This article is part of a partnership with Grup 14, an organization dedicated to Futbol Club Barcelona and supporters around the world. The Pep Episodes is created by Alex Truica and originally published at Grup14.com.
Again a 0:1-defeat, again in the first leg of the semifinal, again against a team from Madrid who played as the underdog at home. It has to be quite a familiar feeling for Bayern Munich and their manager Pep Guardiola. One stroke of genius, and they’re talking about failure again. Saúl’s Messi-esque goal sealed Atletico’s narrow and hard-fought win in the most contrary manner to their usual approach against Bayern, and after the game, the talk is about Guardiola and his Champions League record at Bayern. Three away games against Spanish sides – Real Madrid (0:1), Barcelona (0:3) and now Atleti (0:1) in the first leg of his semi finals, three defeats, no scored goals – and three eliminations.
Wait, they are not eliminated yet, are they?
Of course they are not, but you might get the impression they already are if you’re reading through most parts of Twitter and the German press. Apparently, Pep Guardiola failed miserably again. The biggest accusation is that he left out Franck Ribery and especially Thomas Müller. How can you bench Müller in an important game like this, some asked pretty outraged.
Guardiola explained the reason for leaving out Germany’s prolific goal scorer afterwards at Sky Germany: “I wanted a left foot on the left wing and right foot on the right wing, and one midfielder more.” Guardiola had a clear plan: More stability in the middle of the pitch against Atletico’s “rabid hellhounds” (Süddeutsche Zeitung) while he wanted to attack their usual massive backline wide, with Coman and Douglas Costa as natural wingers opening up the Rojiblancos’ defense. “This plan backfired”, noted Kicker sports magazine, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said the same thing: “Guardiola’s plan didn’t work out.”
Others – the usual suspects, one might say – were harsher. Both Lothar Matthäus and Ottmar Hitzfeld said Guardiola made a mistake in leaving out Müller. “I as a coach can not understand his decision”, former Bayern manager Hitzfeld moaned: “Thomas Müller is as important to Bayern as Lionel Messi is to Barcelona or Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid. He’s one of the best players of Bayern. If Guardiola doesn’t play him, he has to deal with the criticism after a defeat.”
Indeed, he has to deal with it. “Everybody killed me after the game, but I’m not dead yet”, he said Friday, adding: “Our performance was good, the result was not. We still have 90 minutes, and we already showed what we can do in other situations.” And what about the huge pressure and the criticism? Guardiola: “I like to live in these kind of situations.”
He probably doesn’t care too much either. Because it has been more than just a brave and ballsy move to leave out Bayern’s iconic figure Müller out of his line-up. The easy option would’ve been to play him alongside Lewandowski, as usual. But Guardiola went for the bold option, he stuck to his tactical convictions. The plan was a logical one, it made sense – but the thing is: It’s Atleti. If one team knows what it has to do in defense, if one team plays as a real team, as an orchestra, a machine – it’s Simeone’s bulwark.
It’s no shame to lose to them at the Calderon, almost everybody does – and without scoring too. And let’s face it: What if Alaba’s thunderbolt stroke from about 30 yards went in instead against the crossbar, what if Javi Martinez’ header went in, or Douglas Costa’s lob, or Arturo Vidal’s late shot? People and the media would praise the outcome and therefore Guardiola’s approach and tactics. Müller left out? Hey, what a move.
Afterwards, regardless of the bad result, the Catalan lauded his team: “We played incredible, insane. Usually you get maybe one chance against Atletico – but we had plenty. I’m satisfied how we played. 75 percent of our game was great. We did very well.” The first 25 minutes, in which Saul scored after a “picture of a dribbling” (SZ), weren’t that great of course. Atleti pressed, Bayern were impressed. But in the second half, Atleti suffered. They are used to suffer, they seem to even enjoy it at times. In the second leg next tuesday, Bayern and Guardiola have the last chance to prove their haters wrong. Atletico – that’s for sure – will have to suffer again.
The Pep Episodes is a weekly column about the adventures of Pep Guardiola in Munich exclusively written for Grup14 by Alex Truica, a freelance sports journalist and editor. You can follow him on Twitter.