You may be forgiven for not noticing Mario Mandzukic much in Bayern Munich’s 1-1 draw at home to Arsenal, a 3-1 on aggregate that helped the defending champions move into the last-eight of the Champions League.
But in full flight over the weekend, the Croatian netted another double. His half-hour cameo appearance proved to be a masterstroke from Pep Guardiola, a sight that has become common with the striker appearing from the bench when the coach is looking to add some potency in attack.
|| Dinamo Zagreb
Wolfsburg were giving Bayern a run for their money, the high-pressing and high-intensity style making life difficult for Guardiola’s side. But it was the physical presence of Mandzukic and his movements across the frontline that helped Bayern gain possession in advanced positions.
Yet, while Mandzukic has scored 31 league goals in 46 matches over his two years in München, his future still looks uncertain.
In the summer, Robert Lewandowski’s arrival will boost Bayern Munich’s lineup even further. The Polish forward will follow former teammate Mario Götze in leaving Jürgen Klopp’s fold to join the Bayern juggernaut.
“Mario was at the top but he’s no longer the type of striker that’s in demand,” former German international Mehmet Scholl had told German TV earlier this year. “Lewandowski’s the perfect striker for Bayern Munich. He’s like a false-nine and others put together.”
But Mandzukic will need to be content with Guardiola’s rotation policy, perhaps. Lewandowski’s arrival will probably mean less match-time for the Croatian with the Dortmund forward closer to the ‘Guardiola template’ which looks at positional rotation, demanding pressing and controlled use of possession.
Mario was at the top but he’s no longer the type of striker that’s in demand
“Sometimes you need a number-nine striker to come on and break some walls down,” former Eintracht Frankfurt striker Jan Aage Fjortoft told Al Jazeera. “Guardiola perhaps didn’t realise he needed that kind of a striker. Bayern Munich will love having both of them.
“Claudio Pizarro will leave and you need more than one type of striker. Bayern have had so much success from using the squad they have.”
While Lewandowski has sat at the apex of one of the more aesthetically pleasing teams to watch in Europe for the past two seasons, it does not necessarily confirm the Pole’s superiority to Mandzukic.
The two have varying strengths: Lewandowski securing possession while holding a lethal finish under pressure. Whereas, Mandzukic’s raw pace, stamina and impressive lateral movement in attack are quite unique characteristics in comparison to other ‘elite’ strikers.
Under Guardiola’s predecessor Jupp Heynckes, Mandzukic was imperative in making the team function as efficiently as any Bayern team ever has done. His goals were important but his all-round effort brought an extra gear from Thomas Müller - himself recovering from a barren year previously after his breakthrough season - then the likes of Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben who have excelled in wide positions.
That is one of the biggest contrasts between Heynckes and Guardiola - the German preferred stability and team cohesion on the pitch while Guardiola , has proven to be comfortable using a rotational strategy depending on each situation.
Guardiola and Mandzukic have seen their relationship cool since the former Barcelona coach declared his ‘love’ for the player in the first half of the season. He even told reporters how the player was the ‘best penalty box striker in the world’.
Despite the admiration, Mandzukic was dropped for the first match of 2014 at Borussia Mönchengladbach – prompting varied messages from Bayern’s hierarchy. Several weeks later, following Bayern’s 5-0 thrashing of Eintracht Frankfurt, which, perhaps, is still their most complete and dominant performance thus far, Mandzukic was lauded for his efforts.
Unsurprisingly, one of the teams reported to be considering a bid for Mandzukic in the summer was Arsenal. It seems a plausible move for Mandzukic but it remains unclear how much Bayern will want to play ball with a potential European rival. The control could lie, however, with Mandzukic, if he decides to buy into Pep’s philosophy, or looks to actively create a move elsewhere.