In the first leg of last night's Champions League semifinal, the world witnessed a coup that was anything but graceful. For Barcelona, it was painful, tragic, vaguely horrifying. It was violent. After five years of undisputed domination, Barça were not allowed to simply fade away, to retire back to Spain. Over a 90-minute period, they were beaten, it seemed literally at times, up and down the pitch, dominated by an unbreakable, unstoppable Bayern Munich squad hellbent on staking their claim as the best team in the world.
Throughout the 4-0 loss to the Bundesliga champions, all of the Spanish kings' flaws, both real and imagined, were laid bare. Too small all over the pitch. Incompetent in the back. Downright incontinent when defending set pieces. Vulnerable on the counterattack. A one-man team. A thinning squad that can't sustain injury. Too many clones on the bench for any true tactical change. A predictable attack. A lack of desire. A shadow of their former selves.
But to focus solely on Barcelona wouldn't do justice to Bayern. The home side were quicker, stronger, deeper, meaner, everything Barcelona aren't or couldn't be. In one word that hasn't been used for a Barça opponent in years, they were better.
Even before the match, it was obvious that the German club would pose a tougher challenge than anything Barcelona was accustomed to. Bayern won their league title in March, and have been playing perfect soccer all year. They've lost one game in 30, and only conceded 14 goals all season. After easily handling Italian champions Juventus in the CL quarterfinal two weeks ago, they outscored their next three domestic opponents 16-2. They have the world's best defense, and an elite midfield and attack. And they were playing at home.
Bayern countered Barça's 4-3-3 and strength in the midfield with their own malleable 4-2-3-1 that packed tightly toward the center when the Spanish side had the ball, and expanded again when Bayern recovered. It was a tactic PSG and even AC Milan used against Barcelona in earlier rounds, with some success. But Bayern have the personnel to perfectly put theory into practice.
Wingers Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben dropped off without the ball and pinched in, tracking Barcelona outside backs Jordi Alba and Daniel Alves to deny them the flanks or in behind Bayern's strong back line. Defensive midfielders Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martínez also stayed tight centrally without the ball and essentially played Barcelona man-to-man. Schweinsteiger did well to deny easy entry balls to Lionel Messi by occupying the space in front of the Argentine striker, the way a defender would front a power forward in basketball. Martínez shut down the energetic Andrés Iniesta. Xavi dropped off, collecting passes just in front of his back line with defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets, who was occupied by either Bayern forward Mario Gomez or attacking midfielder Thomas Müller. Red jerseys clogged holes, and Barcelona began choking their own space in an effort to play.
Of course, this is the game plan every club at least tries to use against Barcelona. But one thing was immediately obvious. Generally speaking, there's no accounting for Messi, who when healthy is quick, strong, and technical enough to dribble through an entire defense by himself. It's fine trying to play compact, but when three defenders get taken out of the play by one man, others have to slide over, which leaves holes over for Barça's wingers and midfielders to exploit. But Messi was still clearly hobbled from a hamstring injury. He didn't have the explosiveness to take on or beat Bayern centerbacks Dante and Jerome Boateng, who was brought on for his pace. Messi, the spearhead of the Barcelona attack, had to drop deep into the midfield to get the ball, clogging the middle and robbing the team of depth. So Barcelona turned the ball over more often, and closer to their goal than they normally would. And when they did, instead of trying to pass through the Spanish team, Bayern played direct passes, picking out Ribéry, Robben, and Gomez with driven balls to bypass the logjam in the middle and exploit the weakness on the flanks and in the central defense, where due to injuries to Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano, Barcelona manager Tito Vilanova elected to start mainstay Gerard Pique alongside an inexperienced Marc Bartra.
Bayern Munich should've been on top after two minutes, when Javi Martínez, enough of an athletic freak to defend and charge forward in the attack, got behind Barcelona's back four after a leading pass from Robben. He then backheeled it back to the Dutch winger, who ran by a lackadaisical Alves to get the ball free just outside the six. Robben's shot, though, was saved by keeper Victor Valdés.
Thirteen minutes later, Barcelona, pinned inside their half, tried a direct ball to Sánchez on the left flank, but Bayern right back and captain Philipp Lahm stepped in front to intercept, carried the ball 10 yards, and unleashed a fierce shot that looked like it had a chance to go in before it collided with Pique's arm in the box. The ref, however, swallowed his whistle.
