This comes on the back of a shocking defeat in Champions League, as they find themselves in a 1-0 hole to Chelsea ahead of the second leg in Spain on Tuesday.
It was the first time Barcelona lost back-to-back games since May of 2009. It was the first time they were looking at the very real prospect of not winning a major title since 2008. And it is the first time in over a decade that we have to begin to wonder, is the Barcelona reign of dominance coming to an end?
Now, before those who like to lob obscenities and anger at a writer for proposing an idea that challenges the notions of the status quo or that your team is not the best that ever lived, understand that this is not meant to incite some idea of collapse from a team that is clearly superior to all they play. The talent level at Barcelona is immense and is challenged only by Madrid in terms of personnel.
Even then, a case could very easily be made that Lionel Messi and Co. are much better than the players of Madrid simply because they can play their system of the game better than anyone else.
The way they pass the ball, make runs into open space for their teammates and manipulate defenses out of position has become the fashionable trend of the game and the reason so much success has fallen on the Catalans.
So, then, how did Madrid and Chelsea both beat Barca in a span of less than a week, and why was Barca unable to step up at the biggest moment? It all has to do with that system.
In both matches, Barcelona executed their style to perfection. With over 70 percent possession in each game, 14 and 26 shots and being the side that clearly dictated the pace of play, there is little Pep Guardiola could admonish his team for.
Poor finishing in both matches had more to do with their lack of goals than anything else.
But failing to score will never give you a loss. At worst, a 0-0 draw will not be what the fans want to see, but ultimately will leave a less rancid taste in their mouths than an outright loss. However, Barca’s perfection in their system does not supersede the other team’s system if it too is executed to perfection and counters the very system Barcelona deploys.
Barcelona has made their rise to fame off of out-passing and out-possessing teams. The opponents will try to match the Catalans pass for pass and make their mark through challenging them for time on the ball.
However, no one is better at this than Barcelona, leading to them being the dominant team. It is like trying to make a bigger fire than someone who has a flamethrower, while you are only armed with a couple of twigs.
Both Madrid and Chelsea traded those twigs for a bucket of water, not trying to match Barca flare for flare, but instead extinguishing them through suffocating and infuriating defense, relying on counters and set pieces to get goals.
This concept itself is not new to beating Barcelona. But it is relatively novel idea to the powerhouse sides who believe that they can duplicate Barcelona’s style.
There is a reason that the very few losses Barcelona has had over the past few seasons have rarely been to a major opponent. The “lesser” teams are well aware of the perspective that they are not equal to Barca in terms of talent, and therefore any hopes of a positive result will have to be through playing a resolute and perfect defense.
But similar to the way their attack cannot match Barcelona’s, their defense will suffer as well.
When teams who are as competent man-for-man as Barca decide to play a tactic that will counter theirs rather than one meant to out-duel, they suddenly make the Spaniards look mortal.
It really comes down to an amount of accountability rarely seen on the defensive half.
Just like the Barca attack works as a unit, the opposing defense must as well, staying strong in their challenges and not being coaxed artificially out of position. With 10 men behind the ball each responsible for his own area, even Barcelona has trouble breaking it down.
Madrid and Chelsea were nearly perfect in their meetings. Chelsea made not more than one or two mistakes and were fortunate that Barca did not make the most of them.
Madrid made one glaring mistake as a midfielder stepped up to try to intercept a pass, opening the space for Messi to make the run and set up Barca’s goal. Had he not, odds are it would have been two shutouts in a row for the Catalans.
So we come back to the question: Is it the beginning of the end of the Barcelona dynasty? Perhaps, but if so, it also marks the end of a philosophy—at least for now.
As much as we love to lionize the physicality and the empirical data conceived on the pitch, there is a great amount of philosophical and theoretical trends that power what we see.
A game has a linear timeline, but sport itself runs cyclically, where the tactics, styles and ideas of athletes, managers and fans evolve, play, die and repeat. Sports are marked in eras, defined by the motivations that best described them.
Look at the sport of baseball for a moment. At the turn of the 19th century, teams were averaging nearly six runs per game. Looking to get the upper hand on their opponents, coaches began to focus more on pitching to silence the big bats, spurning the “dead ball era” between 1900 and 1919, when teams were averaging fewer than four runs.
Consequently, managers again realized that the only way to win was to have more power in the lineup—plus changes in rules and equipment—thus starting the “lively ball era” of the 1920s. And so it wavers back and forth throughout history.
The same can be seen in football.
Was Barcelona and Spain’s tika-taka passing style not an answer to the unbeatable defenses of Italy in the 2006 World Cup, Greece at the 2004 Euros or Porto’s 2004 Champions League?
And were those defensive tactics not meant to stop Brazil’s rebirth of Joga Bonito which won them the World Cup in 2002?
I am not promoting the idea that Barcelona is a finished team. On the contrary, they have a very good chance of winning their first-ever back-to-back Champions League titles. But if they do fail to progress past Chelsea on Tuesday, then this question will and should begin to enter the minds of football fans.
The end will come sometime for Barcelona. The question is if it has already started.
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