Pragmatic Pep learns lessons from defeat

Since his emergence, ascendancy and achievement with Barcelona, Pep Guardiola has carried the label of ‘purist’ with a penchant for high-pressing, short-passing football. His battle has seemingly always been to win and keep the ball, not the match.

As far as his managerial career thus far is concerned, the former has always preceded the latter anyway. Yet, as his Bayern Munich side edged to victory away to Borussia Dortmund on Saturday afternoon, Guardiola showed signs of pragmatic adaptability previously thought of as asymmetric to his mentality.


In late January, Kevin De Bruyne and Bas Dost enjoyed complete freedom to wander in behind Bayern’s backline as Wolfsburg counterattacked the German champions into submission, each player scoring twice each en route to a 4-1 victory.

It was Bayern’s first league defeat since last April. Before the international break they were undone once again as Borussia Monchengladbach stole in twice with a Raffael double to secure a famous away win at the Allianz Arena.

The latter loss was Bayern’s first at home since Real Madrid romped to 4-0 victory last season to send Bayern crashing out of the Champions League at the semi-final stage, and the success of the strategies incorporated by both Wolfsburg and Monchengladbach evoked painful memories of Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo’s pace scorching Bayern on the break.

Apparently, losing at home to Monchengladbach was a particularly crystallising moment for Guardiola. One humbling too far, perhaps. He subsequently set his team up in a far more defensive manner against Dortmund on their return from international duty with the clear intention of nullifying the invention of Marco Reus and pace of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The change in system meant that, had you watched this match blind to the teams and managers involved, it would have been hard to associate Bayern’s performance with Guardiola.

Mehdi Benatia and Dante were brought into defence to partner Jerome Boateng, while Rafinha and Juan Bernat were deployed in their traditional wing-back roles. Xabi Alonso sat deep in front of the defence with Bastian Schweinsteiger and Philipp Lahm in front of him. Thomas Muller played in behind Robert Lewandowski up front.

Essentially Guardiola only moved one piece on the chess board, taking out Mario Gotze; who started on the bench, and bringing in an extra centre-half. This modified what was before effectively an unconventional yet fluid 2-3-2-3 into more of a 3-3-2-2. It’s all rough, of course, but the change, albeit slight, had an important impact on the match.

Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund lined up in a familiar 4-2-3-1 format, with Reus, Jakub Blaszyczykowski and Kevin Kampl playing off of Aubameyang, who led the line, but Bayern’s three centre-backs with Alonso just in front stymied any attacking impetus Dortmund hoped to build. Reus was invisible for much of the game, while Aubameyang had little room to get into full stride. By taking a more defensive posture, Guardiola knew that Bayern prevent Dortmund’s offensive flow.


Lewandowksi’s headed goal on 36 minutes gave Bayern a lead to hold on to; something they would do successfully to earn a solid win on difficult terrain. That strike was the only defining moment in a dull and at times turgid affair that failed to live up to Der Klassiker’s entertaining past. Depending on your point of view, this is something for which Guardiola’s tactics can be credited or blamed.

Statistics only back up what the eyes could see. Manuel Neuer had little to do in the Bayern goal while his opposite Roman Weidenfeller was just as uncalled for as each team had a mere two shots on target. Dortmund registered more than twice as many attempts (15) as their visitors, though few of them came at the end of well-crafted moves, while there were also only three corners in the entire game. There was more often a hint of desperation as opposed to any truly genuine sense of opportunity to many of Dortmund’s attacks.

Another intriguing statistic regards the even split of possession between the two sides. It is a rare occurrence that Bayern cede the ball to an opponent so often as they did on Saturday. In isolation the figures mean little, but when compared to those of other games; such as Bayern’s aforementioned defeats, they take on a new realm of significance.

When Real Madrid ran riot in Munich last April they did so having had a mere 31% possession. Wolfsburg only needed 32% when putting four past Neuer earlier on this year. Most recently, Monchengladbach also registered just 32% possession as they obtained an impressive away win. This offers a glaring context to the weekend’s stats. Bayern gave up 50% of possession; a far greater amount than usual, but they also gave away far fewer meaningful chances to their opposition. It was positively Mourinho-esque.

It will be interesting to view Bayern’s performances in big games down the line to ascertain whether their ascetic approach away to Dortmund should be viewed as an anomaly or an indicator of a slight change in mindset for Guardiola. One thing is for certain and that is that the system was deliberate; used in response to Bayern’s exposed shortfalls in the past.

In Marti Pernarau’s book on the legendary manager, Guardiola stated, “I loathe…passing for the sake of it, all that tiki-taka. It’s so much rubbish and has no purpose.” Some might consider such words heresy, but if Bayern’s weekend performance is anything to go by, we may be witnessing the dawn of a truer reflection of Guardiola’s mentality.

Author Details

Blair Newman

Edinburgh-based Freelance sportswriter. Mostly football, with a hint of boxing. As featured on The Guardian and World Soccer. Written for These Football Times, Just Football and Boxing News, among others.

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