During the winter break, I took the chance to go back home to London and catch up with my old friends at Arsenal. Since Arsène Wenger’s retirement, they hadn’t had too much success and had even fallen behind Spurs of late. From the posh seats at the Emirates, I enjoyed an exceptional quality buffalo mozzarella panino and a top, top Fairtrade latte. Later on, I caught up with current manager Luis Enrique to pass on a few tips. I just couldn’t stand to see my favourite club languish in and around 4th place as I had for 15 years of my playing career. I had a quiet Christmas with the family and took in a few games in the area before returning to Bavaria just before the start of the transfer window.
Come the new year, I managed to secure a few exciting signings. On my trip home, I spotted a precocious 17 year old playing in and dominating the midfield for Championship side Fulham. Jonny Jordan was already the consummate deep-lying playmaker and so we tabled a €30m bid to secure his services. Kevin Boenisch informed me he had extended his contract with Real Madrid which increased his minimum fee release clause to over €80m. A new right wing-back was needed for next season and we moved for the immensely talented Gerald Berisha from Switzerland. He wasn’t German but Swiss was close enough. And he was FREE.
My final signing of the window definitely did NOT fit the profile of players I wanted. A little-known versatile attacker called Christian Ronald (sp?) came in for a nominal fee and a staggering €500k per week. Even though he was almost 36 he could still do a job for me, and what’s more, he was a perfect tutor for my young strikers.
Having signed an extra striker, I decided to adjust my preferred tactic to accommodate another striker. I wanted the basic shape to remain the same, so my Trequartista in the AM position changed to a False 9. My ageing Galáctico would play as a Complete Forward and rotate with Robert Lewandowski. We wanted to maintain our assault on 3 fronts and his experience of winning trophies would help us achieve our goals.
With Wenger-esque stubbornness, I clung steadfastly to this tactic for the next few games. Success soon followed and I refused to change tactics or make concessions to the opposition’s strengths. Our players were better than anyone on the other team and my tactic allowed them to express themselves and win. Our team had an identity and we would not compromise – as the Bavarians might say, “Mia san Mia” or “We are who we are”. The wins kept rolling in and we stormed through to the business end of the season on the back of 11 consecutive clean sheets. Our ball-hogging meant we weren’t giving up chances and the 2 German international keepers served as a more than effective last line of defence on the rare occasion our defence was breached.
A ridiculous 3-3 draw away at Dortmund was the only slip in a perfect 2nd half of the season and we wrapped up the treble in my first season in the German league. Looking at the stats, we averaged 62% possession with a pass completion rate of 84% pass completion rate. We also led the league in goals scored, clean sheets, headers and tackles won. All in all, a pretty successful season. I had to make sure all this success didn’t get to my head, even though I proved I really was “a Special One”.
In terms of transfer policy, I still had a way to go before reaching my ultimate goal. Jonny Jordan was one player that would end up counting as home-grown but I really wanted to increase our German contingent for next season.
The boys were raring to go in pre-season and we started off with a couple of difficult away friendlies and a tour of the US. Initial results were good and we dominated the ball while protecting our goal, winning every game to nil. An easier sequence of home friendlies followed and there was a concerning loss to Dinamo Zagreb of Croatia.
I could feel the lads were becoming more familiar with my preferred tactic and the results came back as the players built up their match fitness. We ended our preparations with a narrow loss at the impressive Juventus Stadium, which I actually wasn’t too bothered by. The last thing I wanted was complacency to creep in before the start of the season.
The new season was now upon us and we warmed up in the gentlest possible way with a 1st round Pokal tie against the minnows Pfeddersheim. I used the game as an opportunity to really test out the new tactic and we came through comfortably. Up next was a Champions League qualifier. For Bayern! No wonder Guardiola was sacked…
The Allianz Arena was a spectacular sight lit up in red and white diamonds and it was a perfect summer’s evening. Everything was set up for us to dominate and go back to our rightful place at the top table of European football. The Champions League anthem played and I cast my mind back to London and my old mate Héctor. The time for joking around was over. We had to deliver. In the end, a comfortable victory was ours, though we conceded a silly penalty which levelled the scores at 1 each. Another routine win later and we were back in the Champions League proper with an easy group of Bordeaux, CSKA Moscow and Celtic.
