Was it pure coincidence that the football club referred to by rival fans as FC Hollywood chose the middle of the awards season to announce the signing of the closest thing to managerial box office gold? Probably. But so it was that in between the Golden Globes and the Oscars, Bayern Munich – Germany’s biggest club and one of the behemoths of world football – announced that Pep Guardiola had chosen them as his next club ahead of a host of other nominees.
Guardiola’s name has been linked with almost every top job in world football since he announced his departure from his beloved Barcelona at the end of last April, after amassing 14 major trophies in four seasons as coach of the club he first joined at the age of 13. Reportedly chased by everyone from Chelsea to the Brazilian national team, Guardiola uprooted his young family to New York, putting an ocean between him and the European press while he took a well-earned break from the game.
But barely six months into that sabbatical Guardiola has now made his choice, and for a man as obsessed with his work as he is (tales of him sleeping in his office at Camp Nou are well known) it is almost certain that his new challenge has already begun, despite him not officially taking over from current Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes, who has elected to retire, until July. He will already be making plans to impose his philosophy on the Bavarian club for whom the cliché German efficiency might have been coined.
The Bundesliga emerges from its winter break this weekend and Bayern stand nine points clear at the top of the table. They have reached two Champions League finals in the past three years and are packed with international players. A glance into the history books offers even more evidence of their lofty position in the pantheon of Europe’s greatest footballing institutions. Just as important as the lorry load of trophies in the cabinet are the names that echo through the corridors of the club: Beckenbauer, Muller, Breitner, Rummenigge, Mathaus.
So Guardiola has found a new club that is as steeped in historical glory as his old one but, crucially, the similarities don’t end there. Like Barcelona, Bayern are owned by their fans rather than by businessmen or royalty, resulting in both a stability and a connection with their followers that are juxtaposed to some of the other clubs who had courted him. Bayern are the fourth richest football club in the world based on annual revenue, but ultimately it is their 185,000 members who hold the power. This leaves the coaching and playing staff comparatively unexposed to the whims of individuals, whose ego-fuelled axe wielding and disregard for the wishes of supporters has resulted in a growing chasm between club and fan at so many of Europe’s top clubs. This internal stability, coupled with his unparalleled recent run of success, should give Guardiola the time required to install his own philosophy throughout the club at all levels.
That philosophy can be traced right back to the Dutch principle of Total Football, which was formulated by former Holland and Barcelona supremo Rinus Michels and developed in Catalonia by Johan Cruyff during his own stint as coach in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As captain of the so-called ‘Dream Team‘, Guardiola was Cruyff’s eyes and ears on the pitch as Barcelona enjoyed the greatest run of success in their history, seducing neutrals and converting all but the staunchest Real Madrid fans with a brand of short, quick passing, high tempo pressing and a fluidity of movement that proved to be irrepressible. Guardiola took what he had learned from Cruyff and eclipsed his achievements, but married a conviction of his own to those of his mentor.
Central to Guardiola’s success has been his development of youth players and his fast tracking of them into the first team. While he had an emotional investment in this at Barcelona, after coming through the club’s academy as a player and landing his first managerial job as coach of the club’s B team, youth development is a fundamental part of his coaching ethos.
Barcelona’s La Masia has long been recognised as the most prolific academy in the world and whichever club Guardiola chose would have been unable to match the quality and quantity of its conveyor belt of talent. Yet four key players in the current Bayern squad – Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Muller and Holger Badstuber – have come through the youth system. Another, Toni Kroos, has been on Bayern’s books since he was 16.
Those five players are evidence that Bayern’s academy has flourished in recent years and though there is room for improvement this will have been a key factor in Guardiola’s decision to move to Germany. The 41-year-old Spaniard is unyielding in his belief that the nucleus of a team must come from its own classrooms and training pitches. The longer the players have been exposed to the fabric, history and teachings of a club, the stronger the bond to the badge and to the fans.
The Real Madrid job was not on Guardiola’s horizon for obvious reasons, and based on the criteria he was looking for in a club Arsenal and Manchester United were the only current realistic options Guardiola had in England. Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson are firmly ensconced in their positions there, at least for the time being, and Serie A’s lustre is fading by the year, so the obvious direction for Guardiola to look was to Germany.
German football is experiencing a renaissance, catalysed by the recent resurgence of a youthful national team under Joachim Low. Low’s team has come closer than any other to usurping Spain in the affections of neutrals across the world due to their fearless attacking play. That renaissance has been punctuated at club level by the emergence of a Borussia Dortmund team that have won the last two Bundesliga titles under Jurgen Klopp.
As well as enjoying domestic success, Dortmund comprehensively outplayed the Abu Dhabi financed English champions Manchester City twice in the autumn despite having one of the youngest squads in this season’s Champions League and a wage bill that was a fraction of their opponents. Dortmund and Bayern have been joined by FC Schalke in the last 16 of that competition and Schalke recently celebrated the news that their star striker Klass-Jan Huntelaar had rejected the advances of some of the biggest foreign clubs and signed a new contract to remain in the Bundesliga.
With the national team and the Bundesliga thriving, with youth and panache the buzz words of the moment in German football and with a familiar structure in place at Bayern, it appears that Guardiola has chosen a club and a country that reminds him most of Barcelona and Spain for the next chapter of his career. The more you think about it, the more it seems the natural choice.
© Mark Robinson 2013