Barcelona lost 7-0 on aggregate to Bayern Munich. Being blunt, they got blowed the fuck out. It was no contest from the initial touch. Their defeat was stunning, comprehensive and emphatic. It happened on a grand stage. In the immediate aftermath, we must invest it with value beyond its competitive worth. It thus heralds the “end of the Barcelona” era, when such is a sentiment, is, doubtlessly, premature.
The Catalans have been to six straight Champions League semifinals, a record. They have a 27-2-4 tally in their domestic league, which they lead by 11 points with five matches remaining. They are averaging a two-goal win margin per game. Barcelona feature the world’s consensus best player. They have had at least two of the three finalists for the Ballon d’Or four times in a row. This is not the nadir. If it is, well, it is great to be Barcelona.
Bayern Munich may be superior regardless, but Barca were not at full strength. They are not the strongest defensive side — when you hold the ball the entire game and press well there’s no need to be — and were decimated by injuries. Carles Puyol was out. His backup Javier Mascherano was out. Eric Abidal, another option, was just coming back from a liver transplant. In fine fettle, they are vulnerable to quick efficient counterattacks. Against Bayern they were weak and vulnerable through the air. The German club attacked ruthlessly.
Oh, and that Messi guy was hurt. Barcelona may be too “Messi dependent.” But it’s hard not to build your team around the guy who scored in 19-straight league games this season. Once you do so it is impossible to replace him. We suspect Bayern might be better in a vacuum, but not 7-0 better.
Messi, in fact, is the crucial point in this discussion about an “end of an era.” He’s hardly at the end of his. The Argentine has a career’s worth of accomplishments. He could retire tomorrow and be the greatest club player ever. He’s also 25. Coming off four straight world player of the year seasons, he may have, conservatively, another three or four years of top play before the sunset. He has scored 216 goals in his last 202 Primera Liga and Champions League matches. That sort of tally will keep you relevant in every competition you enter.
Not all is perfect at the Nou Camp. There are issues, just really ridiculously rich club issues. One is transfer policy. The funding has been there. It could have been used much better.
Barcelona spent $23 million on Alex Song last summer. They got…Alex Song. They summer before they spent $92 million on Alexis Sanchez, a bust thus far, and Cesc Fabregas who, despite ample “Barca DNA” has not meshed with the team.
The year before that was $28 million on Javier Mascherano, converted from the world’s best midfield stopper to an adequate backup defender. The year before that it was $140 million on Zlatan Ibrahimovic (lasted one disappointing season before being sold at a huge loss) and David Villa (aging, injured and not quite fitting in). Before that it was $18 million for Alex Hleb, a complete waste. Before that it was $25 million for Thierry Henry, when he was injured and began to decline.
One will notice a few trends. Barcelona (a) make ill-considered, expensive luxury buys (b) get outfoxed by Arsene Wenger and (c) do not buy central defenders. Consequently, they have a thin squad, reliant on the Xavi, Iniesta, Messi triumvirate staying healthy. The squad they do have has a lot of jigsaw pieces which, though beautiful on their own, are misshapen. They overcome this waste because Xavi, Iniesta and Messi are that awesome. The underlying flaws are irrelevant, against all but the best opponents. In the semifinals they played, perhaps, the best.
There appears to be a subtle funk bedding in as well. Nothing is glaring. There’s just a missing punctiliousness. Their pressing has seams. Their tempo can be meandering. Their passing can get drab and predictable. As with so many great teams, confidence has become “confidence they can turn it on when they need to.” Maybe it is complacency and boredom. Maybe it is the Pep Guardiola vs. Pep Guardiola’s No. 2 difference.
Some form of shakeup may be worthwhile. No one, save Ian Wright, is suggesting they start bringing the ball wide and lumping it into the box. It might be time for a new manager. It might be time — sacrilege, I know — to consider phasing out a soon-to-be 34-year-old Xavi. Slightly more direct play would suit Fabregas, Sanchez and possibly Villa if he does not leave (and potentially spare them getting run over by Generation Germany). Dropping more wads for Neymar or Mats Hummels would be nice, but does not address the underlying problems.
Barcelona were embarrassed and shell-shocked against Bayern Munich. But terming it “the end of an era” may be too strong. Barcelona were unfit and unfortunate. One must also remember: the Champions League can be fluky and send false signals. An insipid, aging Chelsea team dispatched both these teams en route to the trophy last season.
[Photo via Getty]