Pep Guardiola may have overseen a domestic league and cup double in his first season in charge of Bayern Munich, but it was the Champions League semi final demolition at the hands of Real Madrid that was the abiding memory of the 2013/14 campaign.
That defeat underlines the reality that for Guardiola’s reputation to be enhanced by his time in German football, he must win the Champions League.
Last season, Pep’s Bayern looked set to go and do just that. With the Bundesliga won by the end of March and in record time, the Bavarians were favourites to retain their European crown. And even after defeat in the Bernabeu in the semi final first leg around this time last year, Bayern were still favoured to overturn the 1-0 deficit.
What happened next was jaw dropping and put a serious dent in Pep’s standing, raising questions over his hard-wired views on how the game should be played and won. Real Madrid’s 4-0 win at the Allianz Arena was Bayern Munich’s heaviest ever European home defeat.
The 5-0 aggregate in favour of Los Merengues came despite the German champions having 70% possession across the two legs, proving again that while Guardiola’s belief in almost total domination of the ball has brought him great success, his sides can still be undone by top class sides who defend and counter with concentration, pace and quality.
Despite the shattering nature of the second leg defeat, it was Karem Benzema’s winner in Madrid that was the critical goal of the tie. That goal allowed Carlo Ancelotti’s men to travel to Germany and do just what Guardiola feared most – sit, wait and strike.
Afterward, Guardiola took full responsibility for a calamitous night. In Marti Perarnau’s book chronicling the Spaniard’s first season in charge at Bayern, Pep Confidential, he admitted that his indecision and flip flopping over how best to approach the second leg was costly.
His initial inclination in the immediate aftermath of the first leg reverse was to play a 3-4-3 formation designed to dominate the game in midfield and have enough cover at the back to counter Real’s lightning breaks.
However, in the days preceding the second leg, Guardiola conceded that the exuberance and confidence of his players persuaded him to switch to a much more attacking 4-2-4. Bayern’s players had convinced the manager that they could blow their opponents away from the off.
But in their anxiety to do just that, they left too many gaps, made too many mistakes and were punished mercilessly by their Spanish opponents.
Guardiola also believes that in trying to keep his charges fresh for their Champions League assault once the Bundesliga had been secured, he had allowed them to become soft, failing to see that their levels of intensity had dropped right off.
The easy domestic season had left them ill-equipped to deal with a side of Real Madrid’s talent and organisation.
On Wednesday, Bayern return to Champions League action when they visit outsiders Porto. With the Bundesliga all but won again, the pressure on Guardiola will be ratcheted up a few levels as critical eyes look to see if he has learnt from last season’s disaster and can do what he was brought to Bavaria to do.
This time round, the fact that Bayern still need three wins to secure the league title and the memories of last season should ensure that intensity levels won’t be an issue.
Moreover, there is some evidence that Pep has come to the realisation that despite the great success of his possession-based philosophy, there is more than one way to skin a cat. Having and holding fast to your beliefs can be admirable – but not if they become dogma.
Two weeks ago, Bayern visited a resurgent Borussia Dortmund and played completely against type, ceding possession and territory and nicking a 1-0 win on the break.
The strategy may have been the result of a potentially damaging injury list that sees Guardiola robbed of the likes of Alaba, Ribery, Robben and Schweinsteiger – but it may nevertheless prove to be a pragmatic “Plan B” for dealing with the big guns of the European game who stand between Pep Guardiola and his holy grail.