The first goal came in the 25th minute, in the way it often does against Barcelona: off a set piece. This is the problem with having so many short players on the pitch at once. At some point, no matter how technical they are, they'll have to defend an aerial ball. A corner kick swung across the box and then out to Robben on the right wing. Robben floated a cross into the 6-foot-2 Dante on the back post, who was being marked by the 5-foot-7 Alves. Instead of placing the free header on goal, Dante directed it back across goal to Müller, who was standing alone on the near post completely forgotten by Pique. Müller headed the ball home to take the lead:
Too small. Bad marking. Couldn't clear the ball. These problems aren't news, but Barcelona generally overcome them. In the Champions League, though, against an in-form Bayern Munich, their flaws would be a death sentence.
When analyzing Barcelona, there are some hard truths. No matter what happens, the opposing team will never come anywhere close to dominating possession, because Barcelona is the best passing team with some of the best passing players in the history of the world, and they also keep the ball in order to defend. But in spite of only having the ball half as long as the Spanish giants, Bayern outshot Barcelona in the first half. They had more shots on goal, and more corner kicks. They even fouled more, which can be an indication of their players getting stuck in and tackling. This was—as much as the term could be used against a team that held 65 percent possession—a beatdown.
Somehow Barça were only down 1-0. But Bayern doubled their lead on another corner kick four minutes after half. The ball was swung into the back post, where 6-foot-1 Müller and Alves were waiting. Müller outjumped Alves and headed the ball across goal to Gomez, who was loosely marked by a ball-watching Pique:
Barça defend without men on the posts, so on the replay it looked that Gomez was offside. But...too small. Bad marking. Couldn't clear the ball. The second goal was almost identical to the first, and the same Barcelona defenders let their team down in the same ways.
At 2-0 down with 40 minutes left to play, it was time for Vilanova to earn his wages. It was time to make a change, maybe to shore things up in the back with Eric Abidal, who had trained his way back onto the bench, or bring on fresh bodies like David Villa or Cesc Fábregas to give the team an inspired spark. After all, one goal would have Barcelona right back in the tie, with an away goal as well. But no substitution came.
Barça pressed harder and higher, but Bayern weathered a couple chances and exploited their Spanish opponents over-stretching in an effort to score. Müller, Robben, and Ribéry received the ball multiple times in space or one-on-one. Müller consistently found himself with the ball, acres from the closest Barça defender. Robben, and Ribéry spent much of the second half doing whatever the hell they wanted on the flanks. It was a mismatch, one that can't be overstated, because it won't be fixed in a week.
Robben finally got his goal in the 73rd, when he received a pass on the right side of the box and went one-on-one with Alba. He stepped over the ball and beat Alba to the end line, just as Müller leveled the defender with a blindsided pick. It was an obvious foul, but wasn't called. Robben composed himself, shifted the ball to his left, and tucked the ball in the lower left corner of the net.
The third goal probably shouldn't have counted, but the fourth looked like it should have come on a training ground. Schweinsteiger controlled a ball at midfield, then dribbled with pace 25 yards at the Barcelona back line, who had dropped off. The defensive midfielder committed Sergio Busquets, then slid the ball to Ribéry running to his left. Ribéry ran at Bartra, then dumped a pass to left back David Alaba, who had bombed 60 yards down the flank to be available for the overlap. Alaba took a touch then fired a low cross across the face of the goal to Müller, who'd gotten inside Jordi Alba to tap home his second.
It was rec league shit, the kind of attacking play teenagers learn to do against cones. Only after that did Vilanova make a lone change, Villa for Pedro. Seven minutes later, Bayern Munich had won 4-0, and barring a miracle, will be through to the Champions League final.
The question, of course, is what Barcelona can do now after being manhandled. Short-term, they'll have to pour in four, or more likely six goals next week at Camp Nou. Because down 4-0, Barça will have to rely on an all-out 4-3-3 or the even more vulnerable 3-4-3 formation to cut into the deficit quickly, and Bayern should score on counterattacks. No team has ever come back from a 4-0 deficit, but few teams are as prolific as Barcelona at home.
After that, who knows? They don't need to blow up the team, though their five-year dynasty as the undisputed kings of the world is over. They'll still win trophies. They've won La Liga this year. But they haven't beaten Real Madrid since August. Only Messi's genius got them this far in the Champions League. And only the most ardent Barça fan would say they're a better team than Bayern Munich.
Meanwhile, if Bayern hold on, it'll be the third time in the last four years they've advanced to the Champions League final. They'll only be stronger next year, with ex-Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola, German superstar-in-waiting Mario Götze, and surely others joining in the summer. Last night's match was a changing of the guard. Bayern Munich's time is now, and only getting started.