The Catalan is one of the most innovative and successful coaches in the world but his propensity for overcomplicating matters could cost the Bavarians their European crown
By Mark Doyle
Pep Guardiola was once asked what, in life, upset him? The Catalan immediately replied, “Losing possession.”
It was a witty riposte that perfectly encapsulated Guardiola’s footballing philosophy. For him, possession truly is nine tenths of the law. The only trouble is that possession does not win football matches. It often helps, as both Barcelona and Bayern have proven in recent years, but it does not guarantee victory.
This was once again underlined at the Santiago Bernabeu on Wednesday night. Bayern, the visiting side, had a staggering 72 per cent share of the ball – yet not only did they lose 1-0, they were lucky to have avoided a heavier defeat.
The former Barca boss had, of course, known full well what he was going up against beforehand. Madrid, he mused in his pre-game press conference, “are a team that kills you with pace”. And yet he elected to start with Rafinha, a defender in nothing other than name, at right-back. Why? Because Guardiola wanted to once again field Philipp Lahm, one of the finest full-backs of the past two decades, in midfield.
It was a ludicrous decision.
Lahm is undeniably a fine midfielder in his own right; he has the skills and the intelligence to play in the centre. He even proved it once again at the Bernabeu. He was one of Bayern’s better players and one of the few midfielders to make any runs beyond sole striker Mario Mandzukic in order to give the visitors another option in attack.
However, Bayern boast the best squad in Europe and they are particularly flush in midfield. Javi Martinez, for example, was a colossus in last year’s treble triumph – yet the Spaniard was left on the bench. It was 66 minutes before Guardiola admitted the error of his ways and brought Martinez on in place of Rafinha, thus allowing Lahm to revert to right-back.
By that stage, the significant damage had been done, of course. Rafinha was in no-man’s land 19 minutes in when Ronaldo slipped a sublimely-weighted ball in behind Jerome Boateng for Fabio Coentrao, whose low, drilled cross left Karim Benzema with all the time and space in the world to open the scoring.
The dreadfully ill-advised reliance on Rafinha, coupled with the refusal to haul the Brazilian off at the break, will only intensify the concern that Guardiola is making life unnecessarily difficult for himself.
Bayern swept all before them last season. Indeed, it is worth noting that Wednesday night’s defeat came exactly a year after they routed Barcelona 4-0 at the Allianz Arena in what was one of the most complete team performances of the modern era. But the manner of the defeat in Madrid made it hard not to conclude that Guardiola’s obsession with possession has created a weakness in a previously flawless footballing machine.
Guardiola, to his credit, has been merely trying to make Bayern even more tactically and technically flexible. He is nothing if not innovative, as his transformation of Lahm from a full-back into a midfielder underlines. His creativity, his desire to come up with new solutions to the problem of packed defences is not only necessary, it is also commendable.
That Guardiola always wants his sides to take the game to their opponents is also admirable – how many teams will go the Bernabeu and push Madrid back into their own half and force them to work with just 28 per cent possession. However, just as Pep knew what to expect from Madrid, so too did Carlo Ancelotti know what to expect from Bayern.
And that’s the concern: in trying to make Bayern multi-faceted, Guardiola appears to be making them more one-dimensional. As Franz Beckenbauer fumed at full time to Sky: “Possession means nothing when the opponent takes its chances. And we can be happy Real converted only one of their good chances.”
Bayern are indeed lucky that the tie is still alive but Guardiola must accept ahead of the second leg that while losing possession is upsetting, losing games you should be winning is utterly devastating.
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