The Bundesliga re-starts this weekend after the longest winter hiatus enjoyed by any of Europe’s top five leagues, and absence has certainly made the heart grow fonder. January was long enough and sufficiently free of transfer tattle that the league’s official site has been reduced to running the BunDucksLiga, a (admittedly amusing) knockout cup competition between the rubber ducks on sale at each club in the division. Spoiler alert: Hertha BSC took the title.
Nobody is kidding themselves about the real Bundesliga race, however. There is far more anticipation at the prospect of rubbernecking at Borussia Dortmund’s efforts to lever itself away from the bottom than Bayern Munich’s procession to a third successive title at the top. Jürgen Klopp has the unexpected challenge of a lifetime ahead of him.
Yet Klopp and Co. have created quite an awkward task for Pep Guardiola. No longer concerned with his rivals’ ability to chase the title, Guardiola now faces an even more difficult assignment: the challenge of being unchallenged.
Guardiola is no stranger to goals that are muddied, obscure, and perhaps impossible for mere mortals. Matching the glory of his predecessor Jupp Heynckes’ last few months was always going to be tough, but Guardiola’s remit was always about more than just the trophies. It was about forging an indelible house style that the world could become familiar with – and one that would be imposed on opponents.
The problem was measuring what success was in a post-Heynckes world. Measuring it, it seemed, was only possible once Bayern fell short, deposed in brutal fashion at the hand of Real Madrid in last season’s Champions League semifinal return leg. The fallout was significant, as one expects at such a behemoth, but Guardiola would have been forgiven for being shocked at the ferocity of some of the criticism directed toward him. His very future at the club was even questioned.
It appears Bayern has reacted in the right way this season – the pitiless 7-1 mauling of Roma springs to mind even more than the reprise of its peerless Bundesliga form – yet some of those questions remain, and will until the end of the Champions League campaign. What still haunts Bayern – and something which, one imagines, still troubles Guardiola personally – is its coach’s words in a press conference on April 4, the day before the recently-crowned champions visited Augsburg. “Die Bundesliga ist für uns vorbei” – “for us, the Bundesliga is all over,” Guardiola said.
Guardiola’s phrase became infamous as the season reached a strangely unsatisfactory conclusion; at least, strange in the context of having won the Bundesliga with a record seven games to spare. The following day, Bayern lost its season’s unbeaten record at the SGL Arena, ending its overall league unbeaten streak at 53. Guardiola’s side then went onto the lose its next domestic match emphatically, 3-0 to rivals Dortmund, albeit on the other side of putting Manchester United out of the Champions League.
Given the humbling manner Bayern was later seen out of that tournament by Real Madrid, perhaps Guardiola’s words were not so odd. In the competition that will define Guardiola’s tenure, his words allowed his players to drift from his standards of perfection. And the consequences were ruinous.
Bayern again finds itself in a quandary. Unbeaten and untouchable in the Bundesliga with an 11-point lead, the coach is required to motivate his team with the Champions League trophy still a speck in the distance. Dortmund’s fall from grace is actually quite inconvenient for Guardiola. It means there is no equivalent to José Mourinho’s Real Madrid to keep domestic standards relentlessly high, as was the case at Barcelona. The major difficulty is banishing the thought that their best is not consistently needed from his players’ heads, even if it is true.
Getting it right is something with the potential to exhaust Guardiola almost as much as life at Camp Nou did by its end. Perhaps this, as much as the Catalan’s natural curiosity to explore, is part of the reason that he is in no rush to sign an extension to his contract, which expires in 2016. This has been a source of concern for Bayern for some months, to the point where the club has discreetly sounded out alternatives.
That perfection remains elusive is immensely frustrating for him, too. “We’re really only waiting for the return of Philipp Lahm, Thiago Alcantara and Javi Martinez,” Guardiola enthused in an interview with the club’s YouTube channel this week. These are the players he needs to give Bayern its (and his) personality; Lahm as his on-pitch brain, Thiago as his number one signing from the beginning and Martinez as his possession-mastering center-back, in an ideal world. Those absences may not deter Bayern domestically, but they do keep Guardiola from preparing for his primary goal.
Friday’s opponent, second-placed Wolfsburg, have at least been welcomed by Guardiola as an ideal first adversary in the Rückrunde, “because it forces us to pick up the pace.” Ultimately, the fact remains that high-level challenges are relatively few and far between for Bayern – and that remains the coach’s biggest worry.