Bayern Munich’s victory in the Champions League marks a return to the centre-stage for German football and the Bundesliga after being in the wilderness for some time.
Ever since Porto won the competition against all odds in 2004, the Champions League has come to be dominated by English teams and Barcelona.
En route to their conquest of Europe, Bayern pounded the dominant power in Europe, Barcelona into submission. Though nobody expected the scale of the defeat, it was construed to be the match where the baton changed hands, from the dominant force of the last half a decade to the force of the future.
Is this the end of Barcelona’s dominance in Europe?
This was a pertinent questions after Barcelona’s campaign came to a grinding halt against the Bayern machine. It is not often that you see the Catalans humbled in such a manner – Bayern didn’t just crush Barcelona, they crushed a footballing philosophy as they hit seven unanswered goals past Lionel Messi and co.
What the future holds for Barcelona or for Bayern Munich is a debate that will go on for long into the summer, however, that is a subject for another day. Before that, a quick peek at footballing cycles.
The game of football, like most other sports operates in cycles – both at club and at national levels. These cycles exist because football and the various teams involved continuously strive to evolve in search of a winning formula. It is not so much a straight-line time graph, but merely a carousel of footballing philosophies, playing style and coaching.
Footballers are human beings , they’re performances over time become subject to the wear and tear of competition and the many bruises and niggles that they carry.
The other key word in all of it is ‘familiarity’ – eventually they figure you out. That goes for a player, a system, a strategy. Those that continually work to keep adding to their game are the ones that end up being successful in extending their cycle. And in today’s day and age, where technological aids and analysts are available to every team, it makes it that much harder.
The European football scene
The UEFA Champions League is a true testament to this. Shifting the scene to five years ago, in the summer of 2008, Barcelona under Pep Guardiola had their very own ‘changing of the guard’ match.
The Blaugrana defeated Manchester United 2-0 in the final that year in Rome. United were defending champions and were looking to become the first club in the Champions League era to retain the title. That victory set Barca on their way to European dominance for the next five years, while also setting back the progress of English teams.
Hence, the five-year period between 2008-2012 belonged to Barcelona – they won two titles while making the semi-finals every year. The previous spell of domination (2004-2007) belonged to the English clubs – Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal who together made it a habit of blocking out the semi-final spots every year capped off by a title each for Liverpool and United, and finals appearances for Arsenal and Chelsea.
Real Madrid, both pre and post Galacticos had their run in the competition before the English clubs between 2000 and 2003. We can take only the period from 1998 onwards into consideration, for previously only the winners of each league made it into the competition, which meant only 1 team from each country. Madrid beat Manchester United and Bayern Munich on the way to claiming the trophy in 2000, the winners and runners-up respectively from the previous tournament.
Documenting their success
Each of these teams adopted their own set of tactics to foster success in Europe’s premier competition.
Outgoing Bayern boss Jupp Heynckes guided Real Madrid to their seventh European Cup in 1997. Following that, Vicente Del Bosque and his Los Blancos side won it in 2000.
It was just before the dawn of the Galacticos era, a team led by a young Raul, Fernando Morientes and Steve McMannaman. Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and Claude Makelele joined forces with Roberto Carlos and Raul and the Galacticos era was born.
That star-studded squad went on to claim another prize in 2002 with that memorable Zidane volley in Glasgow.
A simple strategy of buying the best players around that ensured instant success. Trouble was, those stars were picked up in their late 20’s and after a period of time with age their impact waned.
And since Real did not have a system that they played to or stuck to religiously, there was a problem when they departed. David Beckham, Ruud Van Nistelrooy and many other big names joined, but Real could never recreate the success from earlier in the decade.
The English teams came in with good defences to fend off the attacking threats of the Spaniards. They brought in a certain level of physical effort with their powerful defenders and midfielders, who were very good in the air in defence as well as attack.
The English teams’ play was very direct employing wingers to good effect to deliver crosses into the ball along with judicious use of the long ball out of defence. Technical brilliance was not the greatest, but they made up for it in effort and work rate. Hard-working units with just the right amount of attacking talent served them very well in the ensuing years.
Before Guardiola arrived at the Camp Nou, Frank Rijkaard managed to win one Champions League final against Arsenal in 2006. His was an all-attacking group, equally direct, centred around the talents of Samuel Eto’o, Ronaldinho and Deco. They got that one win, but they had a traditional Barca failing in the form of their defence and their dominance didn’t last long. They may have had superior attackers, but since their attacking styles were familiar, they proved easy to contain.
Then came the tiki-taka, the hogging of possession for long periods and accurate passing of the ball from Guardiola’s stable. Whether it was intended that way, nobody will know, but the tiki-taka hit the English teams in an area where they were vulnerable.
They were superb clearing headers and defending long balls and did well to cut out the through passes. Part of the reason was their tight defensive organization.
What Barca’s system did was stymie their English foes, deny them the ball to get their forward players frustrated and patiently pass the ball around, waiting until a member broke the line after which they could play in that killer final pass. Slow in their lateral movement, the system wore them down as they spent large portions of the game tracking the ball. The high pressing game, eight passes or less in which they tried to regain possession was also classy. Creating space for their players to run was central to Barca’s success plan.
And now, Bayern have brought their own heavy duty arsenal over the past two seasons – a combination of high intensity pressing to peg back the opponents and fast, direct attacks. Whether this means a new era of Bayern dominance, we’ll have to wait and watch; Inter and Milan have had successful winning campaigns in the past without kicking on to extend it further.
Also, there will be a change in management - Guardiola will come in for Heynckes – a completely different approach may be taken by the Spaniard; in which case the lack of continuity could hurt them. Inter won the trouble under Mourinho, before having a disappointing season the next term after the Portuguese left.
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