A series of routine wins followed but I was beginning to worry about our lack of clean sheets domestically. Neuer was still the best keeper in the world but the opposition seemed to be scoring a very high proportion of their shots on target. Growing up as an Arsenal fan, I had seen this problem before but I had no idea how to stop it. I hoped the defensive unit would tighten up as I drilled them on adapting to their new positions relative to each other.
My first Klassiker was a slightly nervous win after going behind AGAIN to the opposition’s first shot on target. 3 goals of our own followed and by now I had noticed another altogether more pleasing pattern to our games. Our wing backs were providing an overwhelmingly large proportion of assists and we were the most dangerous team in the Bunsdesliga from set pieces. The work on the training ground was starting to pay off!
In the tunnel following the Dortmund game, our press officer interviewed me as usual for the in-house TV channel. After some regulation questions about the performance, the topic turned to how we were going to celebrate the win. I responded with a well-worn cliché involving the phrases “feet on the ground”, “maybe a nice glass of wine” and “proper recovery”. My interlocutor looked back at me with a mixture of shock and panic. Did I say something wrong? Did I answer in English by mistake?
He prompted me further: “Yes, but you and the players will be enjoying a Weissbier or two tomorrow afternoon?”
Of course, the confusingly-named Oktoberfest started tomorrow, the 23rd of September, and we would be making an appearance at the highest-profile binge drinking event in the world. The next day, I donned my lederhosen and checked shirt before stepping into the club-provided BMW which took me to the drinking tents. I calmly reminded the players that we had a training session scheduled for tomorrow as usual and that they were representing our club so high standards of behaviour were expected. That was the last thing I remember from that day…
Luckily, there was no sign of my drunken antics in the press and the players suffered no ill-effects after consuming stein after stein of quality beer. We embarked on a winning run and all of a sudden we started keeping clean sheets. And lots of them. In the next 3 months leading up to the winter break, we only conceded 6 goals in 18 matches in all competitions. Combined with our offensive firepower, this translated into an unbelievable winning run, only spoiled by a solitary draw away at Wolfsburg. I couldn’t tell if it was my new tactic or the sheer weight of talent we had, but I had no intention of letting our momentum slow. We were Winter Champions and I was ready to improve the squad further to stay top on the final day.
Of course, my transfer activity was shaped by the kind of football I wanted my team to play. The board had demanded we play possession football, score a lot of goals and develop young players through our youth system. The last 2 objectives were nothing different from what I had become used to at Heerenveen, but the first was going to take a bit of work.
I channelled my inner Russell Crowe from A Beautiful Mind and started jotting down ideas on the whiteboard. I wanted a few fundamental things, the formation would fall into place to allow them to happen on the pitch:
- Dominate the ball, so we can score and the opponents can’t
- Win the ball back quickly, so we can (1) more
- Build from the back, so we can (1)
- Score from crosses, since defences have forgotten how to defend them properly
I could see it in my head with perfect clarity. On the ball, I wanted to play out of defence, with the centre-backs splitting wide and a defensive midfielder dropping in between. He would distribute the ball to whoever in midfield was open. The midfield would be a perfect blend of steel and silk but all of them had the ability to find an overlapping wing-back or the forward line. There would be at least one passer-type to keep the play ticking over and one who was allowed to run forward with the ball, trying to make things happen by dribbling at the defence. Like a winger operating in central areas, a central winger if you will. To link the midfield and attack, a withdrawn striker would come back and drag his marker away from goal, allowing space in behind for the other striker or an onrushing midfielder. The more advanced striker would be an all-rounder, allowing build up play to come through him when needed, or getting in behind the defence when possible.
