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Why it's difficult for me to write about Guardiola

Sometimes people ask me why I don't write more about Bayern. When I try to explain that it's too difficult, they refuse to accept that as a reason. So here's an attempt to tell you why it's far from easy.

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With two to three matches per week, there is always a lot you can say about Bayern. A few years ago that was exactly what I did but not anymore. Why? Because Pep Guardiola's coaching is too complex, too chaotic for me to understand. No longer am I able to analyze every aspect of the Bayern game. Suddenly I feel like a spelling bee champion who gets to spend a day at Oxford. It is time to look at how Bayern moved away from predictable football to an organized chaos.

The Groundwork with Van Gaal

Short passes, lots of possession and wide attacking - the core of Bayern's game has not changed over the last five years. Starting with the Dutch revolution of Louis Van Gaal, this style of play has brought Bayern to four Champions League semifinals in the last five years, after previously having failed to reach that stage for eight consecutive seasons.

This however is an awfully compressed look at things. Sure, in 50 years people will throw it all together and brand it as one of the club's best eras, but we all know just how much has happened over these five years, good and bad. Players arrived and left, presidents got arrested and replaced – hell, even players got arrested and replaced. People will not forget those stories. What they will forget in a few decades is the extraordinarily high number of tactical changes this team has seen while staying under the same roof of "possession football". Yet it would be so easy.

Louis van Gaal gave the club an identity and tactical awareness that goes beyond "4-4-2 or 4-3-3". In hindsight, it is remarkable how right Philipp Lahm was when he criticized the club for lacking a long-term idea, one year before van Gaal arrived. To rate the work of the Dutchman appropriately is tricky. He laid the foundation and deserves all the respect for that, yet there were several big flaws in his doing.

As much as it might sound like a stereotype, the van Gaal football was all about discipline. Everything was planned beforehand. The center backs had to play with their stronger foot closer to the full-back to ensure optimal distribution. The central midfield had to consist of one defensive midfielder and one passing midfielder; a midfield of two defenders or two passers destroyed the entire balance and system. Because van Gaal liked his wingers inverted, the full-backs could under no circumstances be inverted themselves, leading to good things (moving Lahm to the right, highly controversial back then) and bad things (trying out every left-footed player in the search for a left-back).

As planned as formations were, so was the product. Leaving your position meant temporarily giving up the triangles and doing that would lead to a punishment more gruesome than an unexpected appearance of van Gaal's testicles. Bayern often passed themselves to death because opponents simply parked the bus and the only sources of creativity, the wingers Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben, were eventually neutralized with a simple method: having them marked by two or three defenders at the same time. That is the insanity of it all, that learning how to play as a team includes a stage when you have to rely on individuals to run the show for you.

The death sentence for van Gaal was the result of two issues: that the monarchical behavior took over off the pitch and that he struggled to get the team out of the learning stage of individualism. Following a rescue mission by Jonker that had zero tactical effects (but tons of mental ones), the club decided for Jupp Heynckes as the new head coach. Ignoring all the hindsight, there were only two clear reasons why he was the guy they opted for. First of all, he was a friend of the board and a quiet person. Win or lose, that man was not going to cause another Cold War in Munich. The second reason was basically the same, just related to the happenings on the pitch: Heynckes is the complete opposite of van Gaal.

Jupp Moving Away From The Extremes

Heynckes was not known as the godfather of tactics and strategies, and that is exactly why he was the perfect choice in the eyes of the board. Van Gaal's steps were crucial but ultimately too extreme. The philosophy ruled everything and he was not willing to change that. If Louis van Gaal was the inventor of the wheel, Heynckes was supposed to be the guy who finds an everyday use for it.  A fire extinguisher to stop the house of possession-based cards from burning down before it is too late and you have to start all over again.

Like a game of Jenga, Jupp Heynckes carefully removed a few stones of the LvG foundation without causing it to collapse. Lahm moved back to the left back position, and the attacking players were allowed to leave their designated places for moments of unexpected action. Giving up the passing game? Nah, but they stopped pretending that it was everything, if a long ball promises better odds in certain situations then so be it.

The Bayern game was more solid defensively, but still a little predictable. The wingers were still the focal points, with the favorite move being a pass forward to the overlapping fullback who could proceed to enter the box with ease. Individual class and decent speed made Bayern's occasional counterattacks dangerous. Yet there were some classic traps that every team with a possession-based game has to deal with:

  1. Running out of time (better known as the effect of pressing): Teams attack early and in numbers to disturb the passing game. Other teams would just play a long ball forward and accept the turnover but the possession-based team wants to avoid cheap turnovers and, as a result, might give up even cheaper ones. This was a huge problem for Bayern especially in the first Heynckes year, with the central midfield being the area of worries, and fixed mainly with the signing of Javi Martinez, a guy who can handle pressing better than the likes of Luiz Gustavo and Anatoliy Tymoshchuk could.
  2. Running out of space: This has one big symptom: crossing. Eventually you drift to the outside because the sidelines will not attack you, but once you are there, you realize that the sidelines do defend against you by limiting space. Vertical play is easily preventable in these areas so there are three options left: individual actions (still a lifesaver for Bayern), passing back to abort the attack (more about this in a second) or whipping a cross inside the box. Of course you're outnumbered there so chances are that this won't be an effective measure. Interestingly enough, that issue too was slightly fixed in year two with the signing of Mario Mandzukic (and some minor adjustments).
  3. Lack of ideas: This is an interesting one. For critics of the possession game, it is what embodies this "waste of time." For coaches, it's a simple sign that the team is not playing well. I am talking about forming the feared and mighty U. Simply put, your team moves the ball in the shape of a U without any real effect.

In Bayern terms, think back in 2013. Dante passes the ball to Alaba who gives it to Ribéry. The Frenchman is marked well so he passes right back to Alaba. Back to Dante. To Boateng. Lahm. Robben. No space either. Back to Lahm. To Boateng. To get the picture.

This was an issue that Heynckes' Bayern could not solve, either because he was busy fixing other things or because it wasn't that much of an issue for him. And indeed, the U was at its peak in year one of Guardiola.

What Guardiola has Changed

Sure, there are some things we have all noticed. The aforementioned U causing problems, Guardiola introduced a more central style to fight the U, the back-three turning into a serious alternative. This became prominent against teams with a high and intense pressing, players interchanging positions even more than before.

Yet, it is all more complex (and I am using the word complex in the most neutral way possible. this is not the time to get into discussions about the pros and cons of a coach). Louis van Gaal's triangles were effective but predictable. Heynckes' overlapping was shockingly effective but just as predictable. Guardiola's style is unpredictable, sometimes for both teams.

It is just as telling that I cannot come up with one term to describe the current style. Some might not even try and use tiki-taka, a term I no longer understand because everyone sees a different concept behind it. Calling it passing- or possession-based would be dumb and ignorant because that's been a theme for half a decade now. I'd be thankful for terms that neither simplify matters nor are meant as insults.

There is too much happening on the pitch now. Do Bayern have a plan B? How could you tell when plan A seems to change every single week? There is an idea: Guardiola should play it safe until he has found a way to get the ball past the opponent's midfield, then Bayern explode forward. There are different ways of achieving that. The "classic" 4-3-3 approach, the more recent idea with wing-backs and hybrid players supporting the offense or defense with constant movement and vertical unpredictability.

If Van Gaal built the house of cards and Heynckes saved it from the fire, then Guardiola is thinking of ways to rebuild the house in a way that makes it invulnerable. He might know the new shape, but I certainly do not.

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