Eat, Pray, Support

Here is a Bayern preview courtesy of Peter, who often holds forth in the comments, section. I couldn’t have said it better, myself.

“The pitch is very, very wet in places, particularly in the centre circle. There’s been no rain in Munich all day, just an over-zealous groundsman with a new sprinkler to play with. Pedro is the latest, but not the last, to slide over.”
“Could Bayern have over-watered their pitch to obstruct Barca’s passing game?”
“This pitch is very very splashy. Cheeky Germans.”
“The pitch at the Allianz Arena has been perfectly prepared for a water-polo match.”
“On a pitch that showed signs of being heavily watered…”
BBC Live commentary and report,
2012-13 Champions League semi-final,
23.04.2013 Allianz Arena, Munchen.

I’ve often wondered why we culers are such a pessimistic bunch overall. Maybe it’s because of some superstition that whenever we aren’t our humble selves but instead voice our jubilation and certainty of victory the way other fans tend to do, some sort of capricious deity clad in boots and shorts slaps us down to show us the error of our ways. Maybe it’s because we realize that victory, draw and defeat are all sides of the same coin, that in the grand ledger of history you can draw and lose, lose and win, draw and win, win and win or even win the encounter, but lose overall. Some victories are exacted at such a price as to render further triumphs impossible. Maybe we know that whatever goes around, comes around.

Two years ago, on a pitch deliberately converted to a swimming pool, facing a group of injured and exhausted players led by a manager who was fighting his (eventually lost) battle against disease, Bayern defeated Barcelona. Helped by a lenient ref, who overlooked Barça players being kicked into submission, who overlooked fouls and offsides, Bayern inflicted the most terrible defeat on Barça. It was humiliation, a stomping on the fallen, a merciless and pitiless one-sided encounter. And Europe cheered. Europe cheered and applauded, because the hated Catalan team was finally brought down in a convincing way. The wounded pride of English, Italian, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian and Dutch champions was finally avenged, finally the hated “UEFAlona” was beaten to a pulp. And even if it was by the feet of another, that proxy victory tasted sweet.

Two years later, this defeat remains as a bitter memory, a shackle that seems to belittle every success, magnify every adversity, a scarecrow and bogeyman to frighten culers when they get too uppity. The size of that elimination, like the number of “200-proof penalties” that Ovrebo didn’t give against Barça, has grown exponentially and blown up like a balloon during those two years, to the extent that there are people who watched the match and swear that Barcelona lost the away leg 7-0. We cannot forget, and even if we did, ill-wishers basking in the misery would conveniently remind us. It became for many the ultimate sneer, the best riposte. Don’t get too uppity cule, lest you get another deserved beating. Favourite Barcelonista soft drink, the “Seven Up”. “You had your 15 minutes of glory, now put on that pointy hat, go stand in the corner and be ashamed of yourself.”

And in a leap of misguided objectivity or sheer blindness of which I too was part, many of us embraced the hostile narrative that labeled the season a failure based on that single result. It didn’t matter that La Liga was won with a record-setting points total, distance to the second-placed team and goals by a single player. It didn’t matter that Barcelona had set such a tempo that after just four months of competition the “Special” coach of the greatest rival said “La Liga is lost.” This is the reason, for the most part, why the best player in the world did not get the recognition he deserved and instead the title went to the guy who scored four against Sweden.

That season didn’t become the season of “La Remuntada”, when Barça completed a feat statistically impossible in the Champions League. That season should’ve been the final legacy of the man whose name the training pitch of the first team bears. And we forgot that. We became entitled, expecting and demanding not just titles, but trounces. Our pride and bragging rights were censured.

It was even more difficult last season, but in a way I think and hope, it was an act of exorcism. La Liga was lost at Camp Nou by the same thuggish, relentless team that stopped Barça in the quarter-finals, and Camp Nou had to applaud them. We had to shed our pride and entitlement, like a sweaty shirt that feels uncomfortable. We drank the bitter cup of defeat but I think and I hope, even though the entorno and the weekly crises constantly try to prove me wrong, that we learned not that we should be ashamed of ourselves, but that we should learn to appreciate the taste of victory and never take it for granted.

