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Editors’ Takes: Debating on the Barcelona 2–8 Bayern Munich

Editorial Team

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Header Image by Rafael Marchante / Pool / AFP via Getty Images

In the culmination of an evident decline, our editors share their takes and standout performers of the fateful Barcelona 2–8 Bayern Munich.


Everyone knows what happened on Friday night and it needs no further explanation. However, after the historic humiliation through a 2–8 Bayern win in the Champions League quarter-finals, our editors share their different perspectives on what occurred to Barcelona in Lisbon.

Prajas Naik

Absolutely horrendous, but much needed

Outplayed. Outrun. Outsmarted. Those are the words that describe Bayern Munich’s performance against Barça. They were just better at everything that we tried to do. Bayern’s defence was not rock solid, but we failed to exploit the same. Barça looked like a mess out there with no plan or preparation. Wingers like Ansu Fati and a bright midfielder in Riqui Puig should have started the game.

The Bavarians were given too much space on the right side where Nélson Semedo was often caught high up the pitch. Bayern were brilliant in their pressing and we simply couldn’t play out from the back. The team’s inability to adapt was at show as well. They continued to play short passes in their own box even when it was clear that Bayern were forcing us into costly mistakes. The team did not have the legs to keep up with Bayern’s free-flowing game. A staggering yet much required reality check.

Standout performer: Bayern’s entire team

Thomas Müller, Serge Gnabry, Alphonso Davies, Manuel Neuer, Phillipe Coutinho and Thiago Alcântara. The list goes on and on. Every single player had more determination, hunger and flair than the blaugranas. They reeked of quality and confidence. Everyone was always in the right position and their relentless pressing and energy ultimately doomed Barcelona. 


Nassif Muhammed Ali

Told you so!

In my review of Barcelona’s second leg game against Napoli last week, I had said that the Catalan side were going from the frying pan into the fire. And into the fire they went. FC Barcelona tasted their worst loss in Champions league history last night. 

Even before the ball started rolling, there were rumours that Barca would line up in a 4–4–2 formation, hoping to control the mid-field. Like many of their fans around the world, I had hoped they wouldn’t do that. Because that system is something Barça cannot work with. Defensively, if you want to rely on two banks of four — in a 4–4–2 —, your unit needs to be highly disciplined and coordinated. Offensively, the two strikers up top will have to be very mobile and be supported by dynamic wing backs who can maraud up and down in no time. The blaugranas had none of these luxuries, and still went ahead with that system.

Barcelona Bayern Munich takes

Barça were 1–1 at one point, but it all crumbled fast | Photo by Manu Fernández / Pool / AFP via Getty Images

Going into the game therefore, it was clear that Quique Setién and Co. had not done their homework. Playing with a high backline and pushing their wing-backs forward, Bayern’s vulnerability lies in the wings and in defending balls played over the midfield into the wings — the two goals that Barça scored stands evidence to this. And this is no new information. This has been pointed out by twitterati since a while ago. 

The fact that Setién went into such a game, with an extra midfielder, and no wingers to stretch the backline is unbelievable. What exactly did the extra midfielder accomplish — stability in the middle of the park, or securing the backline? The answer is neither. Having no wingers forced Barça’s full-backs to try and spend more time in the attack. This meant more space for Alphonso Davies and Joshua Kimmich to run into — and how they used it! Davies in particular, targeted his opposite number Nélson Semedo and exploited the latter’s inability to get back to defensive position again and again. 

Standout performer: Luis Suárez

Yes, the Barcelona squad did not cover itself in glory last night. They were weak across the pitch. But if there is someone who can believe he did a decent job, that’s Luis Suárez. If for nothing else, the will he showed and the fight he put up till the end; even as most of his team mates had given up. Suárez tried his best to press Manuel Neuer.

His efforts, though, were not supported by his teammates. A good example of this was when Suárez called out to Antoine Griezmann to mark the passing outlet, as he himself was closing down on the goal keeper. It was clear that Griezmann’s indifference enraged the Uruguayan. It is only fitting that the only goal scored by a Barça player last night came from Suárez’s boots.


