Bayern Munich season preview: Will Pep Guardiola's endless tinkering work?

Kevin McCauley
SB Nation
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Bayern Munich are in the unique position of never being satisfied with one or two trophies. Unlike the biggest clubs in Spain, England and Italy, they have no natural rival. They are on an island, clearly the biggest team in Germany. A league-cup double is currently taken for granted. It is almost meaningless.

There is no club in the Bundesliga currently on their level, or one that they can proclaim to hate more than anyone else. For Barcelona or Real Madrid, a season is acceptable, even if not spectacular, if they manage to beat the other to a big trophy. For Bayern, it's treble or bust. They should be able to sneak a Bundesliga win and a trip to the DFB-Pokal final by rotating their squad heavily and giving run-outs to youngsters. Their primary focus is the Champions League, and it will remain so until Borussia Dortmund are entirely out of debt and Schalke stop letting their best players leave for nothing.

This is the unreasonable situation that manager Pep Guardiola stepped into, and for many fans, his first season was a failure, despite winning one of those aforementioned league-cup doubles. Fans will expect the team to walk to the final four of the Champions League again, and Pep will be under some serious pressure come season three of his reign if they don't win it.

When we last met

Even though Bayern had no problem winning a couple of domestic trophies, they were dominated in the Champions League semifinals by eventual champions Real Madrid. Pep's predecessor won that competition with the same squad, minus Mario Götze and Thiago Alcantara, so he's caught quite a bit of criticism for that very bad performance. They finished the season on a high note by defeating Dortmund in the Pokal final, but that merely salvaged their season, rather than making it a success.

Ins and outs

Four new recruits have joined Bayern this summer, and three of them should play big parts. Adding Robert Lewandowski on a free transfer is an absolute coup, and he should start every game he's fit for up top. Sebastian Rode also arrived on a free, and given the current injuries to Javi Martinez (out through the winter break) and Bastian Schweinsteiger (out for a few weeks), he should play quite a bit. Left back Juan Bernat could play a lot with David Alaba moving into a Philipp Lahm-like utility role, while Pepe Reina is a great veteran backup for Manuel Neuer.

Rode is one of many players who will play some part in filling the shoes of Toni Kroos, who has moved on to Real Madrid. Veteran defender Daniel van Buyten has retired, while striker Mario Mandzukic moved on to Atlético Madrid, since he knew Lewandowski's arrival would relegate him to benchwarming duty. Reserves Alessandro Schöpf, Diego Contento and Lukas Raeder have also left.

Transfer business still to come

At least one central defender is going to arrive, though it's not clear who and when. Atléti's Diego Godin and Roma's Mehdi Benatia have been linked, and Bayern certainly have both the money and available space in defense to justify signing both of them. They'd probably both represent improvements over Jerome Boateng and Dante, and that group of four might be the best in world football.

It's not obvious that either is close, though Bayern aren't the type of club to wait until the end of the window to get their transfer business done. There have been some minor grumblings that they might be interested in PSG's Marco Verratti or Madrid's Sami Khedira as well, but both moves seem unlikely.

Expect Bayern to buy at least one defender, and possibly another defender or defensive midfielder before the window shuts. Rafinha is hurt too, so Bayern are pretty thin on the right if Lahm isn't going to play there primarily. They could sign a right back as well.

Big questions

What the heck is this 3-4-3 business? - Pep Guardiola is either dissatisfied with the way his 4-3-3 worked or feels like his team needs to have another completely different formation in their arsenal. He's been experimenting with an ultra-attacking 3-4-3 setup, featuring attacking fullbacks playing as outside central defenders. It's entirely possible that Bayern plays a competitive match with Lahm and Alaba on either side of an actual central defender as part of a three-man back line.

If it sounds crazy, that's probably because it is, but Guardiola has made a weird, ultra-attacking 3-4-3 work before at Barcelona. It looks very unstable defensively in practice at the moment, but once his players get it down, it's possible that opponents are overwhelmed by a style of play they've never seen before.

Then again, what does it say that a team with Bayern's quality feels the need to surprise opponents with something wacky?

Will the youth products get their chances? - American fans will be most interested in the progression of Julian Green, but he's not the only Bayern academy product who has a chance to make the step up to the first team this year. Midfielders Gianluca Gaudino and Pierre Hojbjerg have been playing a lot in preseason, and injuries to Martinez and Schweinsteiger will open up opportunities for them.

