This was a timely one.
Between 2008/09 and 2011/12 we won fourteen out of nineteen possible titles. Our unprecedented success left culés worldwide elated and our head coach exhausted. While over the first half of this season Pep Guardiola spent his time carefully chosing which team he would manage next, Tito Vilanova came, saw and conquered the Liga before the winter break.
27 wins, 2 draws, and 2 losses. The question was no longer whether we would win the league, but whether we would win the triple. When Messi would score his hundredth goal of the season. How long before Xavi would get a 105% pass completion rate and if Tello could break the sound barrier. After our first game against Málaga I wondered if we were peaking too soon. I argued that we still had room for improvement. We seemed unbeatable. Unstoppable. Undefeatable.¹
Now here we are, almost exactly three months later. Our defense beaten to a pulp. Our offense stopped without getting a shot off. Comprehensively defeated. And I’m okay with that. But more on that later.
Librarian Tito spelled out VV, DA, Bartra, Piqué, JA, Busi, Xavi, Ini, Alex, Leo and P. As it turned out, Jupp Heynckes is well versed in Catalan literature.
The blame game
Offside. Rugby tackle. Run harder. Jump higher. Shoot more. Press, goddarned! When the ball comes at you, you stop it. When you’re not fit, you don’t play. And hey, when the opposing coach says he knows your team like the back of his hand, how about a little surprise in your line-up? I agree and then again I do not. Sometime after the game, Kevin tweeted the exact same thoughts I had after the game had finished:
“When your team gets beaten like that, nobody is to blame. Nobody. And everybody.”²
This was a team loss against a team win. I’m sure people have filled internet comment pages by now talking about how we didn’t play our hearts out and how we didn’t leave our skin all over the pitch. Oh yeah? Name me one player. Mmm, I thought so. Speaking of internet comment pages, if you want to blame anyone, start with ooga aga for predicting that we would win by four goals to zero. Four goals to zero is a ridiculous score.
Of course, it would not even have been 4-0 if it weren’t for the ref. It might have been 4-0 earlier, what with the hand of Piqué and all. And while Müller’s bodycheck on Jordi Alba bordered on the incredulous³, Gomez’s offside was very close. Anyway, the ref did us a favor. This is a good score for us. But more on that later.
The truth is, we looked tired. It could be that we had a rough flight. Or that we have too many first-year daddies in the team. Can you say for sure that Bayern Munich did not have bellhops in lederhosen stomping on the floors above our hotel rooms the whole night? Or maybe, just maybe, we haven’t rotated enough throughout the season.
Were we that bad, or are they that good?
There is another reason why we looked tired. though, and that reason is Bayern Munich. They ruled the Allianz arena like gladiators, spurred on by thousands of Bavarian throats. When they attacked we seemed few. When they defended they seemed many.
I said before the game that we have better players, but they (right now) have a better team. And their team sure made their players look good tonight. Schweinsteiger and Javier Martinez locked down the middle. Boateng and Dante held it down, as did Lahm and Alaba. Franck Ribery was as impressive on the ball as he was a nuisance off of it. Müller played a part in all four goals and Gomez got his, too.
The most impressive on the night, however, was Arjen Robben. For years now he has been the one I have disliked the most of all the Dutch national team players (and that’s no small feat, let me tell you). Yes, he is one of the most talented players in the world and as such I am happy that he plays for Holland, but he has that arrogance that makes me go “ewww”. That selfishness that makes me go “oooh”. That face that makes me go “dude, are you constipated?”.
So naturally when I read a story about how when the Bayern brass offered Guardiola to sell Robben and received the reply that he was quite fond of the player I went something like “huh? Pep actually likes this self-important star player who drives his teammates crazy by ignoring them every single time?”
Just let me give credit where credit is due. Robben passed, and tracked back, and dribbled, and passed, and passed, and dribbled, and defended, and passed, and tracked back, and passed, and defended, and scored the goal of the match, and then some. He has never played such a complete game as tonight, possibly the best he has played in his life. Basically, he outmessied Messi.
And although Bayern did not quite outbarça us, they definitely outclassed us. They made us look tired from the very beginning.
Barça – meet – Mirror
This season we have played six clasicos and five CL knock-out games. That’s eleven games, of which we won two: the home supercup leg against an out-of-shape M*drid and an out of this world performance against the cheapest version of AC Milan the world has seen since more than 25 years ago, the same team that had beaten us quite comfortable some weeks earlier. We drew twice against our arch rivals and lost thrice, one of which an embarassing beatdown in our own house. We were unable to beat Paris Saint Germain in two games and went through to the semis on aggregate.
