There was an air of fatalism preceding Wednesday night’s Champions League semi-final first leg clash between Barcelona and Bayern Munich at Camp Nou. The feeling first descended upon Pep Guardiola’s throwing of lavish praise at the feet of his former pupil; Lionel Messi, during his Tuesday press conference. Speaking of Messi, Guardiola said: “Defending with nine in your area or 11 pressing high…there is no way to stop him. He is too good…there is not a system or a coach to stop talent of this magnitude.”
Coming from a tactical fundamentalist such statements seemed shockingly defeatist. Guardiola’s strategising is well-known; his attention to detail in dogged pursuit of victory are what has made him such a fascinating coach to scrutinise in the past few years, in success or failure. Of course, his failures have been few, but they have each provided plenty to ruminate over. Last night, his return to Camp Nou ended in humbling defeat. There wasn’t even an away goal; that crumb so desperately sought from the table of loss, to provide hope ahead of next Tuesday’s second leg. The result will ultimately be looked upon as a failure on Guardiola’s part.
Prior to the match, many considered the different systems Guardiola could utilise and the various unique roles he could ask of certain players in order to spring a surprise. Bastian Schweinsteiger was a possibility to play up front, especially with the uncertainty surrounding Robert Lewandowski, but ultimately the German veteran assumed his usual midfield position. The intrigue was instead provided by the decision to start Rafinha; an attack-minded Brazilian right wing-back, as a left-sided centre-half in a 3-3-2-2. Guardiola’s chosen system was a bold statement of intent; one that predicated a start so open it was almost comically inconsistent with the supposed tradition that being that football played out between the best, at the latter stages of competitions, necessitates greater caution.
It was a riveting combination as a Barcelona honed by Guardiola and adapted by incumbent manager Luis Enrique to include a colder, more dynamic edge faced up against a Bayern Munich side whose dynamism has arguably been tempered by Guardiola since he took charge nearly two years ago. Yet, Guardiola’s startling decision to opt for a man-to-man approach was a mere flirtation; after 20 minutes, he switched to a 4-1-3-2. Rafinha was placed in his customary right sided role and Bayern attempted to overload the midfield.
The German behemoths had their successes. Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski pulled wide to attack the space vacated by Barcelona’s own attacking full-backs and in doing so proved problematic, but there was very little end product. With regard to this, it must be noted that without Arjen Robben’s scything presence Bayern’s attack is a little less penetrative. Otherwise, they competed with their hosts and Guardiola appeared to have got it right. Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be bestowed upon his tactical plan is that, for approximately one hour and 16 minutes, he made us forget the very words he had spoken on Tuesday afternoon. We shouldn’t have. His balls-to-the-wall approach to visiting Camp Nou was in itself a continuation of the primary theme he had laid down before the match.
There was a subtle degree of resignation surrounding Guardiola’s aggressive setup. Like a fighter going out on his shield, he decided to slug rather than run. The mentality reflected what Guardiola already knew and, furthermore, what he had already publicly discussed; that any fight with Barcelona is a battle against the inevitability of Messi. It’s more often a case of when, not if, the Argentine will land a killer blow. Instead of dodging those attacks, Guardiola and Bayern attempted to walk through them. It was refreshingly idealist but, in the end, it was futile.
The warning shots had already been fired. Messi had tried to outdo Manuel Neuer from range on a couple of occasions before he unleashed a perfectly placed left-footed strike to open the scoring on 77 minutes. Neuer verbally lambasted his teammates who had so carelessly allowed Messi the slightest of opportunities to exploit space. Within minutes the score had doubled. Played in by a beautiful Ivan Rakitic pass, Messi victimised Jerome Boateng with a turn that left the German on his backside before dinking over Neuer, reducing a commanding goalkeeper to fodder. Such instances from the pocket conjuror almost alleviate tactical discussion. Messi’s is the kind of talent that visibly threatens the football analysis industry, defying systems and styles; transcending opinion. If it makes Guardiola feel helpless, what chance do the rest of us have of comprehending how to negate it?
Bayern were eventually overwhelmed by their negligence in the face of clear danger. Starting in a more defensive format would only have invited greater pressure, though perhaps they should have adjusted following the second goal and attempted to ensure a closer margin of defeat, one that would have been easier to overhaul come the second leg. In this sense, Guardiola will face fair criticism of his tactics on Wednesday night, but at least he stuck to his guns. He knew what he would and would not be able to control when he devised his plan. The system he used may not have been correct, but in a more holistic sense he was right; there is little any team can do to stop Messi.