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- Aug 1, 2010
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Wednesday night's game in Munich was a era-defining game, but have the Germans started a new philosophy?
The sun has set on the age of Barcelona and dawn has broken on the bright new age of Bayern Munich. Bayern's demolition of Barça last night certainly had the sense of a game that changed the order of things - even in advance it felt like an era-defining game. It crystallised the sense that Barça are not quite what they were, a weary shadow of the team that won the Champions League in 2011, and that Bayern are rising, inspired by a crop of fine young players and German economic might.
As such the victory – aside for all but ensuring Bayern's place in the Champions League final – has largely symbolic value. That was the moment, historians will say (assuming things pan out as we think they will) when the crown was passed on. Except, of course, that it's not that simple, not least because eras are no longer so easy to define as they used to be. Look down the list of European Cup winners and there are reasonably clear divisions: the age of Real Madrid separated from the era of Catenaccio and Milanese domination by the Benfica interregnum, the total footballing time of Ajax and Bayern Munich, then the period of English domination that was ended at Heysel. That led to a period of flux before the arrival of Arrigo Sacchi's Milan.
Since the Champions League began, though, no side has retained the title, let alone won three in a row. More good teams are involved and the way money is distributed has led to the creation of a self-perpetuating elite of perhaps half a dozen sides with a changing group of perhaps half a dozen more (themselves drawn from a pool of probably 10-15 teams with the very occasional outlier) challenging them each season. That in turn has brought more competitive, perhaps even better, games in the later stages of the competition, which has made it harder for even the very best to sustain success. Previously the elite could afford an off-day against a lesser opponent; now there are fewer lesser opponents in the knockout stage and the slightest slip can mean elimination.
The Champions League began with Italian domination as Milan and Juventus each reached three finals in a row, but each won only one of them. Real Madrid then won three Champions Leagues in five years before the balance shifted to the Premier League, which produced seven finalists (although only three winners) between 2005 and 2012, and Barcelona (the two eras, confusingly, running for a time in parallel).
Few would dispute that Barcelona has been Europe's leading club over the past half-decade, and the achievement of reaching six successive semi-finals speaks of a great consistency of quality. Yet they have won only two of them: they were squeezed out by Manchester United in 2008 and were the victims of extraordinary defensive performances from Internazionale in 2010 and Chelsea last year. History will wonder how a side widely – and rightly – hailed as one of the greatest there has ever been, won only two Champions Leagues.
Of course next year, such a reflection could seem hideously premature. It may be that, hopefully fully recovered from cancer, Tito Vilanova, can next season re-energise this side, can restore the spark and the invention whose absence meant that, despite dominating possession last night, Barça rarely looked like scoring. Perhaps he can even teach them how to repel set plays or persuade the board to sign a defender who can defend. This, after all, is not an old team; although Carles Puyol is 35 and Xavi 33 none of the other regular outfielders is over 30.
There was a sense of staleness about Barcelona last night, something that perhaps explains the over-reliance on Lionel Messi. The great Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann, of course, believed no side could endure more than three years without major changes and the danger of familiarity was something of which Pep Guardiola seemed acutely conscious without ever being able to combat it. Part of the problem has been that so few of the players Barcelona have signed, outsiders who weren't developed at La Masia (and even one who was) have truly integrated: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Alexis Sánchez, Cesc Fàbregas, Dmytro Chyhrynskyi, Alex Song, even David Villa to an extent (although his broken leg perhaps provides some mitigation), have been a disappointment, and that has severely compromised the process of transition.
Almost more than trophies – although there were plenty of them under Guardiola – what defined the years of Barcelona's dominance was their style. Others may not have been able to ape tiki-taka precisely, but there are very few top sides now who don't look to dominate possession and press the opponent high up the pitch.
To suggest, as some have done, that Bayern's victory somehow ends tiki-taka is ludicrous. Their style is itself based on similar principles, on control of possession and winning the ball back high up the pitch – themselves core tenets of Total Football, which has underpinned Barcelona's football since Rinus Michels moved there from Ajax in 1971. The German variant of the philosophy, which eschewed pressing, underpinned the successes of Bayern and Borussia Mönchengladbach in the seventies. The two came together as Jupp Heynckes, who played for Gladbach, succeeded Louis van Gaal, who had taken his modernised version of Total Football from Ajax to Barcelona in 1997, at Bayern two years ago.
Only Barcelona have higher possession stats and have completed a higher percentage of passes than Bayern in Europe's top five leagues this season. That Bayern last night achieved only 37% possession is because they modified – or were forced to modify – their approach against the only side better than them at holding the ball in Europe. The core philosophy of both is the same.
Bayern are perhaps a little more physical and a little more direct than Barça but there is a reason they have appointed Guardiola as their manager next season. The era of the New Total Football continues, it's just that its centre has moved from Barcelona to Munich.
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