Connect in the back of the net

In Marti Perarnau’s new book “Pep”, which accounts Pep Guardiola’s first year in charge of Bayern Munich, there is an enlightening extract which highlights just how obsessive the coach is. After a win over Hannover last September, Guardiola hides away from his family for several hours, going over and over videos of the match before finally cracking a tactical solution.

It is an instance of the attention to detail and the quest for perfection that drives Guardiola, leaving no stone unturned as he prepares his team for an upcoming opponent. “All I do is look at opponents and try to demolish them” is how Guardiola describes his passion for analysis and preparation, the recipe that has led him to 18 trophies since he first took charge of Barcelona in 2008.

“We were well set up by the coach, he had pin-pointed where the weak points in the Roma side were and they were exactly where he said they would be” said Bayern’s Thomas Muller after Tuesday’s 1-7 rout in Roma that became the latest landmark on Guardiola’s journey to reaching footballing paradise.

Though as the Catalan told Sky Italia his team still had “things to improve on” and bemoaned how Roma were given too many chances at the start of the second half, one senses that he and his team will never quite get to that plateau of sporting mastery. With Guardiola, there will always be another ceiling to smash through.

The performance in Rome however, more specifically the opening 45 minutes, was exceptional. Last season’s Serie A runners-up, a shrewdly assembled squad under the astute eye of Rudi Garcia, this was no shoddy opponent, yet Bayern were 5 up on 36 minutes, with Mario Gotze, Arjen Robben (who scored twice) and Robert Lewandowski carving through the normally resolute Italians, who have shipped just 4 goals in their opening 7 Serie A games, at will. A Thomas Muller penalty would put the icing on the cake of a scintillating opening half.

Franck Ribery would then come on to toy with the stunned defence, running on to a through-ball from Robben to chip audaciously over a hapless Morgan De Sanctis in the Roma goal, before Xherdan Shaqiri rounded things off. Gervinho’s consolation was a footnote, a blemish on something truly special. The following day, with Bayern making a visit to the Vatican, praise came from the Pope who said the Bavarians “delivered a wonderful game of football”.

As the head of the Catholic Church was presented with a Bayern shirt it added to the surrealism of the occasion, Bayern reaching a level of such importance that they would be gratefully received in audience with the Pope. Guardiola would say the win was “not normal” and called it “a fluke”, though there was an measured and unerring quality to this victory; how Roma couldn’t live with the intense pressing, how Francesco Totti and Gervinho were suffocated by Bayern’s fearlessly high-defensive line, how Ashley Cole was targeted by Robben (both Totti and Cole had to be withdrawn at half-time) and how Lewandowski’s movement simply eluded the helpless centre-back pairing of Kostas Manolas and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa.

As Robben said, “Roma had no answer to our attacking game and that quickly decided the match”. We really must thank our coaching team because they prepared us outstandingly for this game”.

Guardiola had said before the trip to Rome that it would be “very difficult to win at the Stadio Olimpico without a great performance” and it would be hugely difficult, given Perarnau’s depiction of the maddening footballing obsessive, just how many hours he had invested in conjuring such a lethal game-plan. Though it has been coming, since September 20 Bayern have won all six of their games in all competitions by a combined score of 24-1. Tuesday evening was the crescendo to their mini-period of ruthlessly irresistible form.

Despite winning the domestic double in his first year in Germany, Guardiola’s time with Bayern has been plagued by internal criticism of his style and methods. Club president Franz Beckenbauer would be particularly outspoken after the 0-5 aggregate defeat to Real Madrid in last season’s Champions League semi-finals. “What I feel is we must play with the ball and attack as much as possible” said the German World Cup winner, giving a revealing insight into the dissatisfaction in the club’s higher echelons of the embracement of a slower style, moving away from the direct, overwhelming power of Jupp Heynckes’s team that dominated the European game the season before.

In the post-Hannover extract in Perarnau’s book, Guardiola says this to his squad. “Gentlemen, this is tiki-taka and it is s—. We’re not interested in this type of possession. It’s totally meaningless. It’s about passing for the sake of it. We need our central midfielder and our defenders to move out with an offensive mentality and break the opposition lines in order to push the whole team high up. The U needs to go.” From as early as 14 months ago, the Catalan had been itching to dispense with the style that he had previously become synonymous with during his time at Barcelona.

Paderborn, Hannover and Bremen, the last by a 6-0 score-line in their last league outing, have all recently been brushed aside with consummate ease and there is definitely a clear echo of Heynckes appearing in their play. Long balls can go into Lewandowski, the movement of Gotze can be fed with clever through balls. Robben and Ribery are on hand to burst down the flanks. Juan Bernat, the young Spanish left-back, is wasting no time in being converted to an irrepressibly vibrant winger, while in Xabi Alonso Guardiola signed a conventional all-round midfielder capable of initiating attacks with long-sweeping diagonal balls, the type that did for Bayern last April in that pivotal thrashing at the hands of Madrid.

Following what was likely to be months of fanatical pondering and deliberation, Guardiola has managed to discover a more all-rounded approach that now threatens to take Bayern to the next-level he was initially hired to reach. The performance and result of Rome will now be filed away in the Guardiola archives, bracketed alongside Barcelona’s 2-6 and 5-0 wins over Real Madrid and the 3-1 Champions League final destruction of Manchester United in 2011, as his relentless search for footballing perfection goes on.

“This game is an exception, an incident” said Guardiola, refusing to let the force of his focus slip, “it’s not the difference between the two teams, we will see that in two weeks”. For that return game at the Allianz, it will be business as usual for the Spaniard; extreme detail, tireless and extensive planning and an impassioned devotion to excellence. As we all marvelled at was achieved in Rome, Guardiola will strive for even better.

 

 

Written by Adam Gray

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250

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