So we come to this. Fate, whim of the football gods, Providence, Destiny, I don’t know, but there are so many threads, so many histories intertwined together in this semi-final. When you check the stats, Bayern and Barça right now cannot be any more equal, even getting down to the general coloring of the shirts, abbreviations, possession … Both teams have Germans, Spanish, and Braziliian players. Both teams play attacking football, both like building from the back and there is extensive usage of flanks and bombing fullbacks, players playing or being capable of playing in more than one position, a defensive midfielder playing as a CB, a ball-carrying DM who drops back between CBs to receive and bring the ball forward, wide CBs. The list can go on. In a way, Bayern is like a distorted mirror of Barcelona.

This is where the similarities end, however – Bayern’s coach is considered innovative, an artist constantly looking for the next great idea, for the next way to squeeze talent from a group of VERY talented players. His schemes have been as varied as his lineups. If you check encounters from this season, Bayern have employed six different schemes in the Champions League and ten (TEN!!!) schemes in Bundesliga. Luis Enrique, on the other hand, has generally stuck to a 4-3-3, and whenever he didn’t, fans and media saw it as a mark of being clueless.

Bayern operate with a very high line, keeping the players in one single block, which facilitates both passing and pressing. Skillful passers are vital, because they mean penetration. A difficult or bold pass can catch the opposing defense napping and that destabilizing first pass opens other lanes as the opponent scrambles for a response. That single joined block of lines also means that the team can defend together by passing the ball and keeping it away from the opponent. This system is not without deficiencies, of course.

As we very well know by now after watching countless matches in which the opponent drops back and forms another block that rejects possession of the ball, while the ball is passed around, that system has its deficiencies. It needs alternatives and modifications. In Guardiola’s case those are not modifications, but perhaps refusing to be bound by the system if that would mean not using the full potential of the players. What am I talking about? Aerial play.

Bayern have more than their fair share of tall, physical players. There are 11 outfield players of Bayern who are six feet (1.83m) or taller and four who are 1.9m or taller. In Barça that count is six and two, respectively. What this means when facing Bayern is that they can create lots of danger in the box and that even the presence of tall players can mean that a shorter player can ghost in unmarked and score (Thiago’s first goal was from such a header).

Bayern’s height also allows them to create second-ball danger, claiming a cross or a lobbed ball, which lets them direct it towards where a waiting striker will be. For Boateng’s goal against Porto, Lahm took a very short corner (less than a meter) to Thiago, who launched the ball on a very steep trajectory, landing it precisely on jumping Badstuber’s head to be guided to where Boateng was going to rise. The scheme involved change of direction and took ruthless advantage of Bayern’s height. This is more visible in the Champions League, where Bayern has scored six headers from 30 goals, whereas in Bundesliga that count is 11 from 77. Lewandowski has scored two, Boateng, Thiago, Rode and Badstuber have scored one each – and apart from Thiago they are all defenders.

As said earlier, Bayern rely on flank play a lot, utilizing Ribery and Robben, but also Lahm, Bernat, Rafinha and the young player Weiser. Against Porto, who lacked their starting fullbacks and were using a CB and backup players, Bayern had full control of the flanks and created lots of danger from that area. Their game was meticulously prepared and created space by misdirection and switch of direction of the play. For Thiago’s goal Gotze brought the ball to the goal line, then brought it back and left it for Bernat while he moved back, confusing the Porto defenders. The result was that three Porto players were around Gotze, not knowing which player they were to mark and marking neither, while the CBs of Porto were focused by the ball movement and not marking Thiago, who ghosted between the two from behind their back.

The result was that the two key players in that play, Bernat and Thiago, were left completely free to act. The second goal, as said, resulted from height advantage and switch of play, the ball going left towards the far post, then right towards the near, where Boateng waited. Porto left space on the flanks, and Bayern exploited it with Lahm, who mostly unopposed started launching crosses. Players getting the ball in the center switched it immediately towards the wings, from where it could be returned.

Bayern also employ quite a lot of cutbacks, which is another form of switch of direction. Basically the wide attacker races towards the goal line, then cuts back towards the zone in front of goal. False runs on the far post drag defenders, which means that when the cutback comes, there is often a free striker coming from the second line to receive that pass and shoot unopposed. Those penetrations are more successful with Robben and Ribery, but with Lahm, Gotze, Rafinha and Bernat Bayern have lots of backup potential.

However, those are schemes designed to overload a stubborn opponent. The usual way in which Bayern overcome opponents is by fast-paced pass and movement, the positional play, juego de posición for which Pep’s Barça was known. Against Barça I believe that Bayern will try to use another Pep tactic, pressing, asphyxiating pressing of the midfield to force turnovers and probably take advantage of space in Barça’s half. It may require numerical superiority in midfield, because apart from contesting the ball, Bayern will need to shut down the channels left and right, where the trios Alba-Iniesta-Neymar and Alves-Rakitic-Messi operate.

