivalent position nearly 40 years before, was "to win it better". Jupp Heynckes may have won the treble for Bayern Munich last year, but Guardiola wants to do it again, with style.
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Fortunately, the Spaniard knows a thing or two about successful, attractive football. His Barcelona team was the best of its generation, with the trophies and – just as importantly – the performances to prove it.
But there is a difference between FC Barcelona and FC Bayern. At Barça, Guardiola was managing the club he had captained, a team of players nearly all raised playing the same system in the same academy. It was a case of cajoling his squad towards an already shared ideal.
In Munich, though, Guardiola is imposing a foreign system. He needs to convince the players of the merits of his approach and then teach them how to perform it. "The way he wants to play, that needs time," Uwe Rösler, the Brentford manager and BT Sport Bundesliga pundit, told The Independent. "Now you have to tell a team who played one way to play a different way. To get the mechanisms – the relations between the players and the units – optimal, will take time."
In practical terms, that means changing Heynckes' preferred 4-2-3-1 system for a more ambitious 4-1-4-1. Guardiola thinks he only needs one holding player, thereby allowing him two creators and two wingers behind his lone centre-forward. The whole team plays further up the pitch, pressing hard from the front to win the ball back as quickly as possible, with a brisker tempo in possession as well.
And at first it was difficult. Guardiola's first competitive game was the Super Cup against Borussia Dortmund, and he used Thiago Alcantara – the man whose La Masia education should help to integrate the new system – as the holding midfielder. Dortmund ran through Bayern and beat them 4-2.
In the Bundesliga, Bayern were not particularly convincing in their first two league games – wins over Borussia Mönchengladbach and Eintracht Frankfurt – before they could manage just a 1-1 draw at Freiburg, as they slipped two points behind Dortmund.
It was not an easy time and Bayern's sporting director, Matthias Sammer, attacked the players in public, saying they were "playing football without any emotions" and were "hiding behind the coach".
Sammer was felt to have overstepped the mark but his words inadvertently worked. The last few games have been far better, with the new coach finding an unlikely answer to his issue of who to play in that crucial lone holding midfield role. Not Bastian Schweinsteiger, Javi Martinez or Thiago, but Philipp Lahm.
Not an obvious choice, perhaps, but Guardiola – who had coached Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi – said right-back Lahm was "the most intelligent player" he had ever coached. And Lahm's tactical awareness and technical quality have been perfect, freeing up those in front of him to attack.
Since then, Guardiola's Bayern have started to play the football some had hoped of them. The players, it seems, are buying into his approach. In what should have been their hardest game of the season so far, they won 4-0 at Schalke, the favourites for third place. They have won their two games since. Something might be starting to click.
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