Pep Guardiola more likely to help Bayern Munich evolve than revolutionise them

Lennart Preiss

The first game of the new Bundesliga season showed a few signs of subtle tweaks by Pep Guardiola.

This summer, David Moyes and Pep Guardiola were both named as successors to two extraordinarily successful managers. Following in the footsteps of Sir Alex Ferguson and Jupp Heynckes is a challenge for two widely-respected coaches who will see their every move heavily scrutinized, for very different reasons.

In the case of the latter, the task is to improve on what is arguably already perfect. Bayern Munich topped the Bundesliga in 2012-13 from start to finish, to add to ongoing success in the Champions League and DFB-Pokal. They dominated all three competitions in an incredible, perhaps unprecedented manner, combing a remarkable efficiency in possession with a steely determination in defence, equally able to break down deep defences with quick intricate passing moves as they were conducting sweeping, flowing counter-attacks. The latter was crucial in the season's defining tie: that 7-0 thrashing of Barcelona, the former more so in their ongoing domestic triumphs.

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Now, though, it would seem Pep Guardiola wants to perfect Plan A, rather than to take a little from each column as was the wont of Heynckes. Guardiola's managerial record at Barcelona clearly illustrated his fondness for possession: he built upon Johan Cruyff's legacy at the Catalan giants by insisting his side always looked to keep the ball above all.

Guardiola's Barcelona frequently racked up in excess of 60 percent possession, as did Bayern Munich, who ranked second behind the Spaniards in the statistic over the past two years. The key difference was in how they used the ball: Barcelona were more methodical, and often used possession as a purely defensive measure, while Bayern were more immediate with the ball.

First impressions of the new era suggest this is still the case. Friday night's Bundesliga opener between the defending champions and Borussia Mönchengladbach was an intriguing battle between two astute tacticians: Lucien Favre having impressed in the past with clever, disciplined systems. The latest incarnation was no different, lining up in the familiar "two banks of four" and breaking quickly through the front two: new signings Raffael and Max Kruse.

There wasn't much different about Guardiola's Bayern either. The most notable change was the inversion of the midfield triangle, so Bastian Schweinsteiger was the lone midfielder in front of the defence, rather than the double pivot that become customary in their treble-winning season. He often dropped in between the two centre-backs, as was widely predicted, and helped spread possession calmly. The positioning was different, but the role was broadly the same.

There were further hints at subtle evolution, however. The front three were given freedom to interchange freely across the attack, with Franck Ribery and Mario Mandzukic gleefully swapping positions at times. Often, the Frenchman received passes wide on the right, before dribbling inside and allowing either David Alaba or Toni Kroos to overlap.

While the notion of an attacking full-back has become the norm, it was unusual to see Kroos popping up in positions close to the left touchline. Often, though, it meant Bayern dominated Gladbach down that side, with their right-sided pairing of Patrick Hermann and Tony Jantschke.

Bayern didn't look to penetrate into the box from that flank, though. Instead, there was a recurring focus on switching the play through long cross-field diagonals to the opposite side, giving Robben, who was keen to keep right-sided width, the freedom to drive inside.

It meant the majority of Bayern's attacks, interestingly, came down the flanks. It was a surprising contrast to the previous Guardiola tenure, where a lot of attacks stemmed through the centre. That was in part linked to the genius of Lionel Messi, whose movement away from central defenders as a lone forward was the trigger for the wide players to move inside. Therefore, the likes of Pedro, David Viilla and Alexis Sanchez didn't receive passes until they were in behind opposition defences, and close to the penalty box.

The tendency of Ribery and Robben to stay wide and collect passes before dribbling toward goal is therefore at odds with the idea that Guardiola will try and replicate it in Munich, with the expectation being that Mario Götze would fulfil the false nine role.

The €40 million signing is currently out with injury -- although he scored twice in a short spell off the bench in a friendly on Sunday -- which meant Mandzukic lead the line. The Croatian was his usual bullish self, combining power with pace and working across the line to offer a valuable striking threat. His goal -- a somewhat fortunate tap in from an indirect free-kick -- was not illustrative of his wider purpose, which was to help Bayern drive attacks upfield. His ability to hold up the ball and challenge in the air was also significant when Gladbach pressed Bayern high at goal kicks, and as the game became stretched in the second half.

This physicality was something that became expected of Bayern in their extraordinary 2012-13 campaign. The theory is that now Guardiola will seek to evolve them away from this approach; time will tell if this is the case.

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