Paddy Power

Graham Hunter: The glaring problems Barca have ignored — or worse — not yet identified

by Graham Hunter | May 2, 2013

Graham Hunter byline

Spanish football expert and author of Barca, Graham Hunter, addresses the big questions for the Paddy Power Blog after Barcelona’s big defeat to Bayern Munich.

The two questions I’ve most-often been asked since the Champions League semi-final demolition of Spain’s representatives by the physique and technique of the Bundesliga are:

  • “Is this a total power-shift in European football?”
  • “What the hell do Bayern need Pep Guardiola for? I bet he wishes the season hadn’t gone like this.”

The latter idea shows how short some memories are or, at least, how some people simply judge on what they last saw rather than delving deeper into a subject.

Nobody of sane mind would ignore the brutal way in which Barcelona’s current deficiencies were exposed by the Bavarians, nor can there be anything other than admiration for the relentless way in which Jupp Heynckes’ team has pursued what may, surprisingly, become the first treble in their remarkable history.

With all due respect to Dortmund, who will traipse in second to Bayern in the Bundesliga and who gave up their German Cup defence to the same team, it is the AllianzArena club which is world number one.

No question so, having made that clear let’s not forget that it’s only 12 short months since Bayern felt exactly like Barcelona do right now.

Just 12 months since a Bavarian disaster

They lost the German title to Dortmund by 11 points, calamitously failed to put Chelsea to bed in the Champions League final and blew the German Cup final 5-2 to Jurgen Klopp’s side, despite Martio Gotze not playing and Roman Weidenfeller needing to be substituted after half an hour.

That night Bayern used Neuer, Lahm, Alaba, Boateng, Schweinsteiger, Ribéry, Robben, Gómez, Thomas Muller plus the currently injured Toni Kroos and Holger Badstuber. Most of the troops who just trod all over Barcelona.

In Bavaria the season was seen as something approaching a disaster, certainly deeply humiliating. Just 12 months ago. Meanwhile, Dortmund had played like dumplings in Europe. Bottom of their group, five points behind third-placed Olympiakos, they’d been beaten home and away by Marseille, mustering only four points and conceding 12 goals in a group Arsenal won.

I’d wager that nobody of any vision or sense condemned either of the Bundesliga’s big two as “finished”, or believed that those events signalled an end to the general rise and rise of German football.

Bayern column by Graham Hunter

PUZZLING TIMES: Do Barca need Neymar? Losing Gotze is a huge Dortmund blow. Pep was hired for repeated success at Bayern. Barca have suffered badly without the likes of ironman Carles Puyol

Four points for the dim-of-wit…

Thus it’s time, despite the brutality of the results for Barcelona and Real Madrid, to make sure that any conclusions drawn about Barcelona this week are reliable rather than rabid.

  1. It’s at least relevant contextually that in Carles Puyol, Javier Mascherano, (Jordi Alba) and Eric Abidal, Barcelona were missing four world-class defensive footballers who, if fit, would at minimum added power, experience, pace and aggression to the woeful work which brought them a seven-goal aggregate defeat.
  2. The world’s greatest footballer was as good as absent from all 180 minutes of the matches.
  3. Sergio Busquets may not be to everyone’s tastes but when he plays well, Barcelona rock. Like Messi, also because of injury, he was as good as absent from the tie.
  4. Tito Vilanova, a first-year rookie who has just returned from a near three-month battle against cancer made a number of downright weird decisions which analysis of the cataclysmically bad defeat begs for more information.

Now, wait, I know that the short-of-attention and the dim-of-wit will already be misinterpreting all this and getting ready to tweet in rage. So let’s recap.
Bayern were superb. Bayern are currently much more powerful, quick and competitive than the Spanish champions-elect.

The seven-goal margin didn’t flatter them. But if people want to rip Barça’s current squad and their likely future to shreds then a touch of restraint, context and caution are needed.

I know what you bought last summer

Bayern bought Dante, Mandzukic and Javi Martinez last summer and radically strengthened themselves. This route is available to Barcelona. With a proper centre-half added, with height introduced to one of the full-back positions, an aggressive, hard-working, top-class centre forward and the majority of the current squad fully fit Barcelona will be, at least, competitive again and contenders to not only give Bayern or Dortmund a decent game but to win the Champions League next May.