Bayern should be strong enough in the league and cup that they can afford to give these players a lot of games, because their mistakes shouldn't hurt the team that much. And if they're all as good as advertised, they could end up making sure that the Bavarians don't skip a beat when the likes of Schweinsteiger, Lahm and Franck Ribery finally move on.

Key players

Philipp Lahm - No matter what Bayern are trying to accomplish or where Lahm is operating, he's usually their best player. Guardiola's decision to move him into the center of midfield, play Rafinha at right back and keep Martinez on the bench was probably a bad one, but it's a credit to Lahm that it didn't cause Bayern to crash and burn. He was very good in a position he'd never played in his professional career and was hailed by coaches and fans alike as the team's most important player, even if he shouldn't have been playing midfield in the first place.

This season, Lahm will probably play right back, right wingback, right central defense, defensive midfield and central midfield in two completely different formations. There's no reason for Guardiola to do this, and the only reason he doesn't look like an idiot for doing it is because Lahm is one of the best players in the world.

Robert Lewandowski - Guardiola might do a bit less experimenting with unsuitable false nines this season now that he has Lewandowski. Mandzukic was a very good player for Bayern last year, but Lewandowski is a bit more of a Guardiola center forward. His touch is excellent for a center forward of his size and he played in attacking midfield on a few occasions when he first started to crack the first team at Dortmund.

Between his position, his ability and the quality around him, Lewandowski should score 30-plus goals this season. If he doesn't, Bayern probably won't walk the league and Champions League group stage that easily.

Manuel Neuer - Lionel Messi won the Golden Ball at the World Cup, and since he was the most important attacking player for any team at the tournament, understandably so, but Neuer was almost universally regarded as the tournament's best player. His erratic goalkeeping style is certainly a bit alarming, but when he comes flying out of the box, his timing is usually so perfect that the other team doesn't come close to capitalizing on him being 30 yards off his line.

If Guardiola really is planning on playing an aggressive 3-4-3 without actual defenders, there are going to be even more balls that get in behind the defense. That means more opportunities for Neuer to pretend he's a midfielder, and way more spectacular clearances than errors.

Projected ideal starting XI

football formations
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football formations

Javi Martinez isn't included here because he's not going to play again for a very long time. If either of Benatia or Godin signs, they'd come in for Badstuber, with Dante moving out to left central defense. In the DFB-Pokal game, Lahm moved inside to cover for Schweinsteiger's absence, while Xherdan Shaqiri filled in at right wingback. If Guardiola wants to use Lahm on the right while Schweinsteiger is out, Rode is likely to slot into the center.

Key reserves: GK Pepe Reina, DF Rafinha, DF/MF Javi Martinez, MF Thiago, MF Pierre Hojbjerg, MF Xherdan Shaqiri, MF Gianluca Gaudino, MF/FW Thomas Müller, MF/FW Mario Götze, FW Julian Green, FW Claudio Pizarro

So, how do I watch Bayern Munich this season?

FOX Sports will be picking up the Bundesliga next year in the United States, but for this year, you're stuck with GolTV. Since beIN Sports came into the market, it's been hard to find GolTV on most providers. Lots of them offer the channel on a package separate to the sports package, either on a specialty or Spanish-language tier.

GolTV also shows the Bundesliga in Canada, while BT Sport is the network with the rights to the league in the UK.

Predictions

Even though Bayern are dealing with a ton of injury issues and Pep seems to be a tiny bit off his rocker, they still have far and away the best squad in the league. It would be absolutely stunning if they failed to win the league in the season which they took their biggest rival's best players. League: 1st.

There's good news for Bayern: The rest of their big rivals for the Champions League have also gone a bit crazy. While Pep is trying weird things in an attempt to get an edge, Real Madrid and Barcelona are engaging in a hilarious arms race. They're accumulating big stars that sell a lot of shirts, but not necessarily anyone who's an athletic midfielder or good at defending. It's good for neutral fans, who will get to see some goalfests in Champions League ties that used to be drab and all about defense. But all of this probably means that Jose Mourinho will get the last laugh and lift the trophy while his team plays the most boring football you've ever seen. Champions League: Final.

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