A control mentality combined with short passing and slower tempo would make sure of our objective to dominate the ball. Finally, we wanted to stretch the play wider if we were coming up against packed defences. We were more likely to find gaps in the line if it was spread out more.
Without the ball, we would compress the pitch with a high line and have an aggressively positioned keeper sweeping up behind. Ideally, I wanted no more than 25m between the defensive line and the strikers. Some guy called Sacchi had this idea and his Milan team did quite well a long time ago. If it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me. A very high line with the offside trap would do the trick here. We wouldn’t allow the opposition a moment on the ball as we press much more, high up the pitch, looking to force turnovers in dangerous areas. The great thing about German is that a complex sentence or phrase in English can often be reduced to one word, here that word is gegenpressing. I have to thank my German tutor for that, I never would have found that word on my own. Crucially, this pressing needed to be from the whole team, so the player must be very fluid with their positioning to cover any gaps that may appear from a teammate going to the ball.
I instructed my players to stay on their feet when they pressed. They wouldn’t be able to contribute to the press if they were on the floor or sent off after diving in. To help with our pressing, our wing-backs are encouraged to play high up the pitch, not allowing the opposing wingers time to get running with the ball. I also wanted our forwards to prevent their keeper from rolling it out, as we would have more chance to win the ball after a long punt.
I was like Dr. Frankenstein, building a grotesque tactics-hipster hybrid of parts from Barcelona, Ajax, Milan and the Arsenal of Bergkamp and Henry. You could call it a 2-3-3-1-1 but I preferred to think of it as an extreme 4-4-2 diamond with advanced wing-backs and a deeper-lying striker. That was my design, but how well would the players take to it? Just in case, I prepared a more standard 4-2-3-1 with old-fashioned wingers and a solid double pivot. I got them working heavily on match preparation and headed into my first preseason, confident of success.
I had just settled down at my new desk when my phone rang. I was summoned for a meeting in the boardroom at 14:00. I quickly drove to my hotel, put on my best suit/v-neck/skinny tie combo and headed back to the training ground.
Herr Rummenigge was waiting for me, along with 3 other members of the board. I took a seat and the board members gave me a quick introduction to the history of FC Bayern. As a giant of world football, there wasn’t much I didn’t know.
They then set their expectations for the season. For a club like Bayern, nothing but winning the league every year would be good enough, natürlich. To this end, the board would be giving me a transfer budget of €431M and a weekly wage budget of €5.7M.. I did a double-take and it took all my powers of concentration not to spit water all down the front of my cashmere v-neck…
After learning of my budget, my vision for the club started to crystallise. But first, I needed to assess the current playing and non-playing staff. I didn’t know much German at this point, but I had been trying to learn in secret while in Holland. There was a great old TV show I started watching called Deutschland 83 which I enjoyed greatly, but I still needed the subtitles when they spoke quickly.
I brought in the most Galáctico of assistant managers in Paul Clement because he was English and was used to operating with A-List talent at Real Madrid and PSG. He would be able to help me get my ideas across to the high-profile players here at FC Hollywood. David Alaba, who was fluent in English, would also help me while my German got up to speed. Surprisingly, Jérôme Boateng had forgotten all the English he must have learned while at Manchester City. The rest of the backroom staff soon followed and I turned my attention to the squad.
While I was at Heerenveen, I had to work within tight budgetary constraints, building my squad with talented foreign youngsters who I could sell for a profit a few years down the line. I ended up running a net transfer surplus of €60M over the 5 seasons I was there. This time, with the millions at my disposal, I would focus on buying in the best German talent, with the eventual goal of having an entirely German or “home-grown at club” first team squad. Any incoming transfers that didn’t fit this profile would have to be, in the words of Arsène Wenger, “exceptional talents” or “super quality” and must replace another non-home-grown player.
