Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Has Pep already failed at Bayern?

(Or of course not but let’s pretend he has anyway)

It was the meeting of the world’s best team and the most in demand manager, how could it be anything but an unmitigated success?  Two games into the Bundesliga season are the signs already there that Pep’s era will be unsuccessful?

It’s more a feeling that anything at this point, a sense that Bayern aren’t as harmonious as they managed to be last season.  In a sense this is inevitable.  Of all of the achievements of the treble winning team under Jupp Heynckes their main one was in never succumbing to the in-fighting and whining that Bayern specialise in.  Without the memories of a season spent as runners up to motivate them Bayern were always likely to return to their natural state.  Already there’s been murmurs from players not happy with their lack of involvement.  Robben’s already mentioned not playing enough.  Pep spent (a very successful) preseason picking strikerless formations and having to endure Mandzukic staring at him from the bench.  It can only be a matter of time before the next dummy is spat out.

The only thing that hasn’t been predictable about the Pep backlash has been the speed of it.  When anything’s presented with that much hype it’s only a matter of time, especially when most of the country is minded to naturally hate you anyway.  After a season when the shear excellence of your football earned them a reprieve this was always going to the season that Anyone But Bayern made a comeback.  Pep hasn’t helped himself though.  The signing of Thiago would have had the whiff of nepotism about it at the best of times, the fact is agent is Pep’s brother Per has been the subject of whispers.  Then there were his comments about Barca’s treatment of him since he left, principally over his failure to visit his old assistant manager Tito in hospital during his year off in New York.  Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation it left a bad taste.

You would think part of the reason to sign Pep is to project a holier-than-thou image, that’s kind of the point.  You get a great manager who delivers success while preaching about how no other team understands football like you do.  At Barca they turned it into an art form.  Bayern were winning everything anyway, the only possible improvement was to do it with an urbane sense of sophistication and a half concealed smirk.  If he can’t come across as the man who saved football from itself then what good is he?

There’s a sense of going back to the future with Pep, that after last season’s dominance showed Bayern and their turning of football into a ‘game of sprints’ (copyright Joachim Low) had the beating of Barca’s short passing game they’ve turned back to a master proponent of a fading style.  The signings of two more creative midfielders when it was already a well stocked area hasn’t done anything to dispel this feeling (even with the Gotze deal being announced before Pep arrived Uli Hoeness was very keen to add that Pep had specifically asked for him).  Javi Martinez has been used back in defence after a season in which he was one of if not the most influential central midfielder in Europe, which after Pep’s time at Barca spent unsuccessfully trying to convert midfielders into centre backs should ring alarm bells.  Although good enough to fill that role Javi seems wasted back there.  Then there’s the question of where Pep sees Schwiensteiger playing.  In pre-season he had Thiago playing holding midfield.  It already seems like there are parts of the team that aren’t clicking.

In fairness to Pep the early signs are that he’ll be more flexible than that.  The first two Bundesliga games have seen him start with Mandukic and what was essentially the Jupp Hykness team.  The injuries to his two signings mean we can’t be sure what shape his ideal team will take.  Pre-season would suggest that he saw it as one stacked with creative midfielders with Thomas Muller free to roam at the top.  That of course was before the Dortmund defeat in the Super Cup.

If they’d lost their first competitive match to any other team there wouldn’t have been the same importance to it.  But it was Dortmund.  In a Bundesliga that realistically over the last two seasons has become a duopoly any defeat to your closest rivals is going to feel defining, especially to a club you haven’t beaten in the league for three seasons.  The match itself was settled by Bayern’s shocking defensive openness.  Thomas Muller told reporters afterwards that at one point he looked around and had no idea where his teammates were meant to be playing.  The two league games since then have seen them revert to the shape of last season and record tight wins.  Its early days but some of the fluency and ruthlessness of last season seems to have been lost.

It is of course far too early to make judgements on Pep’s reign.  The whispers from Bavaria are of comparisions with another ex-Barca visionary who struggled to impose his ideals on FC Hollywood.  Louie van Gaal tried to change too much too soon and found a squad full of already successful players who had no interest in changing to suit his methods.  Bayern overcame Dortmund last season by managing to match their togetherness and hunger.  Its early days for Pep but the signs are that after a season spent winning everything in sight that desire may prove impossible to maintain.

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