Following the 7-0 aggregate mauling that Bayern Munich dished out to Barcelona, it's tempting to proclaim the end of Catalonian dominance and the dawn of a new, German age. It's not that we haven't seen this side lose before. In fact, in Barcelona's six straight Champions League semifinals, they've lost four times and only really convinced once. But despite their somewhat dubious record, it was always clear that they were the best side in Europe, one whom other teams had to adapt to and take extreme measures to beat.
The club was able to bear loses against Inter Milan and Chelsea with their heads held high, knowing that it had taken plenty of luck and extreme measures to knock them out. Not this time. Bayern steamrolled them over two legs to set up an all-German final at Wembley (Borussia Dortmund were understandably less convincing against Real Madrid, but won 4-3 on aggregate anyway). Jupp Heynckes' side didn't change their plan because they didn't have to -- they just played the same football that's seen them set the Bundesliga alight this year and used it to scorch the Blaugrana.
This is the first real setback Barcelona have had on the big stage since Pep Guardiola took the reins in 2007. Despite many in the football community rubbishing the idea that this marks the end of an era for Barcelona, this result quite clearly shatters the myth of their invincibility. To make matters worse, the side that beat them are favourites for this year's Champions League title, set up superbly for long-term success and are about to employ the very manager who launched the Catalans to such dizzying heights over the past decade.
That's not to say that Barcelona won't remain a force in Europe. They're having a relatively rough season, but they're still clearly one of the continent's top sides. They can still dominate La Liga and they still have the likes of Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, Cesc Fabregas and Lionel Messi in their primes. They'll regroup this summer -- Barca aren't particularly short on cash, after all -- and we can probably expect that they'll be extending that run of semifinals to seven next year.
But merely accepting that Barcelona will remain a good team and shrugging one's shoulders represents a failure to understand what happened over the two legs of this semifinal. Indeed, it's to misread this entire Champions League campaign (and the Chelsea and Inter defeats). Here's the truth: The rest of the world is catching up to tiki-taka. And at least one of the elite sides has already blown right past it.
It's important to remember that Barcelona's possession game is essentially a crutch. It's designed to mitigate the fact that the Blaugrana defence is fundamentally unsound, allowing the side to play in almost ludicrously unbalanced fashion. All of the innovations Guardiola introduced to the side can be understood in the the light of minimising opposition ball touches; when Barca's opponents don't have the ball, they can't score goals.
Even Guardiola himself has admitted that his Barcelona had problems when not in possession:
We play in the other team's half as much as possible because I get worried when the ball is in my half. We're a horrible team without the ball so I want us to get it back as soon as possible and I'd rather give away fouls and the ball in their half than ours.
It's pragmatic and sensible, but Guardiola's genius was in selling it to his players -- and football watchers around the world -- in moral, almost religious terms, tapping into and then embedding his ideas in the club's stylish soul. When Xavi discusses Barcelona's style of play, he doesn't so much speak as preach in a delightful synthesis of controlled intelligence and manic fervour. What started as a means for Barcelona to paper over obvious cracks has metamorphosed into the cornerstone of how the team plays. The tail is now wagging the dog.
None of which would be a problem if the current incarnation of Barcelona didn't have severe and obvious flaws. They're not easy to exploit, by any means, but they are easily spotted. The insistence on holding possession high up the pitch is trouble for opposing defences, but it also opens their own side up for the counterattack.
Bayern spent much of the second leg of Wednesday's match taking advantage of Dani Alves' tendency to push up on the right wing, winning the ball through the combination of David Alaba, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Franck Ribery and then using that triangle to break at speed into the gaping hole that resulted. And the Bavarians aren't the only team to have stung Barcelona with flank-focused counterattacks. Inter followed that recipe in 2010, Chelsea did so last year, and even AC Milan looked to attack the space behind the fullbacks in their 2-0 win at the San Siro earlier this year.
But problems with the defence, positioning and even the goalkeeper aren't new, and they're normally not as severe as we saw in this semifinal. Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano missed both legs of the tie, leaving the Blaugrana starting Gerard Pique and Marc Batra at centre back. And in the second game neither Sergio Busquets nor Jordi Alba were available.
In previous years, those injuries and suspensions wouldn't have mattered -- Barcelona would have beaten Bayern anyway. What's changed?
More than anything else, it seems as though teams have picked up on one of the keys to the Blaugrana's game: Fitness. In order to play the high pressure style Guardiola implemented, the players had to be insanely fit. Most teams simply couldn't match their intensity, and they'd be wiped out from trying to chase down Barcelona whenever they were on the ball. Which was most of the time.
In 2009, Barcelona had a major advantage in fitness, even compared to teams from more physical, explosive leagues like Chelsea and Manchester United. Against Bayern over the past two weeks, they've looked exhausted. The Germans were unruffled. And in the San Siro, where it looked as though Milan had the Catalonians figured out before going to a completely different strategy and imploding at the Camp Nou, the hosts did superbly in conserving energy and forcing Barca to work much harder than they're used to to move the ball.
Take nothing away from tiki-taka: It changed football and brought its proponents enormous success over the past few years. But it's an extremist philosophy, and just like any paradigm shift in the sport, other sides have been working on catching up. Now that's starting to happen, and Barcelona are going to have to change with the times.
They can no longer afford to ignore an incompetent goalkeeper and a mediocre defensive line. Once the base is shored up, their attacking game won't have to serve a double purpose, which will allow them to play faster and take more risks. In short, Barcelona are almost going to have to move back towards a more mainstream style.
Tiki-taka is dying. Long live Barcelona.
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