Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and the crushing defeat that cemented Guardiola’s ideas

This season’s Champions League knockout stages might remind Pep Guardiola why he’s enjoying his life in Manchester so much.

“Outside here is calmer,” he said before City’s highly-charged Premier League showdown with Liverpool. “If this was in Barcelona now they would have cameras behind watching the training sessions, radios, everything. It’s the best — I’m sorry, you have to be so proud in your country — it’s the best.”

There is just not the kind of media drama that followed him in Spain, the type he was reminded of when his side faced Atletico Madrid earlier this month. “Don’t look for me,” he said to a Spanish report after the combative second leg. “Don’t look for me in your battle of styles.”

After the first leg, he had said that defending against two banks of five is, was and always will be difficult, only he used the word “prehistory” to make his point. Gleefully taken out of context back home, he was continuously accused of criticising Diego Simeone, who took offence.

Guardiola’s people banned questions from certain Spanish reporters at City press conferences a few years ago, but they can’t do anything about these big Champions League matches. Next up is Real Madrid.

There was another diplomatic incident in 2019 when Guardiola omitted Madrid from his list of the best teams of the decade, on the basis that Barcelona, Juventus and Bayern Munich had shown the best consistency in winning league titles. Madrid had won four of the previous five Champions Leagues and their then-coach Santiago Solari said Guardiola’s comments were “deliberate”.

When Guardiola complimented Madrid’s ability on the counter-attack after his Bayern Munich side lost to them in the 2014 semi-finals — saying, “Madrid have athletes. They are footballers, but they are real athletes” — he was also accused of being disparaging.

Guardiola


Guardiola answers questions before the first leg of Bayern’s Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid in 2014 (Photo: Christof Stache/AFP via Getty Images)

That semi-final between Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, which Guardiola’s side lost 5-0 on aggregate, is another reminder, perhaps, that he has got things pretty sweet at his current club.

“They will end up playing like Barcelona at some point, where they reach the goalline and still pass the ball back again,” Franz Beckenbauer said after Bayern drew 1-1 with Arsenal in March 2014, making 663 passes compared to the London club’s 313. “We will be like Barcelona, nobody will want to see us.”

Beckenbauer, a Bayern legend and honorary president, had also been asked about rumours that Guardiola had forbidden Bastian Schweinsteiger to shoot from outside the area — exactly the kind of thing that bred suspicion of Guardiola and his style.

Yet until those Madrid games in 2014, Guardiola and his team were generally venerated. They had won the Bundesliga in March, the earliest ever, without suffering a single defeat up until that point. No team had won more games (15) in the first half of the season and no team had won more games in a row (19).

The German media and even other teams spoke highly of them, although it didn’t take much for that to change. Guardiola knew he was treading a delicate path, as his words after losing 1-0 in the Santiago Bernabeu reflected.

“I understand that this style of game is not part of German football culture,” he said at the Bayern team dinner, according to biographer Marti Perarnau. “People should know that I do understand. In Germany clubs like to play a style of football that’s very different from my own and no doubt people prefer Madrid or Dortmund’s game. But guys, Bayern chose me. I am making compromises between my ideas and German football but at the end of the day, it’s the players who matter. And I’ll tell you something: the players support my ideas.”

The thing that the average football fan might know about Bayern’s defeat in the second leg is that Guardiola listened to how his players wanted to approach the match, and not only regretted it almost immediately but also regarded it as one of the biggest mistakes of his career.

Bayern Munich


Thomas Muller (left) and Bastian Schweinsteiger wince as their side go 3-0 down in Madrid (Photo: Andrew Matthews – PA Images via Getty Images)

“I got it wrong, man,” he was quoted as saying by Perarnau, who brought Guardiola’s decision to light. “I got it totally wrong. It’s a monumental fuck-up. A total mess. The biggest fuck-up of my life as a coach.”

Bayern had played the Guardiola way in Madrid, controlling the game with 72 per cent possession, which was something of an achievement considering it showed that his style was taking hold at Bayern.

“We played a spectacular game with Bayern at the Bernabeu, we lost 1-0 on a counter-attack but we were much better than them,” Guardiola’s former assistant, Domenec Torrent, told The Athletic in a previous interview.

But of course, that was not the real quiz, as Beckenbauer noted, both on television and in a weekly column.

“It doesn’t matter how many passes and how much possession you have: all of that is for nothing if you don’t score any goals,” was a typical example of his assessment. “We are lucky Madrid only scored one.”

Beckenbauer’s points were fair: Bayern had twice as many shots and five times as many corners, but Madrid’s chances were of higher quality. The problem was not what he said, but who he is.

Can you imagine Mike Summerbee, City legend and club ambassador, undermining the manager whenever the team plays badly?

The only time you ever hear City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak comment on Guardiola is when he says how much he supports him. If sporting director Txiki Begiristain is giving an interview, it’s a polite appraisal of their upcoming Champions League opponents.

“The chairman, first of all, Khaldoon, I cannot forget his messages after the defeats and the bad moments,” Guardiola said in 2019, pledging his future to City amid links to Juventus. “And of course, I cannot forget Txiki, all the backroom staff and how close we are.”

At Bayern, it wasn’t just the honorary suits who spoke up.

“We are not on fire,” sporting director Matthias Sammer, who sat on the bench with Guardiola, said in that spring of 2014. Bayern had just reached the DFB-Pokal final by beating second-division Kaiserslautern 5-1, not long after wrapping up that early title victory.

