Has the clock begun ticking towards Pep Guardiola leaving Bayern Munich?
Wednesday afternoon saw the official end of the Christmas holidays at Bayern Munich, with the full squad reconvening at the club HQ in Sabenerstrasse ahead of their trip to Qatar, for a two-week training camp, on Friday.
The second half of the season will only properly start at the end of the month with a tricky away tie at second-placed VfL Wolfsburg, but Pep Guardiola has, as things stand, already reached the halfway point of his term in Bavaria. The Catalan coach has not indicated that he'd be willing to renew his three-year contract, either, despite some careful advances by the club.
Guardiola made a habit of running down his existing deals at Barcelona, to be sure. But in Munich, those in charge are secretly bracing for his departure at the end of the 2016 season. If the three-year timeline proves accurate, the clock has started ticking for the 43-year-old and Bayern alike. They'll only have 18 months left together in which Bayern should -- no, must -- win the Champions League.
At this point, you might reasonably argue that I'm slightly jumping the gun here. After all, 18 months is a long time in football, and no one can claim to know how he or the club will feel one and a half years down the line. All valid arguments, yet the situation is a little different and more predictable than usual because Guardiola is in a very unusual position.
The admiration among Bayern players and the board members for his work is such that Guardiola can effectively dictate the terms of his employment. No other manager in the history of one of Europe's most successful clubs has ever had anywhere near as much power to shape his own future.
Bayern know it. They've been at pains not to put pressure on him re-signing, in contrast to similar situations with players in recent years (Toni Kroos, Michael Ballack, for example). Guardiola knows it, too. Working to a tight deadline increases the pressure on a coach (you won't hear him talking about needing more time), but it also comes with a certain sense of freedom. He can concentrate on the short-term and subordinate everything to success (read: the Champions League).
Yet that doesn't mean Guardiola will necessarily be able to make far-reaching decisions on players. The HR department will remain the domain of the club, as illustrated by Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg's loan to Augsburg until the end of the season. Guardiola was keen to keep the 19-year-old Danish midfielder in the squad to provide cover in central midfield, whereas the club was interested to see him get more time on the pitch even if it happened in a different shirt. The manager first wanted the decision to be delayed until after the end of the training camp, in case there were any more injuries, but the club (and the player) had their wish eventually granted on Wednesday.
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To be the coach at Bayern is to accept this separation of powers but privately, the board were surprised to see Guardiola push the Hojbjerg issue to that extent. His actions were interpreted as a sign that he's not that interested in the big picture right now, only in going one better than last season, when Bayern won the double.
The Bundesliga leaders are on course to win their third championship in a row. No German team has ever been able to win four league titles on the trot, but that historical target will be very much a secondary one for the man on the bench. In fact, you could argue that Bayern's relentless excellence domestically has made life more difficult for Guardiola.
Last season, he made a hash of managing the Champions League run-in after the team had secured the championship at the end of March. This year, the law of diminishing returns has well and truly kicked in. Senior players are positively raving about his coaching ("he's the best manager I've ever had, by some distance," one established member of the squad told me in December), but beyond the red and white bubble, the more points Bayern rack up, the less people will find them worthy winners.
It's not a very nice space to be in for any professional sports person when even coming first is not enough. Memories are short in football, so it's worth repeating here: Guardiola signed on in December 2012, a few months after Bayern had completed a second successive campaign without any silverware. Borussia Dortmund were the dominant force at the time, but no one could have predicted that Jurgen Klopp's side would fall so significantly short of their own recent benchmarks in the 24 months that followed.
Without Klopp to tussle with or any other German competitors worthy of their name, Bayern and Guardiola have no choice but to look to Europe for validation. In other words, their whole season hinges upon a couple of results in March, April or May of this year and the next. Everything in between is just background noise.
For Guardiola, who prepares detailed tactics for every single game and coaches through every 90 minutes with incredible intensity, it must be a strange and somewhat disheartening situation. No wonder Bayern are currently working on the assumption that they'll need somebody to succeed him in 2016. (There's no obvious contender at the moment, but at least one high-profile manager has started to eye up the job.)
For now, Bayern Munich have one of Europe's best coaches and one of Europe's best squads. But the latter will be in transition soon, as stalwarts like Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben, Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger approach the autumn of their careers; the former won't be around much longer, either. This window of opportunity is closing soon. Halfway through Guardiola's stay in Germany, the end game has already begun.
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.