Colleague Marco Henseling spoke with Spox in the summer of 2012 of postmodernism; Klaus Bartels already did so in the ZEIT in 1986. In 2010 even Christoph Biermann, one of the most important German football writers of our time, hit the same note in the TAZ. Basically, postmodernism is merely a belief, in this context, it refers to a use of old ideas in a new guise in football instead of an innovation opportunity.
But what has Guardiola to do with this? As innovations are rare. Arrigo Sacchi’s reduction of space – in Germany propagated by Helmut Groß and his followers – in the late ’80s is considered probably the last innovation. But Guardiola and his most important influence – Juanma Lillo – who with their fusion of offensive and defensive, their use of an organized positional play and their specific use of possession also took their part.
Since then, world football has changed. If you watch ten year old matches today, the difference to the current state of play is dramatic, but ten year old games only look marginally different to the games that were played thirty years ago. The game with the ball is structured, the pace is tremendous – here the symbiosis of the aggressive pressing of Guardiola’s Barcelona was quickly copied and used by many teams. Especially in Germany, where Klopp claimed to be very influenced by Sacchi, this is striking.
What does Pep still have in store? The major strategic innovation is lacking. Many desired a repeated evolution of football in this component, as the Catalan moved to Bayern. It didn’t happen; which is not surprising. In tactical aspects the future ex-Bayern coach continues to be one, if not the best in his field. This is what he demonstrated in his three years in Munich impressively.
Year 1: The search for a common identity
When Guardiola took office, there was a hype rarely seen. His press conference and the first training were staged in a style unprecedented in Germany. At the same time it was an impetus for far too rarely seen tactical considerations. What would Guardiola change at the triple-winner? Should he even change something? To answer these questions, was at least in the blogosphere a reflection on what Guardiola stands for and what thus differentiated him from Heynckes. The mainstream media supported this discussion with important information about Guardiola’s plans. So was correctly reported after the first training, that the new coach would like to use Franck Ribery in the middle.
But Guardiola met some obstacles. The opponents in Germany were, with the world’s second to none focus on pressing and transitional play, purely strategically an unpleasant opponent. Although some Bundesliga teams lacked and still lack high-class structure with ball or some aspects of the classic defensive play when compared to Spanish teams, pressing and counterattacks are widely used at least as good. In addition, players like Ribéry were not completely convinced of individual conversion ideas.
In the first season, a certain discord arose. How much can one deviate from the Heynckes’ football? The basic principles of positional play were indeed established quickly thanks to the quality of Guardiola on the training pitch, but there was a lack of hard to be trained intricacies. The opening runs behaviour of Robben and Ribéry varied between “unclean in positional play” and “too static”. Mandzukic as the spearhead further opened spaces as in the Heynckes era, but his linkup play was too weak and his space opening movements were less valuable due Guardiola’s system. In the centre Guardiola had players who were strong with the ball, but Kroos and even more Schweinsteiger were in their pass rhythm and behaviour with ball not as ideal as Xavi and Iniesta at Barcelona. Kroos quickly adapted, but with Schweinsteiger Guardiola almost always had his troubles.
Guardiola’s key transfer Thiago Alcantara, just like Mario Götze, repeatedly suffered from injuries. Joint highlights as against BVB in the first meeting in the Bundesliga were unfortunately a rarity. During the season Guardiola found solutions to the problems. On the one hand opponent specific adjustments from one game to the next, which mostly hit bulls eye and ensured the earliest championship in Bundesliga history, on the other hand fundamental changes in the system. Especially three measures emerged:
- Lahm as a number six
- Inverted full-backs
- Changed winger roles
To put Lahm on the six was for Guardiola himself the most important move of the season. The captain of the German world cup champion convinces with his enormous game intelligence, his strategic skills and his pressing resistance. He brought decisive strengths to the entire structure of Bayern with and against the ball.
The inverted full-backs were primarily used, when Lahm did not play in the middle. Thus Guardiola managed, to use Lahm and Alaba centrally, which moved the number eights higher and the winger could give width. Kroos on the number six was then the most common complement in the centre of the pitch.
This went hand in hand with the mentioned changes of the winger roles. The game of Bayern was wing oriented in the passing rhythms and breakthroughs were created with wide dribblings, crosses, through balls in the half spaces and fast combinations with the advanced number eights. Bayern ultimately failed against Real Madrid in the second leg of the CL semi-final on those issues that were visible at the beginning of the season: Lack of balance in the defensive coverage, problems in the centre of the pitch, sloppiness in the last third.
This adjustment was a hint to the future development of Bayern.
Year 2: Detail work in the system
In 2014/15 that identity, which should describe Bayern in the next two years, was identifiable early. The transfers already demonstrated this. Bernat as a new full-back, Xabi Alonso on the six, Rode as an alternative in midfield and up front Lewandowski were evidence of a new and clearer focus.
Lewandowski was no “false nine”, no striker type such as Karim Benzema, but similar to Mandzukic, but with massively better skills with ball at his feet. He should provide the opportunity to continue to play long balls, to be able to use crosses into the centre or to act as a lay-off option for the wingers. Alonso was basically a substitute for the transferred Kroos, but the Spaniard brings several important differences compared to German international. Alonso is a stronger sole number six and plays tremendously focused long diagonal balls. For the new system a perfect complement in this regard. Rode brought more dynamic, physical presence and verticality into midfield centre, Bernat became an alternative to Alaba.
Alaba was in fact an important aspect in this second year. Guardiola continued reinforced experiments after the German Cup final against BVB, where the back three was used for the first time in a competitive match. Repeatedly in 2014/15 3-4-3 / 3-4-2-1 systems were played. For Guardiola it is seemed to be important to find out exactly how you should use the wings.
Some games featured a winger (Robben) and a full-back (Bernat) on the sides. In other games two full-backs were used or the team returned to 4-3-3, which was however interpreted often like a 4-4-2. Against the ball Müller often played deeper and in possession next to Lewandowski high in the central spaces. A couple of times there was even a 4-3-1-2 / 4-1-3-2 to be seen – a midfield diamond – which Robben, Ribery and Götze together in front of Alonso and behind two strikers (Hertha, Hoffenheim).
This phase had some great games. In addition to the epic victory against Roma with Robben as a wing back, Alaba’s usage repeatedly caught the eye, who marched as a half-back forward and took a key role in this system. Alonso as a number six in front of a back three also worked better. The combination of Alonso and Schweinsteiger as a double number six still did not work out. However, the increased focus on the wingers became a double-edged sword: Ribéry and Robben were repeatedly absent , in the decisive phase of the season in spring even both of them were often missing.
Although it could be compensated by the outstanding quality against the ball, the individual class and other gimmicks – including a few enhanced counter-oriented games and a focus on crosses for Müller and Lewandowski – for the next season, however, change was needed. Guardiola decided to alter the personnel rather than the system.