In reading Martí Perarnau’s wonderfully-written overview of Pep Guardiola’s first year in charge at Bayern, I discovered that the Cataloan coach was a good friend of the renowned Michelin-starred chef Ferran Adrià – the man behind the resturant El Bulli. El Bulli had once been described by a myriad of food critics as the rest restaurant in the world, but just like that Adrià – who once harboured thoughts of playing for Barca in his younger days – chose to call time on his project.
Just like that, it was gone.
In quitting while he was ahead, Adrià’s legendary status was heightened further. Rather than open up another restaurant and immediately cash in on El Bulli’s reputation and long trail of success, the Catalan culinary genius chose gentle retirement to focus on family life and, as he himself would put it, more research. “El Bulli never closed”, Adrià once said. “It just stopped serving meals”. The world still waits for the day when he will return to his laboratory, a moment that will surely have every food critic buzzing with even more anticipation.
It would be much the same with Adrià’s friend Guardiola, a fellow Catalan. Having led the Messi-infused Barcelona to a number of triumphs and enhanced his reputation as one of the sharpest tactical brains in the football world, Guardiola chose to step back from the game for over a year. Whenever a major club found itself in need of someone to take the reins, Guardiola’s name was always one of those right at the top of every commentator’s list. But no. He chose to remain under the radar in New York City, far away from the Europe’s buzzing footballing hub, the coaching merry-go-round and the endless gossip. Instead, he spent his time making new friends, such as the chess grand master Garry Kasparov.
While the culinary world still awaits the return of Ferran Adrià, in the spring of 2013 Pep Guardiola was back in the game – with FC Bayern München securing his signature for three years. Here was a team that had just won an unprecedented treble, yet the solid and renowned chef Jupp Heynckes would make way for the man who could be described as football’s very own master of molecular gastronomy. While Heynckes had prepared and served the perfect meal, Guardiola was seen as the man to take them beyond even this: the man tasked to achieve that coveted third Michelin star to accompany the four gold ones on the famous FC Bayern Trikot.
Footballing purists harked at the news. The treble-winning Bayern team had blown away everything in its path in winning the coveted Henkelpott and was rightly considered the best football team in the world, but with the arrival of the enigmatic Catalan they were surely set to take the game to stratospheric levels. Meanwhile, others were just a little sceptical. Bayern had won everything there was to win; how could anyone, even a genius like Guardiola, improve on that?
When Guardiola took the helm in the summer of 2013 and led Bayern through a successful pre-season including a revenge penalty shootout victory in the UEFA Super Cup against Chelsea, even some of the doubters were slowly won around. The start of Guardiola’s time in Munich coincided with the arrival of young stars Mario Götze from Bundesliga rivals Borussia Dortmund and Thiago Alcântara from Barcelona, and for many there was indeed a marked improvement. The first half of the season passed by with Bayern building up a massive advantage over their rivals in the Bundesliga, and by March the title race was over – the earliest finish in its fifty-year history.
By April 2014 Bayern had won the league, were in the final of the DFB-Pokal and had reached the last four of the Champions’ League. Having won a staggering nineteen Bundesliga matches on the bounce and disposed of Premier League outfits Arsenal and Manchester United en route to the semi-finals of the big one, one truly believed that Guardiola was set to better the achievements of Heynckes. With the Super Cup already in the locker at the Säbener Strasse along with the Meisterschale, a quadruple was on the cards.
It was around this time, however, that the wheels started to come off. Rather than step back and stick to the formula, Guardiola the molecular gastronomist chose to tinker just a little too much with his recipe. The signs were there when the winning run came to an end at home to TSG 1899 Hoffenheim in the last week of March; having been 3-1 up, Bayern conspired to throw it away as their opponents fought back to earn a 3-3 draw. Then, as the coach continue to fiddle with the lineup, the long unbeaten run came to an end with a flat 1-0 defeat against local rivals FC Augsburg.
