When Pep Guardiola took over at Bayern Munich in 2013, they were the reigning champions of Europe, and he had won the same trophy twice from the four seasons in charge of Barcelona. No managerial appointment in history – not even Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid in 2010 – looked more likely to deliver that famous trophy than that.
And yet three years on, Guardiola and Bayern are set to say goodbye without even having reached the final together. Their third Bundesliga title will surely be secured this weekend at FC Ingolstadt, before Guardiola’s final home game on 14 May. His last match will the DFB Cup final against Borussia Dortmund on 21 May, a shot at a fifth domestic trophy at the second club of his career.
But in Europe? It has been the same story three times over: steady progress to the semi-finals, the assured look of likely winners, then a fatal stumble at the penultimate hurdle against that season’s strongest side from Spain. Real Madrid in 2014, Barcelona in 2015 and then Atletico Madrid this week all managed to overcome Bayern. Real Madrid and Barcelona then went on to win the trophy. Atletico look likely to do the same.
There is a simple case against Guardiola which runs like this: Given the advantage Bayern enjoy over their domestic rivals, Bundesliga wins cannot count for too much. The Champions League was the only prize that mattered, and their big-money coach could not deliver it. On this reading Guardiola has not done what he was paid for, and that means that he has failed.
But that is not how knock-out football works. The Champions League may be the best competition in the world but it is not a pure merit test. Teams need momentum and luck to win it too. That is why no side has retained the European cup since Milan in 1990, a footballing lifetime ago. That is also why teams who are not at the top of the European game – such as Chelsea in 2012 – can triumph. It is a cup, not a league, and people ought to know the difference.
The difference between progress and elimination, then, can be simple bad luck, or one moment of individual brilliance, or one mistake, or even a brief flurry of them. In 2014 Bayern dropped their guard from two set-pieces and were blitzed by Real Madrid. It was one bad moment but it does not make Guardiola a bad manager.
The following year, Bayern faced a Barcelona team widely considered to be the best of their generation. At the Camp Nou they were 13 minutes away from a creditable first-leg 0-0 before Lionel Messi produced enough of his unique brilliance to beat them 3-0 and end the tie. When he wants to do that there is very little that can be done to stop him.
Then, this week, they faced an Atletico Madrid side who had claimed the scalp of Barcelona and were playing with a desperate hunger to reach the San Siro final. They lost in Madrid but when they came back to Munich, Bayern caused Atletico more problems than any side had managed for some time. When Thomas Mueller stepped up to take his first-half penalty, they could have gone 2-1 up in the tie, forcing Atletico to change the way they played for the first time.
But Jan Oblak saved the penalty and then Antoine Griezmann killed Bayern on the break.
Of course, there is a pattern here and Guardiola’s record in away ties in Champions League knock-out games has never been the strongest. His approach where possible is to win the tie at home. But at a time when Guardiola’s whole body of work, over almost seven completed seasons, is coming in for scrutiny it is too easy to read too much into a particular failure to win a particular trophy whose destination is almost impossible to predict.
Guardiola is not a guarantee of success, no-one is, but he is still a brilliant coach, about to win his fifth domestic league title in his seventh season working. He is adored by his players for his tactical innovations, his insights into the game, his ability to teach them things they did not know. Yes, he has failed to win his third Champions League trophy in his spell at Bayern Munich. But that is very difficult to do, and rightly so. He will arrive in Manchester in June with something to prove, but little to regret.