While finishing up my own playing career I became fascinated with the history of football tactics, particularly the philosophy of Total Football and Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s universality. Like Pep before me, I almost wanted to play with 11 midfielders, as they had the best all-round skills. The kind of players I wanted to bring in should be versatile, have great composure on the ball, solid technique and be German (or under 18).
To that end, I picked up the obvious known quantities of Emre Can, Leon Goretzka and Bernd Leno to supplement my squad and make it more German. The non-German or ageing Javi Martínez, Arturo Vidal and Adrián Ortolà made way respectively. For the future, I picked up Thomas Aedtner, a versatile defensive midfielder, Josip Dodig for the defence and a prodigious 15-year-old striker called Helge Eriksen.
Finally, the intriguing inverted wing-back Kevin Boenisch joined us on loan. He ticked all my boxes and was German too, however, Real Madrid didn’t want to sell him to us for anything less than his €58M release clause. If he performed well during the season, I would seriously think about activating it. I had been splashing the cash so far but couldn’t yet justify that kind of outlay on an 18-year-old. I guess those old Heerenveen habits die hard…
The year is 2020 and the great Pep Guardiola has left FC Bayern by mutual consent after dropping as low as 6th in the Bundesliga. A hot young manager (me) has been tearing up the Eredivisie with sc Heerenveen with a team of foreign wonderkids, so naturally Bayern had me on their shortlist to replace the tight-trousered Catalan. Bayern had sounded me out but I needed more time. I needed to make a decision on my future at the end of the season. After all, I had unfinished business in the Champions League, the only trophy to elude me so far at Heerenveen. In a twist of fate, my beloved Heerenveen were drawn against Bayern in the Champions League final. Sound the narrative klaxon!
Like Pep’s nemesis José Mourinho, I was waiting until after the final to make an announcement on my future. And what a final it was! Our superior finishing won the day and little sc Heerenveen defeated the almighty Bayern!
In the bowels of the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, while I was celebrating wildly with my team, a knock came on the dressing room door. It was Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the chief executive of Bayern. You might say he was impressed with my audition for the job that evening. In flawless English he told me the job was mine if I still wanted it. I did.
I said my goodbyes to the players, who were dancing around swigging champagne straight from the oversized bottle, and I gave one final hug to Jerry. Jerry was my defensive rock, my captain. He was a product of the youth academy and a symbol of the club. Barely holding back the tears, I told him he needed to continue leading the team in my absence. I slipped quietly out of the dressing room and didn’t look back. My focus was on Bayern now, and I had big plans.
The next day, I touched down in Bavaria and drove up to the impressive training facilities at Säbener Strasse. The glass-fronted main building and perfectly manicured grass made the facilites at Heerenveen look positively archaic. Turns out a basically unlimited budget CAN buy you the best of everything. Obscured from view by 5m high fences, the pitches were just as Pep had specified, with 18 zones marked out. It was basically deserted of course, the end of season break had just begun after that Champions League loss to my Heerenveen side.
I moved into the manager’s office and got to work.
NB: During this series I have used inspiration from Jonathan Wilson’s “Inverting the Pyramid” for tactical concepts, Martí Perernau’s wonderful “Pep Confidential” for details on the Bayern setup I am taking over, Guido Merry’s (@MerryGuido) central winger, Jonathon Aspey’s (@JLAspey) 4-4-2 for my strike partnership and Cleon’s (@Cleon81) series on attacking football as my “footballing philosophy” (M. Pochettino ™)
There is a strange phenomenon in football where a player’s stock seems to rise when they are out injured. Fans can be heard saying: “If only Player X was on the pitch, he could have made a real difference” , especially when things aren’t going well for the team in question. A recent example is Joe Cole, who sadly has become – for want of a better word – rubbish. And yet Chelsea and Liverpool fans maintained that everything would come good when the England “maestro” returned to action. Unfortunately for them, things didn’t work out. Cole was frozen out at Chelsea and has made a blistering start to his career at Liverpool, who he has helped catapult into the relegation dogfight.
