There are few managers as intense or as analytical as Pep Guardiola. Everything must be questioned and planned, as little as possible left to chance. Marti Perarnau’s book Pep Confidential, an inside look at Guardiola’s first season at Bayern Munich, is full of tales of sleepless nights as he wrestled with tactical problems, with Guardiola forever ripping up the script and starting again.
He’s not a manager who would ever just leave things to chance, not somebody who would ever sanction the signing of a player on a hunch or because he happened to be available.
Which is what makes the signing of Arturo Vidal from Juventus for a reported $43 million so fascinating (Bayern announced it has an agreement to sign Vidal pending a physical on Thursday).
Guardiola has not just signed a good midfielder because he could: there must be a reason for moving for him rather than anybody else, and in that reason lies a wealth of information about how Guardiola assesses the state of his squad.
The timing may be coincidental, but that the news of a move for Vidal should break just days after Bastian Schweinsteiger’s transfer from Bayern to Manchester United was completed feels significant–particularly given it was widely assumed that one of the reasons the Germany captain was allowed to leave was that Bayern has a glut of central midfielders.
Vidal will join a squad in which Xabi Alonso, Thiago Alcantara, Javi Martinez, Philipp Lahm, David Alaba, Gianluca Gaudino, Sebastian Rode, Pierre Hojbjerg and Juan Bernat all played in the middle or at the back of midfield at some point last season. So why Vidal?
Last season was a disappointment for Bayern. It won the Bundesliga and got to the semifinal of both the German Cup and the Champions League, but, so ludicrous are expectations for the elite these days that it felt like a disappointment. Although Bayern beat Shakhtar Donetsk 7-0 and Porto 6-1 (to overturn a 3-1 first-leg deficit) in the Champions League, its post-Christmas results against good sides were poor: a 4-1 defeat at Wolfsburg; a 2-0 defeat to Borussia Monchengladbach; a 0-0 draw in the Cup quarterfinal against Bayer Leverkusen (won on penalties) and a 2-0 defeat to the same opposition in the league; a 1-1 draw (lost on penalties) against Borussia Dortmund in the cup semi.
The sense developed that Bayern might perhaps have gone soft. It happens to good sides, especially when they are dominant. They’re so used to winning easily that they forget how to defend, forget how to scrap, and so struggle against teams they may be better than but who know how to dig in for results.
When Liverpool bossed English football in the late 70s and early 80s, Joe Fagan, one of its coaches who went on to become manager, was obsessed by the dangers of becoming “easy-ozey”. Sometimes in preseason friendlies he would instruct a player to kick an opponent just to try to spark some anger, to try to ensure his side never lost its edge. He saw the battle against complacency as essential to continued success.
When Schweinsteiger left, there was a theory that, although his pass completion stats of 87.8% were excellent, and although he was capable of momentum-changing long-raking passes, he lacked the quick feet of a Xavi or an Andres Iniesta, that he couldn’t be part of the sort of rat-a-tat of rapid passes that made Barcelona so effective at its peak. There’s not much evidence, though, that Vidal is any more adept at that: his pass completion rate last season was 84.6% and, more pertinently, he averaged just 49 passes per game at Juventus last season compared to Schweinsteiger’s 66 at Bayern (Stats from whoscored.com).
But perhaps the issue is less passing than the other part of Guardiola’s possession-based philosophy: pressing. Vidal has won four titles in a row with Juventus, a team that pressed ferociously under Antonio Conte and continued to play a pressing game under Massimiliano Allegri last season. He has just won the Copa America with Chile, managed by Jorge Sampaoli, a self-proclaimed “disciple” of Marcelo Bielsa, whose own theories on pressing have been such an influence on Guardiola. Vidal regained possession through tackles and interceptions 4.7 times per game in the league last season (as opposed to 3.1 for Schweinsteiger).
There is a wildness about Vidal that meant he was fortunate not to be sent off in both the Champions League final and the Copa America semifinal (not to mention his drunken-driving episode during the Copa America group stage), but that perhaps is part of the point.
It may be that Guardiola has decided Bayern had become too nice, that it lacked the edge to win big games against top sides.
Vidal will add a touch of ferocity and should make the pressing game more intense. It’s perhaps a step away from the pretty patterns we’ve become used to from Guardiola sides, but it may be that a dash of aggression makes Bayern more efficient.