It’s too early to be pass judgment on anybody, but with each moment a team’s on the field gives us chance to consider implications, should a team’s form persist. Particularly when a club has a new player, coach, or way of playing, these moments carry considerable weight, often giving us reason to doubt past performance. It’s always important not to read too much into August results, but it may also be vital to note where and how a team are showing themselves vulnerable.
Which, of course, brings us to the new Bayern Munich, a team that won today’s UEFA Super Cup after defeating Chelsea on penalty kicks in Prague. It was the first silverware of the Pep Guardiola era, yet the performance should also give Bayern fans pause. In the reticent, stalwart approach Chelsea took to the European champions, the Blues showed the formula which often frustrated Guardiola’s Barcelona teams may see similar success against München.
As they did when facing Barcelona in Champions League two years ago — or, as José Mourinho’s Internazionale team did against Barça two years before that — Chelsea showed little appetite for the ball. Instead, their primary concern was maintaining their shape defensively, allowing their midfield block to be pushed to the edge of the penalty area as they sacrificed control and territory for organization.
Their final possession number, 26 percent, was indicative of their willingness to cede, but although Chelsea were outshot 41-14 (10-6, shots on goal), Bayern’s advantage in opportunities wasn’t built until Mourinho’s side took an early lead in extra time. Until Eden Hazard’s 92nd minute tally, Chelsea’s threat on the counter had matched Bayern chance-for-chance. Bayern’s huge edge in possession failed to produce an advantage on the scoreboard, let alone in actual chances.
The exact same thing could be said for Chelsea’s battle against Barcelona two years ago. It also applies to Inter’s win over Barça in 2010 as well as Chelsea’s dramatic loss to Barcelona in 2009, the year Andres Iniesta’s late goal at Stamford Bridge sent the visiting Blaugrana into the final. We saw José Mourinho’s Real Madrid team have success during his first year in Spain employing a similar approach, while Rubin Kazan used the tactic go 1-1-2 (W-L-T) against Guardiola over two Champions League campaigns.
And in the year since Guardiola’s left Barcelona, with the Catalans still employing the approach he instilled when he took over for Frank Rijkaard, Barcelona’s been troubled by the lopsided approaches Celtic, Milan, Paris Saint-Germain, and now Atlético Madrid. The plan doesn’t work every time, with a serious of lower level teams failing to hold off Guardiola’s teams, but when you have enough talent to matchup against his teams’ attackers, the tactics we saw today can offset the stylistic advantage.
There is an important caveat to this critique, though. A vast majority of the time, Guardiola’s teams simply blow through teams that try to employ conservative approaches. Yes, his Barcelona had trouble against good teams, but who doesn’t have trouble against talented squads? somebody Even elite teams play better against bad teams, worse against good ones. That’s the nature of competition.
But that caveat’s too simple. It’s too reductive. Guaridola’s approach allowed a team like Rubin Kazan — a squad with far less talent than those Barça teams — to be more competitive than they should have been. The philosophy that favors quick, skilled talent over players more likely to win one-on-one physical challenges allowed players like Esteban Cambiasso, Thiago Motta and Javier Zanetti to be disproportionately important in 2010. And it also allowed lesser talented sides like Celtic, Milan, and Atlético Madrid to use basic organization and counterattacking guile to give their teams a betterchance against Barcelona last season.
None of this is original thought, but it’s worth repeating in the wake of what we’re seeing from Bayern Munich. In the Bundesliga, against lesser teams, Bayern is controlling an inordinate amount of possession, even though they’ve yet to post a result in proportion to that dominance. The outscored their opponents 6-1 through three rounds, but on Tuesday, they also lost their perfect record, Freiburg getting an 86th minute goal from Nicolas Höfler to earn a 1-1 result. Add in today’s result and the 4-2 Super Cup loss to Dortmund and Bayern have a series of decent yet concerning results. After all, this is a team that posted a +80 goal difference in last year’s Bundesliga.
At that really is the point. Bayern are clearly a very good team. You have to be to claim a Super Cup over Chelsea. But are they better than last year’s team, a squad that won three trophies during one of the most dominant club seasons in history? Has Pep Guardiola broken something that didn’t need fixing? Because with one of the most talented teams in Europe, there is one more than one way to this team can win games. Why has Guardiola elected to move away from the won that worked?
Don’t answer that question yet. As noted at the outset, it’s too early to pass judgment on any team. These are, however, those series of moments that allow us to consider implications. And given there was already a formula in place to slow down a Guardiola approach we’re seeing move from Barcelona to Munich, those implications are not positive. At least, they’re not positive compared to last season.