Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Tremble in fear of mighty Bayern
Guardiola has created a masterful monster
How can club football's most dominant team become even better?
It's a question Pep Guardiola no doubt obsessed himself with after succeeding Jupp Heynckes as Bayern Munich manager last summer.
Having entered retirement on the back of a treble-winning season, Heynckes had left the Spaniard a squad without a single perceptible weakness -- one that had managed to claim the Bundesliga, DfB Pokal and Champions League titles in dominant fashion; one for which anything less than repeated success on all fronts would be seen as failure.
But Guardiola, the mastermind of three La Liga championships and a pair of European Cups during a glorious four years at Barcelona, was never going to settle for a mere replication of previous achievements.
And so, despite taking charge of a group of players that had already won absolutely everything, he nevertheless braced himself to the rarely-accomplished task of turning recent champions into enduring ones.
He would do it by imposing a new high-pressing, possession-oriented style at the Bavarian giants, and during pre-season training he shed some light on what he hoped his final product would look like.
"There are many, many possibilities in football," he mused. "One, of course, is being in possession of the ball. I think when we have the ball and the opposition doesn't, it's impossible for them to score."
Since making the remark, Guardiola's Bayern Munich have enjoyed 62 per cent of the ball in the Bundesliga -- four per cent more than the rate of possession they posted in Heynckes' final campaign.
They've also cut a metre from the length of their average pass, and for a side that attempts between 700 and 800 passes per match, that adjustment -- a decrease of just under six per cent in distance -- is hardly insignificant.
But what's truly impressive is how infrequently Bayern concede control of the ball. Last season, while squashing every rival in their path, they won back possession just over 14 times per match through interceptions. This time around they're intercepting slightly more than 10 balls each time out -- a drop of 26 per cent.
They've simply stifled their opponents with unprecedented efficiency and purposeful buildup play, the sort of which German football has never seen.
Earlier this month, Bayern legend Franz Beckenbauer went so far as to say his former club risked "boring the fans" with such comprehensive dominance -- a comment that, while negative, only validated the effectiveness of Guardolia's methods.
On Tuesday Bayern Munich beat Hertha Berlin to win the Bundesliga in record-setting time, beating last year's mark by 12 days. Their 992 passes represented a high mark even for them, and Philipp Lahm -- a converted right-back -- remarkably completed each and every one of the 134 passes he attempted.
There may be no better measure of Guardiola's influence at Allianz-Arena than Lahm, who has suddenly become one of the sport's elite midfielders.
It's in the centre of the park that Guardiola endeavoured to impose his most rigorous changes, and in October, with his side already flying high in all competitions, he spoke to his introduction of the 4-1-4-1 formation that has taken possession-based football to another level.
"You can win games with good defenders, with good strikers," he said. "But to play good football you need midfield players, and I love midfield players."
He added: "I would love to have thousands of midfield players in my squad because I believe midfield players are intelligent. They understand the game."
Naturally, Guardiola has also had to keep his players motivated amidst their supremacy, and if Tuesday's post-match celebrations are any indication the Bayern squad are as hungry as ever for continued success.
There's a clip from the club's pre-season training in which the 43-year-old playfully kicks winger Arjen Robben in the backside.
It's a moment that might just sum up Guardiola's approach in a single act.
He has taken the best and succeeded in making them want to be better. And European football has been left trembling as a result.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 29, 2014 C12
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