Managing one of the best football clubs in the world is a job as misleading as it is a privilege. The media and fans regularly portray lush gigs like the one Pep Guardiola entered into with Bayern Munich in 2013 as an exercise in imperialism. Emphatically high measures of winning began to take on a level of normalcy. Because Jupp Heynckes led the Bavarians to treble glory the season before the Catalan arrived, the absolute pinnacle became the bare minimum for Pep the minute he stepped through the doors of the Allianz.
Of course, we all (should) know that that entire construct is bogus. Competing at the astronomical levels of world football’s elite is a task that allows no room for error. Can you imagine such a job? It’s probably one that you or I wouldn’t get offered or keep that long if we did. But to the morons safeguarding soccer’s Twitter outrage-verse, Guardiola is just about out of chances. It’s treble-or-bust at the tippy-top; that actually sounds uniquely difficult.
To be sure, Guardiola’s Bayern has been largely masterful. A pair of Bundesliga titles after forfeiting two of the previous three to Borussia Dortmund is an incredible feat that shouldn’t need any convincing. Add on back-to-back DFB-Pokal Cups, and the portfolio begins to be pretty damn successful. But things slightly fall apart for Bayern when it comes to continental competition. Despite being one of the general favorites to capture the Champions League title over the past two seasons, Bayern have failed to make a final since Heynckes took them there in 2012. Now, making two straight CL semifinals in-a-row in any fashion is an unbelievable accomplishment, but it stands to reason that both Guardiola and Bayern are hankering to break their current European hoodoo. And looking at today’s landscape, this could be the season where they finally do.
For Guardiola, this summer’s transfer window priority was quality over quantity; the few buys he’s made have been game-changers. There’s no downplaying the dramatic impact that new signing Arturo Vidal should have on what was an increasingly aging and slowing Bayern midfield. While it’s been an undeniable luxury to have the likes of Bastien Schweinsteiger and Xabi Alonso patrolling your midfield, Vidal certainly provides a more energetic, industrious edge on both sides of the ball. With Schweinsteiger now in Manchester and Vidal as the new plug-in, caput could be the days of meticulous mannschaft tiki-taka at the Allianz in favor of speed and precision football. Sure, a Guardiola side will never forfeit their possession game, nor should they; it’s an incredibly skilled acumen that they’ve come to perfect in many ways. But shake-ups are necessary in any growing organization. Vidal represents that shuffle for the Bavarians in a very direct and immediate way. It also helps that he’s one of the best midfielders in world football.
But any momentary glance towards Bayern’s recent preseason matches should illuminate another truth: Douglas Costa is the real deal. The Brazilian wide-man came to Bayern in early July from Shakhtar Donetsk, a place renowned for transitioning a steady conveyor belt of wildly talented Brazilian youngsters from their home country to Europe. Though the €30 million pricetag seemed extremely high initially, those fears have been thoroughly suppressed in the last couple of weeks. Against each of his preseason opponents, Costa blazed an inferno down both right and left flanks for the majority of his pitch-time. Even Wolfsburg’s Vieirinha, last Bundesliga season’s standout right-back, was made to look amateurish and pedestrian across from the 24-year-old in last week’s German SuperCup. Costa’s Man of the Match showings against AC Milan and Real Madrid were similarly explosive (punctuated by an Audi Cup-winning assist), undoubtedly making him the player to watch in German football this season. With both Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery now in their thirties, Guardiola and Bayern will need to rely on alternative sources of influence and decisiveness if they hope to reclaim the throne of European football. Presuming he can stay in-form and inspired, Costa looks to be that alternative source.
Still, there’s another new-ish player of note not many are talking about that could especially shine in 2015/16. To discuss this player, I couldn’t help but be drawn back to Marti Perarnau’s Guardiola biography, Pep Confidential. In this stellar piece of non-fiction, the author writes of the Catalan manager’s initial infatuation for Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Bayern’s (at the time) 18-year-old Danish midfielder. From day one on the job, Pep took a liking to the ballplaying technician, even giving him private masterclasses. Perarnau writes that, “[Guardiola] sees in [Hojbjerg] the makings of a great footballer.”
As a player, Hojbjerg is strong yet cerebral, with a propensity for the passing game. After significantly progressing last season on-loan at Augsburg, he has featured and impressed during Bayern’s preseason. Most notably, the Dane has finally grown in physical stature — a coming of age occurrence for any developing athlete — and appears ready to figure into Guardiola’s plans finally.
Like with Sergi Busquets at Barcelona, Hojbjerg’s evolution serves as a mile-marker for Guardiola’s tenure at Bayern. The Catalan selected the him in 2011 as a project that, if handled properly, could bear significant fruit in a few years time. And not just for him as a manager, but also Bayern as a club. In many ways, with Pep’s contract coming to an end at season’s end, this summer has been about securing his club — a club that he’s grown to love — for the future and beyond. Right now, business at Bayern seems to be less about footballing sentiment for the normally idealistic Guardiola, and more about duty. His job at Bayern isn’t over yet, but when it finally is, he’s dead set on being content with how he leaves it for his successor.