Pep Guardiola, the great chef without a Plan B

Chef Pep Guardiola leaves a kitchen in great condition in Munich, but his recipe did not get the ingredients and flavours right when it counted.

There have been a number of articles written about Guardiola since the announcement of his departure, and views have been varied. There are those who remain convinced that he is the greatest coach in football right now – as I write this, outrageous contract offers are no doubt being drawn up elsewhere – while others have adopted a far less flattering position. It is fair to say that the controversial Catalan has divided opinion among Bayern fans since the day of his appointment.

Back in February, I wrote a piece where I compared Guardiola to his friend and fellow Catalan Ferran Adrià – a renowned culinary genius who called time on his project at a time while many others might have looked to take the next step forward.

Food enthusiasts and critics around the world mourned the loss of the Michelin-starred El Bulli, but for Adrià the somewhat abrupt decision to close the restaurant was the culmination of a natural progression. He had achieved greatness, and felt that he had nothing else to add. The job was done.

The same things are being said about Guardiola as he ponders his next move. He clearly feels that he has nothing left to offer in Munich, and while he has made significant and positive changes to the club’s philosophy his being a success or (relative) failure will depend on whether or not he can lead Bayern to the Champions League title after two bitter failures in 2014 and 2015.

Should Bayern claim a sixth European crown at Milan’s San Siro next year, Guardiola will go out on a high. Should he lead the club to another treble, he can truly be compared to his friend Adrià, who closed down his groundbreaking restaurant as the holder of three coveted Michelin stars. Should he fall short however, Guardiola’s three years in Munich will be seen as a project that ultimately failed to live up to all of the hype that swept Bavaria during the summer of 2013, when he was unveiled as the new coach.

Although I was something of a “Speptic” from the very beginning, it is sad to see Guardiola leave the club part-way through what was largely billed as a transformation project. The mission, so everybody believed, was to take Jupp Heynckes’ treble-winning team to a new level, one that would not just supersede but transcend the club’s glorious history.

A bigger brand, but…

Guardiola’s presence in Munich has undoubtedly taken Bayern into a new era. He has transformed the club from a major European footballing power into a leading global brand, and his time as coach has helped create a new sense of identity that has lifted Bayern alongside the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United on the world stage.

The downside, of course, is the media circus that has followed Guardiola like a bad smell since day one, culminating in the “will he, won’t he?” madness that has overshadowed the team’s achievements on the pitch. This is one thing most Bayern fans, particularly those who remember the “FC Hollywood” years, will be glad to see the back of.

As a Bayern supporter, winning Bundesliga and cup titles is always nice. However, everybody knows what we want. For a club like Bayern, the benchmark of success will always be the Champions League. It is here where, unless things change dramatically next June, Guardiola has failed.

For many, the Catalan’s time in Bavaria has been a case of the Emperor’s new clothes; a meal at a swanky restaurant that contains the most expensive and finest ingredients, but fails to deliver on substance and flavour. It has the obligatory crisp white tablecloths, the multilingual sommelier and smartly turned-out wait staff, but ultimately we are not getting what we are paying through the nose for. While the professional critics rave about the unique atmosphere and the complex dishes, those of us that actually want to experience something tasty are left wondering what all the fuss is about.

The hors-d’oeuvre, which comes in the form of a tenderised Hamburger SV or a battered freshly-caught Werder Bremen, immediately draws us in. From the very first bite the taste combinations are amazing, hitting our palate with delicious notes of Müller, Robben and Lewandowski. A sip of wine, and we are ready to move onto the much-anticipated main course.

When the dish arrives and the shining silver cloche is theatrically removed to reveal the Bestia Negra, the aroma is intoxicating and it is impossible to not get carried away just a little bit. Amid this olfactory confusion, it is difficult to distinguish the smell of confidence from that of desperation. It takes hold of you, but somehow there is something not quite right about it. Then there is the sharp injections of the spice dubbed “death by a thousand passes”, which promises much but fails to satisfy. There is a bitterness running through the dish, which falls apart way too easily.

After such a disappointment, the over-sweetened Merengues that follow are just too much. Pass me the wine and the bill, please.

This has been the story of Pep Guardiola at Bayern. The much-lauded coach has flattered to deceive, and his tactics have been picked apart when it has really mattered. For all of the thrashings handed out to the likes of Hamburg, Bremen and Paderborn, Bayern’s rivals seemed to have a measure of their tactics. This was not just Real Madrid and Barcelona, but the teams that were left trailing in their wake in the Bundesliga.

Domestic dish

Bayern won their twenty-fifth Bundesliga title in 2015 with four matches to spare, eventually finishing ten points ahead of second-placed VfL Wolfsburg. However, the head to heads against the five teams that finished behind them, their record was dismal to say the least. That Bayern were able to win the title by such a distance was only because they were able to dispose of the lesser teams more efficiently than their rivals; if either the Wolves or third-placed Borussia Mönchengladbach had been able to up their game against the rest, the race for the title would have been far tighter.

v VfL Wolfsburg 2-1 (h), 1-4 (a)
v Borussia Mönchengladbach 0-2 (h), 0-0 (a)
v Bayer 04 Leverkusen 1-0 (h), 0-2 (a)
v FC Augsburg 0-1 (h), 4-0 (a)
v Schalke 04 0-0 (h), 1-1 (a)

v Top five: W3 D3 L4

Taking these results out of the overall equation, Bayern are left with a 22-1-1 season return, with their only defeat coming at the hands of eventually-relegated SC Freiburg – one of three league defeats in a row that equalled a less-heralded record. At home, Bayern’s recorded a 100% success rate against the twelve teams that finished lower than sixth place.

