“Pep under pressure,” reads the front of Germany’s Sport Bild three days before the start of the season. The “pressure” Guardiola has to face is one of a unique type: keeping Bayern Munich at the top ahead of a fledging and bright Borussia Dortmund side.
As Bayern prepare to face VfL Wolfsburg this evening at the Allianz Arena, Guardiola’s preparations have been rocked by some high-profile casualties. He’ll need to cope without Thiago Alcantara, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez, the versatile Spanish midfielder, who was injured in the 2-0 defeat at Dortmund last week.
It’s a blow to the all-controlling, dominating possession ideas of Guardiola, yet his options boast a very different dynamic to last season. He now has a preferable frontman in the shape of Robert Lewandowski, while welcoming back a galvanised Mario Gotze from his World Cup triumphs.
Leading on from the German Cup Final in May, in which Guardiola deployed an embryonic version of the 3-5-2 formation, the 43-year-old has attempted to take it one step further. To evolve the team, from playing a pretty structured 4-2-3-1, to an all-purpose and unrestricting 3-4-3 formation, that centres on positional interchanging and mobility.
In that final, and in pre-season, Martinez has been the foundation at the back, which Guardiola has looked to build from. The ACL tear sustained in Dortmund for the former Athletic Bilbao ace brings some instability to what Guardiola was aiming to achieve with this idea.
Martinez isn’t necessarily key to a 3-4-3 formation entirely - as Guardiola demonstrated in the German Cup last weekend with Holger
Badstuber returning - but more so that it facilitates the functioning of the system.
The Spaniard is of a type that Bayern just simply don’t have in abundance. Toni Kroos, the archetypal Guardiola footballer, a passing machine in midfield was sold on the cheap to Real Madrid. According to a forthcoming book, that is given unrivalled access to his first six months at the club, Guardiola had seeked assurances that the German wouldn’t be sold.
His frustration may be compiled by the respective injuries to Thiago Alcantara and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Bayern need to shop for another midfielder, if Guardiola intends on keeping Martinez at the back. Athletic Bilbao’s Ander Iturraspe, Real Madrid’s Sami Khedira and Bayer Leverkusen’s Gonzalo Castro are reportedly high on Guardiola’s
Perhaps, in the eyes of Guardiola, Martinez’s game intelligence and his foresight of the field from defence that allows him to be such an effective playmaker. The 25-year-old’s absence won’t kill the formation’s chances at Bayern, but it will almost certainly force Guardiola into a rethink of his tactics.
The re-kindling of Alaba
As a consequence of the overarching evolution under Guardiola’s guidance, several players have been displaced from their natural position. David Alaba, the ever-impressive Austrian left-back, has maybe suffered more than others.
The 22-year-old has conceded his wide berth to new signing Juan Bernat, shifting inside to become one of the three central defenders in the team.
While days are early, Alaba looked a little uncomfortable and unsteady in the DFL Super Cup defeat to Borussia Dortmund last week. In the German Cup win at Preussen Munster, Alaba was shifted to one of the two defensive pivot positions, pairing up with Philipp Lahm.
Playing in midfield is nothing new for the Austrian: he’s a dynamic player and regularly features as a midfielder for his national side. He was developed, as a teenager, to play in midfield and attack before Louis van Gaal’s arrival.
He quickly excelled under Jupp Heynckes and became one of the most consistent performers in the team – his wing-combinations with Franck Ribery a joy to behold in, what many tag, as the best Bayern team of all-time.
Similarly to the repositioning of Lahm last season, Alaba, a world-class left-back in his own right has slowly become just ordinary element to a three-man defence. On the other hand, allowing for time to adjust to the different demands of each position, Alaba could be one to thrive in midfield.
He has all the required attributes of a modern central-midfielder – one who is skilfully adept enough to shuttle from each penalty box. It’s a midfield stockpiled with terrific options, most of which will miss the season-opener, and Alaba may have his chance to flourish outside of left-back.
And it could offer Guardiola the room to implement his own wider ideas on the team. Last season’s championship win had the smell of Heynckes’ work, and while, Pep is under pressure to deliver the minimum targets, the evolution of Bayern Munich may only just be beginning.SHOW MORE