Matthias Hangst/Bongarts/Getty Images
By Jonathan Wilson
May 07, 2015

"There is no defensive system that can stop him, and no coach either." – Pep Guardiola

That was what Guardiola had said of Lionel Messi before Wednesday’s Champions League semifinal between Barcelona and Bayern Munich, but to suggest the match simply bore that out would be too simplistic. To begin with, there was that extraordinary first 16 minutes when Guardiola played a man-marking back three against Neymar, Luis Suarez and Messi. It was perhaps the boldest, most startling defensive gambit in the history of the Champions League, and it may have consequences for Guardiola.

The former England midfielder Jamie Redknapp described Guardiola’s approach in that first 16 minutes as “suicidal,” and it is true that Barca had two fine chances in that period. In that sense, it was a gamble that failed, but you can’t help but admire the chutzpah.

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If it’s true that no defensive system can stop Messi, as Guardiola’s logic suggests, then why bother? Barcelona is used to playing against teams that pack men deep, the result of which is that most of its players have time on the ball. By leaving only three men back, Guardiola, in his first return to Camp Nou on the opposing sideline, had seven to pressure Barca, to enforce the highest and most intense of high presses. It didn’t work, but the shock might have done.

The likelihood is Guardiola only ever intended to play like that for quarter of an hour or so (just as in the 2009 Champions League final, he started with Messi on the right before switching him and Samuel Eto’o over to confound Manchester United’s marking), and knew that there was a possibility Barca’s front three would make hay in the space behind the defensive line. His judgment was that was a risk worth taking for the chance of unsettling Barca and perhaps nicking an away goal.

More worrying for Bayern was how insipid it was going forward, as it had been having conceded those two early goals in Porto. There were a couple of chances–one in the first half for Robert Lewandowski stands out–but Bayern didn’t manage a single shot on target. Worse than that was the loss of nerve having conceded the opening goal.

Messi’s first came after 77 minutes and was the result of Juan Bernat, having taken the ball past Ivan Rakitic then being dispossessed by the sharpness of Dani Alves. Bayern, having begun to counter, was caught off-balance and Messi, for the first time in the game, had space–which he exploited brilliantly.

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Perhaps if Bayern hadn’t pressed so ferociously earlier on, Bernat might not have been dispossessed so easily, and perhaps it would have reacted quicker (the corner that led to Bernat beginning to counter was itself promoted by squandered possession). Perhaps. After all, Bayern is used to pressing, even if Barca probably requires more exhausting pressing than most.

But it wasn’t a rapid turnover that led to the second goal.

It’s true that once the ball got to Messi, he was effectively unstoppable, jinking left and then right to topple Jerome Boateng before chipping the ball over Manuel Neuer. The issue is more what happened before that, Barca working a couple of angles before a simple direct pass from Rakitic. The Croatian has brought a new dimension to Barca, a willingness to get the ball forward quickly and use the talents of the front three, but still, it’s hard to understand how he had the time and space to measure a 40-yard forward pass at that stage of the game.

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At 2-0 down Guardiola seemed to decide he had no option but to risk everything on an away goal. Again, it’s easy to criticize, but the gamble had merit. Thanks to the away-goals tiebreaker, there is a far bigger difference between a 2-1 defeat and a 2-0 defeat than between a 2-0 defeat and a 3-0 defeat. The result, though, was a third goal of the sort Bayern’s approach had so nearly conceded in the first 16 minutes.

Would it have been different had Arjen Robben, David Alaba, Javi Martinez and Franck Ribery been available, or had Lewandowski and Bastian Schweinsteger been fully fit? Probably. That might be an argument for adopting a more cautious approach, but that’s not Guardiola’s way: he almost invariably takes the more attacking approach. This time the gamble went wrong, but to criticize him for gambling is to misunderstand the nature of the man.

“We lay down our arms after the first goal,” said former Bayern president and star Franz Beckenbauer, and that, surely, is the most worrying aspect of the game.

Bayern went from a creditable 0-0 at 76 minutes to a surely decisive 3-0 at full time. It wasn’t the first 16 minutes that killed Bayern, but the last 16. This is the second season running in which Bayern has failed to win any of the three games after sealing the Bundesliga title. It is, perhaps, too dominant at home, unused to being consistently tested.

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It’s that, rather than anything tactical that seems Guardiola’s biggest problem. It happened in the away leg against Porto in the quarterfinal as well: his sides get so used to winning that they lose focus. And because victories have come so early and with such ease for Guardiola in Germany–something Jose Mourinho made reference to on Sunday in his insistence that “the kit man” could win certain leagues if he was with the right club–the Champions League takes on enhanced importance.

However justified his gambles, however close–13 minutes plus injury time–he came to coming away with a draw, this season in Europe will be deemed a failure for Guardiola. Bayern, surely, wouldn’t look to move him on, but he has only a year left on his contract and the fact is that having replaced a treble-winner, he has–impossibly harsh at it seems to say it–taken Bayern backwards.

This most intense of managers has won back to back Bundesliga titles, but in the modern world of SuperClubs that feels like no more than par.

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