Pep Guardiola right man for Bayern Munich despite setback vs. Barcelona
After Bayern Munich lost to Barcelona 5-3 on aggregate in the Champions League semifinals, I guaran-damn-tee you that, somewhere out there, you will read something along these lines.
Pep Guardiola is a fraud. Bayern would be mad to give him a third season. That's two years in a row that his team get their rear ends handed to them in the semifinal, 3-10 on aggregate, are you kidding me?
Who cares if he won the Bundesliga? It's kinda hard not to win the Bundesliga, to be honest, when you manage Bayern. Every single guy who has managed the club in the past 19 years has won the title, except for Jurgen Klinsmann. This is a league where the second-place club is freaking Wolfsburg, a team with Bas Dost and Nicklas Bendtner sharing time up front.
It's a one-team league, especially now that Borussia Dortmund have imploded, and the only team is the one Pep is lucky enough to coach.
And guess what? It's getting worse. Bayern won the Treble before Pep's arrival. In his first season, they got the Double. This year it's just that measly German championship. Next season? Logical progression suggests it will be a big fat zero if they stick with Pep and his nonsense.
High line? Pressing? Weirdo formations with a jockey-sized fullback like Rafinha at center-half? Come on now. How about working on some defending so two otherwise fine centre-backs like Jerome Boateng and Mehdi Benatia aren't made to look like statues frozen in time?
Don't be fooled by this guy. Sure, Pep won some domestic and European silverware at Barcelona, but that was because he inherited a great team. After all, Frank Rijkaard won plenty at Barca as well, with some of the same players. What happened to him? His last gig was managing Saudi Arabia, who sacked him in 2013.
Ultimately, Pep is exposed because, simply put, he can beat up bad teams but struggles against good ones. Want proof? Witness his record against the teams currently in second to sixth place right now in the Bundesliga: Wolfsburg, Borussia Monchengladbach, Bayer Leverkusen, Augsburg and Schalke. Played 10, won 3, drew 3, lost 4, scored 10, conceded 12. A losing record.
Enough of the hype. Enough of the outdated tiki-taka. This emperor has no clothes.
That's fine. Defeat has consequences and they range from criticism to a boot to the backside.
Except once the air clears, you need to take a step back and ask yourself on what basis you should judge a manager.
The cliché that "results are everything" is downright foolish. Results, particularly in a low-scoring game such as football, are a function of many things, including chance and probability. This is especially true in knockout competitions.
It doesn't mean they're irrelevant -- we keep score for a reason, this isn't figure skating with judges subjectively awarding points -- but it does mean they are not the manager's work. They are merely a reflection of it. Think of the manager as an artist producing a painting and results as the reflection of that painting in a pool of water. Waves, ripples, pebbles ... all these things can affect what the painting looks like in reflection.
Guardiola has competed in six major trophies in his two years at Bayern. He won three of them and reached the final four of the other three before being knocked out: once on penalty kicks (by Borussia Dortmund in this season's German Cup semifinal) and twice by Spanish giants who were clearly a notch above over the two legs (Real Madrid last season, Barcelona this year).
He's not blameless and Bayern's performances in those two semis were disappointing. He did have mitigating circumstances, particularly this year when he took the pitch without Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben and David Alaba, all of whom were injured, but there's no question he bears a fair chunk of the responsibility.
The question ought to be this: Did he come up short because of some fundamental ineptitude or did he make the wrong call on the night? If it's the latter, is there reason to believe he will make better decisions next time?
Trials by media often don't work that way. And, to be fair, neither do many football clubs. A simpler narrative is preferred. Win, and you're a genius. Lose, and you're a dope.
Logic would suggest a more all-around approach -- you'd call it "holistic" if that word didn't have New Age connotations of the kind that invite mockery. Guardiola arrived at Bayern just over two years ago and was tasked not just with delivering results -- most of his predecessors had done just fine in that department -- but in evolving the club's philosophy as well.
Philosophy. It sounds like a highfalutin word. It isn't really. Call it concepts, if you prefer. Bayern didn't sign him because he won two Champions League crowns and three Liga titles in four years at the Camp Nou. Rather, the club brass believed that some of the club's concepts on the pitch needed to be updated. They thought he was the right man to do it because that was something Pep had done in his years at Barcelona.
This myth about inheriting a team of superstars at Barca and simply riding their coattails is just that: a myth. The season before he took over, Barcelona had finished third, 18 points out of first place. Immediately, he set to work changing the team. Dani Alves was bought from Sevilla, Gerard Pique brought home from Manchester United, Thiago Alcantara, Sergio Busquets and Pedro promoted from Barcelona B. They won the Treble in his first season and he continued his overhaul of the team: Out went Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez, Eidur Gudjohnsen and Samuel Eto'o. A year after that, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was gone and so was Yaya Toure.
The point is that Pep never adopted the "if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it" mentality. He tinkered with his team and not just in terms of personnel, but tactics too. His 4-3-3 often became 3-4-3, sometimes 3-5-2 and occasionally you couldn't tell what he was doing. But it was all part of a plan, an evolution, an experiment in the use of players and space.
It's true that the perfect is the enemy of the good. It's true that he overreaches and misjudges situations sometimes as part of his grand experiment. But his mistakes are almost always a result of being progressive rather than being conservative.
That's what Bayern wanted. That's what Bayern got. That's what -- and this is one of his talents as a manager -- the players embraced.
Because that's the other side to management. Unless you look up Ibrahimovic, you'll find very few Pep alumni who speak ill of him. From players to staff to the folks upstairs, Bayern bought into what Guardiola does. Once you commit to that, unless you have a mental age of 12, you're not going to hammer him for not having a settled lineup. Or for playing a high line. Or for moving Alaba and Philipp Lahm into the middle of the pitch. Or, indeed, for traveling to the Camp Nou and not adopting some kind of triple bus parking Catenaccio from some 1960s football nightmare. And you sure as heck aren't going to crucify him for losing consecutive Champions League semifinals.
That's why Bayern say they're committed to the project. They insist they understand that there's more than one metric by which to evaluate a manager's work.
For all the knocks he's going to take in the coming weeks, they're right. Bayern are lucky to have Pep Guardiola. And he's lucky to have an employer who gets it.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.