backwards evolution

The aftermath of a high-profile drubbing in an important match is often chaotic.

Bayern Overcome Barcelona
after a 4-0 dismantling of one of europe’s best sides in a major tournament semifinal, you would hardly expect bayern to explode things in the offseason.

For the side on the receiving end of the pummeling, the humiliation suffered on such a public stage can often have long-lasting effects. Managerial changes, playing staff overhauls and even a shift in playing ethos are all frequent effects of the fallout. Conversely for the side that administers the pummeling, a sense of joy that can only be had by embarrassing an elite opponent usually sweeps over the players, the club and their fans. And often the smashing performance serves as a stepping stone to even greater joy and achievement.

Tuesday’s Champions League semifinal between Bayern Munich and Barcelona –which ended in a crushing 4-0 win for the German hosts — seems to fit those descriptions. At least on the surface.

I wrote back in early March about what I perceived to be the rapid decline of Barcelona after their 2-0 loss away to Milan in the first Champions League knockout stage. And though a commanding 4-0 win back at the Camp Nou salvaged that tie for the Catalunyans, this week’s 0-4 demolition in Munich shows that all that win really did was paper over the cracks. A pair of draws against PSG in the quarterfinals further reinforced my suspicions, as most will attest that Parisians were the better side over most of the round. Personally, I don’t think the Barça of 2010-2011 wouldn’t have struggled in the way this edition has. And though many might argue that the Spaniards were disadvantaged by a less-than-100%-fit Messi, I doubt a fully-fit one would have made much of a difference. Bayern were just that good.

With a leg yet to go in the tie, its still far too early too early to start assessing the damage control Barcelona will need to undertake to right the ship. But even if that is putting the cart before the horse, barring a miracle back in Spain, Barcelona will again crash out of the semifinal stage and adjustments will need to be made. Questions will need to be asked of manager Tito Vilanova’s tactical approach and substitutions, and reinforcements for their leaky backline (who were simply awful against Bayern) will need to be brought in. And while ditching their tiki-taka ethos altogether would be ridiculous overreaction, I wouldn’t be shocked if they at least looked at it with a critical eye to make improvements. And all of that seems quite odd, considering that as little as six months ago we were talking about how Barcelona still had a stranglehold on European supremacy

Bayern's Jupp Heynckes
heynckes has to wonder what more he would have had to have done to keep his job in munich.

Meanwhile, Bayern look to have all but booked their ticket to the final at Wembley with the 4-0 win. If achieved it will be their second straight Finals appearance, meaning they’re also on track to making my prediction that the Bavarian outfit would be this year’s Champions League medalists come good. For the second year on the bounce, they’ve knocked the Barça from the tournament. Having wrapped up the Bundesliga title a record six rounds remaining, Die Bayern haven’t just trounced the soon-to-be-crowned Spanish champions, they’ve done the same to pretty much everyone. I mean, they’ve only conceded 23 goals in 42 matches in all competitions this year. That is insane.

Not only that, but in the Final, they’re likely to square off against their neighbors Borussia Dortmund… a club they’ve already beaten twice and drawn with once this season. So the odds seemed stacked in their favor for capping off their season and heading into the summer with a historic fifth European Cup.

And that’s where things get weird.

While we don’t know what Barcelona’s plans are in the aftermath of the blowout loss, we very much do know what Bayern Munich have up their sleeves. Change. And it’s the kind of change associated with a blowout loss, not a win.

See this summer, to much fanfare, Bayern will unseat their highly successful manager Jupp Heynckes and replace him with former Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola. You know, the guy who popularized tiki-taka and “made” Barça into the juggernaut that they are today. The one manager that every team in the world — except for probably Real Madrid — wants guiding its team to glory. He’s already been fingered as the main motivation behind Bayern’s recent €37 million poaching of Dortmund midfield maestro Mario Götze, and will clearly serve as the first indicator of the style that Pep will aim to mold Bayern into using.

But with so much currently going right at Bayern, why would they feel the need to do this?

If the last two years are any indicator at all, it appears that Heynckes has been one of the extreme few to “solve” the problem of how to beat Barcelona. Wait to apply high pressure until Barça have crossed over midfield, and then once they concede possession, quickly break using the width of the field to avoid the planned-congestion in Barcelona’s midfield. Throw in height advantage, and Heynckes’ methods have proven nothing short of tiki-taka kryptonite. Not only that, but being a more direct approach, Bayern’s methods are much more enjoyable to watch (in my opinion at least).

But instead of celebrating this approach and persevering with it, they’re abandoning it and bringing in the Dali Lama of tiki-taka instead. That seems like a giant step backwards if you ask me. It’s like a hacker cracking a complex firewall, and then the hacker protecting his own systems implementing that same firewall even though he knows it’s broken. You wouldn’t do that with your company’s internet firewall, so why would you do that with your team strategy? They’ve effectively created and broadcasted a template for beating the tiki-taka ethos for other clubs to follow, thus providing them a means for how to beat Bayern in the future.

guardiola will certainly have his work cut out for him in germany.

Now, maybe I’m not giving Guardiola enough credit. He’s obviously an incredibly intelligent and talented manager, and who’s to say he isn’t planning to revamp the playing style that’s been ingrained in him since his days at La Masia. It just seems unlikely. And maybe Barcelona will pull off the seemingly impossible and will win the tie, rendering my entire argument null and void. Though if you ask me, the chances of that are about as good as Ronaldo being Barcelona’s solution if they do crash out. Fat Ronaldo.

Are Bayern making a huge mistake? We won’t really know until next season. Their decision to hire Guardiola has always seemed a little odd, at least as far as the timing was concerned. Though I understand their time frame to land Pep was a small one, and I can sympathize with their want to not miss such an opportunity.

But when it looks like Bayern have finally unlocked the mystery of how to beat Barcelona, the Germans’ decision to become the new Barcelona seems a little like backwards evolution.

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