Bayern's Javi Martinez talks about life under Pep Guardiola, more
"Crazy" and "outrageous" were the words used by Bayern Munich's sporting director Matthias Sammer to describe the prospect of the German club triggering Javi Martínez's €40 million release clause in the summer of 2012. "We won't do it, as things stand," Sammer added. "But if we believe we have to do it, in sporting terms, we have no choice but to be crazy."
The Bavarians had never spent as much on a player before and they haven't spent as much since, either. The 27-year-old former Athletic Bilbao midfielder remains the most expensive transfer in the club's history. On the star-studded Bayern squad, Martínez is one of the more discrete performers -- his chief role in Pep Guardiola's system is to prevent excitement, not create it -- but no one would dispute that the historic outlay for his services has been fully vindicated.
Martinez's acquisition was a huge contributing factor to winning the treble in 2013 when two or three crucial interventions in the second half helped Bayern interrupt Borussia Dortmund's flow and wrest back control of the Champions League final at Wembley. This spring, his return to full fitness after two injury-plagued years with little to no regular action has Bayern supporters dreaming of history repeating itself.
"I've come back quicker than I thought," Martínez tells ESPN FC in perfect English. "The fitness coaches are very happy with me. I've worked very hard on sprints to make sure I'm able to help the team at the back, where we're missing a few players at the moment."
Before his arrival, Guardiola had earmarked Martinez as the central defender in a back three, but didn't really pursue the idea much further in his first season. Martinez's most memorable game in 2013-14 came as a "false 10" in a 3-0 away win at Jürgen Klopp's Dortmund, offering a glimpse of the highly fluid setup that would emerge later.
"I remember Pep saying that Dortmund had problems in the back line, so he employed me there to press them early," he recounts. "I played as a 10, a six (holding midfielder) and a four (centre-back) in that game. I started at the top and came back. Ten minutes more and I would have played Manuel Neuer's position ..."
Rumours were going around Munich at the time that Martínez, one of the world's best ball-winners in the middle of the park, didn't really like playing as defender, a role he has resumed this season in the absence of the injured Jérôme Boateng. Nonsense, he insists: "I'll do what's necessary for the team. And there's not much difference between a holding midfielder and a defender in Pep's system. He expects you to play out from the back and loves players who can change positions during a game.
"It's one of the main things we practice in training: the changing of positions. Our game is always suited to the opponent. We start with one idea but prepare the whole week for the possible change if that idea doesn't work. You have to be mentally prepared for that change."
In the Bundesliga, people used to believe in a sort of tactical conservatism: coaches weren't supposed to alter their lineup and style of football from one game to the next, let alone during a game. Guardiola (and BVB coach Thomas Tuchel, his brother in spirit) have exposed the idea of being "settled" as counterproductive. If you'll know only one way to play with one team, you're too predictable, therefore unable to react to changes by the opposition. But reaching a state of fluidity without losing your shape and cohesion altogether is hard to achieve, Martínez explains.
"It's more difficult for players to play for a guy like Pep. But you grow up that way, you learn things you couldn't do before. You have to pay attention for the whole day during all the meetings. There are so many things happening in training ... you have to stay focused at all times."
If you think that all sounds a little bit like school -- albeit a football school with very gifted class mates -- you're probably not wrong.
"One of the things that has really surprised me since Pep came here is the way he taught us how to play football," Martínez says. "Every day is a lesson, every day is something new, every day is special with Pep. In our third year together, we understand him much better. I feel very lucky to be here. As a coach, I'd pay good money to be in a meeting with him."
Maybe he should put Pep's team talks on YouTube? "I'd be very rich," he chuckles. "No, I'm saving it all in my brain, for the whole world, for when I'm a coach." He is half-serious about that idea, as it turns out. "I think I would like to coach one day, but not professionally. You have to be crazy to coach a professional team! Thinking all day about football. I see it with Pep. He gets in at 8, he leaves at 8 or 9 at night sometimes without a break in between. It's crazy."
A better understanding between coach and players might well lead to a different outcome in the Champions League this season, Martínez believes, although he remains cautious. "You have to beat the best teams, that's never easy." Bayern's job in 2014 was made trickier by the fact that Martínez was unable to start in either leg against Real Madrid in the semifinal, and 12 months later, he was again sorely missed as Bayern were knocked out by Barcelona in the penultimate round.
"I trust my team to do better," he says. "We have fewer injuries and more options on the bench. The competition inside the squad has made everybody train and work harder, and Dortmund's strong run has forced us to keep our focus as well. You need that to go all the way.
You saw that in the Juventus game when we came up against really strong resistance. We found out that we were a team that night, that we never give up. And we showed that to the world, too. It was amazing to watch it from the stand. I was so tired from watching, I couldn't train properly the next day."
Next stop: Atletico Madrid. "Pep will be scouting already, watching dozens of their games," Martínez says, smiling. "He will show us the way to play against them. There'll be a lot of information but not too much. We can handle it." Martínez's physical strength should come in especially useful against one of the hardest sides in European football.
Bayern might not be "as direct as under Jupp Heynckes," something Martinez suggests, but Guardiola is not averse to going "route one" if needs must. He deployed Martínez as a makeshift striker in the UEFA Supercup game against Mourinho's Chelsea in 2013. The Spaniard duly scored the 2-2 equaliser in the 120th minute to force a penalty shootout that the Bavarians won.
That victory was Guardiola's first competitive game in Europe with Bayern. Maybe Martínez can provide a similarly crazy and outrageous finish again, in this season's final for the manager's final one, too.
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.