At the close of last season, people rightly hailed Bayern Munich as taking over the title of the Greatest Team In The World from Barcelona, but despite Pep Guardiola's initial success at the helm of the Bavarians, they have a long way to go before they can be anything like as dominant as their predecessors. This, after all, is a season where Steven Gerrard has been nominated for Player of the Year and David Moyes will likely be booed by the fans at Goodison Park. In football, memories are short and stories are hastily written.
It's easy to forget just how unbeatable Barcelona looked either side of the blip against José Mourinho's Internazionale, and how long that reign looked like it might have lasted. In the 2009 Champions League final, they faced a Manchester United side which had both the greatest attack and greatest defence in the world, and proceeded to blow the hairline crack between the two wide open. As well as the style which had no obvious counter, the Catalans had an unconquerable central midfield unit that simply could not be bettered -- as well as being world-class players, they had years of integration behind them -- and no amount of purchases from Manchester City or Real Madrid could hope to match them.
Combined with that, Barcelona also had the services of the world's greatest player -- again, unobtainable for any rivals hoping to overthrow them -- and a world-renowned academy which was churning out more young talents to help with squad depth. What could've possibly gone wrong?
It seems impossible to criticise a man who won a treble in his debut season and has since enjoyed almost nothing but success in his career, when the team has declined only in his absence. Yet the decline arguably started during Guardiola's tenure -- the ingredients were there to launch Barcelona to an era of unprecedented dominance, which never came to pass.
Mistakes were certainly made. The purchase and subsequent sale of Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a candidate for the most wasteful transfer in football history, one which poured tremendous resources down the drain to take the club backwards. It's debatable how much Ibrahimovic was actually misused, but he either should not have been bought at such an eye-watering price or persevered with for longer.
Being tasked with improving the seemingly unimprovable is an enviable, but still difficult task of course. Yet with questions beginning to be asked of the defence, with Gerard Pique not world-class and Carles Puyol aging, Guardiola continued his obsession with midfielders to try and reinvent the wheel, trying several midfielders in the position while experimenting with a three-at-the-back system which would allow Real Madrid to break the club's stranglehold in Spain.
During his tenure, David Luiz and Thiago Silva, actual centre-halves but hardly one-paced cloggers, were allowed to move around Europe without Barcelona getting involved despite their desperate need for defensive help. Maxwell and Dmytro Chygrynskiy were not of the required calibre for the club, while other attempts to back up the squad again resulted in poor buys -- Adriano, Ibrahim Afellay and Alexis Sanchez have all failed to live up to their fees.
Cesc Fabregas ought to have been the difference. Alongside Michael Essien, he was at the time one of the few midfielders who could've gone up against that Barcelona trio without being horribly outclassed, but instead of truly nurturing him as an heir to Xavi or Andrés Iniesta, he was instead played all over the place and eventually turned into the player we see today, unable to influence games at the highest level and reduced to racking up his tally of goals and assists in 6-1 victories over Getafe, a shadow of the player he was at Arsenal.
Another player who was misused is Thiago Alcantara -- the midfielder's raw talent should have been groomed to slot into this side as the old guard declined, but a reluctance to trust him often enough combined with his slightly more direct, high-risk style not perfectly meshing with Barcelona's preferred passing play led to his departure from the club. It's possible to think that the club's style, their near-psychotic determination to keep the ball at all costs, may have let them down in certain respects. It may win football matches, but is it worth alienating a string of talented footballers for?
In the modern era, with squad depth and rotation a necessity, teams with unique, weird and highly specific formations and systems rarely see sustained success at the highest level. The reason for this is that such teams usually become over-reliant on the players with the idiosyncratic talents required to make it work. Buying replacements or other options becomes almost impossible because the wider football world does not produce players to fit the system -- hence the failed experiments with Alex Song and Javier Mascherano at centre-back.
These mistakes were easily brushed off by the sheer excellence of Barcelona in their prime, but they have now become increasingly costly as successive managers have failed to correct them. Their defence looks leakier than ever, their midfield can no longer be relied upon to solve every problem, Cristiano Ronaldo has again surpassed Lionel Messi and an impending transfer ban may finally bring about the death of what could have been the greatest team of all time.
The blame of course cannot be even mostly placed with Guardiola, but it shows a potential weakness to his game which he will have to address at Bayern Munich. There he will have the same task of improving or successfully reinventing a dominant side. There can be little doubt about his ability as a tactician or a motivator, but as a long-term builder of a squad, questions remain. So far the club have looked slightly worse than under Jupp Heynckes in European competition, unconvincingly edging past first Arsenal and then a wretched United side in the knockout rounds. But in a year of transition, this can be excused.
It's possible, looking into the future, that Bayern's problems will mirror that of Barcelona -- a defence that needs to be upgraded and a strong core which needs to be maintained. Playing Philipp Lahm in midfield was a typically left-field Guardiola move, but whether it will prove to be a stroke of genius or utterly perverse remains to be seen. There is still a lot to learn about a fairly enigmatic coach in Bavaria, but we'll have to wait to see what becomes of his second great side to find out.