Munich – Reaching the considerable heights of last season was never going to be an easy task for Pep Guardiola and his FC Bayern München team, particularly in the UEFA Champions League.
However, with Bayern sitting comfortably at the top of Group D with maximum points from three matches, it's safe to say that Guardiola's charges have every chance of becoming the first team to retain the trophy they won at Wembley back in May.
With three victories and a goal difference of plus ten, the Bavarians have enjoyed their best start to a group stage in the club's history. So far, only Paris St. Germain FC and Real Madrid CF have scored more than Guardiola's team, who could well have added to their current tally of eleven in their 5-0 win over FC Viktoria Plzen at the Allianz Arena.
Things weren’t looking quite as rosy at the same stage last season, though. On Matchday 2 of the 2012/13 group phase, Heynckes’ team slumped to a 3-1 defeat at minnows FC BATE Borisov, but made amends with two hard-fought victories over LOSC Lille and Valencia CF. With only six points and a goal difference of zero, qualification to the knock-out stages was hardly a foregone conclusion.
In 2013/14, however, Bayern are making steadier progress, and that is down in large part to their defensive improvement. At this stage last season, Bayern's opponents had managed 26 attempts at goal, seven of which had found their way past Manuel Neuer. This time around, Dante, Jerome Boateng and Co. have restricted their opponents to 19 attempts at their goal - fewer than any other team - while only Manchester City FC’s Alvaro Negredo has beaten Neuer so far.
Guardiola’s side have also improved at the other end of the pitch. No other team has had more shots than Bayern's 77, who are pulling the trigger from all areas of the pitch. Their increased attacking threat owes an awful lot to Guardiola’s new system, which centres around quick passing between the forward players, high pressing and careful ball retention.
The Bavarians are certainly doing a fine job of keeping hold of the ball. Only eight per cent of their passes have gone astray so far this season - compared to eleven per cent last campaign - while their overall possession has gone up from 58 per cent to 67 per cent. Statistics such as these are likely to strike fear into the hearts of Madrid, FC Barcelona and the Manchester clubs, to name but a few.
Bayern have the chance to improve on those numbers when they travel to Plzen on Tuesday evening. Should they win in the Czech Republic, the Bavarians will equal Barcelona's current record of nine straight Champions League victories set during the 2002/03 season. There is, perhaps, one glimmer of hope for their opponents: Guardiola's team have won only 53 per cent of their tackles this season, compared to 56 per cent under Heynckes. Nobody's perfect.
Michael Reis / Matthew Howarth
Check out Mario Götze's first ever league goal for Bayern, courtesy of the Bundesliga's official YouTube channel: