An amicable rivalry has developed between Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. It’s a competitiveness based on respect and adoration ahead of the DFB Pokal final inside the Berliner Olympiastadion. There’s no poking of eyes, mind games or the usual shenanigans associated with a final, only mutual ego-boosts.
“He is a remarkable coach, no question. What he has accomplished with Dortmund is great. His team carries his handwriting,” Guardiola said, while Klopp was equally generous in his compliments: “I am under the impression that we both love the game. Perhaps it’s down to different character traits that we play different systems. But you can always see the love of the game.”
This will mark the third final between Bayern and Dortmund in the last three seasons. On the line are validation and pride. Both teams would like to end on a positive note and propel into next year’s campaign latching onto the best possible outcome come this Saturday. The words of Bayern midfielder Mario Gotze could just as easily come from his old Dortmund team-mates: “If we win it, we can turn a good season into a great one.”
It’s been a relatively mixed season for both sides. Whereas Dortmund’s high-pressing ‘vollgas’ football took a hit due to the team’s injury crisis, Bayern Munich’s entire system came under forensic investigation after the loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League last month.
From fans to football pundits, all took a dip in the sea of opinions, including former players Oliver Kahn, Stefan Effenberg and Franz Beckenbauer. Once viewed as the natural evolution for the Bavarians, Pep’s philosophy was cast into doubt after their humiliation by the Spanish side. But as the club's CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge reminds us, only a few weeks ago, Bayern were praised for their invincibility and display of possession-based football.
While some wonder if Guardiola has the right players for tiki-taka, the argument isn’t so simple. Arguably there were signs as early as the CL matches against Arsenal and Manchester United, where their high-pressing defensive line exposed the team’s vulnerability on the counter. Then there was the futile struggle and inability to create scoring chances and carve open spaces in their opponents’ final thirds.
But what baffled most was Pep’s lack of a ‘Plan B’ or heeding those warning signs from earlier rounds. Not to take the shine away from Madrid, who were clearly the better team in both legs, but Bayern didn't give an honest reflection of their capabilities.
Reasons to be fearful
It’s equally plausible people are reading too much into this one result. Perhaps this was just a bad performance or a case of poor execution, or it’s as simple as Bayern entering a slump at an unfortunate time, possibly triggered after winning the Meisterschale too early. Or did Pep try to fix something that wasn’t broken?
All these different explanations are simply correlations rather than causations, but each account probably carries with it some truth. It does seem that the system that brought Pep so much success at Barcelona requires changing to truly adapt to the full potential of this team. Perhaps the Bayern coach should bring back some of the elements that made this team so great last year, whether that's seeing more of Martinez, taking advantage of their physicalness and playing more direct and counter football. In other words: should players adapt to the system or the system to the players?
In answering that, it’s important to bring back Jupp Heynckes into the equation. He also suffered setbacks in his first season in charge, none more devastating than losing to Chelsea in the Champions League final. But Heynckes came out stronger the following season and filled those holes bringing in Javi Martinez, Mario Mandzukic and Dante.
In fairness, Guardiola deserves the same timescale. He’s made some unpopular decisions and while he’s not without fault, the lessons learned going into next season are a fairer assessment of his success. Besides, the two Madrid games overshadowed all other positives this season: Pep's side broke a number of records including earliest title win and longest undefeated run, not to mention winning the UEFA Super Cup. But repeating back-to-back Champions Leagues is something even Barcelona at their peak couldn't accomplish. The nature of the competition makes it incredibly difficult to do.
While many in Germany view this season as a failure, most Bayern players, at least publicly, have expressed a shared satisfaction with the outcome. As Arjen Robben said, one can still have a respectable campaign without repeating the treble: “It’s a very good season, and if we win [the German Cup] it’s a super season." Quite the diplomatic remark, but he’s not alone. Manuel Neuer also said that while it’ll be disappointing if they fail to win the double, the team has played some of the best football of their careers: "None of us has ever played football like this, how we did here this season."
Meanwhile in Dortmund
But Bayern aren’t alone in their quest for the German Cup. Dortmund is just as hungry to win it this year and that synergy will likely make this an exciting final, unlike the Bundesliga title race this season.
For Klopp, there’s a nostalgic air about this year’s final: “Two years ago we enjoyed fantastic moments in this stadium. Everyone can imagine that we’d like to relive something similar.” He’s referring to the club’s 5-2 victory against the Bavarians in 2012, the final that’s believed to have triggered Bayern’s interest in Robert Lewandowski after he scored a hat-trick against them.
Lewandowski, who won this season’s Torjaegerkanone, has said from the start that he’d like to exit the club with at least one trophy. Their current form surely gives confidence. Dortmund’s football style was stunted for majority of the season, as key players faced serious knocks. But BVB have shown flashes of excellence and consistency in the final weeks of the season. Their impressive quarter-final return leg against Real Madrid, despite missing five first-choice players, allayed any doubts and fears.
There was a reassurance of faith as Henrik Mkhitaryan and Marco Reus hit their forms, with the German national playing some of the best football in his career. Plus 22-year-old Erik Durm and newcomer Marko Jojic have been quite the revelations this season. Finally, the perpetual transfer rumours surrounding the Ruhr area club's core players were also laid to rest in recent weeks, with Ilkay Gundogan extending his contract, and Mats Hummels and Marco Reus making convincing public statements regarding their futures.
Whether the goal is to win a first or second pot, this DFB Pokal final is a battle of faith and ideologies, in the players' minds and the playing systems. It’s less about what the outside world thinks and more about proving themselves correct. For Bayern it’s searching for an encouraging closing chapter to end the season, latching onto something positive; for Dortmund it’s preventing a trophyless season that started out sour but could still turn sweeter than expected. It's to show Klopp's soldiers should never be written off, even when crippled.
Failure is not an option for either team. Although fairly satisfied with their accomplishments, it's the squad that takes home the cup that will have the rights to a great season while the loser will have to settle for good. Not a bad position to be in, win or lose.