'The biggest mistake of my life’ - How Guardiola got it all wrong in 4-0 Madrid mauling

'Pep Confidential: The Inside Story of Pep Guardiola's First Season at Bayern Munich' is out now in paperback and ebook, published by BackPage Press / Arena Sport

By Marti Perarnau

Munich, April 29, 2014

"I got it wrong man. I got it totally wrong. It’s a monumental f***-up. A total mess. The biggest f***-up of my life as a coach.”

Pep comes into his office in the Allianz Arena having just done the press conference during which he has publicly assumed total responsibility for the catastrophe. Real Madrid have wiped the floor with Bayern in the Champions League semi-final, a game which will stay with Guardiola for the rest of his career. The 4-0 home defeat is the worst of his professional life and the biggest trouncing Bayern have ever received in a European competition. His team has been pummelled into submission and totally humiliated in their own stadium.

Getting bogged down in an analysis of the goals fails to give a full picture of the reasons for a defeat primarily caused by serious errors of judgement on Guardiola’s part. And we need to go back one week, to the previous Thursday morning, to get to the root of the problem. The scene is a private room in Madrid’s Hotel Intercontinental, where Bayern have enjoyed their traditional post-match dinner. The meal has finished and all but three tables lie empty. The remaining diners include members of the club’s press department, a group of Bayern’s sponsors and, at the third table, Pep and his assistants.

The group has already diagnosed the problems at the root of their 1-0 defeat at the Bernabeu and are proud of the way the players have imposed themselves in this arena by sticking to the game plan. At 3am on Thursday, April 24, Pep is considering the obvious fact that Madrid will shut up shop when they visit the Allianz for the second leg and that he will be counting on all the same weapons as in the first game. It is during this early-hours reflection that Pep decides to play the return leg with a 3-4-3 formation.

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With three central defenders, two full-backs pushed up into the midfield next to the creative midfielders and Mario Gotze as one of the two strikers, so that he can add superiority in midfield by dropping back to help in the middle of the pitch. It’s a 3-4-3 which can be changed to a basic 3-5-2 with minimal alteration. Theoretically good for defending against the counterattacks which, Pep is convinced, will feature heavily in Madrid’s game. But it should also allow Bayern to dominate the middle of the pitch, to keep the ball and not to get log-jammed in and around the Madrid penalty area.

It’s then that I overhear Guardiola telling [Bayern assistant coach Domenec] Torrent: “Dome, don’t let me change my mind. This is the only way to go.”

Then, on the flight back to Munich, Pep changed his mind. Reflecting on the fact that the team had last practised a three-man defence in December, the coach realised that there was very little time to prepare his players. The coach decided to leave the 3-4-3 for next season and by the time the plane touched down in Munich Pep had switched to a 4-2-3-1.

On Friday, April 25, Pep addressed his squad briefly. “I’ll be eternally grateful for all you did in the Bernabeu. You showed enormous courage and played the kind of football I want to see. I’m proud of you all.”

This was also the day Tito Vilanova passed away, a desperately sad day for his family, FC Barcelona, their supporters and all his friends. The world of football shared their grief and for Pep, Torrent, Planchart, Estiarte and Buenaventura, who had been part of Tito’s life over so many years, it was a devastating blow.

That night the coach dined out with friends but his mind was elsewhere. From time to time he pulled out photos showing himself and Tito together, his favourite having been taken in Atletico Madrid’s Vicente Calderon dressing room. In the picture the two men are discussing their plans for the game. All in all it was a strange evening, during which they toasted Tito and discussed almost every subject under the sun except football. Pep had other things on his mind.

By Monday the players are fired up and eagerly anticipating their chance to take revenge on Madrid. There is a sense that this will be an encounter of epic proportions, but there is little evidence of cool, tactical analysis. Pep allows himself to be carried away and even his performance at the press conference seems out of character.

It’s then he makes a big mistake. He asks his men how they are feeling and they talk to him about the German talent for glorious comebacks, as well as the passion they have all felt on similarly epic nights in the Allianz Arena. All they want is to be allowed to play with their hearts and souls. They need to go out and attack hard from the first second of the game.

Pep changes his mind again. The 3-4-3 had become a 4-2-3-1, but now he opts for a 4-2-4 formation. Just as he did in Dortmund in July 2013, in his debut match, he swithers between patience and passion and ends up going for passion. But it didn’t work in Dortmund, and it won’t work now.

Monday’s training consists of rondos, a short session looking for explosive strength and two 11 v 11 matches of 10 minutes each. It all draws to an end with 20 minutes of crosses and finishes, with a view to what’s likely to happen the following night in the match. Alaba and Ribery have slightly raised temperatures and sore throats, and Javi’s knees are bothering him. The line-up is finally agreed and Pep pulls Ribery to one side and tells him he’ll be starting.

The pre-match team talk, in the Presidential Suite of the Charles Hotel, reflects the optimism everyone in Munich is feeling: “Lads, this is not about going out and having a good time. You are going out there to do some damage. Go for the jugular. You are German, so be German and attack.”

In the end, their epic story ends in disaster.

Pep assumes all the blame. He makes no reference to his players’ requests and goes out of his way to protect them, making sure that they are left out of the post-match debate. He had abandoned the centre of the field on the very day his men were up against a pack of lions. Today, Pep betrayed his own principles.

After the game Pep is still shut up in his office with Domenec Torrent, Carles Planchart and Manel Estiarte well past midnight. Ostensibly, they are there to review the match together, but in reality his assistants are trying to boost the boss’ morale. They can see that tonight Pep is a broken man.

“I spend the whole season refusing to use a 4-2-4. The whole season. And I decide to do it tonight, the most important night of the year. A complete fuck-up."

'Pep Confidential: The Inside Story of Pep Guardiola's First Season at Bayern Munich' is out now in paperback and ebook, published by BackPage Press / Arena Sport