FC Barcelona lost to Bayern Munich 0-3 at the Camp Nou in their group match in the UEFA Champions League last Wednesday, bowing out of the competition unceremoniously. Inter Milan won quite convincingly at the San Siro to become the second team to qualify from that group after Bayern.
The overall ineptness of Barça’s game cannot be denied. Had Serge Gnabry’s goal not been disallowed for offside, the result would have been even more shambolic for the Catalan club.
Former Barcelona great Xavi, who was appointed the manager early last season, has a formidable task of rebuilding the team at hand.
However, Barça’s defeat to Bayern was symbolic in terms of the way they conceded the goals as it underlined the inherent flaws in their system. We discuss the same at length in this article.
The tendency of Barcelona to concede from counter-attacks
Barcelona conceded the first two goals from counter-attacks as Bayern sliced through their defensive line after Barça tried to increase numbers in the opposition half. There was a common pattern that was quite unnerving for Barcelona supporters.
It has somehow been the norm of late when Barça have been at the receiving end of some clinical direct football. Bayern themselves inflicted a heavy defeat on the Catalan side during their triumphant campaign in the Champions League in the 2019-20 season.
Barça have failed to come out of the philosophy of possession-oriented football, once professed and made popular by the likes of Lionel Messi, Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o, Andres Iniesta, Luis Suarez and Xavi himself since they won the first of their four Champions League titles in less than a decade in the 2005-06 season.
However, with the quality of offensive players at their disposal declining during the last few years, Barça no longer manages to win the ball back inside the opposition half with equal elan and suffer at the hands of clinical and expeditious teams like Bayern.
Moreover, since the retirement of Carles Puyol, Barca have failed to sign a single centre-back who is capable of winning the ball from opposition forwards by fighting for it in a rugged way. The likes of Gerard Pique are lauded for their passing skills and ability to play forward balls and the veteran Sergio Busquets is quite often the deep-lying playmaker who initiates moves from his own half.
Even Barça’s new acquisitions like Frenkie De Jong are more in the mold of Busquets and prefer to create moves from behind. They have seriously lacked a proper hardman, a destroyer that can kill moves with hard tackles and proper positioning. I seriously doubt whether Franck Kessie can be the answer to that problem.
Their tendency to concede from crosses played into the box
Barça also conceded the third goal from a corner after Gnabry volleyed from Kimmich’s delivery and Pavard nodded the ball home. Gnabry could have scored more from crosses that Kimmich kept delivering into the box and had even found the net once before the official raised his flag.
Barça’s aerial defending has become a lot poorer compared to the heydays of Puyol and Pique and that was evident from Wednesday’s match.
The ability to play aerial balls into the opposition penalty box from the middle third is a very desirable quality for a defensive midfielder these days. Rodri, who plays for Manchester City under Pep Guardiola, is a striking example in this regard. Add the crossing abilities of Kevin De Bruyne and one has a team that can play direct football with the same ease that it can play the possession-oriented game.
If Guardiola, who is probably the most influential manager in Barça’s history along with Johan Cruyff, did not shy away from adjusting his approach, one can question what is stopping Xavi from doing so. The midfielders in his team like De Jong, Pedri and Gavi are all one-dimensional players in terms of playing their passes and while his front-three are really good, they cannot always win games on their own.
It remains to be seen whether Xavi opts to make some fine-tuning to his approach by keeping the essence of the tiki-taka intact. He must understand the simple fact that the likes of Messi, Ronaldinho, Eto’o, Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol, Pique, Busquets and Suarez are once-in-a-generation talents and hence, one cannot replicate the template to recreate the old magic. It is no coincidence that Barça has not reached the final of the Champions League, let alone win it, in the last seven years.