x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Analysis: Bayern Munich exploiting Barcelona's shortcomings in Uefa Champions League

Barcelona ignore conventional wisdom and relies too much on Lionel Messi while Bayern Munich, a side loaded with scorers, has proved to be more successful, writes Richard Jolly.

Because of the amazing scoring output of Barcelona's Lionel Messi, creators were built around him while Bayern Munich proved that a team loaded with goal scorers could be more successful. Manu Fernandez / AP Photo
Because of the amazing scoring output of Barcelona's Lionel Messi, creators were built around him while Bayern Munich proved that a team loaded with goal scorers could be more successful. Manu Fernandez / AP Photo

Revolutionaries ignore the conventional. They don't change their environment by following every rule or slavishly copying their rivals. They do so by ripping up the rule book, by formulating a blueprint that is defiantly different.

Over the past five years, Barcelona have prospered in part because they have taken an idea and pursued it to its logical extreme. The concept that possession is all-important has meant an acute emphasis on the midfield in their team. Virtually everyone is a midfielder, in terms of skill-set if not actual positioning, and passing has been prized above all other attributes when looking for players.

Some successful teams are proof that opposites attract. Barcelona have proved a meeting of minds, sharing an upbringing in Catalonia, a devotion to possession and even, in many cases, a physique, with short, slight figures being dwarfed by opponents who have nonetheless been taunted by the tiny talents.

And yet there can be a tipping point, a moment when non-conformism backfires. For Barcelona, the side who denied others the ball, let alone a chance, it may have come last week. Bayern Munich's 4-0 demolition of the 2009 and 2011 European champions was many things – a game that may have shifted a power shift in Europe, a victory for the Bundesliga, a sign theirs may prove one of the greatest seasons any team has had – but it was a triumph of the orthodox.

Like Barcelona, Bayern possess technically brilliant footballers. They know how to pass and press. But there is a clear division of responsibilities in the Bavarian team. Centre-forwards are centre-forwards, centre-backs are centre-backs and neither are converted midfielders.

As the former Manchester United captain Gary Neville said: "With their incredible possession and their incredible pressing, Barcelona have got away without [playing specialist] centre-backs. They have got such great attacking strength that they have almost played with two wingers at full-back, one centre back who is a ball-playing centre-back in Gerard Pique and a midfielder in there."

Indeed full-backs Jordi Alba and Daniel Alves double up as wingers. With the concentration of central midfielders, they are charged with supplying Barcelona's width.

Before his 2010 move from Liverpool, Javier Mascherano was seen as a midfielder. He plays at the back for Barca. The Argentine is injured; so, too, Carles Puyol, perhaps the only man who would qualify as a pure defender. Rather than buy another last summer, Barcelona chose to purchase Arsenal's Alex Song.

Unlike Mascherano, his conversion to defence has proved difficult. The callow Marc Bartra was preferred in Munich last week, but Barca's failing was not individual.

By overlooking the basics of set-piece defending and by sending in another under-sized team, their lack of aerial ability was exploited by Bayern. The sense was that Pique was expected to deal with all of Munich's capable headers – Thomas Muller, Mario Gomez, Javi Martinez and Dante – on his own.

If Barcelona's preference for the diminutive is epitomised, at the other end of the pitch, by Lionel Messi, the sense is that they have exacerbated their dependence on the Argentine.

Since Pep Guardiola decided the experiment with Zlatan Ibrahimovic has failed, the closest they have had to an out-and-out striker is David Villa, whose starts tend to come on the left wing. In short, there is no new Samuel Eto'o or Thierry Henry, two specialist scorers who were on the 2009 team.

Because of Messi's astonishing output, Barcelona have preferred to sign creators over finishers. Yet compare their squad with those of Europe's other elite clubs, and in most cases, they have fewer players capable of getting 10, 20 or 30 goals a season.

In contrast, Bayern signed the prolific Mario Mandzukic last summer, even though Gomez had just completed a 41-goal season. Conventional wisdom is that you can never have too many goalscorers. But then Barcelona have long delighted in flouting convention.

'Messi makes the difference,' says Barcelona assistant manager

Barcelona admit any chance of overturning a 4-0 first-leg defeat to Bayern Munich in their Uefa Champions League semi-final return on Wednesday depends very much on the fitness of Lionel Messi.

The World Player of the Year looked out of sorts in Munich last week as an energetic display from the hosts tore Barca to pieces, but Messi came off the bench to score and set up a second goal in Barca’s 2-2 draw with Athletic Bilbao Saturday.

Barcelona assistant manager Jordi Roura believes Messi has started to find his feet again after being troubled by a hamstring injury for the past month and said, "Messi is the best player in the world and obviously when you don’t have him you notice it. He makes the difference."


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