Bayern has a tendency to pop up at seismic times for FC Barcelona.
One style of play has reached its end of life? There’s Bayern. The most powerful front three in the game need a showcase? There’s Bayern. A team is reeling from a managerial change and is a psychological mess? There’s Bayern.
And now, having just lost its talismanic superstar, a new president who is steering the club through debt the size of a small nation’s GDP, almost every forward crocked and manager and president sniping back and forth like an old married couple, who else would hove into view at the Camp Nou except Bayern.
But this time is different. And even as the culer default is doom and predictions of a hammering, reflex is too often facile. In thinking about the two teams, it’s far from outside the realm of possibility that Barça could get a result tonight.
To start, Bayern isn’t the team it was for that 8-2. Neither is Barça. The former is diminished, the latter isn’t as big a punk. Barça is also more talented and potentially lethal than many consider. And just as Bayern’s strengths hit the Barça weaknesses, the reverse is also true.
Barça is a better team, defined as a unit, than when Messi was in the XI, even as no group of players is better without the best player in history. The way Barça played was tailor made for Bayern to wreck. The ball oozed out of the back to Busquets, who oozed it along to someone, who fed Messi, who danced and looked and then dumped it off to someone who was like, “What am I supposed to do with this?” Control Messi and you controlled Barça. And over time it became increasingly easy to control Messi.
I would love to see this match with Fati and Dembele fit. But as it stands, the likely options for Koeman is some combo involving Depay and some other folks. A truly daring Koeman would roll out Depay, De Jong and Coutinho, three players who, along with an active Frenkie De Jong and Pedri, present a very different set of possibilities with many different points of attack. And that is against a Bayern defense that ain’t all that, and hates playing against shifty, quick, creative players.
Mark it down: The better a match Frenkie De Jong has, the better a result Barça will acheive. He’s the wild card, that space in the center of the pitch that used to be occupied by a titan is suddenly open, a playground. Get runners moving as De Jong drives the ball and things get quite interesting.
The flanks are where Bayern is strongest. And for all the people who snarked about Semedo in that 8-2, the same might have hapoened to Dest. Or worse. Neither Barça fullback is up to the task. How Koeman solves that dilemma will be fascinating.
Sergi Roberto at right fullback spells doom. Mingueza would be a much more viable option there. He’s bigger, stronger, more active and physical. He’s also a defender first, who attacks the ball. The whole idea, so beloved by many, of two winger/fullbacks bombing forward just isn’t viable. Mingueza solves many problems. Attack? You don’t need it from that wing. Keep the ball, stop the ball when they have it, and don’t do anything stupid.
Speaking of stupid, Koeman would be to start Pique. Or Lenglet. No trauma in the XI. But I wouldn’t start Alba either. Man folds like a house of cards under the slightest pressure. Sadly, Koeman will start Alba and that will be a worry.
Barça’s midfield, the place I’d like to see Sergi Roberto, is a lot better situated to play against Bayern at present. De Jong is more mature and confident, Pedri can keep the ball in a hurricane and Busquets, AS LONG AS HE DOESN’T HAVE TO MOVE, is a bulwark. Possession, even negative possession, will be crucial against Bayern.
Also a point of interest is that Barça is back to defending with 11. When they last faced Bayern they were defending with eight or nine. Messi and Suarez were all but useless, and Alba was caught up pitch so much he might as well have been a forward. With this team, everyone defends. It’s a notable, refreshing difference.
On paper, this is a mismatch. But matches aren’t played on paper. Barça have the tools necessary to get a result, especially if key players are at their best, notably (in addition to De Jong) Depay and Araujo. If Bayern score first, it’s going to be a looooong night. Zeroes at the half, or a 1-0 Barça kead and it’s game on.
What would be my XI if I was Koeman?
Ter Stegen, Mingueza, Araujo, Garcia, Busquets, Sergi Roberto, De Jong, Pedri, Coutinho, De Jong, Depay
Load up the midfield, let Depay dance, feed De Jong, who has the height and game to compete with the big Bayern defenders, and see what happens.
Now we all know that Koeman won’t do that. Alba will be there and so will Pique, and there will be worry.
Speaking of Koeman, he isn’t the greatest manager in the history of the game. Duh. But Christ off the cross would still have a limited squad, stuffed with past it players and kids. There isn’t any magic here. Does a Tuchel or Klopp do things differently? Possibly. But with what players? Barça right now has a limited squad. A different manager slides the deck chairs around, but the team is still a ship trying to slide past icebergs until the rest of the crew comes aboard.
We can all wish Koeman was more tactically adept and flexible, more capable of making match-changing subs, etc, etc. But we had that manager and we wanted him out as well. Then we got the Cruijffian purist who should have been left to stroll the countryside. Now we have Koeman. Best choice? Far, far from it. His allegiance to youth is notable. But if Barça lose to Bayern as form and talent dictate, it won’t be because of Koeman. Sorry.
Managers make lineups and players play matches. There are formations and tactics and notions, but when the ball is kicked it’s essentially marbles in a bowl reacting to other marbles. Players have to perform.
Upsets happen for lots of reasons: fluke goals, one or two talents performing beyond expectation, an opponent performing below expectation. Barça getting a result against Bayern would be an upset, to be sure. But not a massive one. Why? Because our team doesn’t suck as much as we like to believe.