Barcelona’s 3-0 victory over Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League semi-final first leg was a feast for football purists – one of the most thoroughly absorbing games in football history, full of magnificent football and tactical intrigue and ultimately decided by instantly iconic moments of genius.
The pre-match talk was all about Pep Guardiola’s first return to the Camp Nou as opposition manager: how would he set his team up? What would he do about Lionel Messi? Would he attempt to out-Barça Barça? In the end, Guardiola stuck to his principles at the expense of giving his team the best possible chance to win.
Bayern pressed hard, kept a very high line and attempted to pass Barça to death. Their approach saw them enjoy a slight majority in terms of possession, but they failed to register a single shot on target and the ludicrous amount of space behind their defenders meant that Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez constantly looked very menacing. Were it not for two excellent one-on-one saves from Manuel Neuer, as well as two vital interventions from the keeper outside his box, it would have been a thrashing.
There will doubtless be scathing criticism of Guardiola given that he will almost certainly have bombed out at the semi-final stage two years in a row, but such attacks would be misguided. Firstly, no-one can have been surprised: when you hire Guardiola you know exactly what you’re getting. Secondly, the match would have been completely different had Bayern had the relentlessly consistent Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry, whose injuries could not have come at a worse time for them.
Without the two wingers, Bayern looked one-dimensional and were easily contained. As the below illustration of the average positions of Bayern’s starting eleven shows, only Juan Bernat could have been considered a wide player in this game.
It is slightly paradoxical that Bayern looked so unimaginative, because their approach was anything but. For the first fifteen minutes or so, they played something like a 3-4-1-2, with a back three of Rafinha, Jerôme Boateng and Medhi Benatia marking Messi, Suárez and Neymar respectively. Philipp Lahm and Xabi Alonso anchored in the middle of the pitch, Bastian Schweinsteiger marked Sergio Busquets and Thiago Alcântara and Juan Bernat played as nominal wing-backs. Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Müller acted as a front two throughout the match.
The idea was clearly to go man-to-man all over the pitch and keep Barça pinned back near their goal. The high press was extremely intense and on paper the approach was logical. Putting Schweinsteiger on Busquets was especially sensible – Guardiola knows better than anyone that the key to disrupting Barça is by marking their defensive midfielder and making the first pass out awkward.
As for Barça, they played their usual 4-3-3 with their usual Champions League eleven: Marc-André ter Stegen played instead of Claudio Bravo and the rest of the team was as expected. Over the course of the ninety minutes, they showed everything good that Luis Enrique has developed in his first season in charge.
The breathtaking footballing wizardry is still there in abundance, but bar one horrendous mistake which almost allowed Lewandowski to score, the defence was sturdy and well-protected. Furthermore, the tenacity, work-rate and hunger of the side were unquestionable. Less gutsy sides would have crumbled given Bayern’s aggression, but Barça fought fire with fire and came out on top. Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitić and Andrés Iniesta were all immense.
Perhaps the most decisive factor in Barça’s victory was their efficiency. Bayern made more passes, attempted many more tackles and made more defensive actions closer to the opposition goal, but Barça consistently did more with less. Messi and Dani Alves, in particular, were spectacularly productive.
The first quarter of an hour or so could have been disastrous for Bayern, as Guardiola’s system quickly went from looking bold and adventurous to looking naïve and suicidal. Had it not been for Neuer and some slightly odd decisions from Barça attackers, the floodgates could have opened. Bayern weren’t playing badly – not by any stretch of the imagination – they had just given themselves no cover whatsoever at the back.
Playing three-versus-three against Messi, Neymar and Suárez is very obviously a recipe for disaster. While the ferocity of their pressing and the genius of the excellent Xabi Alonso meant that Bayern controlled the territorial battle for the most part, it was simply too easy for Barça to make scoring opportunities. One mistake from a Bayern player inevitably led to Barça having a clear chance. The clearest example came when Messi flicked on a long ball from ter Stegen to create a one-on-one for Suárez, who was ultimately squashed in the battle of wits by the titanic Neuer.
As well as being unable to stop Barça from creating shooting opportunities, Bayern were finding it hard to build moves because of their lack of on-ball options. So many players were finding their workload too demanding and the lack of natural width in the absences of Robben and Ribéry was seriously impacting their circulation of the ball. Too many times Lewandowski or Müller had to pull wide into harmless zones, while the former’s link-up play in general was disappointing and forced. Bayern finished the game with only three completed passes into Barça’s area.
After roughly sixteen minutes, Guardiola switched to something between a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield and a 4-1-2-3. As with all his systems, it was very fluid and positional rotation was the key to continually creating passing options. While Lewandowski almost scored immediately, and Bayern enjoyed more and more of the ball after the change, the side’s debilitating feebleness in wide areas and its vulnerability to balls over the top meant that Barça remained by far the more threatening side.
The second half was a largely even contest, as both sides played more sensibly, moving the ball with accuracy and purpose and forming relatively deep units when it was turned over. The standard was sky-high – it’s almost impossible to remember a game in which both sides have showed such a breathtaking level of skill and organisation.
There’s a strong temptation to say it was the most enthralling stalemate football has ever produced, but to call it a stalemate is perhaps unfair: Bayern might have had the majority of the possession and controlled the territorial layout of the game, but Barça had literally all of the scoring chances. It bears repeating that Bayern finished the match without having worked ter Stegen once – something which would have seemed unthinkable at the start of the game.
Bayern’s lack of threat was due to the reasons outlined above: a lack options when in possession, the obvious imbalance due to absent wingers and perhaps exacerbated by the number of central midfielders on the pitch – something Guardiola could and perhaps should have addressed by introducing Mario Götze sooner. A further disappointment was that his side wasted all of their set pieces – an area in which they had an obvious advantage on paper. The quality of the delivery was never up to scratch and Barça were never troubled.
By contrast, Barça were absolutely certain of their collective aims and individual roles and their sureness enabled them to play with a consistent intensity that Bayern couldn’t match over ninety minutes. It seemed fitting that the opening goal came as a result of Dani Alves robbing Bernat, and Bayern’s legginess during the build-up to second goal was equally striking.
When it came to changing the game, Guardiola was hamstrung. Of his options on the bench, only Götze could have improved matters. By the time he came on it was 1-0 and his teammates were slowing down due to tiredness and being overworked. Luis Enrique’s subs were sensible and based on maintaining the high level of intensity that Barça showed.
Ultimately, Bayern’s system was too open and Messi’s brilliance was decisive. While the idea of pressing Barça and stopping the first pass out is noble, giving Messi so much space close to your team’s goal is nothing short of stupid. While it goes against everything Guardiola believes in, sides like Málaga and Celta Vigo have shown how to beat this Barça and it’s not by giving Messi absolute freedom to do what he wants.
Barça must now be huge favourites to arrive in Berlin on June 6. The third goal, scored on the counter by Neymar, surely means that the gap is too big for Bayern to bridge. One goal in the Allianz Arena should be enough for Luis Enrique, whose pragmatism has paid off enormously. And to think that four months ago he was a dead man walking...