However, here are the trends which are more persuasive, more influential. Bayern’s strategy and intelligence, to me, are very reminiscent of the brilliant building of Barcelona from 2003 onwards when the Joan Laporta era, even with the odd blip, returned flair, power, success and thrills to the Camp Nou. There is a philosophy, there is ambition, there is consistency and both transfer records and wage structures are being broken.

They have seriously damaged Dortmund by snaffling Gotze and if they add Robert Lewandowski too it’s a huge double whammy. Pep Guardiola was hired not to have a decent season in 2013/14 or to fight off Dortmund. No, the Catalan has been put on the staff in order to try to increase the chances that Bayern repeatedly win the Champions League and become Europe’s dominant force for a handful of years. The fact that he’s inheriting a powerful side is unquestionably in his favour — not an obstacle.

Have Barca not spotted their problems?

At Barcelona you get a strong impression that notable problems: player fatigue, the absence of height, power and pace and the absolute glaring requirement for one, perhaps two aerially excellent defenders, are being ignored. Or worse, is it feasible they haven’t been identified?

Moreover the determination to prioritise the purchase of Neymar appears blind to the fact that however good the Brazilian may be he’s far from anything like the most important kind of signing Barca need to make right now.

Also, it’s a signing which has the hallmarks of something which could undermine Leo Messi’s sense of well-being at the Camp Nou.

Barcelona took a right hook to the jaw this week. It landed because they’ve dropped their guard and been leading with their chin. But so long as the decision-making process at the Catalan club now starts to match the quality of thinking in Bavaria it’s only a knockdown, not a knockout.

Who’s your money on for the Champions League Final then? >Get the latest odds right here<

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  1. John said on May 3, 2013 @ 1:34 am

    Pep has to take some responsibility for Barcas problems right now.. He made some terrible transfers that unbalanced the squad (Barca have wasted so much money on poor signings). The Zlatan and Chygrynski deals were obviously overpriced and everyone could see the Zlatan one was a joke of a deal. It was a unbelievable stupid deal. Things started going wrong with the selling of the tall powerhouse Yaya who added steel to the side and who could play brilliantly at CB as he proved in the run-in in the league and the Cup and Champions League Finals. He sold Yaya coz “he couldnt guarantee him games” as we had Busi and Keita and Yaya all competing for 1 def mid spot. So Pep sells him and replaces him with MASCHERANO, another def mid-but not as good as Yaya- and where does he play small Masch??? In the centre back position.. ridiculous deal. He shouldve kept Yaya and played him in CB and Def Mid. He couldve sold Keita and given Yaya plenty of games instead of Masch. Yaya is a shining light in the Prem. So anyway we still needed a CB and who does he sign then ??? Cesc Fabregas… Another SMALL CM. We already had too many cm’s at the club (Iniesta, Xavi, Keita, Busi, Thiago, Masch, . Pep ends up playin 5 cm’s at times and changes the formation to 3-5-3 to accommodate Cesc. Cesc been played as a false number 9 is just ridiculous. He is a midfielder. Too many players are been played out of position. This cost us last seasons title as it totally unbalanced the squad. We made two transfers that summer. One was Cesc but we needed a CB, who else does he sign?? Sanchez, who wasnt really needed (Tello, Affelay, Pedro, Duelofue, Villa, even Ineista) and unfortunately has been very poor. We needed a goal scoring winger but small Sanchez just hasnt delivered. This season under Tito we needed a CB…We’ve been screaming out for one for years now and who do we buy??? SONG, another def mid who is a poor makeshift CB. How long can a TOP club like Barca go with only 2 recognised CB’s (one mid 30’s) in the first team squad. We are playing Adriano as a CB for fecks sake. This result v Bayern was down to poor signings and a lack of work ethic on the pitch. We still have a great side there but we need to sell Song, Masch, Dos Santos, Villa, Cesc, Sanchez and sign 1/2 world class CBs (Thiago Silva, Hummels, Martinez) and a goal scoring wide man (Reus) and give Tello and Thiago more games. We need to sign some tall strong & physical players to add some steel to the side. We are starting to play like Arsenal from a few seasons ago.. Too many midgets and sideways football with no cutting edge or shots. We look void of ideas against top opposition. We need to be more direct at times and Thiago needs to get more games ahead of Xavi. Everyone needs to increase their work rate. I still cannot believe Tito played Cesc as a winger and left out the goal scoring Tello and even Sanchez who has been good lately.. Tito bottled it v Bayern as he did V Real… Cesc is been shoe horned into a team that he just doesnt fit into and at the expense of Thiago and the club. I think we have been spoiled over the last 5/6 years at Barca.. Winning the league this year is still a great season and there is no shame in losing in the CL semis. Tito has had a good first year but I worry he is out of his depth v the top managers and that maybe his illness means he cannot focus on Barca. Anyway thats my disjointed point of view.. I dont think the Era is over quite yet.. It depends on what we do in the summer .. Winning a league title isnt the end of a era.

