I am a braver manager now – Guardiola
Bayern boss pushes boundaries in pursuit of the perfect season
This could be the first Champions League campaign to bear fruit following one man's strolls through the Strawberry Fields of the Big Apple.
Pep Guardiola has returned to Europe refreshed from his sabbatical in New York, a period spent wandering through Central Park, enjoying family life and also plotting how to make the best better.
When Guardiola took over Bayern Munich, many sceptics pondered how he could improve on the work of the revered Jupp Heynckes, who coached Philipp Lahm and company to the treble of Bundesliga, German Cup and Champions League. Beat that, Pep.
Guardiola accepted the challenge. A serial success during his Barcelona days, the Spaniard was not fazed by his inheritance. Still only 43, Guardiola has wanted this chance to imprint his philosophy on another team. Absence made the heart grow stronger, the mind more focused.
"I've lived," Guardiola reflected of his time out. "I'm a different person. I have more experience now. It doesn't matter whether it is good or bad experience. With experience, you can be a bit more brave with the way you work as a manager. You control the team a little bit more. I am a different manager now. More brave."
That was quite a statement from the casually dressed man talking at the Allianz Arena yesterday in advance of Arsenal's visit tonight. Guardiola's Barcelona sides were "brave", passing, moving, scoring, not really worrying about defending. Guardiola instilled some of those pressing and possession qualities into the triumphant, often counter-attacking side bequeathed by Heynckes. The board's desire for a Bayern era, echoing the mid-70s, could be achieved.
Since re-immersing himself in European football, Guardiola has responded by setting records. Bayern are currently 20 points clear of second-placed Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga. Arsenal can take comfort from the fact that Bayern went behind at Wolfsburg on Saturday, but they then scored six, including five in 17 minutes, a 16th league win on the spin breaking their own mark set in 2005.
Across Europe's five leading leagues, only Barcelona have managed a longer goalscoring run (64 in 2012-13) than Bayern's current 60. If Bayern avoid defeat at home to Bayer Leverkusen at the weekend, they will have notched up a half-century unbeaten record in the Bundesliga; of Europe's top divisions, only AC Milan have managed a longer run (58 games from 1991 to 1993). These are serious numbers Guardiola and Bayern are crunching.
Built into a machine by Heynckes, Bayern accelerate under Guardiola. There is more fluidity and variety to their football, more intense pressing higher up the pitch, a greater range of goals. "The way we are playing has changed a little bit (under Guardiola)," said Thomas Muller. "We play more in the opposition half, now we have the ball in the middle rather than on the wing. Guardiola does not compromise. He wants to win. He inspires the team."
Take the thrashing of Wolfsburg. There were crosses from Arjen Robben leading to goals for the likes of Franck Ribery. There were passes bent with the outside of the right foot from Muller to Mario Mandzukic to score. The Croatian has already reached his best season's tally for the club (18) and he will be replaced by Robert Lewandowski next season. Europe should be very afraid.
Blessed with so much, Bayern have so much more to come. They already have the world's best goalkeeper in Manuel Neuer, probably the world's best left-back, right-back and holding midfielder in Lahm. They have strength in depth in midfield in Javi Martinez, Mario Gotze, Thiago Alcantara, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Muller and Toni Kroos.
They are two away goals to the good against Arsenal. The stats alone tell an unequivocal tale: so far this European season, and noting Arsenal's love of the ball, Guardiola's men have managed 5,531 passes to the 4,456 of Wenger's players, outscored them 19-8, had more possession (65pc to 50pc), more attempts on target (96-38), hit the woodwork seven times to Arsenal's once and had 51 corners to Arsenal's 21. Arsenal need a miracle. They won here 2-0 last year but it was a victory that went under the label 'Pyrrhic', as they went out on away goals.
And what Bayern also have is a head coach seeking to redefine football, pushing back the boundaries, and amassing more trophies. Guardiola spoke for almost 30 minutes yesterday and the recurring theme for the game with Arsenal was "we have to win". He smiled occasionally but that intense desire to progress in the Champions League underpinned every word.
"We have to attack," he said. "We have to win this game. We have to play with the mentality that we will win this game. Arsenal are a very good team, when they have possession, they have very good players, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Mikel Arteta, a lot of quality in midfield.
"We saw what happened until the penalty Ozil missed, a time when the opponent was better against us. It's small details. If Ozil had scored that penalty, it would have been 1-0, a totally different situation."
Perhaps to dispel any complacency in the stands, Guardiola praised Arsenal non-stop. There has always been a suspicion with Guardiola that at some point in his career he would fancy life in London. Arsenal would be ideal, having the right financial model, the appreciation of youth, and a certain style on and off the pitch. Taken in such context, Guardiola's compliments about Arsenal carried additional significance, albeit acknowledging neither he nor Wenger will move for some time.
"He's one of the best managers in the world," said Guardiola of Wenger. "Arsenal has always been in the Champions League for many, many years. They buy very good players. He worked a lot with young players and they always get better and better. They also sell their most important players to Barcelona, or to another club, but we can't deny Ozil is a good player. Ozil will give the best performance and we have to be prepared.
"We have to win. We train, train, train, play in the rain and the wind and we win. I'm incredibly proud of my players. We are maybe the best team in the world." Maybe. Guardiola just wants Bayern to prove it every game. (© Daily Telegraph, London)