Pep Guardiola, Max Allegri, Bayern Munich and Juventus all deserve credit
There's a little gimmick that TV networks occasionally use during political debates. They lock a focus group of voters in a room and give each one a small device with a knob, which are supposed to turn left or right, based on how well they think each candidate is doing. This is then logged and it appears as a graphic on the screen in real time, offering up an instant, virtual electrocardiogram of feedback and judgment.
I thought about that on Wednesday during those incredible 120 minutes between Bayern Munich and Juventus. For a while, Bayern manager Pep Guardiola was a fool, a crazed dogmatic zealot, a tactical fundamentalist wed to arrogant notions that, like Icarus, would cause him to crash and burn. Juve boss Max Allegri, meanwhile, was the underdog genius, once again surpassing expectations by concocting a tactical witches' brew to befuddle his more heralded opponent.
And then the tide began to turn. Suddenly, Guardiola was Guardiola again: The gold standard, the serial winner, the most coveted managerial mind of our era, able to convey to his players both the mental fortitude to bounce back and the tactical/personnel tools to do it.
And Allegri was the guy who had blown it: Crumbling when it most mattered, too much of a tinkerer with his substitutions, too much of a coward to stick to the original front-foot gameplan and, instead, retreating to the age-old safety blanket of the counter-attack.
I guess this is why snap judgments are so risky. And why it's often best to reflect 24 hours later.
Do that and what you'll look back on is an exceptional game, featuring two of the very best teams in the world leaving everything out on the pitch. So many focused on the turnarounds, the games within games of the tie's 210 minutes: Bayern won 2-0 from minute 1-60, Juventus triumphed 4-0 from 61-160 and then Bayern thumped their opponents 4-0 the rest of the way.
But, in fact, the games told a different story. The first leg in Turin had shown two clubs playing poorly during two different stretches of the game. Wednesday in Munich was, for the most part, two teams playing well -- very well in spurts -- and when one pulled ahead it was because they moved to another level, not because the opposition dropped off.
Clubs analyze games after the fact and managers reflect on what they could have done differently. Some fault Guardiola for leaving out Thiago Alcantara and Kingsley Coman from the start. That's easy to say after the fact. Would Coman have been as effective from the first minute? And who should have made way for him?
Others point to the fact that his system places undue stress in key defensive positions: One mistake and the opposition are through on goal. That's what happened last night on Juve's first goal and the one soon after that was -- as replays showed -- incorrectly flagged offside.
But that's the basis of Guardiola's system. It's predicated on winning the ball high up the pitch. If you break his press, you're in a one-one-one situation and one slip puts you through. You may not like it, but the concepts have been part of his football for the past decade.
It's what makes him who he is and it has been hugely successful precisely because its positives outweigh its negatives, at least when implemented by him with the type of players he had at Barcelona and has at Bayern.
The fact that Bayern were stunned by Juve's onslaught for the first hour or so on Wednesday night is as much down to what Allegri threw at them as it was to any deficiencies on their part.
Juve's manager was missing arguably his best defender (Giorgio Chiellini), his most experienced midfielder (Claudio Marchisio) and his best attacker (Paulo Dybala), so had to conjure up a different look. Just what it was, was hard for anyone to discern, let alone Guardiola and Bayern.
Antonio Gagliardi, an analyst with the Italian FA, tweeted: "Juventus defend low with a 5-4-1, they press with a 4-4-2 and they attack with a 4-2-3-1. Systems in the future will become ever more fluid."
He's right. What Juve did tactically was something hugely difficult to pull off and something for which Guardiola was totally unprepared; in part because Juve had never done it before and in part because most of Bayern's opponents this season -- especially the ones with the quality to actually do some damage -- don't shape-shift in that way.
It's a credit to Allegri, but it's also down to the players. You can draw up the best scheme in the world, but if you don't have guys with the intelligence and tactical preparation to apply it and the intensity and technique to execute it, you're not getting far.
Allegri was criticized by some for replacing Alvaro Morata with Mario Mandzukic. It obviously didn't work, but I have less of a problem with it than do others. Allegri explained that the idea was for Mandzukic to offer a big physical target to hold the ball and let Juve move up the pitch, while providing a threat on set pieces.
The problem, Allegri said, was that others simply couldn't get close enough to him. Hindsight is 20/20 but when you consider that Morata has lasted 90 minutes in less than 20 percent of his appearances this season and that Mandzukic was hugely motivated against his former boss -- he probably likes Guardiola about as much Jose Mourinho does -- it's not such a crazy notion.
So, where does this leave the two teams?
For Juventus, it's confirmation that, at least against Europe's best, they can hold their own. Since Allegri's arrival last year, they have beaten Borussia Dortmund and Manchester City home and away, knocked out Real Madrid, battled Bayern to a stand-still and, in last year's Champions League final, were level with Barcelona in the second half. If such intangibles as confidence and mentality actually exist, there is no question that they live in this squad.
"This defeat must teach us that we have moved up another notch compared to last season." said Gigi Buffon, Juve's skipper. "The growth process continues at pace."
He's right. Juve were as good on Wednesday night as anything they showed last year, when they came within 90 minutes of the treble. If expected goals are your thing, then this and this sum it up neatly.
Plus, with Chiellini, Marchisio and Dybala, they likely would have been even better. It's certainly a far more constructive message than that spewed out after the game by Juventus executive Beppe Marotta, who is usually rather more measured, when he complained about the officiating and talked about "needing protection in European football."
It's 2016. If you want to blame refereeing errors, fine. But don't trot out anything even remotely alluding to the need to the old chestnuts of political power and influence over referees. It's unbecoming.
As for Bayern, there are still plenty who see this in black and white terms. If Guardiola wins the Champions League during his spell in Munich, then he will have succeeded. If he comes up short, he will have failed. It's a binary equation that makes no sense to me but hey-ho. If folks don't understand that chance and probability and the quality of the opposition are beyond a manager's control, there's only so much you can do.
As far as I'm concerned -- and, more importantly, as far as many in the Bayern hierarchy have told me -- Guardiola has already succeeded. He introduced concepts and an evolution that has simply made his players and the club better. And that's a manager's first job.
When Bayern were on their way out, right up until -- who else? -- Thomas Muller's dramatic stoppage-time equalizer, some people took glee at making sweeping pronouncements: Guardiola bottled it, he's a fraud. He can no longer do it in big games. Tiki-taka is dead.
(The idiocy of that previous statement leaves you lost for words; thinking you can sum up the current Bayern team in eight letters and thinking what you see is what Guardiola's Barca played in 2008.)
But how about looking at it a different way? How about noticing that, late in the game, Guardiola got Bayern to played differently, with crosses and directness and an aerial assault that was entirely distinct from what they'd done earlier? How about noting that such a shift actually requires a fair dose of humility?
It comes with the territory, I guess. When you're on top, some turn you into some kind of infallible messiah, spreading a universal footballing truth. And that, inevitably, leads to a backlash from those who are annoyed not so much by Guardiola himself, but by a portion of his fanatical cheerleaders.
He's not the first, by the way. It happened to Mourinho, Sir Alex Ferguson, Fabio Capello, Arrigo Sacchi and Johan Cruyff. Heck, Viktor Maslov and Bela Guttmann would have gotten it too if social media and the punditocracy had existed in their day.
Unless Bayern and Juventus somehow collapse and finish their domestic seasons empty-handed, Guardiola and Allegri have already succeeded, because they've made their teams better. And that's regardless of the fact that the latter will be watching the rest of the Champions League on TV or that the former could run into Barcelona and get tripped up in the next round.
Even if that's probably not what those folks with their little knobs in their little focus groups are thinking.