Prior to Bayern Munich's first-leg match against Manchester United in the Champions League, the Bavarians' manager, Pep Guardiola, said, “This is like a final.”
The Catalan didn’t use similar language ahead of the round of 16 against Arsenal, presumably because he didn’t quite believe in the likelihood of that tie actually being the end of Bayern Munich’s European campaign. Against the Red Devils, however, failure is very much within the realms of possibility.
The 1-1 draw first leg at Old Trafford -- a decent result away from home, under normal circumstances -- managed to gnaw away at Bayern’s aura of invincibility, and the 1-0 defeat at Augsburg on Saturday, as inconsequential as it might have been, wasn’t the ideal preparation for the return leg, either.
“Of course Manchester United can beat Bayern,” Guardiola conceded on Tuesday. He had said the same before the trip to England but then, no one wanted to listen to him. Now, his slightly over-dramatic proclamation that the meeting with the English champions amounted to a question of “life or death” almost sounds like a factual description of the status quo.
If Bayern were to get knocked out on Wednesday night, their season would be over. Winning the DFB Cup would make for scant consolation, and even the record-breaking, virtually flawless Bundesliga season that culminated in the 24th title wouldn’t go to too far in mitigating the sense of failure.
More than ever, Guardiola and his team are hostages to their own sky-high ambitions, as well as to their recent, respective heroics. The formula "Two-time Champions League winner (Pep) + current Champions League holder (Bayern)" is not supposed to equal “quarterfinal exit," regardless of the opposition.
Guardiola was asked about the lessons Bayern had learned from the first leg and what changes they intended to make. His answer was telling.
“We need to attack better,” he said, without going into specifics, before saying that he didn’t actually want any big difference.
“We only conceded one chance against United in the first leg, the [Danny] Welbeck one,” he said, “I hope that it will turn in out in a similar way."
Captain Philipp Lahm also stressed that his team would play “as always” and make sure that “there is no danger, thanks to our possession game."
Did the Bayern manager forget about Nemanja Vidic’s goal? Maybe he simply doesn’t count headers from corners under “chances created." (He’s actually much more concerned with dead-ball situations in training than he lets on). The Serbian’s goal neatly fit into the “Manchester United are this year’s 2012 Chelsea” narrative that both teams have been pushing in recent days. After all, Chelsea scored their equaliser in the Champions League final two years ago in Munich from their only corner of the game, courtesy of Didier Drogba.
That header, and that game, serves as a reminder why there are some big upsets in football: the relative paucity of goals levels the playing field and increases the role of chance -- especially in the later stages of the Champions League, where the differences in quality between the teams are fairly small.
Possession football, all aesthetic considerations aside, can be described as an effort to negate that element of chance. The more you keep the ball, the harder it is for the opposition to score.
It’s not a guarantee of victory of course -- Chelsea in 2012, Inter two years earlier and Manchester United last week can attest to that -- but it’s also not a statistical quirk that Bayern’s phenomenally consistent results in 2012-13 and their current campaign have gone hand-in-hand with off-the-charts possession and passing numbers. Lahm, a defender by trade, knows that tiki-taka, executed well, is a wonderfully effective defensive weapon.
Yes, Bayern were vulnerable to pacy counterattacks due to their high line at Old Trafford -- a pre-condition for possession football -- but the idea that this signifies an inherent, specific fragility misses the point: all teams are vulnerable, to one degree or another.
Real Madrid, who are widely seen as joint favourites to lift the trophy, for example, showed in their tie with Dortmund that being direct and less possession conscious comes with the significant drawback of losing the ball more often in very dangerous positions. After creating chances in the Bernabeu, Dortmund scored two goals in the second leg and created enough opportunities to win the tie.
If that had come to pass, the inquest in the Spanish capital would have focused on the front players’ inability (or unwillingness) to track back, on personal deficiencies or perhaps on Carlo Ancelotti’s substitutions. Nobody, however, would have thought about blaming the “system."
With Guardiola's (and Jupp Heynckes’) Bayern, Guardiola's Barcelona and the Spanish national team (since 2008), however, the system has become so readily identifiable that every defeat is automatically seen as a failure of the system itself. Every time either of these teams have lost -- and they haven’t lost many -- the cry has gone out for a Plan B.
In the light of the sustained success of Plan A, it’s an absurd, knee-jerk reaction but that’s how the human psyche works. Nobody will remember Guardiola’s 36 wins this season (out of 42 games); only the one, single meaningful defeat if they were to get knocked out.
Failure to progress against this Manchester United would undoubtedly result in calls for a modification of Guardiola's tactics (the supposedly more direct “Heynckes-Bayern” of 2013 would also be referenced numerous times, despite the fact they, too, were 99 percent committed to possession football and had only taken a more reactive approach in the two semifinal games vs. Barcelona). Guardiola’s standing in Munich won’t be affected by such a disappointment, but the view of his system would be. And he knows it.
His statements on Tuesday, thus, can be read as a preemptive answer to the critics, and as a declaration of intent. No matter the outcome vs. David Moyes’ side, Guardiola won’t change. In his mind, he believes in “better," not in “different."