Statistics, like some fish, can look deceptively complicated. They just need to be neatly filleted.

No Plan B in the kitchen

The sad truth is that for all of his scientific innovation and tactical tinkering, Guardiola has always lacked a Plan B. This is the prerogative of genius, of course: as Plan A has to be absolutely flawless, it naturally follows that there is no need for a Plan B. When the genius chef sees his perfect creation leave the pass, he expects everybody to not just to like it, but understand it.

Should the customer find that the Périgord truffle is a little too earthy, then it is that customer’s palate that is at fault. If that customer happens to be an established critic, then the blame will be shifted onto the Dordogne pig that happened to discover the faulty black jewel. Following the Champions League semi-final defeat against Real Madrid, Guardiola admitted that he had “f*cked up”. A moment of clarity, even contrition? Not a bit of it, in that he went on to qualify his failure by blaming the players for persuading him to be more attacking.

The lack of a Plan B has cropped up again and again. When Bayern have taken the lead, they have often gone on to take apart their opponents in a clinical fashion that has been fascinating to watch. However, they have often struggled when behind, even against relatively weak opposition.

Last season’s Champions League quarter final against Porto was the perfect illustration. In the first leg, it was a case of one error leading to another as Bayern collapsed to a 3:1 defeat. In the return match, the much hoped-for early strike paved the way to a stunning 6:1 victory. The difference in the results was massive, but the reality was as thin as the slice of black truffle than can make or break a Michelin-starred dish. Had Porto scored first in Munich, it could have been a different story.

In all, “Project Pep” has been something of a mixed bag. Most of the players have clearly enjoyed being part of it, and there is no doubt that Guardiola has brought plenty of fresh ideas to the club. The downside has been his constant tinkering and the meddling with what was a perfectly good selection of ingredients. It took him the best part of two seasons to discover that it was not quite enough to smother opponents to death in the sticky sauce of possession and pass them to death, and way too long to understand that centre-forward Robert Lewandowski is pretty lethal when played as an, erm, centre-forward.

The right seasoning

Much like the chef who discovers that adding an extra bit of seasoning lifts a dish from merely good to outstanding, last season’s injury crisis led Guardiola to play Lewandowski in a more orthodox role – effectively lighting the blue touchpaper for the Polish striker. It is much the same story with the wingers, where the coach discovered that getting behind opposition defences with pace is far more effective – if slightly less pretty – than trying to unlock defences with an over-seasoned passing game.

The list goes on. We saw Philipp Lahm moved into midfield, which prompted plenty of gushing praise from some quarters. All well and good when it worked, but problematic when the coach discovered that there was nobody of Lahm’s quality at right-back. David Alaba is a natural left-back who is excellent going forward, and has been highly successful for Austria as something of a playmaker. Cue his starting at centre-back for Bayern. Likewise Javi Martínez, a solid defensive midfielder who found himself dropped back to into the back four.

Perhaps the biggest conundrum is Guardiola’s curious aversion to the box-to-box midfielder, something that hastened the end of Bastian Schweinsteiger’s career in Munich. Schweinsteiger was one of Bayern’s much-loved ingredients, but Guardiola did not quite know how to use him. If the Fußballgott was not utilised as some defensive automaton with the sole purpose of looking for the perfect pass, he was thrown together with Xabi Alonso to create a dish where the ingredients simply cancelled each other out.

Likewise Arturo Vidal. A potent part of the midfield at Juventus last season, the Chilean can be compared to delicious bone marrow that has been boiled down to create some bland jus. It is just there dotted on the plate, serving no purpose whatsoever beyond simple decoration.

Then there was the dispute with the medical staff, which led to the acrimonious departure of long-serving specialist Dr. Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt and his established team. The good doctor had been associated with Bayern for the best part of four decades, yet it took just one season working with the demanding Guardiola to send him on his way. The coach’s subsequent rows with the current medical team appears to suggest that the fault may not necessarily lie with the club staff.

In the strictest statistical sense, Guardiola’s spell in Munich has been a success. Bayern’s Bundesliga rivals would give their eyeteeth to have had back to back Bundesliga titles, a DFB-Pokal, a UEFA Supercup and a FIFA World Club Cup in the trophy cabinet. Should this season’s league campaign match the last two, Guardiola will also leave Munich with the best winning percentage record in the club’s history.

A kitchen in good condition

As I said earlier however, statistics are there to be filleted; it is worth noting that the much-derided Felix Magath managed to secure back to back league and cup doubles a decade earlier with a far less talented team. It is a comparison that garners a gentle chuckle with fellow followers of Die Roten, only to be quickly followed by the look that betrays the horrible realisation. Of course, the difference is that while Magath left behind a trail of destruction, Guardiola will bequeath his successor both a stable squad and a legacy that can only be developed further.

Might Guardiola get it right on the eve of his departure? Perhaps. Having arrived with a vision of how he wanted things to be, he has over time softened his approach somewhat. Contrary to some other commentators, I am of the opinion this has been more through having to make do than design.

Guardiola’s announcement was quickly followed by the news that his successor at the Säbenerstraße would be Italian Carlo Ancelotti, an altogether much better fit at Bayern. While the recipes of Chef Pep will always remain part of the menu in Munich, many Bayern fans will feel more comfortable with the less flamboyant but arguably more successful and grounded Ancelotti – a man for whom style is important, but ultimately no substitute for substance.

A bit like the great Albert Roux.