ANALYSIS: The Spaniard has struggled to accommodate strikers in his teams throughout his career but must use the Pole in an orthodox role at Bayern
To say that Pep Guardiola has a slightly different view of strikers to most football coaches, experts and fans would be a massive understatement. For six years, the Spaniard has enjoyed unprecedented success in European football and has barely used an orthodox forward.
Wednesday sees the dawn of a new era in Pep’s career, though. The acquisition of Robert Lewandowski from Borussia Dortmund provides him with a model professional, a player of proven quality and a classic No.9 he is almost obliged to play.
The Bavarians have been tracking Lewandowski since long before Guardiola had even emerged as a possible coach at the Allianz Arena and his signature is the culmination of a two-year pursuit, which was a principal factor in the rift that exists between the club and Dortmund.
When he took over at Barcelona, he inherited a team containing Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry, who helped fire the Catalans to the treble in his first campaign in charge. The former was sold that summer and the latter duly dropped, leaving a year later after a season in the wilderness.
Eto’o was used as a makeweight to sign Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the rest is history. The Swede enjoyed a fine start to his Liga career but an inconvenient injury saw Pep field Lionel Messi as an unorthodox 'false 9' and claim the place for his own.
Ibrahimovic and Guardiola’s relationship broke down and he was soon back in Serie A and Pep never used a striker again at Camp Nou.
Eto’o and Ibrahimovic may be special cases though. The Cameroonian had issues accepting Messi’s increased role at Camp Nou and had problems with his new job.
“Guardiola asked me to do a specific thing – one that strikers are not normally asked to do. I always think like a forward and I was unable to do what he was demanding. I explained to him I thought he was wrong. He asked me to leave the training session. In the end, the person who was right was me.”
Similarly, Ibrahimovic was less than impressed with how Pep envisioned a No.9’s role in the side. “Guardiola sacrificed me. That’s the truth. One of my mates told me: ‘Zlatan, it’s as if Barca had bought a Ferrari and were driving it like a Fiat.’ Guardiola had turned me into a simpler player and a worse player. It was a loss for the whole team.”
David Villa came as an established star forward and was pushed out wide and Bojan Krkic made strides into the first team armed with a stunning record at youth level but never made the grade.
But his problems with strikers are not merely limited to the confines of Camp Nou. In Mario Mandzukic, he had a forward when he arrived at Bayern who slotted in seamlessly with the system in place under the previous, hugely successful, regime of Jupp Heynckes.
However, early experiments saw the Croat used on either wing with no positive impact before he lost his place in the first team. Mario Gotze’s time as a Messi-esque false No.9 was similarly fruitless and Mandzukic was caught in limbo, being dropped and recalled intermittently, before eventually leaving for Atletico Madrid after one campaign under Pep.
“Let’s be honest, the style Guardiola wants at Bayern doesn’t suit me,” he said shortly before his move. “In the first leg against Real Madrid [in the Champions League] I definitely understood, no matter how hard I try, that I can’t get the best out of myself with this style.”
Hard-working, strong, a threat in the air and a precise finisher, the comparisons between Mandzukic and Lewandowki are there for all to see, though the Pole might be the more effective, talented player.
The former Borussia Dortmund star is hardly the type of marksman who will prosper in the passing game espoused by Guardiola. He thrives with his back to goal, running at defenders and rarely comes deeper to get involved in midfield play, despite his ability to pick a through ball when called upon.
His game is one which needs pace over patience behind him, yet Guardiola is almost obliged to field him. The controversial pursuit of yet another BVB player has not helped Bayern’s image and to sign him just to sit on the bench would be a big stain on the public perception of the club.
Pep himself has a lot to prove. If his move for Lewandowski goes awry, just as his relationships with Mandzukic, Eto’o and Ibrahimovic did, his seeming inability to work with strikers will always be questioned.
Perhaps orthodox No.9s, with their addictions to goalscoring glory, are just too single-minded to thrive in his system. Guardiola has spent much of his time at Bayern insisting that it is his job to adapt to his players but he failed to do so with Mandzukic and cannot afford to do the same with Lewandowski.