Happily for Arsenal, the situation with Robin van Persie is markedly different. Even though the Dutchman has been out for large chunks of his Arsenal career, every time he has come back, he has shown the kind of form that has made him one of the top strikers in Europe. After leading the line for Holland in every match of the World Cup, van Persie returned to Arsenal and promptly got injured (again). His latest comeback has transformed the team’s attack, with the team scoring 3, 3, 3, 0 (the dodgy Man City match) and 3 in the matches van Persie has started since his last injury. No disrespect to Marouane Chamakh, who has done a good job since signing from Bordeaux, but van Persie’s movement and ability to bring others into play have served to increase the attacking options for the team. The Dutchman’s long-range shooting and set pieces have also helped to add variety to Arsenal’s offense, which has often become too one-dimensional.
During his time out, van Persie also seems to have become better in the air, winning many headers from goal kicks and notably getting the better of John Terry numerous times in the fantastic 3-1 victory against Chelsea. Indeed, van Persie’s last goal was a header, which he crashed in at the far post from Nicklas Bendtner’s superb cross. Interestingly, the return of van Persie has allowed Arsène Wenger to decide on a definite first XI which looks as strong as any in the league. The forward line is much more fluid as van Persie likes to interchange with Theo Walcott, who has developed a real eye for goal this season. Samir Nasri has forged a great understanding with Fábregas and is arguably the outstanding player in the Premier League. With those two creating for van Persie and Walcott, Arsenal have looked irresistible at times, especially when contrasted with the insipid display at Old Trafford.
With Arsenal still in the hunt for all 4 trophies, it is imperative that they keep van Persie fit and in form. At this rate, they could even trouble the mighty Barcelona in the Champions League..
Ahead of the final Grand Prix of an extraordinary season, the Drivers’ Championship is still very much up for grabs. A vast number of scenarios are possible with 4 drivers in with a chance of the ultimate prize. However, the championship should have been sewn up by now, probably in the favour of Mark Webber.
Had the Australian been the undisputed No. 1 driver at Red Bull, he could surely have expected some help from his teammate and won the title after a strong sequence of results midway through the season. Instead, Fernando Alonso has been allowed to overcome Webber’s points advantage to head the table by 12 points going into the final race. Of course, Alonso controversially benefitted from team orders at Hockenheim. Webber’s teammate, Sebastian Vettel, has entertained the idea of helping Webber win the world title, a kind of team orders the public at large are OK with. Whether or not team orders should be allowed is a topic for another time but if Alonso were to win the title by less than 8 points, it would not be good for the sport.
In my opinion, Red Bull should have already wrapped up the title, for either of its drivers. If anything, having 2 very strong drivers has been a bad thing for them as they have continued to take points off each other. Just as in 2007 when McLaren had Alonso and rookie Lewis Hamilton battling Kimi Räikkönen for the championship, the 2 teammates aren’t exactly best buddies. Hopefully for Red Bull, they won’t suffer the same fate as Hamilton and Alonso, who ended up losing out to a Ferrari.
Team Principal Christian Horner has stated throughout the season that the Red Bull drivers are allowed to race each other as each of them enjoy equal standing within the team. This backfired hugely for the team when Vettel and Webber collided in Turkey when they were seemingly on the way to a routine 1-2. The incident put Vettel out of the race, losing him 18 points. Webber recovered to 3rd but still lost 10 points, while Alonso jumped up from 10th to 8th. Had the Red Bulls finished 1-2 in Turkey the Red Bulls would actually be leading the standings at this point:
All this is pure conjecture, but there is no doubt in my mind that a Red Bull driver would be world champion had the team picked a driver to back early on in the season. For the neutral, that decision has allowed the championship to develop into a fascinating battle between 4 of the best drivers on the grid currently. As a last point, if the running order going into the last lap was Vettel-Webber-Alonso, would the young German allow his teammate to go through and pick up Red Bull’s maiden drivers’ crown? We only have to wait 3 more days to find out.