Let me repeat that. We have won 2 out of 11 games.⁴
In the league we have not looked the better team in either of our games against Valencia and we only defeated Atletico Madrid after spending the first thirty-something minutes on our back feet. To make a long story short: as much as we have dominated against inferior opposition this year we have undeniably struggled against stronger opponents. To make a long story worse, they often dominated us.
Fatigue obviously plays a part. We have a nucleus of players that have gone to six straight CL semi finals. The Spanish nationals have won three consecutive international tournaments and have been flown out to Confederation Cups and friendlies all over the world. The most incredible thing is not that they are tired, but that they still look like they care about winning.
Furthermore, Kevin raised some really interesting points in this here post that did not generate a tenth of the discussion it deserved. I strongly advise you to read it and think about it. The premise is that our defense is not a problem, but that our risky vertical play leaves our defenders too exposed. There is much that I agree with there, but unfortunately I think it is worse than that.
Our risky vertical play leaves our defenders too exposed AND our defense is a problem.
If Arjen Robben of all people almost scores his second career header against you from a free kick, your defense is a problem. In the eleven games I mentioned above, we conceded from six set pieces.
If you don’t replace Carles Puyol or Eric Abidal with players of similar defensive skill and physicality, your defense will at some point suffer as a consequence. And yes, I realize the sheer impossibility of replacing what have possibly been the best two defenders to ever defend our colors. Of course, if you expose that defense with a high risk strategy, a quality opponent will take advantage.
Equally worrysome is that in a lot of those games the high risk strategy has left us vulnerable on the defensive end of the pitch without adding potency to the attack. Against smaller teams it pays off, because we can always count on scoring more goals than our opponents. But in Munich we barely created chances. Likewise in San Siro and at home against M*drid and PSG.
Not only did the risk not pay off, it hasn’t given us all that many benefits to begin with. The big teams have found us out, and we need to figure out what’s next. How? I don’t know. We need to restore the balance. Neymar might be part of the answer, but only if we are patient. Victor Valdes departure might prove difficult, but he is not irreplaceable (again we must be patient). And whether we do so by rethinking our team strategy or by direct replacements/reinforcements, we need to figure out how to fix the defense.
Almost just as difficult as chosing who we buy will be who we let go. I won’t get into that right now, because I am not a big fan of knee-jerk reactions⁵. What I will say is the following: I am not all that upset about this loss. It’s football. It’s the semi-finals. We are up against an excellent team. And I prefer to lose by four goals than by one. I’d rather be humiliated now than to scrape through to the finals and lose to a better Real M*drid. And a 4-0 loss will make us a better team than a 1-0 loss. A team for a new era.
End of an era
Some fans never doubt their team. They will believe that their team will win it all, until mathematically impossible.
I am not one of those fans. I believe Barça will always have the possibility to win, until mathematically impossible. But I doubt we will go through to the final. And I’m okay with that.
Some fans say this Barça is not done. I agree. Always. Pundits and journalists will speak of the end of an era. I also agree, although they are wrong. The era ended when Pep left and we surrendered the league to M*drid while finding infinite ways of not putting the ball in Chelsea’s net. Between 2008/09 and 2011/12 we won fourteen out of nineteen possible titles. No club will ever match this.
They will talk about the end of an era that has already ended. This season we have started a new one and we are starting it by winning our league. By getting Tito back from his fight against death. By the return of King Abidal. By being forced to improve upon what is no longer the best team in the world but in my opinion still the most talented. I do not only believe that this is possible, I believe that we will. I believe we will keep adding to our trophy cabinet over the next years. I believe that we will be the best again, and if not, that’s okay.
A couple of weeks ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine, a lifelong Internazionale fan. He asked me what was up with Barça. I told him we have the most beautiful club in the world, to which he replied, “the most beautiful, but not the best.”
That is fine by me. Visca F.C. Barcelona, the most beautiful club in the world!
¹ We were to draw and lose the next two matches
² Yes, dear reader, we do think alike every now and then. Oh, and it’s @kevvwill and @barsalev
³ First of all, what, exactly, is the fifth ref’s job? More importantly, Jordi Alba never fully recovered emotionally from that foul. Even though it made me giggle, I feel it is a disgrace how he threw the ball into Robben’s face. We have attracted a lot of haters over the last couple of years by winning gracefully. We should regain some respect by remaining graceful when we lose, also.
⁴ During the first half of the season (up until jornada 19 against Málaga) we won 83.7% of our games. The second half up until now? 45% winning percentage. Against top opponents throughout the season? 18%
⁵ Unless the jerk is Mourinho’s face and the knee is, well, somebody’s knee. Then I’m all for it.