  2. John said on May 3, 2013 @ 1:40 am

    oh and fair play to Bayern. They were awesome and deserved to go thru.. I’d like Dortmund to win it but dont mind either way.. Both sides have been great.

  3. elflaco said on May 3, 2013 @ 12:32 pm

    At last a bit of rationality. There is far too much hyperbole in football. The notion that an era of a collective unit can end so abruptly is absurd – unless the components of the entire first-team are the exact same age. At worst, Barcelona are fading.
    John makes good points about their transfer policy these last few seasons. It hasn’t been good enough to sustain the standard they had set. But that also begs the question as to what transfer policy would actually achieve this aim? Even good purchases will be like putting fingers in the dam. They can buy centre-backs now but they’ll be left with the same puzzle when their midfield reaches it’s sell-by date. There are no Xavi, Iniesta and Messi clones floating around in some sort of transfer buffet. This generation is a freak.

    Even the sale of Gotze to Bayern looks like being the subject of over-emphasis. Dortmund have coped without him before, going on to win the league and even set records in the process. They have sold their highest-regarded player in Sahin and gone on to win the league. They have sold a hugely influential Kagawa and reached the Champions League final. Admittedly it’s difficult to keep growing replacement limbs but they’ve coped very well up to now. Keep calm and believe in Klopp.

    The thing that seems most interesting to me from the last couple of weeks is the evolution of tactics. Where do we go from here? Where does Guardiola go from here? Who will have the next light-bulb moment? How people keep adapting such a simple game is incredible.

  4. Paul said on May 3, 2013 @ 12:37 pm

    Elflaco – great comments.
    Particularly like: “This generation is a freak.” And your words on Gotze. Bang on.

  5. elflaco said on May 3, 2013 @ 3:34 pm

    Thank you for your kind words Mister Paul.

  6. Carl said on May 3, 2013 @ 4:14 pm

    I agree with your comments about Barca’s transfer record John, it could be argued that the only really sound acquisition of recent years hgas been Jordi Alba, last year of his contract and a steal at £15m i think it was? Cesc is a terrific footballer, but he could take a leaf out of Alexis’ book in terms of intensity and work rate. I think Mats Hummels would be a prefect centre back pairing with Pique, solid in the air, very smart with the off-side trap with Subotic at the Bernabeu (although that may be credited to Klopp) and minus an error which admittedly led to the Ronaldo goal in Dortmund he is a decent ball palyer, vital for a Barca centre back. It might seem a little premature, but I think in the long term (not next season) that Dongou really could be the solution for Barca’s centre forward dilemma, in front of Messi in a 3-4-3 if needed as against AC, and as the Cruyff dream team played. Occupies centre backs, to create more time and space for Messi, a fast, tall(er) and more physical presence on top, and a lethal finisher for the most part. Of all barca’s problems (and theyre solvable ones) neymar is the answer to none. As pointed to above though, there is no solution to the ageing of Xavi, a ‘freak’ in the best possible way, I think Cesc was bought as a long term replacement, and though he has his place, I don’t think he can ever replace Xavi, the interesting question is then, how will they rebuild their midfield without a player of his illk? For those calling for Thiago to play instead of him, surely a completely different type of player, he has a lot of qualities for sure, but his vision and decision making on the ball is a long way from what Xavi had, even at Thiago’s age, it seems Xavi was born wise. One final note, when will everyone get of Pedro’s back? He’s one of the few to keep up his intensity all season, played brilliantly at the Allianz to be fair to him, and his finishing improves every season, doesnt get enough love from Barca fans or neutrals I think. Really interesting blog and comments x

