It’s billed as Pep Guardiola’s return to his spiritual home, but when Bayern Munich visit Barcelona on Wednesday, the big surprise may be how significantly both sides diverge from the fundamentals of the Catalans' renowned footballing philosophy. Not only have Barcelona changed in Guardiola’s absence, but the renowned coach has been compelled to develop new strategies in the wake of a severe list of injuries.
Guardiola had grown up at Barcelona and upon returning as coach in 2008 he perfected the club’s long-held possession and pressing style to deliver two Champions League titles and in the minds of many the greatest team of all time. But his exit in 2012 left an ideological void stemming from a lack of direction from the highest echelons of the club. Now under Luis Enrique, despite him being a long time teammate of Guardiola and his successor in charge of the B team, Barcelona are far less beholden to the style implanted on the team by Dutchman Rinus Michels and his disciple Johan Cruyff.
There is now far more of a direct element to Barcelona’s play than there was under Guardiola, with the team willing to go from back to front much quicker. It means Barcelona are now a fearsome counter-attacking threat, with their defense more resolute than has often been the case in recent years. But more than being attached to any particular style, Enrique’s Barcelona are a team centered on simply maximizing the effectiveness of their three star forwards.
Enrique certainly deserves credit for the work he has done in balancing the team and realizing that fielding legendary duo Andres Iniesta and Xavi together in the same lineup against top-level opposition now presents a liability. Yet it is the individual brilliance of Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar that means Barcelona are on current form the rightful favorites to win the Champions League. All three would be the superstar of almost any other team in the world, but have adapted their roles for the collective good. That has been most striking with the greatest player of his generation, Messi.
The Argentinean’s understandable desire to be the focal point for Barcelona at the center of the attack had begun to develop into something of an issue for the team. But he has met Suarez’s arrival last summer and perhaps his own altering physical gifts, by moving into a wider role to open up space for the former Liverpool man through the middle. Not only has he done that, but Messi has also adjusted to differing match situations by drifting into the middle to become an orthodox playmaker on occasion. Incredibly, while moving away from goal and becoming far more involved in the team’s buildup play, his scoring rate remains obscene. In 50 appearances this season he has 51 goals. Together, Messi, Neymar and Suárez have 108 goals in all competitions and are on course to break all sorts of records.
The primary task for Bayern is how to go about stopping them, something that, at least in the case if Messi, Guardiola doesn’t believe is entirely possible.
“If Messi is in top form, no defense can stop him,” he said during his press conference on Tuesday, reports Uefa.com. “There's is no system to stop Messi. He's too good. You just have to try to limit him in another way - stop the ball reaching him, but even then, you can't stop him.”
Yet while Guardiola also said that scoring an away goal was key, he has doubtless been working all hours since the draw was announced devising a scheme to shutdown Messi and Co. Often overlooked because of the exceptional quality of the players at his disposal at Barcelona, Guardiola is one of the game’s all-time great thinkers, meticulously developing tactical schemes to conquer the opposition.
Still, at Barcelona and at his first season at Bayern his deliberations were mostly done through a framework that his side must dominate the ball with short passing and high pressing. But he was left scarred by the manner of defeat to Real Madrid in last year’s Champions League semifinals, as the eventual champions tore through Bayern on the counter-attack for a 4-0 win at the Allianz Arena.
The desire to never see a repeat of that night has arguably made Guardiola more pragmatic, but so has a desperate injury crisis. Bayern will not be meeting Barcelona on a level footing, thanks to injuries that rule out the team’s two key attacking players over recent years -- Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery. It could yet be worse, with Robert Lewandowski still a major doubt after breaking both his jaw and nose last week.
Bayern can still field a side that would be the envy of most clubs across the world, but they do not have the attacking weapons to go toe-to-toe with Barcelona. Thus Guardiola’s greater flexibility could now come to the fore. Against Borussia Dortmund in a Bundesliga meeting a month ago, Bayern played with three center-backs, sat deep and hit a startlingly high number of long balls.
It may not be a dissimilar approach at the Camp Nou. And there is the possibility that Guardiola may rush Javi Martinez back into big-game action at the heart of a back three, just four days after playing his first minutes in nine months at the weekend. While Barcelona play less deliberately through the center of the pitch now, Bayern may well look to disrupt them by packing the midfield and leaving just Thomas Muller to support Lewandowski up front, should he be passed fit.
With likely a narrow midfield, there will be onus on Juan Bernat on the left to provide width, although knowing that he will have to keep at least one eye on Messi. The key for Bayern remaining in the semifinal heading back to the Allianz Arena could ultimately be whether Bayern can prevent Messi from cutting inside on his famed left foot and delivering pin-point passes over the defense to feed Suárez and Neymar running through. How Guardiola goes about attempting to solve the conundrum of Barcelona’s unparalleled individual brilliance may be fascinating to witness.
G: Ter Stegen
D: Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba
M: Rakitic, Busquets, Iniesta
F: Messi, Suarez, Neymar
D: Rafinha, Boateng, Benatia, Bernat
M: Lahm, Alonso, Schweinsteiger, Thiago
F: Muller, Lewandowski