Two losses spells the end of Barca's domination and of their reign as the world’s best?
So Barcelona have lost twice in a row for the first time since 2009. For many, this spells the end of their domination and of their reign as the world’s best. Quite simply these views are ridiculous.
Since Pep Guardiola became the manager of Barcelona in the summer of 2008, he has presided over winning the league each season and winning two out of three Champions Leagues. There has not been a team in recent history which has dominated world football quite like this side, and they have done it with a style and a quality which has converted many to the religion of the Camp Nou.
And yet, two losses this week have appeared to turn the world against this side, apparently their their time is up and it is Madrid’s turn to dominate. For those who watched the games, Barcelona did not play poor, as fluent, fast and clinical as other games, no, yet they dominated possession and created more chances. The risk with Barcelona is vulnerability from the counter attack and from set pieces; which is where they were caught in both games.
Unusually, they were particularly wasteful and their profligate ways enabled Chelsea and Madrid to win these encounters. The Chelsea game was quite amazing, where on other nights, like against Leverkusen, those chances could have resulted in 5,6 or 7 goals. In El Clasico, Xavi was denied by a great save and Tello was particularly wasteful. Now, this is not an excuse, if you don’t score from the chances you create then the result is harder to achieve. Yet the point is, Barca were the better side in both games, dominating over 75% possession. People say possession isn't everything, but when you look at the stats, a team who enjoys over 60% possession has a much better chance of winning the game.
So why was the Clasico lost?
So what do these results, especially against Madrid, say about Barcelona? It says, that this is not a side on the decline, it is a side with different priorities.
The win against Madrid in November was the fourth game in a row that Madrid had not beaten Barca at home, and it was another blow to Mourinho, who favoured a high pressing game to stifle the possession game of Barca, similar to the super cup in August. Yet, no matter what Mourinho has tried, he could not beat this side. It has been clear that there has been a mental block against the Blaugrana’s. In the past two seasons, Mourinho has struggled to get the right tactics to beat and prevent Barca from winning, whether it’s high pressing or catenaccio, Barca still found a way. Before this weekend that is.
Firstly, credit to Madrid, this was their best performance against Barca and it took on the catenaccio style over a high pressing game, although there were times when they pressed. Predominantly though, they decided to congest the centre of the pitch, in the areas where Messi likes to drop, and stop him picking the ball up and running forwards. Except for a few moments of brilliance Messi was restricted to long distance shots. The key for Madrid here was that they changed their aggressive style of last season, to a more disciplined and mature defensive game. There have been too many sending off's in recent Clasico’s and that lack of discipline has been very costly; obviously it has lost games for Madrid but it also made people and players question Mourinho and his style. This time he got it right. Yet, it really was more Pep getting it wrong, or more to the point, not taking this is a key.
The best game Barcelona have played under Guardiola was the 5-0 hammering to Jose’s Madrid in Nov 2010. It was a game which showed the gulf in class between the sides and which showed Mourinho how far ahead this Barca side were. Messi didn’t score, yet he ran the show. This is important, because he orchestrated the game with an illustrious supporting cast.
This past Clasico lacked the key supporting cast which has been so key to Barcelona in recent seasons. Regardless of the issues Villa may have with his position, he has been a key part of the side these past two seasons and his absence has increased the responsibility on Messi's shoulders; who at times is having to take the game on himself.
The selection of Tello gave width to the side, yet it wasn’t necessary, what was needed was an inside forward who could drift into the spaces which Messi vacated, like what happened in the 5-0. The decision to play Alves as an out an out right midfield reduced his impact, as he is better coming from deep and attacking the line, instead of being ahead of the game too early. Pedro, who hasn’t been his best this season, would still have been a better option in this position against a quite poor Coentrao, who did very well in all honesty. With Alves playing higher, Puyol played as a right back, with Busquets dropping in at centre back next to Mascherano and Thiago playing the defensive midfield position. This created a massive inbalance in the side which didn’t allow for the free flowing passing and which importantly failed to find penetration. The midfield of Xavi and Iniesta prefer to stay deep and not go beyond Messi to break the line, yet with Messi dropping deep and no forwards going central, the midfielders needed to, it happened once yet not enough to create more clear cut chances. It didn’t happen enough and the game was lost due to Guardiola’s tactics more than Madrid’s solid defending.
