In September, Bayern Munich legend and honorary president Franz Beckenbauer exclaimed that the German champions didn't need Arturo Vidal. The midfielder was out of shape, didn't move well and was surplus to requirements.
It was an agreeable assessment.
Vidal was playing badly. He had lost all of the qualities shown at Juventus, which made him such a desired target in the summer, and the stripping away of these positives shined a harsher light on the negatives.
He looked off-pace. He lacked initiative. He misplaced simple passes, cowered from attempting the more ambitious ones, and other teams simply passed around him. Often Vidal was caught behind the opponent's midfield during defensive transitions. Beyond that, he was slow. Knee injuries and nine years of playing such an aggressive style of football for Bayer Leverkusen, Juventus and Bayern had worn his body down -- not to mention the toll that winning a Copa América with Chile took on him.
Vidal had regressed in the technical, physical and mental departments. All that was left were the brash, desperate, combustive tackles and a combative attitude that seemed to stem from desperation more than desire.
In his first few months at Bayern, he was either substituted early, relegated to coming off the bench or sat unused and pitiful for the entire match.
He was a mistake. A waste of money.
That was in the fall. Since spring, Vidal -- out of desperation -- has made a shocking transformation into a critical part of the Bayern system by accepting his waning physicality and leveraging his understanding of the game. Now, if the German champions are to have any chance at overturning their 1-0 deficit to Atlético Madrid, Vidal has to make the difference.
It might have been that he needed to return to where he made his name to remember why he left in the first place. He needed to play against Juventus, and to beat them, to appreciate the opportunity before him at Bayern.
Vidal played an awesome match against the Italian champions in the first leg. Yet his former teammates wouldn't have recognized his style. His looks, emotions and technical ability remained the same, but he was in fact a very different player than the one they had played alongside.
He played deep. Very deep. At least in the first half, Vidal was often in line with Joshua Kimmich and David Alaba. His job was to retain possession, switch play and dictate the tempo of the game while smothering Juventus attacks, dropping in as an extra central defender when Bayern were under pressure -- basically, a more complete version of Xabi Alonso.
He was intelligent with the ball and exceptional without it. His simple and complex passes were reaching their targets. He was drawing away midfielders to clear space for those deeper than him to operate, and making himself available by hiding behind and sometimes flashing in front of his defenders.
He was also intercepting balls before attackers could turn to run and pressuring before they could survey the field. And for all of this newfound intelligence and foresight, he retained his antagonistic ways, getting into a few spats and shoving matches with Mario Mandžukić.
One thing was apparent in that game though: He wasn't the same player that he was in Italy.
Vidal isn't the all-conquering, box-to-box dynamo anymore, out of both necessity and instruction. His physical decline is apparent, and understandable. That's the price of playing the way he did for a decade. But Vidal's intelligence on the field subverts his disappearing explosiveness. He doesn't need to chase if he has the foresight to get there before the play develops, nor does he need to burst forward repeatedly in attempts to create chances. Those often lead, especially against great teams, to dead ends and traps that endanger the team. In their absence, Vidal can pass the ball off to non-critical areas and more creative players, while he drifts to those same positions that he would have driven to, now with little to no attention being paid to him.
Their second match saw more of the same new player. Vidal also continued to fight Mandžukić to remind the world that not all things change.
This time he was allowed to get forward, again moving surreptitiously without possession. He would release the ball and with all eyes facing the play, he would ghost in behind the unaware defenders and run towards the box -- making himself available to feast on pullbacks, layoffs and failed clearances.
Vidal still had his two jobs of being an offensive and defensive player, he was just now required to do them differently. And he was excelling.
Thomas Müller's last gasp goal that tied the second leg at 2-2 in the 90th minute came because of Vidal. Patrice Evra won the ball from a bad Bayern pass at the top of Juventus' box, he took a touch and leaped to get forward and start a counter. Vidal, who was to his left, pounced on the defender and won the ball cleanly after just the first touch.
He played to Coman on the wing. Coman crossed it to Müller, who headed home and sent the game to extra time.
Against Benfica, Vidal scored the only goal in the first leg. In the return, Benfica scored first to equalize the tie, before Vidal put Bayern back on the front foot. The game ended 2-2 and he was the biggest factor.
Then came Schalke in the Bundesliga, a game that ended 3-0 in Bayern Munich's favor. Vidal had a hand in two of the goals, setting up Robert Lewandowski for the first and scoring the third and final one himself by creeping into the box and capitalizing off a Franck Ribéry pullback.
Werder Bremen presented a tougher test than expected. Vidal reprised his role as a wolf in a conductor's clothing. He managed the midfield, deterred opponents and kick-started attacks with incisive passes. It was another late run and burst forward that led to him winning the penalty for Bayern's second goal in that match.
Then came Hertha Berlin. Bayern struggled; the stresses of the late-season schedule was taking its toll. The players looked tired and out of ideas, but not Vidal. The midfielder curled in a beauty to the far-post from outside the left side of the box. Upper 90. No issue.
Atlético Madrid are admittedly a different beast than the previous opponents that Bayern have faced. They don't just match the energy of the Germans, they exceed it. They fight and hassle tirelessly. They drive forward in droves and defend as one entity. This energy level is also complemented by a sneaky technical ability that makes it possible for them to hold their own against the Barcelonas and Bayerns.
Yet it was still Vidal who was Bayern's leading man. He felt at home in the chaos of the match. He was being swarmed, but he was returning the favor, and it was his incredible shot that forced Jan Oblak into the best save of the game in the 73rd minute.
He had a much better opportunity to tie the game as time expired. A long ball to the top saw Lewandowski head the ball over to a running Müller, who headed the ball down and towards the center of the box. There was Vidal again, arriving just in time. He struck the ball poorly with the instep, rather than blasting through it with his laces, and with it already bouncing, the shot fizzled to the goalkeeper.
For the first time in the last few months, he failed to make the difference. But Vidal's danger is clearer than ever.
In the fall he was a mistake. The spring presented Vidal with a chance at rebirth, an opportunity to prove his worth. He has taken it and has forced the critics to swallow their words. In the return leg on May 3, Vidal's savvy -- not his athleticism -- will be Bayern's key to breaking the resolve of an opponent that is as hard-nosed and tireless as he is.