When Pep Guardiola and Alex Ferguson sat down to dinner together in New York, most of the speculation centred on the latter's impending retirement. Instead, as befits the appearance of some sort of footballing version of the Skull and Bones society, you could wonder whether the subject of human sacrifice came up - specifically, of midfielders, and altering the soul of a Champions League-winning team.
If Guardiola plans to introduce Thiago to Bayern Munich, at the expense of playing his other midfielders out of position, then it would be a gamble comparable to Ferguson's introduction of Juan Sebastian Veron to the David Beckham-Paul-Scholes-Roy-Keane-Ryan-Giggs foursome. Yet as Ferguson did so painfully and very early, his goal was clear - to develop a more complete and secure style that would lead to better performances in Europe. He was, eventually, vindicated in his assertion, but he had a clear goal. It's more difficult to see where exactly Guardiola intends to go with his reformation.
It is not just the case of playing Javi Martinez as a centre-back, a position where he is far less effective than at holding midfielder, where he has a very strong claim to be the best in the world. Bastian Schweinsteiger will have to play a deeper, more conservative game, losing much of the remarkable drive he brings to the field. Toni Kroos, too, will have to play deeper, which could also have negative effects. And it does little to address the actual problems that Bayern have
In many ways, Bayern's weakness is a slight one, and is very similar to the one that Barcelona had when Guardiola seemingly had the task of improving the unimproveable. Their defence, while well-suited to the team's style of play - comfortable on the ball, athletic, well-versed in snuffing out danger before it had begun - could still be vulnerable if teams were good enough to get at them and put them under real pressure.
José Mourinho's Internazionale initially revealed the weakness by ignoring every other area of the team and instead directing all their efforts towards it, being rewarded with a few successful sucker-punches which knocked them out of the Champions League. The problem, however, went unaddressed, and when they came up against a team - Bayern Munich - that really could put them under pressure, they were completely destroyed.
In moving midfielders out of position to play in defence, and with talk of three-at-the-back, Guardiola is in danger of repeating the same mistakes. It's difficult to see why he doesn't simply go out and buy a centre-back. Moving to a back three would pose even more problems - it was a system that Barcelona never looked safe with, that exacerbated their defensive problems rather than solving them.
The plan for a 3-4-3 to be more adept at maintaining possession was, in theory, a sound one. The problem was that it was the last thing Barcelona needed help with. Not only did the lack of midfield cover allow the back three to become more frequently exposed, which they were not good enough at defending to deal with, it also moved their spare man for possession purposes further away from where the action was. As a result, their short-passing game frequently became directionless and without purpose, continually shifting the ball around unimportant areas of the pitch to no avail.
Taking over a treble-winning team is always a daunting prospect, but for all people talk of the competitiveness of the Bundesliga, the cold facts are anything but. Bayern Munich's dominance financially and in terms of the structure they have is so haegemonic that Guardiola would have, on paper, had more of a challenge taking over from Neil Lennon at Celtic. Any other recent German champions have won the league in an off-year for Bayern, a strange phenomenon they've undergone in recent years where they seem to be inexplicably awful for a season with no obvious reason why.
That is the reason why tearing up Bayern's winning formula is an even more dangerous gamble than it would be ordinarily. This is not a team in danger of stagnating after a period of lengthy dominance which is threatening to become decadence - it is a team that should always have had such a period, but has somehow managed to avoid it. This was the first time for some years they really looked like doing it, but Guardiola already seems determined to change their system beyond recognition. It seems a strange course of action to take when even the greatest improvement can only lead to them matching their existing record.
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