Pep Guardiola faces a pivotal season at Bayern Munich given his reputation
Football managers think in terms of problems, solutions and results. You might get the odd philosophical musings and talk of "visions" thrown in for a bit of added mystique but, with the possible exception of Johan Cruyff, who has been able to convince half the world that his beautiful Netherlands were the "real" winners of the 1974 World Cup, even the most dogmatic of coaches are only employing tactics as a means to an end.
Take Pep Guardiola. He is the disciple of Cruyff and Cruyff's successor at Barcelona, Louis van Gaal, the two most important proponents of what can loosely be called combination football. As such, Guardiola is routinely portrayed as the tika-taka high priest, a man who'd rather see his team string together 100 passes sideways than score a goal from a quick counterattack.
ESPN FC'S 50 MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE IN FOOTBALL
- The list: 50-41 | 40-31 | 30-21 | 20-11 | 10-6 | 5-1 | FC TV
- Marcotti: The power is ultimately derived from the fans
- Brassell: Jorge Mendes -- A national hero in Portugal
- Chaudhary: Jerome Valcke -- The man who makes FIFA tick
- Kuper: Johan Cruyff -- Modern game's father fades from view
- Honigstein: Pep Guardiola -- Bayern boss has more to prove
- Mitten: Gary Neville -- From playing to punditry, coaching
- Merrill: Loretta Lynch -- The face of the FIFA investigation
Yet the reality has always been much more prosaic. His greatest achievement at Barcelona had little to do with breaking records for possession. On the contrary, it was the manner in which he formed a bunch of very talented -- but also slightly lightweight -- performers into the best team in Europe without the ball. The Catalans (and the Spanish national team under Luis Aragones) employed high, early and relentless pressing to devastating effect.
It takes tremendous fitness and motivation to play that way, especially as far as big names are concerned. (At some subconscious level, most star players tend to be not quite as enthusiastic when asked to perform defensively.) Passing, pressing and a high defensive line are not some lofty, aesthetic ideals that Guardiola aspires to, but rather three interdependent, necessary constituents of a style that took winning to new, mesmerizing levels during 2009-11.
Tiki-taka, a term with negative connotations he abhors, incidentally, is not the ultimate aim but simply possession football gone very wrong, a team hogging the ball in the opposition half because it can't find an opening or ample intensity in the one-on-ones to make a breakthrough. All possession teams -- Van Gaal's Bayern, Jupp Heynckes' Bayern in 2011-12 and Arsene Wenger's Arsenal -- can suffer when the opposition cede space in their own half and they are not on their game. (And the cry of "Where's Plan B?" goes out whenever they lose.)
The minuscule attention span of modern football has also resulted in people blanking out just how much of a washed-up, broken team Barca were in 2008 before Guardiola took over as a rookie. The dressing room was split, the main players spent their time off in nightclubs and the side looked like a pale imitation of the 2006 Champions League winners in subsequent European campaigns. Guardiola was unafraid to ax big names like Samuel Eto'o, Deco, Yaya Toure and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Equally, he showed no fear in promoting a relative "nobody" like Sergio Busquets, a player whose style and work rate better fit his blueprint.
Having won two championships, one DFB Cup, one Club World Cup and the European Super Cup, and having made two semifinal appearances in the Champions League with Bayern, the 44-year-old has provided a better return than any other top-level manager over the course of the past two seasons. But because success has mostly come in Germany with relative failure in Europe, the dynamics of perception have worked against Guardiola.
The people above and below him in Bavaria appreciate what he does. Others simply might have seen the results in Champions League semifinals and bought into the reductive narrative that he's taken the 2013 treble winners down a notch. And because he's at Bayern, where winning the league is seen as the bare minimum rather than an outright triumph, there's no obvious way in which he can do much about it.
The only option in that regard would involve Bayern winning the Champions League or at least getting to the final. Not an impossible task by any means, but at the same time, you can't realistically plan on winning a couple of games in April or May against opposition of the same calibre. At your best, you'll have a 60-40 shot, but no one can calculate the odds of you arriving at that moment in time in your best form.
Guardiola, it seems, is aware of that predicament. As Bayern started training ahead of the new season, he made what could be interpreted as an attempt to free himself from the pressure to live up to his image as a guy who must lift every piece of available silverware. He recently told a Spanish audience that love, not titles, was most important from him and read poetry of the late Catalan writer Miquel Martí i Pol at a literary event in Munich.
The underlying message was "Winning isn't everything," or perhaps more accurately, "Winning everything isn't everything."
Bayern's sporting director, Matthias Sammer, also went partly down that line, insisting that success in the cup competitions was dependent on too many variables to be talked about at this early stage. Toning down the volume ahead of a campaign that could well be his last one at the Allianz Arena is certainly a smart move by Guardiola and the board, but this basic dilemma cannot be escaped that easily. Without the echo chamber of the Premier League at his disposal, the Catalan will have to do something very special with Bayern in Europe to keep or reclaim his place in the perceived hierarchy of great coaches.
Alternatively, Guardiola might deduce that there's simply no need to play this PR game anymore, even if winning on that front would make his life easier in the future. As he has conceded in the past, there are other managers who are much better at manipulating the media. The select band of clubs where he could go next are big and smart enough to look beyond the clichés and focus on his actual coaching instead.
Coaches from all over the world continue to embark on a pilgrimage to Säbener Strasse so they may see him at work. Pep's brand of football is technically and physically so demanding that only those in charge of elite sides can realistically hope to play the same way, but in Germany, where some have been keen to over-accentuate his flaws and mistakes, his influence is actually keener felt than ever before. German national team players, like captain Philipp Lahm, have been open about the way their game and the thinking of Joachim Low was in some ways shaped by Guardiola's methods in the run-up to their 2014 World Cup win in Brazil.
New Dortmund boss Thomas Tuchel even met with Guardiola last year and is expected to make Borussia's high-energy, up-and-down style more sustainable by adding a touch of Pep to his own formula next season. As direct, counterattacking (or counter-counterattacking) football has become the norm in the Bundesliga, slower, more deliberate build-up will automatically become more valued again as an antidote.
Tactical evolution is to some extent always cyclical, and Guardiola's el toque (the touching of the ball) carries faint echoes of Pal Csernai's Bayern from the early 1980s, a team that unnerved the opposition by keeping the ball for prolonged spells in their own half. (Going back even further, Bayern's first championship, in 1932, was won by Richard Dombi, an Austrian coach versed in the Danube school of combination football.)
At the highest level, football has globalised to the point that it's sheer nonsense to speak of "German" or "Spanish" styles between which Guardiola supposedly has to choose. His main battle will be more likely won or lost in the well-stacked Bayern dressing room, where egos need to be kept in check and muscles healthy. He and the team should have enough for one more big season together. Tune back in next March to see whether they can pull it off.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.