Pep Guardiola changes the game to leave Bayern boss open to question
In many ways, Bayern Munich's 1-0 first-leg defeat to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League on Wednesday panned out just as the visitors had feared.
They dominated possession and probed at the Vicente Calderon, but the Spaniards got on the score sheet with one devastating attack from Saul Niguez.
Bayern's 1-0 defeat at Atleti's neighbours, Real Madrid, two years ago followed a similar pattern. That night, Pep Guardiola's men hardly troubled the Spanish goal despite all their passing brilliance, and although the manager kept praising his team for creating "so many" openings against Diego Simeone's notoriously battle-hardened side, in truth only a couple of them amounted to clear-cut opportunities from inside the box.
Bayern left Madrid saying all the things they had to say about making amends -- the way they did after their 3-1 defeat at Porto in the round of 16 last season, for example -- but they knew they had failed in their two key objectives, pointed out by executive chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge: "We want to score a goal and not lose the game."
At this level in the competition, you don't just lose games -- the opposition make you lose them. The more that your opponent is able to implement its game plan, the more your own game falters. Neutrals would have noted that Atleti made Bayern give the ball away in the opening exchanges with high pressing and superb positioning.
Later, as the Bavarians exerted pressure, the home side defended with a calmness and precision that is simply unmatched in Europe. Bayern hardly talked about that after the final whistle, however, because to do so would have threatened to plant more doubts into their minds.
Guardiola was the one member of the travelling party to admit the 1-0 score line presented a "complicated result," whereas the players preferred to look at the positives.
"We created more chances than we thought we would," said Philipp Lahm, while David Alaba added: "There's a second game, everything's possible."
Manuel Neuer said: "We weren't brave and aggressive enough at the start," and Xabi Alonso agreed: "We didn't play well in the beginning."
Bayern are still in charge of their destiny, despite Atleti's achieving a near-perfect result in the first leg. It could have easily been perfect, too. Fernando Torres came tantalisingly close to killing off the tie with his shot against the post in the second half. Considering the quality of the opportunities both teams created, Bayern weren't unlucky to lose 1-0; they were fortunate. That realisation was too damaging psychologically to be given voice in Madrid.
The public postmortem in Munich immediately concentrated on the non-inclusion of Thomas Muller, Bayern's talisman, in the starting lineup.
Guardiola explained that he wanted "more control" in midfield, by virtue of an additional midfielder. The idea was to withstand early pressure from the home side, Lahm revealed. Leaving out Muller made theoretical sense in that respect, and Guardiola's decision-making process would have been helped by the fact that the 26-year-old hasn't been playing all that well recently.
Muller, a second-half substitute with limited impact, took his omission with a shrug. "I have to be professional about it," he said.
"I'm not happy, but it's important to realise what's important for the team. If everybody who's not playing goes crazy, we can forget about the whole season."
In light of Bayern's futility in the opposition box, blaming it all on the surprise absence of Muller (and Franck Ribery) was easy to do. It's been a feature of Guardiola's reign at the Allianz Arena that many supporters and most media outlets have readily found fault with his lineups and tactics in the handful of big defeats his team have suffered.
In the past, when far fewer conceptual managers were in charge, the players would cop most of the criticism after big disappointments in the Champions League. The way people look at the game has changed in Munich, though. Guardiola has transformed football into a manager's game, with all the pitfalls that entails. He knew he'd be personally blamed for a bad result, just as he was at Barcelona. Muller and Ribery will be two sticks to beat him with should Bayern fail to qualify for the final next week. There's no way around it; that's how it works.
As far as an analysis of the team's problems on Wednesday goes, however, focussing on one or two players who weren't on the pitch is a distraction. The German champions-elect had bigger issues, and not for the first time. Firstly, their buildup play was far too easily interrupted in the opening stages, when the hosts pressed them high. Despite fielding a central midfield triangle of Alonso, Arturo Vidal and Thiago Alcantara, Bayern's pressing resistance was poor, and they had to resort to long balls that were easily intercepted. This flaw has been in evidence throughout the season, to varying degrees, and it will have to be addressed, both tactically and in terms of personnel.
The second, most important cause for their underperformance might be harder to fix in the next five days. Too many players are short of their best form at the moment. Robert Lewandowski, Douglas Costa, Muller ... the list goes on. Only Vidal has been playing at a level approaching full capacity. On top of that, left-back Juan Bernat was well below the required standard at the Calderon, Kingsley Coman's poor choices betrayed his inexperience and Alcantara merely floated through the match, uninvolved and ethereal. You don't tend to win the Champions League that way.
Next week, Jerome Boateng's possible return promises to bring more stability, without the ball as well as with it. His long-range passes have been sorely missed in recent weeks. Muller and Ribery should be back from the start as well, against an Atletico side that will defend even deeper than before.
It's not a lost cause, this Bavarian remontada, but it will need a strong performance over the whole 90 minutes.
And that's precisely the worry. For all their squad depth and tactical sophistication under Guardiola, Bayern haven't mustered one of those in the Champions League knockout rounds this season.
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.