There was some fascinating commentary about Guardiola’s plan for the season around November, which comprised of prioritising the World Club Cup in the first half of season over everything else. Staying competitive, in the league, yet preparing and focusing on ruling the world . Training was periodised to suit this tournament, and league results, especially away from home were affected. They went on to beat Santos in the final and part one of Guardiola's plan was complete.
It leads me to believe that the league was not and has not been the priority this season. What has been the most important trophy for Pep is the Champions League. As much as people disagree, this is the top trophy in the world today. In three years he has won it twice, a remarkable achievement. Yet no team since Milan has won the European Cup twice in a row. I believe that Guardiola’s aim this season was to win a back to back Champions League and make real history.
He conceded the title to Madrid, who put their everything into the league this season, and although playing excellent attacking football, it can be argued they have not been properly challenged by a fully focused Barcelona side. Eleven games ago the league was over and no-one was talking about anything but a Madrid title, yet a run of ten wins from Barcelona made the race interesting again. If they hadn’t go on that run, I don’t think the fallout from the game Saturday would have been so fierce, as they actually had a chance to get back in to it. Yet, the league has not been the main concern; Guardiola’s selection would indicate that, Messi plays no matter what, yet not risking Sanchez, Fabregas or Pedro appears to show how essential the 2nd leg against Chelsea is for this side.
The reason I believe Guardiola is the world’s best coach right now is that he gets the best and most from his players when it really matters, he trains and prepares his side for this key period of the season, whereas other sides look jaded or fatigued, his sides appear fresh and ready. I admit that in the last two games they haven’t been as pressed as quick as they have done previously or passed as fast as they can, yet they have a genuine chance of reaching the final, and I do predict a result similar to what Arsenal have experienced in recent seasons. When this team want to perform, they do.
The result was not ideal at Stamford Bridge, yet the performance was not bad, and if Chelsea believe they can defend like they did last week, if they believe Barca will not create and take their chances then they are very much deluded. Chelsea were poor last week, the result flattered them and an over indulgent and blinkered media hyped the result up too much. I thoroughly expect Barca to qualify for their third final in four years. And their opponents? Surely, a Clasico seems destined?
The grandest of Clasico's?
There is a real opportunity for a Barcelona Madrid final, and I believe this will be the biggest and best game between these sides since Pep took over. Mourinho has put together a very impressive side, comprising of some excellent players. I do not believe that they are as strong as Barcelona yet they have shown that they can beat them, and this psychological hurdle has been jumped for the first real time in several seasons. This game has the potential to be the Clasico’s of Clasico’s and it is where the tactical magic of both managers will really become apparent. I personally believe it will be an amazing spectacle.
If these two do make the final, history will be made. Jose could be the first manager ever to win the European Cup with three different sides, a remarkable achievement. And Pep could be the first manager since Sacchi to win the trophy twice in a row. Both men can be regarded as the world's best right now and world football has almost been anticipating this encounter of the world's best two sides since Jose took over.
And after it? It may be their final game in charge for of their respective clubs. Mourinho has a habit of leaving after a Champions League win and Pep has hesitated over committing to another season for the past several months. In fact, there is a very good chance in my opinion that both managers could leave in the summer, Jose with a return to England, the Eithad a likely destination and Pep taking a year out, with a view to go to England in 2013 also. Imagine these two continuing their ongoing rivalry in years to come.
So it may be that the time on this epic battle between two of the best sides and two of the best managers is coming to an end, we should savour it and be enamoured that we have witnessed some scintillating games, not just in quality, but in tactics, passion and theatre. As the curtain closes, the future is unknown, yet one thing is for sure, it has been a classic.