Bayern Munich's hopes of a double appear to be all but gone, swept away by Barcelona as the Catalan giants dealt their Bavarian counterparts a 3-0 defeat in the first leg of their Champions League semifinals tie on Wednesday night.
Speaking to reporters after the game, Pep Guardiola simply stated that "[Lionel] Messi showed his class," chalking up the defeat to an outstanding individual effort. He was also defiant in the face of critics, asserting that his side had played well before Messi's 77th-minute opener. Defeat was, as the coach would appear to have it, inevitable.
Much should be said for the brilliance of a Barcelona side that will be fully deserving should they win the Champions League. Messi was outstanding and likely decided the tie with a brace within three minutes. If there were any doubts remaining, Neymar's strike to make it 3-0 in injury time just about vanquished them.
Yet it is a gross misrepresentation to assume defeat was the only possible outcome, especially by such a decisive scoreline. And it is a mistake to chalk it all up to a loss of composure after the opener.
Before the game, Guardiola had asserted in a news conference that "You don't stop Messi." Yet prior to this game, goalkeeper Manuel Neuer had never conceded to the Argentine either for Bayern in the Champions League or for Germany at the World Cup. Jupp Heynckes and Joachim Low had managed to contain the four-time Ballon d'Or winner on the big stage, and that led to wins for both of their respective sides.
More comparably, Bayern fell with such ferocity that the result was close to the 4-0 that Jurgen Klinsmann's side had suffered at Camp Nou six years prior.
Manuel Neuer was the only reason it wasn't at least 2-0 before half-time, his brilliant one-on-one saves from Luis Suarez and Dani Alves, along with a poor miss from Neymar, bailing out Bayern in the first 45 minutes. Although the rout wasn't truly on until the very end, Barca deserved their margin of victory considering their early chances and that Bayern didn't put a single shot on goal.
A result worthy of the Klinsmann era is call for alarm, considering that that side included the likes of Christian Lell, Massimo Oddo, Breno, Martin Demichelis and Hans-Jorg Butt as the back five.
Much is said of the absentees from Guardiola's side on Wednesday, with Marti Perarnau preemptively excusing a loss by labelling Bayern a "walking infirmary." And indeed, the losses of Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben and David Alaba left the Bavarians as underdogs.
However, that ignores the massive quality of the squad on hand: Guardiola had seven World Cup winners in his squad, six won the competition in 2014 and five were starters throughout the competition. He had the reigning Bundesliga top scorer and Serie A's best defender from the previous season. He had arguably the most in-form, complete central midfielder in the world.
Defeat was still the most likely scenario for Bayern, but as Lahm told ZDF after the game (via Goal.com), "You may lose 1-0. But you may not lose 3-0."
Tactically, Guardiola got it all wrong on multiple levels. The first was being too aggressive in pursuing an away goal. Starting with a three-man defense and playing the offside trap on the halfway line was asking for trouble, and Barca should have scored twice in the opening minutes.
It's a similar tactic to that which led to Louis van Gaal's downfall as Bayern coach, except Guardiola was even more reckless by having his team mark Barca man-for-man across the pitch and leaving acres of space with no designated support in place.
He was forced to abandon the man-marking and switch to a four-man defense after 20 minutes, the initial tactic having led to multiple gilt-edged chances for the hosts and amounting to a tactical nightmare for Bayern. The offside trap remained perilously high nonetheless, as the visitors continued to aggressively pursue an away goal.
Yet instead of selecting a strong lineup of attacking players as Van Gaal had, Guardiola chose to bench Mario Gotze and instead played an aggressive, attacking setup while using eight defensive players, a hybrid central midfielder in Thiago, and Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller.
It was like setting up a gunfight against a Barca side that had a howitzer cannon and bringing a gun (Lewandowski and Muller) with no bullets. As the only Bayern player who could realistically pass through the final third, Thiago was easily marked into anonymity, and Muller and Lewandowski spent the evening chasing the ball to no avail.
It is, of course, unrealistic to expect an upset in any game, but when the trainer makes avoidable tactical decisions that result in predictable disaster—and when the result falls in line with a series of disappointments, questions have to be asked. Especially considering the likes of Low, Heynckes and Van Gaal all managed to pull off big upsets and/or managed to inspire magic and overcome injury woes with many of the same players and less quality in their respective available squads.