With the semi-final against Real Madrid fast approaching the home record was blown away as Dortmund walked to an easy 3-0 win, and nobody could get to the root of the problem. While some commentators cited the early finish to the league race and the setting in of complacency, others saw the coach’s tactics slowly unravelling. While the draw against Hoffenheim had seen the first points being dropped, the malaise had actually started a couple of weeks earlier. Two very late goals saw Die Roten win 2-0 in Mainz, and the game that had sealed the championship – a 3-1 win against struggling Hertha Berlin – was not exactly convincing. A closer analysis suggests that opposition coaches had finally found Bayern’s weakness.
Guardiola’s mission had been to take players out of their set and established roles, allowing individuals to develop a more flexible approach to their role on the pitch. After years of switching between left and right back captain Philipp Lahm was moved into a defensive midfield role, while others such as Thomas Müller were given more undefined roles. With Guardiola, there was no such thing as a 4-3-3, 4-1-4 or a 3-5-2; these formations could change fluidly within the the course of a game as players moved around seamlessly, covering each others’ roles as part of a strategy that transformed the fast but at time predictable Heynckes model into an elastic system designed to keep opponents baffled.
This was all well and good until the opposition started to know more about Bayern’s play than the players did themselves, creating a crisis of confidence that saw the system break down in front our eyes against Dortmund. As Jürgen Klopp’s side blunted Bayern’s midfield with their high pressing game, the holes in the Bavarian defence were brutally exposed and the mistakes started to come. By the time Real Madrid arrived in Munich for the second leg of the Champions’ League semi-final, it was as if the team had never played together before. All of the ingredients had been thrown together, resulting in a confusion of flavours only appreciated by the visitors – who simply lapped it up.
In the course of a year, the solidly reliable recipe served up by Jupp Heynckes at Wembley had been replaced by a confusing melange; a pudding so overegged that all of the expensive ingredients had been lost completely. Or, just imagine sprinkling some salt over fine and expensive truffle shavings.
For many molecular gastronomists the mission has never been about delivering simple flavours. For instance the Catalan restaurant Mugaritz, founded by Andoni Luis Aduriz, describes eating as a “path to experience, a path scattered with histories, aromas, textures, flavours, games, memories, desires and numerous other pleasurable stimuli.” Part of its mystique is that is asks more questions rather than providing any answers. Aduriz, not surprisingly, is a former pupil of Ferran Adrià.
Such creations are all well and good, until you notice that “flavour” is neatly tucked away. While such a meal is for some the ultimate culinary summit, for many it never really fulfils. Sometimes, you just want to leave the clinically crisp white tablecloths and modernist architecture behind and fill the remaining space in your stomach at the cheap and cheerful tapas bar around the corner. While any football fan can understand at a very basic level what Pep Guardiola is trying to achieve in his mission to present something uniquely different, there are always more questions than answers. Like the crisp tablecloths at Mugaritz, Guardiola is the man in the tailored, well-fitted suit and fashionable scarf – a far cry from the red-faced Jupp Heynckes in his training jacket.
Guardiola reverted to a more accepted recipe to wrest the DFB-Pokal from Dortmund in the wake of the Champions’ League disaster, but despite controlling his second Bundesliga campaign from the off the doubts still remain. Even with the unavailability of a number of key ingredients, Bayern are clearly too good for the rest of the competition in the Bundesliga – with the exception of the unpretentiously wholesome VfL Wolfsburg – but there has been a chorus of silent whispers about how they will cope against the likes of Real, Barcelona and Chelsea. Certainly, the goalless draw against a rusty Shakhtar Donetsk left a nasty taste in the mouth, even if it was flavoured with a dash of Ukrainian cynicism.
As FC Bayern supporters, we are all waiting for Guardiola to find the right formula – that final ingredient – but the frustrating wait and the constant experimentation may prove to be too much. Rather than a pretty-looking culinary creation, that work of art on a curiously-shaped slate plate that ultimately fails to deliver, many would rather prefer a simple dish of ein paar Weißwurst mit Brez’n und süßem Senf – a solid and always reliably tasty Bavarian staple.