The End of the Era: The Fall of Barcelona, and the Ascendance of Bayern Munich

In 2011, FC Barcelona were hailed as the greatest team in the history of club football. Under Pep Guardiola’s command, Barca has reached the pinnacle of club football: two Champions League victories in three years – a pair of utterly dominant wins over Manchester United in Rome and Wembley; three consecutive La Liga titles; five straight victories in El Clasico, including 6-2 and 5-0 thrashings at the Bernabeu and the Camp Nou. Barcelona had scored more goals, conceded fewer, seen more possession, made more passes, more scoring chances, more shots, and more victories than any other team in Europe. Led by the incredible talents of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Sergio Busquets, David Villa, Carles Puyol, Dani Alves, and Victor Valdes, Barca were the gold standard of football. Under Pep Guardiola, they won fourteen trophies out of a possible nineteen, and formed the core of the Spain sides that won two consecutive European Championships and the 2010 World Cup. They surpassed the Dream Team of Cruyff, and were discussed seriously as the greatest club side in the history of football.

No more.

Barcelona went to Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena and were comprehensively beaten. It wasn’t just that they lost, it was how they lost. It was that Bayern Munich completely destroyed them. It was that it ended four-nil and could have been more but for a few chance misses from the Bayern offence, the first time Barcelona have lost by such a margin in Europe since November 1997 (to put that in perspective, most of the contributors to this blog were in Kindergarten at the time). For ninety minutes, Bayern Munich completely dominated play, shutting down everything Barcelona had to offer. Even Messi – the greatest player in the world by a considerable margin – was found wanting, rendered irrelevant by the ultra-aggressive pressing unleashed by Javi Martinez, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and the Bayern back four. Arjen Robben and Frank Ribery were devastating on the wings; they outplayed, outmuscled, outran, and outscored the Barcelona fullbacks Dani Alves and Jordi Alba. For so long the greatest team on earth, Barcelona were found wanting against a Bayern Munich team that now has a superior claim to dethroning the Catalan giants: Bayern Munich claimed the Bundesliga title in a record number of games, look strong favourites to demolish whatever poor suckers they hit in the German cup final, and continue to win games on the trot without looking as if they are exerting significant effort.

The last time Bayern Munich and Barcelona met in the Champions League, the result was very different. On that night at the Camp Nou in 2009, Barcelona ran riot – scoring four goals in forty-five minutes from the rampant front line of Lionel Messi (2), Samuel Eto’o, and Thierry Henry. That slaughter was the beginning of Bayern’s rebuild, a clarion call of the need to reconstruct the team from scratch – a project that paid off fittingly tonight by the same scorline. This was more than a game: this was revenge. Revenge for the German loss to Spain in the 2008 Euro Final, vengeance for the defeats of Bayern Munich, Schalke, and Bayer Leverkusen at the hands of Barcelona in the past four years, payback for Germany’s semifinal loss to Spain in the 2010 World Cup. Tonight marked the end of Barcelona’s era, and likely the ascendance of Bayern Munich as the greatest club side in Europe. Even as a Barcelona fan, I could not help but applaud Bayern’s utter dominance as I sat – stunned – in the Georgetown Pub at the end of the game. And Bayern will only get better: Mario Goetze – the pinnacle of Germany’s new crop of youth talent – was bought today from Borussia Dortmund for 37,000,000 Euros, while Josep Guardiola’s reign begins this coming summer. The age of Barcelona has ended; the reign of Bayern Munich has begun.

Specific Talking Points from the Game

1: Barcelona need to buy a Centreback. A new-look Gerard Pique and a young Marc Bartra were totally unprepared to deal with what Bayern threw at them. Dani Alves was caught out again and again by the movement of Frank Ribery, while Jordi Alba simply couldn’t contain Arjen Robben on the flank (even though the third goal was almost certainly a foul). The defense was shambolic and makeshift at best. This has been a problem for Barcelona for some time – Carles Puyol is prone to injury and aging, and Adriano “glass for knees” Corraea is a consistent liability on the flank. Barcelona has to buy a committed and reliable CB this summer. Not another midfielder, not Neymar, not another false fullback – a proven Centreback like Mat Hummels (Borussia Dortmund) or Marquinhos (AS Roma). Pique and Bartra were repeatedly cut to pieces by Bayern’s rampant offense tonight. This isn’t a new phenomenon either – Real Madrid did similar in the consecutive 3-1 and 2-1 Clasico wins in February and March. At the height of the Guardiola era, Barca could get through games simply by out-scoring the opposition (sure you concede three, but you scored eight, so who the hell cares?) As defenses get smarter and buses get parked more frequently, that won’t cut it for Barcelona anymore. Their defense needs to improve.

2: Alexis Sanchez. Has Barcelona ever bought a more useless player? Even Zlatan Ibrahimovic managed to score 24 goals while fighting constantly with Pep Guardiola in 2009-10. Tito Vilanova’s decision to play Alexis Sanchez on the wing rather than Spanish international David Villa backfired enormously. To describe Sanchez as “useless” is to give him too much credit for his contributions tonight. Were I the Barcelona President Sandro Rossel, I would pay Juventus or AC Milan to take him. Any one of the contributors to The Armchair Sports Society would have brought more to tonight’s game than Alexis Sanchez did. He cannot be gone from Catalonia soon enough.

3: Bayern’s wide-players are the best in the world: Arjen Robben is often criticized (justifiably) for his selfish play and over-willingness to take on defenders unnecessarily, but this was his European best game since his utterly insane volley against Manchester United in 2010 put Bayern Munich through to the UCL semis. His passing was solid, his finish against Victor Valdes for the third sublime (even if Thomas Muller fouled Alba on the approach). Frank Ribery was dangerous the whole game, while Lahm repeatedly tormented Barca’s wingers and fullbacks. Their depth on the flanks is incredible – Toni Kroos’s injury in the quarterfinal against Juventus actually seems to have made them better.

4: Tito Vilanova is appalling at substitutions: This has been a consistent problem for Barcelona this year. It took Vilanova until the 78th minute to substitute Pedro for David Villa. By that point, Barca were down 3-0 and being totally dominated on the pitch by Bayern Munich. It was the only sub of the night, and it was too little, too late. Villa should have come on fifty minutes earlier – in my own view, he should have started. Substitutions are meant to change the game at a key moment, and that simply hasn’t happened with Vilanova this entire season. Though Tito is a decent manager, he is far behind the likes of Vicente Del Bosque, Pep Guardiola, Cesare Prandelli, or Antonio Conte when it comes to the impact of his tactical decisions regarding substitutions.

5: Bayern are rather good. But seriously, have you seen them play? Bundesliga title with a record number of wins and record number of points. They routinely crush opposition with their third-string teams, and are looking set to win the easiest Treble in European history. With the purchase of Mario Goetze, the incoming reign of Pep Guardiola, and the largest transfer budget in Europe (Pep is rumoured to have been given 282 million Euros to play with over three years), I wouldn’t bet against Bayern Munich to become the first side to win back-to-back Champions League titles. I feel bad for whoever has to face them in the final – even if it’s Real Madrid. Watching them dismantle Barcelona tonight was humbling, to say the least. There are not enough ways to describe just how thoroughly Bayern Munich destroyed Barcelona.

6: No really. Barcelona actually have to buy a CB. This cannot be said enough times. Gerard “occasionally a Centre-Forward” Pique, Javier “not actually a CB” Mascherano, and the promising but young Marc Bartra are simply insufficient to deal with a team that has the attacking power of Bayern Munich or Real Madrid. Not every problem can be solved with the application of more midfielders.

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