How can Bayern be defeated then? One weakness of the high line and solid block is that it leaves lots of space behind the defense. On occasion Bayern has played so high, that there is no way to set up an offside trap. When Wolfsburg defeated Bayern 4-1, it was through counters, and for one of those goals the Bayern defense was ten meters in the Wolfsburg half, which meant that when De Bruyne got the ball almost at the centerline, he was on side and was uncatchable. Another way, which Porto showed, is through pressure to create forced errors and turnovers against Bayern defenders. For that to happen the whole team has to defend and press, so that there are few passing options and the ball-carrier can be attacked from multiple directions. This is one reason why Barça’s defenders need to be proficient with the ball, so that they can pass under pressure and build up from the back. This is also why Pep is using Javi Martinez as a CB whenever he can.

A key thing to consider will be stamina. If either or both teams decide to press, they will need rested legs. In that aspect Bayern have it a bit more difficult overall. Since last international break the missing starters meant that Guardiola had to employ often the same players in different positions. The German Cup matches against Bayer and Borussia were both decided after penalties, which meant additional minutes and fatigue accumulated.

Lahm has played 669 minutes including the full game vs Dortmund, but he was rested against Bayer on Saturday. Bernat has played 645 minutes, including 120 vs Dortmund and 120 vs Bayer, and he rested against Bayer. Rafinha has played 760 (120 Dortmund and 120 Bayer), Dante 660, Boateng 642 and Benatia 272. From the midfielders Xabi has played 584 including the two full 120 matches, Thiago has played 473 minutes after coming back from his long injury, Schweinsteiger 312, Gotze 654 and Muller 702 minutes. Lewandowski has played more than anybody else, 780 minutes. Pep Guardiola rested all his undisputed starters against Bayer in the weekend, and that may give us a clue as to who will play today. Boateng, Bernat, Alonso, Lewandowski and Muller all missed the game, whereas Benatia and Thiago were subbed in for Javi Martinez and Lahm after just over an hour.

In comparison, Luis Enrique’s fitness and rotation regimen lets Barça come in the game with a bit fresher legs both in terms since International break and overall. From the players who aren’t Messi, Neymar and Suarez, Alves has played the most, 672 minutes. Alba has 414, Pique 630, Masche 510 and Bartra 180. Mathieu was discarded from the squad due to Achilles tendon discomfort, but were he available, he would’ve played with 430 minutes in his legs. In midfield the situation is eye-raising. Only Busquets has more than 500 minutes, 640. Rakitic has 450, Xavi 390, Iniesta 408. It is only in attack where Bayern are fresher, with Messi having played 810 minutes, Neymar 794 and Suarez 757. Furthermore, the whole of the “Gala XI” played a full game in the scorching heat of Cordoba. That could’ve caused fatigue, even though in the second half of that game, as in quite a few before, Barça lowered the tempo and emulated Messi, walking mostly, with a few jogs and the occasional sprint when it was necessary.

Before I give you my lineup, we should remember that the match is 180 minutes, Bayern have nothing else to play for, and Guardiola plays much better at home – this season Bayern drew 0-0 against Shakhtar before winning 7-0 at home, lost 1-3 away to Porto before they defeated them 6-1 at Allianz Arena. A lot would depend on the form of the players, but I believe Pep will still come out with his best eleven. Javi Martinez has played a single 63-minute game, but at the same time he was the undisputed starter for Guardiola. Guardiola will need a mobile defence capable of playing the ball and bringing it forward, and for that both Alonso and Martinez would be great. I also believe that Lahm may return to the RB spot with Thiago or Weiser in front of him. The midfield in this case would consist of Thiago, Muller, Scweinsteiger and Gotze, not necessarily in that order. Thiago and Gotze would be providing both creativity and stamina in a midfield that needs to block the trios Alba-Iniesta-Neymar on the left and Alves-Rakitic-Messi on the right. Javi Martinez in defence would provide the ball-carrier that is Alonso currently, letting Alonso the task of marking and pressing Busquets and the rest of the Barça midfielders.

Possible lineup: Neuer; Lahm, Boateng, Javi Martinez, Bernat; Alonso; Thiago, Muller, Schweinsteiger, Gotze; Lewandowski.

