Bayern Munich plays its final game of the season on Saturday, when Pep Guardiola’s men will conclude a successful but underwhelming campaign. The Bundesliga title was wrapped up almost two months ago, but after failing to add to it since then, the mood in Munich doesn’t feel particularly celebratory. The Bavarians have had a good campaign, but there’s no escaping the fact that in terms of the team’s broader goals — nearly, the Champions League — the season just wasn’t good enough.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. When Pep turned up at Bayern two summers ago, it looked like a match made in heaven: one of the two best managers of his generation, fresh off winning eleventy billion trophies with one superclub, taking control of another titan. He even learned a bit of German during his sabbatical in New York, presumably in between adding to his vinyl collection (it really does sound better) and sketching designs for his own line of cardigans. Mario Götze, the hot young thing of German football at the time, was poached from Borussia Dortmund with his blessing. The one player that Guardiola asked for when he arrived — Barcelona’s Thiago Alcântara — he got. All this on top of a side that was already so good that it had won league, cup, and Europe.
And therein lies the problem. The difficulty in taking over a team that has just won everything is that you’re taking over a team that has just won everything. Where do you go from there? No team has ever defended the Champions League in the modern era, and no team has ever won a league-cup-Europe treble more than once, never mind twice in the space of a few years. The expectations for Guardiola were not just high, they were historically unprecedented.
Guardiola is fighting on three fronts: the actual competition, his own winning history as a coach, and his club’s recent treble-winning success.
Guardiola did the double in his first season, winning both the Bundesliga and the DFB-Pokal with absolute scorched earth domination. Domestically, he somehow managed to make Bayern Munich more fearsome, more stifling. This season, Bayern was less irresistible, but it still marched to the league title without so much as a stumble. A cup win, back-to-back league titles, and back-to-back Champions League semi-final appearances would for almost any other manager be an unquestionable success. But remember, for Pep at Bayern, the standard is not so much sky high as it is far into the fucking stratosphere.
The unceremonious ass-kicking that Guardiola’s Bayern has taken in each of its last two Champions League semifinal appearances has taken some of the sheen off his otherwise impressive time in Munich. But even if Bayern had managed to make it to the final in one of those years, or had been just bounced out on account of a deflected goal or refereeing cock-up, would it have made a difference? Guardiola is fighting on three fronts: the actual competition, his own winning history as a coach, and his club’s recent treble-winning success. All managers at elite clubs are expected to be successful, but that is one hell of a yardstick. For Pep in Munich, in the immortal words of NASCAR legend Ricky Bobby: If you ain’t first, you’re last.
Much to the chagrin of the decision-makers at Manchester City, Guardiola still has one more year left on his contract, and by all accounts he intends to honor it. That technically gives the Spaniard another crack at fulfilling his brief — winning the Champions League — but his Bayern side look less equipped than ever to mount that challenge. The quality in the squad is still the envy of most of Europe, but there are some key areas in which “FC Hollywood” could use some new star power. Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben were the twin attacking forces in Jupp Heynckes’ all-conquering side, but both struggled with injuries this year, and both are now on the wrong side of 30. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Xabi Alonso are two of the finest midfielders of their generation but are similarly getting up there in age, and they also share a lack of quickness that makes it difficult for them to be on the pitch together. Bayern are far from needing a complete overhaul, but in order to meet its ambitious targets, a couple of significant additions will be needed this summer.
For Guardiola to live up to the standards of his already barely believable legacy, he needed to make history. He has a great team, but he needed to turn it into a Mount-Rushmore-of-European-Soccer-History team just to keep pace with expectations. Having fallen short in his first two attempts, and with just one year left on his contract, the obvious question is whether or not he has missed his window with the team as currently constructed. The next really great Bayern Munich team may be just around the corner, but unless Guardiola extends his stay at the Allianz Arena, he might not be around to lead it.