With a flawless CV, an enormously talented Bayern Munich squad, and an apparently skilled tailor, Pep Guardiola seems a blessed man.
Still, the former Barcelona manager finds himself in a bind: how do you improve on what many believe was the finest side in Bundesliga history? Guardiola’s position is as daunting as it is unique; to simply break even, he needs to match Jupp Heynckes’ treble.
Pep certainly has the team for it.
Not content with a squad that steamrolled the likes of Juventus and Barcelona on its way to the Champions League crown, Guardiola has bolstered die Roten with two of the world’s brightest young talents in Mario Götze and Thiago Alcantara.
How he will deploy these weapons remains to be seen. Despite insistence that he will adapt to Bayern, some subtle changes have already begun to take hold. Bayern’s 4-2-3-1 looks to have been replaced, subtly but notably, with 4-1-4-1. There is also speculation that Pep’s master plan is to field Götze, fittingly nicknamed the German Messi, as a dynamic false-nine.
Despite all the speculation and pre-season tinkering, Guardiola rolled out a familiar teamsheet for the team’s Bundesliga opener against Borussia Moenchengladback, with Schweinsteiger anchoring Kroos and Müller in midfield. Mandzukic took up position as a lone forward – dispelling, at least for the moment, rumors of a false-nine setup.
Bayern began the match in typically bullying fashion, with the pace and trickery of Robben and Ribery causing problems from the start. The two would combine for the breakthrough in the 12th minute of play: following a failed clearance from Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, Ribery received Schweinsteiger’s pass deep in the attacking half and looped an inch-perfect ball to the onrushing Robben, who touched the ball delicately over the Gladbach keeper.
Mandzukic doubled the lead in the 16th minute and Bayern again had “Robbery” to thank. Taking advantage of ambiguities in the offside rule, Mandzukic took up an offside position from Arjen Robben’s free kick, and was on hand to bury the rebound after Ter Stegen saved Ribery’s initial effort.
Despite Bayern’s early advantage, Gladbach looked dangerous on the break, with Patrick Hermann in particular making use of space left by Bayern’s marauding full backs. A counter-attack resulted in a chance for Raffael who fired wide from a shallow angle; Max Kruse later forced Neuer into a save with a low drive from inside the area.
Gladbach’s hard work would finally be rewarded in the 40th minute, albeit with a bit of luck. Set free down the left, Juan Arango sent a dangerous near-post cross through the legs of his marker; a sliding Dante turned the ball past Neuer to open his own-goal account for the campaign.
The vistors’ influence grew in the second half, and despite some open periods of play, Bayern remained firm at the back, while maintaining pressure in the attacking third, with Ter Stegen’s heroics keeping things close. Bayern’s inevitable third came in bizarre circumstances. Alvaro Domínguez was adjudged, perhaps harshly to have handled the ball in the area. Ter Stegen saved Müller’s resultant penalty, but Domínguez again handled from the rebound. David Alaba made no mistake with the second penalty attempt.
Defensive errors aside, Guardiola’s Bayern seem to have picked up where they left off. A good mix of passing finesse and physicality have become hallmarks of the Bayern Munich style, and in this regard, the German champions appear unchanged. Only time will tell the extent to which Guardiola will mold this side to suit his style, but for now, he’s adhered a new manager’s most useful adage: begin as you mean to go on.