Guardiola inherited a treble-winning team that had dominated Juventus and Barca both at home and away and completely restructured it. Now in six Champions League knockout-round ties, the Bavarians have yet to convince over two legs. They managed to avoid embarrassment against the likes of Shakhtar and Porto, but against elite sides like Real Madrid and Barca, they've been embarrassed.
Even on the domestic front, questions have to be asked. Despite winning the Bundesliga by a comfortable margin, Bayern this season won just two out of eight fixtures against top-five opponents. And in the DFB-Pokal, they were held scoreless over 240 minutes by Leverkusen and Dortmund, with penalties being their saving grace and downfall, respectively.
Guardiola has to be commended for the style of football he's brought to Munich and for the success of his club. For all the disappointments in the Champions League, Bayern have put on some majestic performances: Against Roma and Manchester City last fall and in the second leg against Porto last month, in particular. And winning the Bundesliga certainly isn't a given.
He has also modified his tactics this season especially, moving away from a slow, "tiki-taka" possession game and imposing at least three distinct systems on his team. After taking personal responsibility for the debacle that ended in a 5-0 aggregate loss to Real last spring, Guardiola appeared to have found his way.
Yet the must frustrating thing is that for all his immense effort to study the game and to prepare his team in every way possible, he's fallen back on familiar mistakes.
Bayern's downfall last season was playing too high a line and being too aggressive in pursuing an away goal. The same problem befell them on Wednesday night. It's a recurring theme, and Guardiola—who's had the honor of coaching two of the best squads ever assembled—still has won just four of 21 away legs in the Champions League knockout rounds during his career. Tactics are part of it, but there is also the issue of motivation and inspiration.
When Van Gaal's Bayern went two goals behind away to Manchester United within seven minutes in 2010, the club bounced back and managed to score twice to book their spot in the semifinal. When Germany were desperate for a goal in the 2014 World Cup final, Joachim Low told Mario Gotze to "show the world [he's] better than Messi," as noted by Jeremy Wilson in The Telegraph. The 22-year-old, who'd been awful in the tournament prior, famously netted the winner.
To his credit, Guardiola has inspired some brilliant performances, such as the second legs against Shakhtar and Porto earlier this spring. Yet some, like Gotze, are consistently poor, while the team overall played an awful game against Barca.
It's hard to win a big game away from home, but Schalke nearly put European champions Real Madrid out in March at the Santiago Bernabeu with a team that included several teenagers. Bayern, by contrast, went behind and completely collapsed to the point that the tie was lost within 90 minutes.
More and more, it's appearing that the Guardiola project at Bayern may have been the right choice for the coach but the wrong one for the club. The treble-winning side hardly required squad building and consisted of an assortment of world-class players in their prime years: Perfect for a coach on a three-year contract. From Bayern's perspective, however, immediate success on all levels was necessary.
Guardiola has never been known for his ability to sign replacements and build a squad in flux, and his record on transfers has been quite underwhelming. Knowing that Ribery, Robben, Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger—all cornerstones of the current team—would need to be replaced within a few years, it was a stretch to hope for Guardiola to overhaul the club tactically and bring them back to the Champions League final before the old guard's decline.
Past that, Guardiola was never the man to oversee the necessary rebuilding that has crept nearer and nearer during his nearly two years at the club. The foreseeable danger is that the trainer will leave next summer with Bayern still lacking prepared replacements for Ribery (who will be 33 at the time), Robben (32), Schweinsteiger (nearing 32) and Lahm (nearing 33) and lacking a philosophical foundation that another coach can build upon. It's an increasing concern, and one can only wonder whether, in the possible absence of convincing in the Champions League under Guardiola's tenure, the risk was worthwhile.
Many blamed injuries for Bayern's defeat even before kickoff, and, of course, personnel was a factor in Wednesday's result. Individual errors also played a role late on. Yet the Bavarians were still comprehensively beaten despite boasting a very formidable squad, with clear tactical errors and mental fragility following Messi's opener being causes as well.
To date, Bayern have done everything possible to deflect criticism away from Guardiola, with legendary doctor Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt recently resigning after alleging he and his medical team were blamed for Bayern's defeat to Porto in the first leg of the quarterfinal.
But as more and more disappointment sets in, the question is: For how long will Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and company be seduced before they start to question Guardiola?