Now that I have bored you to tears, if you have even managed to reach the end of this post, there is something I’d like to share, which may piss off a lot of you, and something to ask you.

Sport fans sometimes are illogical. Espanyol fans stand up and applaud as rival player Iniesta is being substituted, then boo and whistle as the greatest Spanish (Espanyol, geddit? 😀 ) midfielder walks on the pitch. As I typed this, Bayern’s coach, who as if by some cruel joke of fate looked exactly like a slightly aged Barça Legend Pep Guardiola, was in the press room of FC Barcelona explaining in accentless Catalan that Bayern will have to wrestle possession from Barça. He wants to win.

The Bayern midfielder bearing the name of Xavi’s heir-apparent Thiago Alcantara, he’s coming to win. They are the coach and player of Barça’s rival, men who will do their utmost to defeat Barça. They will not step on the Camp Nou pitch to give hugs, but to try and direct that defeat. Pep Guardiola is the great Barcelona coach that brought us lots of joy. He is to be respected for his Barça legacy. But that Pep Guardiola lives outside the walls of Camp Nou, outside the invisible walls marked by white lines, that separate two worlds – the football world and the outside world. On the green carpet inside, Pep Guardiola is not present. Instead, there is the heir of Jupp Heynckes, who was coach of Bayern back in 2012-13. Thiago is not present, there is the successor of Kroos. In the football world on that green carpet, those two are to be defeated.

Today is the 6th of May. In my distant land of Bulgaria today is the day of St. George. In Catalunya he is known as St. Jordi and his symbol, the red cross on white field is on the shield of Barça. Six years ago on this day Iniesta scored in added time against Chelsea.

So, my culer brothers and sisters, eat, eat a hearty meal because we will need the energy required. Do your pre-game rituals as you always do. Don the shirts and the shawls and the hats. Prepare the flags, so that you can be recognized.

Pray, pray with all your hearts like the countless culers who have probably visited Les Corts to pray for victory.
But above all …

Support. Support as you have never before, support our team till your great voices go hoarse. Support not just for yourselves, but for those who are no longer with us. It’s time.

Here we go.

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Written by:

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

74 Comments

  1. Chiu
    May 6, 2015

    – Amazing game from our team! If it wasnt for Neuer, the tie would be over by half time.

    – Pep was so brave playing with 3 man backline, which proved to be inccorect decision. So many spaces for our forward and the large gap between bayern last defense line and goalkeeper to exploit. Suarez and Neymar 1 on 1 chances hould have been a goal if they dont have world cup winning goalkeeper like Neuer

    – Messi! Messi! Messi! He knew when he has to take over the match and win it for us. His first goal resemblance of his goal vs Man United in 2011 CL final, quite identical with him beating the goalkeeper in the near post with full speed and powerful low shot.

    – His second goal was just orgasmic. Boateng and Neuer have no answer and that chip was ridiculuously beautiful. I dont know how difficult it is for profesional players to dink the ball when dribbling full speed in tight space, but Messi have been scoring so so many chipped goals in his career. Never seen a player that did it so easily and score with that trick since I watched football from WC 1994.

    – The first goal from Messi open up the whole Bayern structure (that actually was already fragile from the first minute) to hunt the away goal. Right after the first goal, we could felt that the next goal would come as more space provided for our forwards as consequences of Bayern charging offensively. Then Messi magic came to seal the deal.

    – Neymar third goal was just the authorization of Bayern goodbye letter from this competition. Realistically, 3-0 is a heavy loss in CL semifinal, esp againts fellow European giants. They need a huge effort to beat us with more than 3 goals in Allianz. And the statistics in the history of this competition rarely seen such a comeback, below 1% probabilty/occurences I bet. And we are not Porto.

    Visca Barca!

    • Inamess
      May 6, 2015

      Thanks Chiu. Agree all around. This game was like a condensation of the last seven years of the club’s history. It is a game that will never be forgotten because of its importance and the fact that it had so many story lines.

      Most importantly it finally brings an end to Barca fan’s obsession with Pep and Thiago. Tonight our belief has been further solidified that we asre ready to embark a new era of greatness, not obsess about one that is now gone and can remembered fondly but with the right distance and perspective.

      Finally, I think for cules we no longer need to have the burden of debating Messi’s greatness. I don’t care about some silly arbitrary World Cup rule that doesn’t even make sense. Should we go on to win the treble, Messi solidifies his place as the greatest player of all time and all arguments that attempt to deny this fact are based on bias or nostalgia.

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