As the saying goes, offence sells tickets but defence wins the trophies. Barcelona, were once the only exception to that rule. Boasting the world’s greatest player and a style of play that dominates ball possession, there was never a risk of heavy defeat.
However, on Tuesday night in Germany, Bayern Munich exposed Barcelona’s defence in a manner that reduced these perceived superheroes into nothing more than mere mortals. With Lionel Messi thwarted and Xavi Hernandez forced to retreat to collect the ball, the Catalans failed to overcome the Bavarian midfield let alone challenge their back-line. Instead, it was their own midfield that was consistently sliced open as Bayern focused on busying Sergio Busquets to remove Barca’s defensive capabilities.
The inexperience of Marc Bartra coupled with Gerard Pique’s capability of being dragged out of position afforded the Germans the opportunity to consistently exploit the decencies at the back and convert their many opportunities on goal.
As the Blaugrana continue to identify attacking personnel on the transfer market, their failure to reinforce a fragile back-line has come back to haunt them. For many years now, the sheer force of their offence has seen them capable of masking the many deficiencies at the back. However, as teams such as Real Madrid and Bayern Munich close the gap in terms of quality, Barcelona are quickly finding out that their defensive weapon – possession - is now being used against them.
In the Allianz Arena, Jupp Heynckes’ men refused to challenge the Catalans for the ball. Instead, they permitted the visitors time with it, but restricted them their space and forced them out wide. Collectively defending their area, the Bavarians’ wingers retreated and moved centrally to block out spaces whilst their midfielders took it in turns to tackle or intercept, to limit penetration.
Once Bayern won back the ball, it was a case of imposing their physique and pace to exploit the space on the wings and in attack. Barcelona were simply overwhelmed. The asphyxiating German pressing game forced them into individual errors and misplaced passes which in turn led to the concession of goal-scoring opportunities.
It was then that we saw how poor the Catalans’ defensive strategy can be when faced with quality opposition. Lacking physical strength, Bayern continuously pierced Barca’s midfield, aware that few would be able to challenge them physically and tackle the ball away. Whilst Andres Iniesta attempted to aid Busquets by tackling his opponents, essentially there was no wall of strength made available to snuff out danger and restrict penetration.
Instead, Bayern quickly came face to face with Barca’s back-line. Renowned for their wide threat, Gerard Pique suffered and was consistently dragged out of position whilst the pressure to deal with everything aerially eventually saw him overwhelmed and overcome. Meanwhile, Barcelona rarely had enough bodies in the box to defend their area and appeared disorganised in strategy. Every corner won by the Germans presented another opportunity for a home goal.
Yet despite their inability to protect the area, Tito Vilanova’s men continued to needlessly concede corners that served to only endanger them even further.
The lack of aerial ability is something Barcelona can no longer overlook. On average the squad measured 1.76m in comparison to Bayern’s average player height of 1.84m. The difference in height not only allowed for vulnerability in defence but it restricted their options going forward.
It is here that we can say Barcelona suffered due to their successful dominance both in Europe and domestically. They have never learnt to suffer, to defend with aggression or to look at their fragilities and address the minor weaknesses. Bayern defended in a manner that exposed their past pain. Capable of only finishing in second place last season, they have been forced to tackle their problems and raise the level of their play. It was clear they would defend with passionate aggression and raise the intensity.
In the duel against Barcelona, Bayern possessed the secret weapon – self-awareness. It is only by understanding your weaknesses can one can gain strength and develop further.