Alexander Patanian

Funeral

Eight. 8. EIGHT. How? Why? Could we have prevented that? Yes. Did we do enough to deserve less? Of course not. Barça is a club built on pride, and every time they suffer from a bad moment, they get right back up and win trophies and games.

In 2014, Barça’s last trophyless season, the gameplan wasn’t bad, and many argued that the Catalan club suffered from bad luck with results and injuries and should have at least won the league had they had some success in the final game of the season or any other one. This year, another trophyless season, it was embarrassment after embarrassment. From the first game to the last. It’s fitting that Barça began the season with an away loss at San Mamés and then got slapped by Bayern as if they were nothing.

“I ask for forgiveness from the fans. No one is protected in the club. No one”

Gerard Piqué

These players have embarrassed themselves first and then the fans. From Thomas Müller’s volley to Marc-André ter Stegen’s abysmal footwork passing by the enormous gaps on the flanks for Alphonso Davies to run into and the schoolboy mistakes like Sergi Roberto’s failed pass for the second goal, nothing worked, and it was just the epitome of a season full of sadness. Humiliated.

Lionel Messi, Ter Stegen, Sergio Busquets and everyone that has given everything for Barça have been crushed, but they embarrassed themselves first. Seeing these mistakes from the veterans was so hard to watch. I had faith, but I feel shameful after that. These players’ careers must be burned after that. The rebuild starts now more than ever.

Standout performer: Alphonso Davies

Alphonso Davies had a stellar game, even if he was helped massively by the gaps left by Sergi Roberto and Nélson Semedo on the right. The Canadian speedster still was head and shoulders above everyone, having a say in everything while Barça struggled to shut him up at the back and run at him in the attack.

His highlight of the game is leaving Nélson Semedo for dead to give it to Joshua Kimmich for an easy finish. Davies played so well, and maybe Barça could learn from Bayern’s recruitment with youngsters.


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The curious case of La Masia and the inability to produce elite strikers

Anurag Agate

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Photos via Imago

“My agent was approached by Manchester City, Getafe, Osasuna and Rayo Vallecano also, but Barcelona was our first choice. I just want to focus on my play and prove I am worth it.”

At the age of 15, Munir El Haddadi spoke casually of being approached by Spanish first division teams, Manchester City, and one of the biggest clubs ever, FC Barcelona. He was full of confidence, and why wouldn’t he be? 32 goals in 29 games for Rayo Majadohonda’s Cadete A side had attracted the top scouts in Europe to watch this Moroccan teenager.

He eventually signed for Barcelona and showed no sign of slowing down. Winning the UEFA Youth League with the Juvenil A, scoring 11 times in ten matches, becoming Barcelona’s third-youngest goal scorer his debut and nominated for the Golden Boy award were just some of his achievements. The future looked bright for this diminutive number nine.

Six years later, he had made only 33 appearances for Barcelona, scoring a total of five times. Two seasons on loan at Valencia and Alaves, yet again with 33 appearances each, were not particularly fruitful as he scored a total of 16 goals.

An incomplete dream. (Photo via Imago)

It wasn’t like Munir was someone who got injured a lot, neither was it a case of his profile not suiting the playstyle nor was it an issue of him not having the required talent and work ethic. Since then, three of Barcelona’s most promising strikers from Barcelona’s youth academies, Pablo Moreno, Abel Ruiz, and Alejandro Marquez, have all moved on to different clubs.

There are young midfielders, defenders, and wingers who are or, have been close to establishing themselves in the first team. For goalkeepers, the first-team career usually starts a bit late because there is little necessity for rotations. But strikers? They need significantly more rest than goalkeepers, and their career doesn’t take off late either.

Despite this, why have we not seen strikers even close to breaking into the first-team recently? To answer this, we must take a look at the ideal Barcelona striker, followed by what went wrong for strikers like Munir and Abel Ruiz. After that, we examine possible solutions to this, and to conclude the article, we have insight from some of the most knowledgeable people on La Masia.

The prototype of a Barcelona number nine

Recently, Barcelona have been linked with several strikers, including Erling Haaland, Sergio Aguero, and Harry Kane. Out of these, Sergio Aguero resembles the ideal Barcelona number nine the most. The low centre of gravity, quick change of direction, and incredible shot power with little backlift are all attributes that suit positional play. However, there will be players like Haaland or Kane whose sheer quality points towards them being a success at whichever club they play.