“Everyone does an excellent job, but we need three or four per cent more. Our reference is not Kaiserslautern, but Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund. We’re happy to be in the final. But I can’t be happy with the way we played. We were untouchable until we won the league, but we have lost this.”

These were, according to Bayern president Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, simply words of encouragement. Again, they weren’t particularly unfair: it was widely considered that Bayern had dropped a level, and there were plenty of times when Rummenigge and Sammer backed Guardiola, publicly and privately. But would any manager appreciate such comments?

And Rummenigge himself hardly helped the situation ahead of the second leg against Madrid.

“They know 70,000 of our supporters will be waiting for them. It will be hot enough for the trees to burn in Munich,” he said. “What happened to them against Dortmund (a 4-1 defeat in the previous season’s semi-final) will seem pleasant by comparison.”

Cheers, boss.

The day Bayern beat Werder Bremen 5-2, the game before the second leg against Madrid, Tito Vilanova, Guardiola’s close friend and former colleague, died after his battle with cancer. As Bayern came from behind to go 3-2 up, the television camera panned to Guardiola, who looked utterly disengaged.

After the match, Beckenbauer claimed, “If they play like that, Madrid will score a hatful.”

Guardiola said he wanted his side to dominate exactly as they had done in Madrid, only with more aggressiveness in the final third.

“The problem is that when you are too aggressive you can lose control and open yourself up to the counter-attack,” he continued. “I have to reflect, sleep well tonight and talk to the team tomorrow to see how we combine the two things.”

It would be the usual Guardiola approach, one that City fans would recognise today, based on control and patience.

“Against Madrid, if you’re not in a good position when you lose the ball, there’s nothing you can do,” he said. “I can’t ask the players for a type of football other than the one I feel. They would realise that we are betraying our identity.”

Guardiola and his staff had come up with various different ways to flood the midfield between the two games, with the aim of stopping Madrid’s counter-attacks. And yet, on the day of the game itself, he sat down with six of Bayern’s most senior players and chose to go with what they thought was best: trying to burn some trees.

“You are going out there to do some damage,” he told his players later. “Go for the jugular. You are German, so be German and attack.”

It was a 4-2-4 that left the midfield exposed, the exact opposite of what Guardiola had been planning. According to Perarnau’s book, the Bayern boss realised something was wrong in the early seconds when Madrid got in behind.

It might sound like romanticism but these images might back it up as Cristiano Ronaldo plays in Angel Di Maria and Guardiola watches on…

For all the early threat Madrid posed on the break, two Sergio Ramos headers in the first 20 minutes killed off the tie. Ronaldo added a third on the counter in the 34th minute, teed up by Gareth Bale, and the Portuguese completed the humiliation with a second-half free kick. 4-0.

German newspaper Bild branded it “the Bayern downfall” and seemed to herald — perhaps even revel in — the death of possession football. “The identity of the team is less clear than ever,” Stern said. “Are Bayern wrong to tie their future to a manager whose idea of football seems out of date?” asked Die Zeit.

Certain Spanish outlets, who had been keeping a close eye on Guardiola’s first season in case of failure (as was the case in Manchester), were all over it too. “The worst thrashing in history”, Marca called it. “Munich burns”, AS said.

Rummenigge was not so supportive, either. “We got a slap in the face, it was a debacle,” he said. He also called it a “fiasco”. “We showed too little passion” was another phrase that summed up the culture clash.

Guardiola, of course, was destroyed. It remains one of his lowest moments in management and was the first big misstep of his career. He accepted responsibility and nobody knew that he had followed his players’ game plan until Perarnau’s book was released at the end of the season.

“He blames himself, not the players,” Torrent said in another interview. “We, the coaches, made the mistake. On the pitch, we gave Madrid too much space to counter-attack. Pep’s idea would have been a more wait-and-see tactic, but key players wanted to act more urgently, more gung-ho.” He also acknowledged that maybe Guardiola’s plan would have resulted in defeat, too.

“In general it was a special situation,” he added. “The first semi-final for him with Bayern, the unfamiliar semi-final atmosphere in the Allianz Arena. This new territory meant that Pep followed the hardcore of the players. After all, they were defending champions.”

“After the game, it was interpreted as if his system didn’t work,” Philipp Lahm said years later. “But actually it wasn’t his system at all. At that point, Pep Guardiola thought the players had to feel comfortable, so he decided we’d play the way the team wanted. And he’ll probably never do it like that again.”

Indeed.

“After the defeat against Real Madrid, I am even more convinced of my ideas,” Guardiola said a few days later, typically. “Why did we lose? Because in the first half we didn’t play well. We didn’t have the ball.

“I am not here to change the football culture in Germany. But I have my eyes, my ideas… I know that 4-0 will always be in my head, but I will try to continue doing my best for this club.”

Yet, in Perarnau’s second book, he reveals details of Guardiola’s preparations for the Champions League semi-final against Atletico in 2016, and notes how he considered a long-ball approach to nullify the Spanish side’s early pressure.

They didn’t do it in the end but the idea that Guardiola would take into account what the fans want when choosing his approach these days is just as alien as public criticism from Txiki Begiristain. On several occasions over the past 18 months, he has acknowledged that City’s style might not be what the fans want but that it is the best for the team.

He has been at City six years now and there are murmurings that he will sign a new deal in the summer. If so, it will be because he feels completely at home.

They might even build a scaled-down golf course at the training ground in the future, which would mean he would never need to leave City HQ, let alone Manchester.

“I sleep like a baby these days,” he said before that Liverpool game. While Real Madrid won’t make life easy over the next couple of weeks, he won’t have to worry about much else.

(Top photo: Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images)

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