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The usurpers of Barcelona

Barcelona take on Juventus in the Champions League return round. (PHOTO / JAVIER SORIANO)
Roar Pro
29th April, 2015
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1821 Reads

The Barcelona brand is well known given their stunning exploits of the last decade.

Short passing, endless short passing. Lionel Messi providing the genius touch. They tried the whole ‘More than a club’ angle too, but after Qatar put their faces on their shirts that didn’t wash anymore.

The modern German brand also became more famous after their raucous 7-1 victory over Brazil at the 2014 World Cup.

It’s harder to describe than the facile Barça clichés, but here goes. Spanish-like possession combined with smart movement, as well as some steamrolling forward direction applied when necessary, ironically most often applied by the non-German Arjen Robben.

These classic incarnations squared off against each other two years ago in the 2013 Champions League semi-final. Bayern Munich over two matches overwhelmed Barcelona 7-0.

So how, then, did they end up playing each other’s game?

The seeds of the switch were sown in 2013 and 2014. The Barça coach who had largely devised their style and reaped their success, Pep Guardiola, took an exhausted sabbatical that first year and shopped around gauging which club desired him on his return.

Everyone wanted to upgrade to the postmodern Guardiola and wallow in the undoubted benefits, but the only organisation methodical enough to impress him was Bayern Munich. At the end of the 2013 season, Bayern would wave goodbye to their old coach Jupp Heynckes and Guardiola could begin sprinkling his stardust around.

Similar to what happened with Collingwood and Mick Malthouse, Bayern didn’t factor in that at the very end of his run, Heynckes created a scintillating team that had power, precision, skill, solidity, completeness.

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In 2013 Bayern swept Europe and arguably played the most dominant Champions League season in history, encapsulated by the above 7-0 victory over Barça.

Yet for Heynckes, it was time to go.

When Guardiola began the next year, he took the pace and precision out of Bayern’s game, turning them into a new version of Barcelona: pure passing. He also imported some Spanish players to complement this: new Barcelona starlet Thiago Alcantara and later the more prosaic Xabi Alonso.

He in effect exported the Barcelona essence to Munich.

The critics at first purred. Bayern passed rings around their opposition in Germany, playing in Barcelona’s style from 2012. But that style had actually been the beginning of the end of the great Barcelona team, who completely forgot about aiming for goal in the midst of all the lovely passing moves.

The same thing happened to Bayern Munich in 2014. Real Madrid kept it more real in last year’s Champions League semi-final, ramming Bayern 4-0 in Munich. Bayern passed and passed but could not find a path into Real’s penalty box.

Barcelona’s game had only been as effective as Messi’s ability to finish it off, a tool that Bayern lacked.

Meanwhile, across Europe…

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Barcelona had tried continuing their passing game in 2013 and 2014, but without Guardiola polishing their complacency they became an ineffectual team. Their style changed this year with the purchase of forward Luis Suarez, a name known, admired and reviled world-over after his 2014 World Cup.

It’s not Barça’s style to feature solid centre-forwards, preferring to play zippy attacking midfielder-types up front instead, such as Pedro and Alexis Sanchez. They had experimented a classic forward in Zlatan Ibrahimovic in 2010, but that had ended badly, Zlatan leaving the club completely embittered. Signing Spanish World Cup hero David Villa the next season had also, inexplicably, not worked out.

But Suarez seems too mobile and skilful to fail. He has altered Barcelona, turning them from a team of midfield pondering to one with a dynamic forward structure of three South Americans who rotate around each other and are an unstoppable, buzzing, penetrative force. Brazilian Neymar on the left, Uruguayan Suarez in the middle, and Argentine Messi nominally on the right.

For the first time since 2009, Barcelona’s focus is less on the Xavi-Busquets-Iniesta passing and more on the kill-or-be-killed forward line. They don’t mind hustling the ball up fast to let the forwards do the work of winning matches, rather than the slow midfield control they used to be about.

The 2015 Champions League semi-final is therefore nominal Barcelona versus Guardiola, who transplanted the idea of Barcelona to Bayern Munich.