To understand what is expected from a number nine at Barcelona, we surprisingly have to look no further than the B team. Gerard Fernandez, nicknamed ‘Peque’, is an 18-year-old playing for Garcia Pimienta’s Barcelona B side. What stands out most is the extent to which he will try and get involved in the build-up. Often dropping back to create a situation of numerical superiority, his link-up play is exquisite. This is something that a Barcelona striker must-have. The team, practising positional play, will look to play their way through the opposition rather than attempt a lot of crosses or attacking only on the counter.

The next striker carrying the La Masia dream. (Photo via Imago)

Getting in the right positions and making the right runs makes all the difference. In a system based around counter-attacking or around using a target man, the physical aspect of a player makes a huge difference. In a team such as Barcelona, however, the positioning and reading of the game come first.

Being clinical is naturally crucial for strikers. It is also one of the toughest aspects. For a striker, regardless of the player’s profile, scoring goals regularly is essential. Lastly, one of the decisive factors for a striker, chemistry. There are few examples better than Luis Suarez to discuss this. His telepathic connection with Lionel Messi was lethal. Towards the end of his tenure at Barcelona, his goalscoring abilities, including his previously clinical finishing, were somewhat deteriorating, to say the least. The chemistry, however, was still present. This factor is especially decisive in teams like Barcelona, where timing, positioning, and linking-up well are make or break for strikers.

La Masia strikers and their progression

Munir El Haddadi once thought of Barcelona’s striker for the coming decade, left the club having little to no impact. He was scoring more than a goal per 90 at Barcelona B, but he could not even come close to replicating the same for the first team. Expecting him to score at the same rate would be unrealistic. Not only did his goalscoring rate get halved, but he failed to replicate the same clinical finishing.

Abel Ruiz was Spain’s youth team poster-boy at a point. He was the captain, scored goals regularly, was incredible in the build-up and in linking-up plays. For Barcelona, however, he was unable to replicate the goalscoring form. The Spanish youth national teams, though based on positional play, would rarely hesitate to play Abel Ruiz as a target man often.

Ruiz, too, failed to carry the mantle. (Photo via Imago)

But why was it that these strikers were failing to do well in a system that they had been trained to play in since they were kids?

Possible problems and solutions

Unfortunately, we don’t have access to Barcelona’s training or what exactly they teach the strikers. Not completely, at least. The following are two drills from the 2005 training manual used by Barcelona’s Juvenil A. Compiled by the revered Alex Garcia, there are some observations to be made about these drills which could give us more information.

In this drill, ‘ejercicio de tiro’, meaning shooting practice, the red lines show movement without the ball. The player has to run behind the goal, run to the green circle on the left, pass the ball, run, pick it up again and shoot it straight first, followed by a shot to the other post in the second repetition and a straight shot from the other side of the goal in the third repetition. What this exercise does is emphasize quick passing and shooting with minimal touches.

This practice has been chosen from the manual as it encapsulates the factors that the vast majority of exercises in the training manual do. As a result, the excellent linkup play and quick shooting observed in La Masia’s number nines make sense. When shooting on the first or second touch, one has to take into account their posture, in turn improving their balance.

Coming to the second example, we have an exercise which is titled ‘Quick shooting in pairs’. As the two players performing at a time have no interdependence, we shall examine only one of the players’ paths. Essentially, in this exercise, the player passes the ball, runs without the ball through a small circuit that emphasizes quick movement and agile side-stepping preceded by a quick one-two, and then shoots. Yet again, this exercise focuses on agility, balance, combinational play, and shooting with minimal touches.

As we saw from both exercises, there is a clear focus on certain aspects at La Masia. Granted, we don’t have the full picture, but it allows us to proceed with more data at our disposal.

Taking a look at these exercises, a reason for the low success rate of La Masia strikers at first-team level can by given. These exercises are all, to an extent, ideal. What that means is that they assume that the ideal positional play practised in training will be replicated on the field. That essentially is how training works, true, but the types of opposition Barcelona face vary.

