Bayern Munich’s dominance shouldn’t be written off as cynical or boring. Sometimes it’s not just about witnessing greatness—it’s about watching the process that leads to it.
Pep Guardiola continues to redefine what we expect from the world’s best managers. His Bayern Munich side are undefeated in the Bundesliga this season, with 11 wins out of 12, and have already established a staggering goal differential of +33. They won the league title and appeared in back-to-back Champions League semi-finals during his first two seasons in charge. Under his reign, they average a staggering 72% possession per game.
And yet there is talk that Guardiola will leave in the spring, rumors that if he doesn’t capture both the Bundesliga and the Champions League this year, his tenure will be deemed a disappointment. Such is the life of a serial winner and perfectionist.
There is something about Pep’s style of play that turns some people off, that football fans find irksome. The way that Bayern can so easily control a match makes it less enjoyable to watch, they say. This isn’t an unfair claim: Many of Bayern’s opponents accept defeat before the ball is kicked, retreating into a shell for the inevitable onslaught that is coming their way. The sophistication and precision Bayern displays every game can almost become tedious—they dismantle teams with an unsettling ease, like an experienced hangman tying a noose.
Even Guardiola seems to grow restless with his team’s dominance. After the recent Champions League game against Arsenal, which Bayern won 5-1, he told reporters that his goal is to achieve “100% possession”—an ambition so absurd that you would think it was a joke if anyone else had said it.
In Guardiola’s mind, only experimentation outside the boundaries of conventional tactics can unlock perfection—and ease his restless mind. He’s a constant tinkerer: In a match this season against Stuttgart, Guardiola deployed five forwards, two midfielders, and three defenders. It appeared to be an interpretation of the formation used by the great Hungarian side in the early 1950s, during a three-year unbeaten run, and Bayern’s players adapted to the demands of such a system effortlessly. Bayern, predictably, won 4-0.
Of course, no artist can succeed without the right tools. David Alaba is the lynchpin of the Guardiola philosophy: He plays at left-back, center-back, central midfielder, attacking midfielder, and sometimes a combination of all four. Javi Martinez has been used as a center-back, defensive-midfielder, and makeshift target man. Arjen Robben has played as a wide-forward, inverted-wingback and even through the middle. It’s what makes lining up against Guardiola’s team so maddening for opponents—you have no idea where each player is going to turn up.
But boredom is not the only reason for Guardiola’s experimentation. If his team can produce acceptable results in oddball formations, he can go back to them when the situation calls for it. And given the tantalizing versatility of Bayern’s squad, he’s able to do it. In a recent match against Bayer Leverkusen, Guardiola’s strategy was to bypass the opponent’s suffocating press by deploying Xabi Alonso as a sweeper, who dropped deep in defense and hit long balls over the top to Douglas Costa, completely circumventing the midfield. It is a strategy you would never have seen under the Barcelona-era Guardiola, but it worked, of course, brilliantly.
So when Bayern takes the field this Saturday against Schalke, don’t despair. Yes, they will almost certainly win. And yes, the Bundesliga is essentially already over. (Bayern decimated the only real title challenger, Borussia Dortmund, in a 5-1 shellacking in October.) But Bayern’s dominance shouldn’t be written off as cynical or boring. Sometimes it’s not just about witnessing greatness— it’s about watching the process that leads to it.
[Photo: Flickr user Thomas Rodenbücher]