The team in the middle of a crisis, the coach a failure – there have been reports about the end of a mission. Never before has there been such a public discussion regarding Guardiola’s potential early departure from Munich. The debates of the last few days show how messed up the entitlement and expectations have become in Bavaria. Looking at it objectively, Bayern have played a good season, especially considering the circumstances with the World Cup last summer and several injuries to key players throughout the year. They won the Bundesliga well in advance, reached the semifinals in the Champions League and only missed out on the German Cup final due to an absurd shootout against Dortmund. Prior to the season, arguably everyone would’ve accepted such a record, with warnings of World Cup exhaustion and a regression after two years close to perfection being prevalent. Following the World Cups in 2006 and 2010, Bayern finished 10 points behind the respective league champs. Champions League dreams ended in the round of 16 and the quarterfinals. Many predicted a similar scenario for this campaign, even more so after the deserved Supercup loss to Dortmund in preseason.
Exceptional development since 2010
The response of FC Bayern was a brilliant first half of the season that might’ve tricked the media, fans and even players into thinking that everything will continue to go as smoothly as it had been over the last two years. The triple year of 2013, surely the best season in club history, acts as a constant threat to the team. When Uli Hoeneß said at the 2010 AGM that Bayern “have to be a part of that” Champions League final at home in 2012, he was publicly ridiculed. Bayern’s first months of the season had been far from perfect, so that even the Kicker, usually a reputable football magazine, was joking that maybe Hoeneß wasn’t talking about the final but simply qualification for the tournament. All that was only five years ago. Reaching the 2010 Champions League final, the first time since 2001, was seen as more of a lucky streak. Van Gaal’s team struggled to beat Fiorentina in the round of 16, was already dead and buried in Manchester until a crazy run of play and a breathtaking goal by Arjen Robben turned the 0-3 deficit into a 2-3, and stood absolutely no chance in the final against Inter. In the years prior to that, the gap to the European top teams was huge and early elimination was normal. The matches against Milan during the Magath era and the 0-4 loss in Barcelona with Klinsmann as coach painfully demonstrated just how big that gap was.
Bayern did manage to reach the 2012 final in Munich, beating Basel and Marseille, then surviving at Estadio Bernabeu thanks to an outstanding mentality. The heartbreaking loss against Chelsea was followed by the already mentioned triple season. The team had been growing together over years. Key players like Robben, Ribery, Schweinsteiger and Lahm were at their peak, others such as Neuer, Alaba, Boateng and Kroos were about to reach theirs. It all came together. The team looked balanced and at the same time incredibly hungry for success, after the losses of the past. Only Kroos and Badstuber were injured during the crucial phase. The cumulative 7-0 win over Barcelona turned into the symbol of the season. The Champions League final was won closely but deservedly, the 2-1 win over Dortmund meant that Bayern had made it to the top tier of European football again.
Little things decide at the top
That final against Dortmund, the semifinal against Madrid in 2012 and the quarterfinal against Manchester in 2010 all showed how much the little things matter at the top. Both Ribery and Dante could’ve been sent off in the Champions League final. Bayern were all but eliminated against Madrid and Manchester and only turned things around with lots of luck, hard work and willpower. Even the aforementioned 7-0 over Barcelona required not only an exceptional team performance but also a corner kick, an offside position and a missed foul call for the first three goals that made such a domination possible in the first place. It only helped that Messi was injured and out of form.
All those examples demonstrate what a volatile thing success is in knockout tournaments such as the Champions League and German Cup. What would this season be like if referee Gagelmann had awarded Bayern a penalty after the Schmelzer handball or Langerak’s foul on Lewandowski? What if Barca had to play without Messi and Neymar instead of Bayern having to do without Robben and Ribery? Reaching a Champions League final is nothing you can plan or rely on. Despite extreme spendings, Real Madrid didn’t reach a single final between 2002 and 2014. European top clubs such as PSG, Manchester City and Juventus were far away from that for years. That shows just how unhealthy and unrealistic it is to expect a triple.
