In the wake of Bayern Munich’s 3-0 defeat in Wednesday’s Champions League semifinal against Barcelona, many supporters and pundits have blamed manager Pep Guardiola’s tactics for the loss. This reversal of Bayern’s 3-0 win in the same stadium at the same stage of the same competition two years ago is confirmation for many that Guardiola’s attempt to replace the legendary Jupp Heynckes, who orchestrated that humiliation of Barcelona on his way to the treble, has failed.
According to ESPNFC’s Steve Nicol, Pep is “100% to blame” for the loss. Jamie Redknapp of SkySports claims that the Catalan coach has taken Bayern backwards. While it’s hard to heap praise on Guardiola after Wednesday’s loss, especially following last week’s German cup exit against Dortmund, these sentiments are far too simplistic and reactionary.
The first of many issues with these assessments is that there is still a second leg to be played, at the Allianz Arena no less. After the 0-0 away draw against Shaktar Donetsk in the round of 16, Guardiola was criticized heavily; his team responded with a 7-0 shellacking of the Ukrainian side. After the 3-1 humiliation in Porto, Guardiola was lambasted by the media; as you all know, Bayern came out with five first-half goals en route to a 6-1 second leg victory. Shaktar and Porto are not Barcelona, but the lesson here is not to count Pep’s Bayern Munich out when there is a home leg left to be played.
But let’s instead focus on Guardiola’s tactics for Wednesday’s game specifically, which are supposedly responsible for the loss. Most people point to his initial scheme, where he remarkably set up with a 3-5-2 even against Barcelona’s world-class front three of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar. While many would call it naive and overzealous, I think it was a calculated gamble by Pep. While it may have been partly motivated by his attacking mindset, Pep knew that he was not going to be able to sit back, absorb Barcelona’s pressure for 90 minutes, and come away from Catalonia unscathed. Those fifteen minutes were, for lack of a better term, shock tactics. His team’s aggressive pressing forced Andres Iniesta, Ivan Rakitic, and Dani Alves into uncharacteristic turnovers within the first 180 seconds. He wanted to get under Barcelona’s skin instead of allowing them to settle into the game, a completely understandable strategy given their recent run of goals against packed defenses.
The statistics bear out this assertion. In previous games against PSG (Champions League second leg) and Cordoba (La Liga), Barcelona completed 657 out of 739 (89%) and 670 out of 738 (91%) passes respectively. Against Pep’s Bayern, however, they completed just 368 out of 453 (81%), a huge drop-off (all statistics according to Four-Four-Two’s StatsZone). That, along with the fact that they conceded more than 50% of possession for the first time this season, suggests that Pep’s plan succeeded in preventing them from establishing their normal metronomic rhythm.
For much of the first ten or eleven minutes, Bayern were benefitting from the open space nearly as much as Barcelona. It was a wide open, entertaining football match, one far more worthy of the Champions League than Jose Mourinho parking the bus against 10-man PSG at home. Ultimately, Pep’s boldness nearly collapsed on itself when a flicked on header wrong-footed Jerome Boateng, playing Suarez through on goal. Manuel Neuer showed his class with a wonderful kick save to deny the Uruguayan. At the other end, a strong move from Thomas Muller allowed him to flash a ball across the face of goal, one Robert Lewandowski should have redirected home. Moments later, Pep flashed four fingers to his team, signalling a switch back to the more traditional 4-man defense. Both teams ended that open spell with one golden chance apiece, a far more equal narrative than what most people think.
The majority of the remainder of the first half, despite Bayern’s continued pressing, was controlled by Barcelona, but not because of Pep’s tactics. The unfortunate truth is that without the pressure valves of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery on the wing, Bayern’s attack was far too narrow and thus the midfield core of Lahm, Schweinsteiger, and Alonso was too often bottled up. Guardiola tried to mitigate this problem by having Thiago and Muller act as free-floating attacking players, often moving into the space vacated by Barcelona’s fullbacks, but it was a tall task to say the least.
After the second-half restart, we saw Bayern’s best spell of the entire game. Bayern came out with the energy of a revitalized team, forcing Barcelona into mistakes all over the pitch. Guardiola’s attacking mindset almost flipped the game on its head in those 12 minutes. Mascherano should have been penalized for a foul on Lahm after a neat Bayern passing move just outside the box in the 54th minute, Thomas Muller was played through on goal only to be called marginally offside in the 55th minute, and aggression down the left wing saw a dangerous Lewandowski cross blocked out for a corner kick in the 56th minute. With just a little bit more luck and quality, Guardiola would be hailed as a genius, not a fool, today.
Ultimately, it was the genius of Lionel Messi, the Argentine maestro, that undid Bayern. It was talent, not tactics, that won Barcelona the game. Guardiola could not prevent Bernat’s turnover that led to Messi’s first. And Guardiola could not prevent Boateng, who had an appalling game for such a stout defender, from falling over himself as Messi chipped home a magical second.
Some claim that Guardiola’s biggest mistake of the night was opening his side up to Neymar’s third goal, which puts Bayern in an extremely tough position. It is crucial to understand his logic: scoring even two goals against Barcelona without conceding is already a near-impossible task, so perhaps he tried to do the only thing that could possibly have saved his team’s Champions League hopes: securing that vital away goal.
Blaming Pep Guardiola for losing to the best team in Europe makes no sense. His two best players, the wingers who terrorized Barcelona two years ago, were not available through injury, so he adapted to fit his personnel. Beating a team like Barcelona when you are understrength requires risk, so Guardiola had no choice but to open his team up in order to give his players a chance. It was a majestic five minutes from Messi, not the bad managing of Pep, that sent the Camp Nou into a frenzy on Wednesday night.