After early misgivings, Pep Guardiola showed on Wednesday night that Bayern Munich can get even better after all. Surely even their cantankerous sporting director now has to admit they're quite good.
Manchester City were meant to be a test. Bayern Munich needed this game, the pundits said, because the Bundesliga provides no more challenges for the Bavarians. So far, the sternest competition the league has offered - at least on paper - was Schalke away three weeks ago, and that ended in a 4-0 destruction for Bayern. Following that irresistible display, it was said only the Champions League would tell us whether Pep Guardiola had improved Jupp Heynckes' unimprovable treble-winning team.
But the measuring stick of Manchester City came up just as short as Jens Keller's hapless Schalke two weeks ago. On Wednesday night (02.10.2013), the expensively-assembled Pale Blues went the same way as the Royal Blues – out-thought, outmuscled, and outplayed.
Fittingly enough, the 3-1 victory marked almost exactly a hundred days since Guardiola had been presented as Bayern's new coach, because it showcased much of what the Catalan has achieved - and it finally banished any lingering concerns that he might have reduced the pace and power of the team that Jupp Heynckes guided to glory last season.
Some critics had speculated that Guardiola would turn the Germans into a ponderous version of his invincible Barcelona - all intricate "tiki-taka" passing, but with no Leo Messi to score all the goals. In fact, Wednesday showed that Guardiola has adapted his own philosophy to Bayern as much as he has tried to impose his will.
Flexibility and pressing
The coach signaled his tactical intentions by picking Thomas Müller ahead of Mario Mandzukic to lead the attack in Manchester. The more dogged Müller, usually an attacking midfielder, was better suited than the Croatian to pressing the City defense high up the pitch, while at the same time fulfilling the various functions of a classic center-forward - to win aerial battles and distract the attention of defenders when midfielders come to attack.
The first of Bayern's goals - in the seventh minute - showed that they are no Barcelona-lite: it came from a long, high diagonal pass for Franck Ribery, who cut inside to deliver a low shot from outside the area. The trick was repeated early in the second half, when Müller was the beneficiary of the diagonal ball. Both goals were notably free of methodical, triangular passing.
Searching for new formulas
Elsewhere, the game featured the two most eye-catching tactical changes of the Guardiola era - turning right-back Philipp Lahm into a defensive midfielder, and defensive midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger into a more offensive player. The re-jigging led Germany's smartest football magazine 11 Freunde to characterize Guardiola as Walter White from Breaking Bad in August, as if he were a chemist searching for the most potent formula. But in part the tinkering has been forced on him by necessity, as other midfield options - Mario Götze, Xavi Martinez, and Thiago, Guardiola's new signing from Barcelona - are still unfit.
Whatever the causes, the re-invention of Lahm and Schweinsteiger paid dividends on Wednesday, as Bayern swarmed the midfield, with wide defenders David Alaba and Rafinha often crowding it further to support Lahm. At the back, meanwhile, the Bayern captain's defensive instincts meant he often dropped back to double as an extra central defender on the few occasions when City were on the attack. It's not for nothing that Bayern have conceded just two goals in the Bundesliga and the Champions League so far this season.
Trouble in the 'comfort zone'
The only ripple of discontent in Guardiola-era Bayern (not counting their pre-season Super Cup defeat to Dortmund) has been off the pitch, where sporting director Matthias Sammer irritated his players and his paymasters following a 2-0 victory over Hannover three weeks ago. The win was apparently a little too routine for the director's liking, and he publicly accused the team of being too "lethargic," of performing their "duties by rote," and declared that they "had to get out of their comfort zone."
It was characteristic bluster from Sammer, and he was promptly reined in by club bigwigs, who distanced themselves from the sporting director's judgment. But the criticism apparently still rankled, for Lahm made use of an interview for Die Zeit newspaper last weekend to shoot back. "It takes a while to develop the sense of when the right moment has come for such formulations, and in what tone you make them," he said. "At the moment of criticism you have to be able to hold back your emotions. If the boss is too emotional, then he will lose out at some point. Then he's not as credible anymore."
If someone in power wants to criticize colleagues, "then he should do it internally," Lahm added, not exactly heeding his own advice. Club President Uli Hoeness also criticized Sammer in an uncharacteristically sanguine style: "We shouldn't start constantly picking apart the victories, but just enjoy the game," he said.
After all, as Wednesday night showed, there is a lot to enjoy.