The triple, that’s what Guardiola is confronted again and again. Of course by journalists but also by parts of the fan base, as many user comments on this website over the last two years have shown. It’s often said that Bayern regressed under Guardiola. Purely mathematically, two titles in 2014 and one title in 2015 are a step back from three titles in Heynckes’ last year. Such an expectation is obviously also tied to the person Guardiola. The reports of his arrival were almost mythical. Every posture and gesture was magnified and interpreted as a special thing. Guardiola was presented as a magician. This attitude still exists, as a comment by Lars Wallrodt, the generally respected football journalist of the newspaper Welt, visualizes. Following the 0-3 loss in Barcelona, he said: “A bit of a miracle would’ve been required against this Barcelona to enter the second leg with some hope. But Guardiola was also hired to perform such miracles.”. It might be the most absurd sentence uttered in the recent debates about the Bayern coach.
All in all a positive record
Guardiola is not a magician, he’s just a very good coach. Possibly the best coach who was available in 2013. He faced the challenge to take over an only minimally changed squad with the task to keep the level achieved in the triple season and to further establish Bayern at the top of club football. He accomplished that. After two years of Bundesliga and Champions League football, he offers the exact same point average as Heynckes (2.3 points per match). Two extremely dominating championships and two Champions League semis are further proof. That Guardiola failed to make his individually inferior team beat Madrid in 2014 and Barcelona in 2015 is a fact that deserves to be judged critically. Giving up on the season after winning the league, subbing off Thomas Müller, staying loyal to Xabi Alonso, taking a suicidal approach with no protection against counter attacks at home against Madrid – all those things are detailed criticism that Guardiola has to face. Turning that into a mission failure or the disenchanting of a coach can only be done by those who had prepared such a fall in the first place, by proclaiming Guardiola to be a coaching miracle and an invincible.
The people in charge of the club need to let these two seasons with Guardiola be a lesson to them that they need to actively shape the expectations of the public and the fans. Whenever journalists say that Guardiola hasn’t met the expectations of the board because they want nothing short of a triple, they don’t deny such statements. There is no indication that this is actually what the board expects but these discussions are being ignored instead of rejected. In the long run that only hurts the club. Not only would it be bad for the coach who couldn’t possibly meet such expectations and would be questioned relentlessly, it would also lead to the club having to increase wage and transfer spendings instead of relying on an internal development and growth with the addition of the occasional star player like they’ve done over the last 5-7 years.
When Bayern have reached the point where the German championship and two semifinals are to be called a lost season, that’s a development where the club itself is on the losing end. The popular saying that the league trophy is the most honest title is more than just an empty phrase, it’s simply the truth. Winning three consecutive championships with such massive gaps is an exceptional feat and nothing to be taken for granted. Even more so for the potential fourth consecutive title next season, which would be a historical achievement. In Gladbach, Wolfsburg, Leverkusen and the reinvigorated Dortmund, there will be four strong challengers. If that saying is meant seriously, the board needs to follow through with it. Nobody expects car parades after winning the league on matchday 31 but it’s remarkable how easily the people in charge allowed themselves to lose control over the power of evaluating a season, causing the atmosphere surrounding the club to heat up and take a negative path.
Even if it doesn’t feel like it yet: the 2014-15 season was better and more successful than I and many others had expected before the season. Regardless of whether or not there’s a turnaround in the second leg against Barcelona. Pep Guardiola played a big role in the team not losing that very high level of play despite the triple, the World Cup victory and numerous injuries. At the same time he made them more flexible and unpredictable in tactical terms. The German Cup final of 2014, the 7-1 win over Roma, the close affairs against Manchester United and Porto all were highlights that went beyond the German league. Aside from the Supercup win over Chelsea in Prague (another shootout), that major success on the European stage has yet to happen. The losses against Madrid and Barcelona were bigger than they had to be.
When you keep things in perspective, that’s a good record for a good coach with a good team. Not more but also not less.