The link between Pep Guardiola and Louis van Gaal, who coached Bayern between 2009 and 2011, is crucial when considering how Guardiola will adapt to life in Munich
The raw statistics tell a simple story. In Europe's major five leagues this season, Barcelona predictably boast the highest average possession and the best pass-completion figures. Second, in both counts, are Bayern Munich.
The link between Pep Guardiola and Louis van Gaal, who coached Bayern between 2009 and 2011, is crucial when considering how Guardiola will adapt to life in Munich. Van Gaal left Barcelona in difficult circumstances in 2000 after three years in charge, but he revived the Catalan club, winning back-to-back league titles after four years without a La Liga win.
Among squabbles with the more egotistical players in the dressing room, Van Gaal was a huge fan of Guardiola, appointing him captain. "Pep was not the oldest and was way down in the hierarchy, under [Gica] Popescu, [Miguel Angel] Nadal and [Guillermo] Amor," Van Gaal said. "But Pep saw the game and had the communication skills to structure the team, both on the pitch and in the dressing room." Ronald de Boer, another player of that era, says that while Johan Cruyff was primarily concerned with style and identity over results, Guardiola related more to Van Gaal's insatiable desire for success.
Van Gaal left Bayern in April 2011, and was replaced by Jupp Heynckes. Bayern are now superior without the ball, both in their pressing and defensive organisation, but Van Gaal is arguably still the major architect of this side. Guardiola doubtless considered that before deciding to move to Bavaria, but also fascinating is how directly Barcelona's current players have influenced Bayern's squad.
Van Gaal's first season at Bayern, in 2009-10, saw them playing high up the pitch and generally dominating possession. However, there was also a clear emphasis upon speedy counterattacking – from the moment Arjen Robben made his Bundesliga debut he struck up a fantastic partnership with Franck Ribéry. The two may have started on opposite flanks but they were fielded on the other side to their stronger foot, so both cut inside. Their first performance together, a second half destruction of Wolfsburg, with Ribéry assisting Robben's two goals on the break, set the tone for many of Bayern's big matches. The predominant threat was pace down the flanks rather than through relentless ball retention and it was a successful approach. Bayern won the double and reached the Champions League final.
That summer, Germany excelled at the World Cup with brilliant counterattacking destructions of England and Argentina, before being defeated 1-0 by Spain in the semi-final. That contest was a tremendous spectacle, an underrated modern classic full of tension and technical quality, a patient battle between two opposing football styles. Germany sat deep and tried to soak up pressure before breaking quickly, while Spain's short passing was stereotypical.
Eventually Spain went 1-0 up through Carles Puyol's header and then Germany realised how limited their strategy was – they'd scored early against England and Argentina, forcing the opposition on to them, creating spaces for Germany to break into. Concede the first goal, and counterattacking becomes less possible, so Jogi Löw's side learned the value of dominating the ball. "When we eventually did get it," said Miroslav Klose, "we were so exhausted from chasing that we couldn't do anything with it."
It wasn't Barcelona v Bayern, but it might well have been. Puyol, Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, Pedro Rodríguez and David Villa had out-passed Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Mario Gomez and Klose. Jérôme Boateng and Manuel Neuer, who also started that game, have since joined Bayern too. The overlap is clear, and both Bayern and Germany have become more proactive since.
Van Gaal didn't need that lesson, but maybe the players did. Bayern's opening game of the following season – as it happens, another home fixture with Wolfsburg, in Steve McClaren's first Bundesliga match – was an astonishing display of short-passing dominance. Bayern's strategy had changed, and their commitment to dominating possession was clearly more extreme. Kroos had returned from a loan spell with Bayer Leverkusen and played as the No10, offering more guile on the ball than Thomas Müller, who played that role in the previous campaign. Bayern only triumphed thanks to a last-minute Schweinsteiger goal, but it marked a different approach to their attacking play. Since that World Cup semi-final, it is Bayern – not Arsenal, previously cited as "Barcelona lite" – who mimic Barcelona most closely.
On a specific level, Guardiola will appreciate the players at his disposal. Javi Martínez, a player Barcelona tried to sign last summer, is his perfect holding midfielder (although he could play at centre-back) and very similar to Sergio Busquets. Schweinsteiger, at his best, is one of the most authoritative and dominant passing midfielders in Europe, and could play the Xavi role. But it's possibly Toni Kroos that will become Bayern's key player under Guardiola – his appreciation of space, and his instinctive ability to drift across the pitch to contribute in various zones within the same passage of play, makes him a fantastic playmaker. His intelligence and versatility is similar to that of Iniesta, although he could do with replicating the Ballon d'Or candidate's humility and professionalism to fulfil his potential.
The midfield, the key part of Guardiola's Barcelona side, is essentially already sorted. Elsewhere, he might be more pragmatic; he doesn't have a Lionel Messi figure to lead his attack, but the presence of Gomez shouldn't be a significant problem. Guardiola worked without a "No9" in his final two seasons at Barcelona, but while he struggled to deal with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, he originally desired a static, penalty box prowler enough to make the Swede the second-most expensive player of all-time. Their differences were primarily personal, not tactical. Robben and Ribéry, accustomed to charging into the box rather than crossing, should also adapt relatively swiftly, although they'll play higher up the pitch.
Maybe the biggest question mark is pressing. Although Barcelona players credit Van Gaal with reintroducing that concept at Barcelona in the late 1990s, it's been more obvious at Bayern since Heynckes' arrival. That said, it still drops short of the level Guardiola demanded at Barça, and he might be cautious of instructing too much pressing, aware of how his Barcelona side sometimes encountered a drop in fitness levels around February and March. Pressing was significantly more obvious in Guardiola's second Bacelona campaign than the first – watch the 2009 Champions League final, and the extent to which Messi, Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto'o stand off, letting Manchester United's defenders play, is very surprising.
But while Guardiola's critics cast him as a fortunate beneficiary of a fine youth system and a cohesive ideology when taking charge of Barcelona, the club was in a dreadful state when he took charge – unfit and unmotivated. Xavi and Iniesta struggled to influence games, while Messi was an excellent talent but some way short of his astonishing form of the past few years. The Bayern side he inherits this summer will be in significantly better shape, which must terrify the rest of Europe.
Michael Cox is the editor of tactics website zonalmarking.net