Pep’s flawed plan unable to break semi-final jinx

And so another heavy Champions League semi-final defeat is chalked up by Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich.

Whereas last year’s mauling came courtesy of the galacticos of Castile, Real Madrid, this year it was the turn of their great rivals Barcelona.


Although Bayern’s 3-2 win in last night’s second leg put a respectable gloss on the 5-3 aggregate defeat, a second successive thrashing at the last four stage must bring a reappraisal of the tactics employed by the 44-year-old.

Hindsight is a commodity seldom in short supply, but did Uli Hoeness, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and the rest of the Bayern Munich brains trust opt for a man back in 2013 whose modus operandi had already been repudiated?

The year 2013 is key here, for that was the year when Bayern buried all before them. Jupp Heynkes’ team became the first German team to grab the treble of domestic league and cup, topped off with a Wembley victory in the Champions League final against Jürgen Klopp’s Dortmund.

If the final was something of an anti-climax then the same can hardly be said for the semi-final victory which propelled them to London for the competition’s first all-German final.

Bayern’s 7-0 aggregate drubbing of Barcelona was that season’s landmark result in continental competition. Whereas Ferguson’s Manchester United had seemed cowed and diffident in Rome 2009, and even more so in 2011, Bayern’s Teutonic power play eviscerated Barcelona.

Fast and direct down the wings through Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, with opposing manoeuvres stymied by Schweinsteiger, and with lethal finishing from Thomas Mueller, this Bayern was anything but frozen with fear.

That year’s Barca was managed by Tito Vilanova, of course, as Guardiola had taken leave of absence and embarked on an extended sabbatical in New York at the end of the previous season.

Poor, beleaguered Tito, struggling with his own health, had been Guardiola’s number two and an adherent of the same principles of ball guardianship.

If the 2013 Barca, so surgically dissected by Bayern, was not in fact Pep’s team, it was still the team that Pep built. Even before the 2013 demolition at Bayern’s hands, there were signs that Europe’s finest were wising up to the wiles of intricate possession-max as practiced by Barcelona.

In 2012, a bullish and determined Chelsea matched Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final. A 3-2 aggregate scoreline in Chelsea’s favour proved to be Guardiola’s Barca swansong, as it was Roberto De Matteo’s team that went on to lift the trophy in Munich’s final.

Further evidence that tika taka had reached some kind of apotheosis in 2012 with Spain’s victory at the European Championships can be seen by the stasis that the national team encountered afterwards.


A troubled path to the 2013 Confederations Cup Final in Rio was capped by a 3-0 pounding from hosts Brazil.

That year was a landmark one, for sure, as both Spain’s national team and its league’s leading exponent of tiki taka had been ruthlessly exposed. The subsequent demise at last year’s World Cup in Brazil was less of a surprise than many would have it.

Barcelona is not Spain, of course, but the national team most closely followed the technical blueprint of the Catalan team in sandwiching a World Cup win with two European Championships.

The fact that both suffered significant reverses in major tournaments in 2013 is a significant backdrop to the hiring of Guardiola.

Jupp Heynkes had gone out on a high at Wembley that May after guiding the Bavarian giants to the treble. His Bayern outfit married technical nous with power, speed and width.

His replacement for the 2013/2014 season would, paradoxically, be a man synonymous with the brand of football that his team had so thoroughly vanquished in the semi-final: Pep Guardiola.

When the Guardiola appointment was announced in January 2013 it was greeted with near universal acclaim. Bayern, it seemed, had snared a master tactician.

It later became apparent that they had been wooing him while he enjoyed his year in the Big Apple, as initial approaches had taken place before Christmas 2012.

With Jupp Heynkes not seeking a contract extension it appeared that Bayern were refashioning and recalibrating their approach for the future with Guardiola’s appointment. As Karl-Heinz Rummenigge proclaimed in January 2013:

We are delighted that we have managed to get Pep Guardiola whom several big clubs wanted and contacted. He is one of the most successful trainers in the world and we are sure that not only Bayern Munich but the whole of German football will benefit from what he brings.

Uli Hoeness, Bayern’s chairman, further observed that “only someone of the calibre of Pep Guardiola was an adequate replacement for Jupp Heynckes”.

As Guardiola had cleaned up at Barca with 13 trophies in four seasons, including two Champions Leagues, the assumption was that Bayern had procured the touchline presence and tactical acumen that would make Big Ears – the Champions League trophy itself – a near permanent resident in the Munich trophy room.

After having lost in the final with Louis Van Gaal in 2010, and with Heynckes in 2012, Bayern were hungry for the fifth European Cup win.

When it was finally achieved under Heynckes stewardship in May 2013, the betting was that Guardiola would soon place the sixth in the trophy cabinet.

It has not, of course, turned out that way. Despite domestic success – and even a quadruple of trophies last season – successive drubbings at the hands of Spanish opposition have seen plenty joining the queue to question Guardiola’s tactical and strategic merits.

Despite achieving 60% of the possession in the semi-final second leg, the futility of possession for its own sake has never been more open to question. When Heynckes’ Bayern put four past Barcelona two years ago, they did so by having only 37% of the ball on the night.

Furthermore, Barcelona’s adoption of a more direct style, developed in Guardiola’s absence, and typified by the box-to-box style of Ivan Rakitic, seems to finally suggest that the game has moved on  from the style Barcelona and Spain perfected so adroitly during the years 2008-2012.

Critics have also not been slow to acknowledge the defensive naivety that Guardiola’s Bayern have exhibited on occasions these past seasons. During the semi-final second leg, the watching Roy Keane observed:

It’s been like kids playing on the street. First to 10 stuff. But this is shocking defending, if an under-18 did that you’d be tearing your hair out! Basic defending.

Pep Guardiola is surely too good a coach not to find solutions to his team’s current problems, having achieved so much so young. He apparently did not see the irony in his own words, however, when he said:

You can only beat Barcelona when you take the ball away from them. When they have the ball they are too strong.

It seems that the man who built his reputation around his teams’ ability to keep the ball has no current strategy of wrestling it back when the opposition play a different game.

The Author

Gareth Bland

From Derbyshire in the English Peak District, Gareth has also written for These Football Times and Cricket Web.

One thought on “Pep’s flawed plan unable to break semi-final jinx

  1. It seemed like you were headed towards unqualified statements, but I appreciate how you kept your analysis direct, avoiding assumptive criticism. “Defensive naivety” is definitely the sum of it. It seems like Bayern need a ‘defensive’ personality on staff, either a veteran player or an adviser/coach, who understands the physical nature of defending, as well as the nonnegotiable positional aspects. Someone, for example, who would have brought Benatia to task during the first leg for positional mistakes that he then repeated during the second leg. Thanks for a good post.

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