Each player has to adapt according to the opposition, not only the strikers. It, however, is much tougher for strikers. That’s what makes players like Luis Suarez so special. His finishing and positioning in the box was impressive, but when required, he would be able to dribble and make a difference on his own as well.

Luis Suarez often caught the solo boat ride, which worked for him. (Photo via Imago)

Considering Abel Ruiz and Munir El Haddadi, their lack of directness in 1v1s might have been a major hindrance. This would lead to them often being suffocated in front of the goal. When this happens for many matches, a loss of confidence is very likely, leading to them missing many chances. This recurring cycle would lead to deterioration in the overall play.

One might wonder why this is a problem seen so commonly a Barcelona and not at other clubs. To an extent, strikers might be a position where physique does indeed make a huge difference. The physique argument is ever-present in Barcelona, especially when talking about players like Riqui Puig. What most people fail to take into account is the extent to which the tiny physique helps the player. But for strikers, it seems like the disadvantages of a diminutive physique vastly outweigh the advantages.

This doesn’t mean that players with a good physique must be prioritized. It just means that the number nine is where Barcelona might have to stray a bit farther from the ideal style of play than in other positions. In short, if the team’s positional play is excellent, a number nine produced in La Masia would do very well. In the case where the team does have technically gifted players, but the required level of play is still not achieved, the striker’s odds of being influential would be better with a better physique and if he is able to convert all sorts of chances, akin to someone like Erling Haaland.

Fan’s opinions

We asked three Culés who are very well-versed in what the Barcelona philosophy entails and who regularly watch Barcelona’s youth teams their opinion regarding this.

They were asked whether there is a need to change the prototype of a Barcelona number nine to suit the current footballing landscape and how they would increase the success rate of players breaking into the first team.

Navid

“Probably, it’s just something in the methodology which doesn’t give the strikers the final edge for the highest, highest level, which is, of course, a shame. To be honest, I don’t really know how the success rate could be increased.”

Navid went on to express the fact that the strikers seem to do well in the youth teams but fail to perform in the first team. Being unsure of whether or not the prototype has to be changed, he believed that we are more likely to see players who played as false 9s like Ansu Fati and Messi breaking into the first team.

Can Ansu Fati be the no. 9 from La Masia? (Photo via Imago)

“One possible solution could be to sell them with buyback clauses pretty early on. Maybe Juvenil A level or Barcelona B level to avoid stagnation which is seen often at the Barca B level.”

“I think that we should be more aware of the best strikers and as soon as they have problems at Barcelona B, sell them with a buyback clause. Usually, it looks like they need a new start where they have a new role and can develop from there.”

“Munir was excellent, not only at La Masia but also at Barca B. But at the same time, you need consistency as a striker.”

Single Pivot

“It’s a complicated question. I suppose that scoring as a youngster is fairly easy due to Barça’s superiority, but once they go to professional football, like Segunda B, there are many factors that come into play and a striker has a lot to do: drop deep, fixate the centre-backs, also score goals. And those who scored goals find it harder to find goalscoring consistency.

All eyes on Peque. (Photo via Imago)

I keep my fingers crossed with Peque, he for me, is the ideal striker. But changing a model for a position is difficult, I don’t know what could be done in that sense.”

Sam

“Looking at the top centre-forwards globally – Haaland, Lewandowski, Benzema, Lukaku, Lautaro, Vardy, Gerard Moreno, Kane – it’s tough to imagine someone with their profile coming from La Masia in my opinion. Someone like Benzema, Kane, or maybe Isak, with their positional sense and link-up ability, are probably the closest top forwards to an ideal Barça nine, but those guys are super rare with how they mix those qualities with exceptional skill in the more traditional poaching areas.”

“So, yeah, I would say, especially as Messi starts to phase out of the side and takes a large share of goals with him, it does seem like it would be beneficial for La Masia to start producing a different style of 9.”

“You can’t just say that we should be producing Halaands or Isaks cause those guys are super unique and rare, but I guess they can serve as a template. Maybe we start focusing more on poaching aspects during player development, teaching them those to run in behind (like Halaand’s signature run into the left side of the penalty area), and working harder to identify players with unique physical profiles (Isak’s mix of length but also agility, even prime Suarez’s blend of stockiness/muscle with good bursts of speed), as well as having more patience with them.”

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