  7. John said on May 3, 2013 @ 7:10 pm

    Cheers M8 and I agree with you about Dongou & Pedro… If the whole team (incl Messi) had Pedros work rate then we’d be winning the ball back immediately like we were a couple of seasons ago…. Also I think at times Messi needs to go out to the wings or just behind the front man to give us variation and surprise the opponent … Alba is a great player but with him and Alves on the same team we get caught out with both full backs pushing up and I think this has cost us lots of goals this year.. Abidal used to stay back and drop in to make a back 3 whilst Alves bombed forward so we always had cover at the back whereas now both fullbacks bomb forward and we are left with 3 on 2 or 2 on 1 and its cost us goals v Madrid and others…. Alba and Alves need to learn to take turns going forward in my opinion

  8. Carl said on May 3, 2013 @ 10:04 pm

    I think you are spot on, if Alves goes forward, then the natural shape with Abidal is that the three at the back shift across and form a back three with Busquets in front, the game against Santos is a good example. But if both go forward and busquets drops back to form a back three, then Barca are more exposed, as theres a lot of space to be exploited behind the full backs, if the opposition can find rapid wingers in those spaces fast enough then they have had a lot of joy against Barca this season, particularly if the team is out of shape from pressing the ball. It didnt used to be as much of a problem, because oposition wingers would track back with the Barca full backs, so if Alves makes a run forward, the opposing full back and winger are occupied, therefore not as much space behind. But Bayern were very quick in transition, resisted what Barca pressure there was on the ball, and then found the space, particulalry behind Alves very quickly. Barce need either to press the way they used to, to stop supply at source, which is much harder to press effectively when teams have decided to play direct, as there are fewer points to intercept. It seems Barca have to wither get back to their previous intensity of pressing, or they need to be warier about having full backs bombing forward, and sacrifice their vital role of stretching the field. Or at least thats how I see it, I’m sure plenty of people who know this Barca side better than I do would disagree, either way really excited to see what the summer brings for Barca. I just hope that they don’t throw away their resources on Neymar who isnt needed, at a time when theyve managed to make significant and healthy progress cutting the club’s debt. If the rumours of having someone stockier and more combative up front (not at the expense of vision and technique mind) , i.e someone in the Tevez/ Aguero mold are true, it would be a sounder investment.

  9. Paul said on May 4, 2013 @ 7:31 pm

    Top comments John – fair play

  10. John said on May 4, 2013 @ 8:16 pm

    Yeah I agree 100% …. I think also we need to learn to be clever.. Teams are dropping deep and just allowing us to have possession even when its them who need to score and not us and then (as you said) hitting us on the break. Like v Real in the Copa at home when a 0-0 draw wouldve suited us but we still attacked and they killed us on the break or v Milan away when again a 0-0 draw wouldve been a acceptable away result but we attacked and they dropped deep and hit us on the break or v Bayern away when we did the same…. We play right into their hands. Teams just give us the ball and drop deep and frustrate us and hit us on the break when its them who should be doing the attacking and not us… Sometimes we need to see whats happening tactically and surrender possession to them. Give them the ball and say “right so its up to you to attack , the pressures on you to win , not us” and then we can drop deep and when they come out of defence to play we can hit THEM on the break for a change… We are sometimes playing in to their trap with our slow possession game …. anyway hopefully we get some good tall defenders next season and sell off a few of the deadwood. Winning the league will be class tho.

  11. John said on May 4, 2013 @ 8:17 pm

    cheers m8

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