By Liviu Bird
May 12, 2015

Pep Guardiola stayed true to himself on his return to Camp Nou for the first time as an opposing manager, even if it didn't work out the way he envisioned. Even a gutsy win in the second leg at home couldn't do it for Bayern Munich, as Barcelona rode a 3-0 first-leg win to a 5-3 aggregate victory in their Champions League semifinal.

The decisive first leg was one of the most memorable matches in recent tournament history, dripping with tactical intrigue. Barça ended up winning an attack-minded game after Bayern controlled a good chunk of the match in Spain.

Guardiola spent the week of build-up trying not to attract attention to himself, even waiting until after the anthem to walk alone down the tunnel and straight to his seat in the away dugout at Camp Nou. But once the game started, he unleashed another gutsy tactical permutation against the team that used to benefit from his crazy ideas, such as playing Lionel Messi as a false nine.

This time, it was a surprising high-pressure scheme that featured one-on-one marking from his Bayern team weakened by injury. The three-back system served as an informal tribute to Marcelo Bielsa, one of Guardiola’s major coaching influences, but not even El Loco would try his luck against Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez without a free man in the back.

The system lasted just 15 minutes, but Guardiola’s intent was clear: he wouldn’t go down without a fight against the club that formed him. The most plausible way to stop Messi is to prevent service to him, which Bayern tried to do by keeping the ball as far away as possible while looking for a vital away goal.

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The forwards pressed Barça’s center backs, the midfielders matched up against their direct adversaries and Mehdi Benatia, Jérôme Boateng and Rafinha were left to handle Neymar, Suárez and Messi, respectively. It also allowed Bayern to match Barcelona’s numbers in the middle and wrestle for central superiority, a staple of Guardiola’s philosophy.

In theory, the plan was both bold and fairly rational.

Bayern’s defenders could likely handle most opponents in the world in this fashion—but after goalkeeper Manuel Neuer had to snuff out a couple dangerous chances, it was obvious it wouldn’t work against Barça.

Guardiola adjusted to a back four but also kept four in the middle. In the battle for influence, Bayern would not drop back to absorb pressure, instead still looking to match or outnumber the opposition in the middle.

As a result, Bayern kept the match as under control as an away team could expect at Camp Nou, playing vertically whenever possible and taking it to Barcelona. In response, Barça manager and Guardiola’s former teammate Luis Enrique moved Messi farther centrally, trying to get the magical Argentinian on the ball.

For most of both matches, Messi played tucked inside, looking for space between and ahead of Bayern’s defensive lines. He partnered with Dani Alves and Ivan Rakitić, who rotated into the right-wing spot. That gave Barça the lead in the first leg, as Dani Alves won the ball off left back Juan Bernat not far outside the Bayern penalty area.

Messi bent a shot inside Neuer’s near post, and Bayern’s control slowly slipped away.

Three minutes later, he added another with a legendary run that left Boateng on his backside and a delicate chip that nestled into Neuer’s net. (In the second leg, Benatia and Boateng swapped sides, taking Boateng farther away from Messi.)

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In a series featuring two maestros holding the conductor’s baton for their teams, individual talent pushed Barcelona over the top. Messi, Suárez and Neymar took over again, delivering the season’s most important victory in the first leg and doing enough in the second to secure a trip to Berlin for the final. On the other end, Guardiola couldn’t compensate for missing the cerebral David Alaba and dynamic wingers Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben.

Luis Enrique deserves credit for bringing the best out of his top three. He found a way to keep the tenets of Barcelona’s free-flowing philosophy in place, while also focusing the team’s efforts on getting the ball to their feet.

When Guardiola managed Barça, he focused on freedom in the midfield. That’s why Messi’s false nine role worked so well, allowing him to pull into the right spaces with perfect timing to create and finish attacks.

Now, the front three interchange at will and play with the knowledge that those underneath, in particular Rakitić, Andrés Iniesta and the fullbacks, will balance their runs in attack. Defensively, Barça also maintains a successful high-pressure philosophy; Benatia’s seventh-minute goal in the second leg was the first time the Blaugrana conceded in 645 minutes of play in all competitions.

Messi still usually plays underneath the top line of attackers, as he did during Guardiola’s tenure. Instead of looking for space centrally, where Xabi Alonso roamed for Bayern, Messi often focuses his movements in the right-side half-space, even with the lateral border of the penalty area.

Neymar’s first goal of the second leg came from that space, as Messi received deep and played a ball through Bayern’s back line for Suárez to square for the easy tap-in. The goal came just eight minutes after Bayern scored, reinforcing that it wouldn’t be as easy to overturn a deficit against Luis Enrique’s men as it was against Porto a round earlier.

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In another facet of Bayern’s evolution under Guardiola, the Bavarians held a high line throughout the series, trying to push players into the attacking half. It burned the team on both goals conceded in the second leg, again because of the high-powered trio in Barcelona’s front line.

Guardiola and Bayern stuck to their attacking style throughout the tie, including in the second half of the home leg when it seemed to be all but over.

They scored twice in the final 45 minutes, taking the final aggregate score to a respectable 5-3.

After what he called “the biggest [failure] of my life as a coach” a year before, losing 5-0 at the same stage to Real Madrid, it’s no surprise Guardiola implored his team to throw everything forward. He believed an all-out attack gave his team the best chance to win, conceding a third goal after clinging to a possible away goal even after going down a pair.

He failed again, but pundits’ declarations of insanity would undoubtedly sound a little different had he pulled it off this time. As Guardiola’s idol, Bielsa, famously put it, “A man with new ideas is mad—until he succeeds.” At least against Barça, Guardiola brazenly stuck to his beliefs and didn’t deviate for the opponent.

Moving on to the final, Barcelona should be favored over either Real Madrid or Juventus. Neutralizing the three-pronged attack of Messi, Suárez and Neymar has proven nearly impossible this year, and the team is in excellent health and spirits after enduring a mini-crisis of chemistry and results early in the season.

Tuesday’s loss in Munich marked just the fourth time in 32 matches since the New Year that Barça failed to win. It hasn’t needed an overly complicated tactical set-up to find success this year; when the top three take over a game, they just can’t be stopped.

Sometimes, it’s as simple as that.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)