Against Barcelona, Bayern Munich played like a team without a future
Uli Hoeness used to warn that one should never make big decisions after big defeats (or big wins). It's useful advice, but often hard to adhere to in practice, especially after demoralising evenings such as the 3-0 loss suffered on Wednesday night in Barcelona.
FC Bayern are never short of players, officials, former managers and former players willing to amplify the media noise with off-the-cuff judgments in an echo chamber of negativity. At the heart of that brutal debate lies the unforgiving view that losing the odd crucial tie is not an unavoidable consequence of playing the game but a kind of disgrace. If your identity is based on winning, it's impossible to believe that life can simply go on when you don't win.
It cannot be stressed often enough that this extreme (and some would say joyless) attitude is one of the reasons Bayern win more often than not. Their history is littered with big, sweeping changes after painful defeats. The last time they were outclassed in Barcelona (4-0 in 2009), for example, it spelled the end for manager Jurgen Klinsmann and (eventually) a third of the squad.
It speaks volumes of Pep Guardiola's standing inside the club (and in the dressing room) that he is set to survive a second probable high-margin knockout in the Champions League semifinals. No other Bayern coach would have enjoyed even remotely similar job security after falling so spectacularly at the penultimate hurdle, twice -- bar an unlikely second-leg "football miracle," as Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge put it at the midnight banquet.
Essentially, the board accept his contention that Barcelona, with an otherworldly Lionel Messi and Bayern, without their mini-Messis Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben (and David Alaba), didn't go into this game on equal footing.
"We knew we couldn't win one-v-one, we couldn't counterattack. So we had to keep the ball," Guardiola explained after the final whistle with a helpless shrug. Bayern, in other words, had played not to lose the game, a bit like the side of Ottmar Hitzfeld used to do in big Champions League matches, just by other means. What else could they have done? And it had nearly worked, hadn't it?
"We're disappointed with our stupidity -- we threw it away at the end. It didn't feel like a 3-0 for a long time, we had controlled the game quite well in the second half," said Thomas Muller.
"The team fought heroically for 77 minutes," said Rummenigge, to much applause from VIP guests and sponsors at the team hotel. His kind words were an admission of Bayern's inferiority; the kind of thing you hear Bundesliga coaches from the wrong end of the table say after a late but inevitable 3-0 defeat at the Allianz Arena.
It's tempting to replay the game hypothetically, with Bayern at their best in terms of personnel and form, and with Robert Lewandowski taking his chance to get his side an important away goal. But that would be a futile exercise. You should only ever judge a team and their coach on what they did with the actual means at their disposal. Could Guardiola have done better, could his team have done better? These are the simple but potentially uncomfortable questions the club will start asking themselves when their season effectively finishes on Tuesday.
Let's start with the manager. His big idea, a three-man defence with Rafinha as left-back and Bayern matching the opposition man for man like a mirror image, backfired badly. Within the first 15 minutes, the away team could have been two- or three-nil down as the three defenders struggled to keep Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez at bay without any protection in front of them.
Bayern settled into the game a bit more once they changed to a back four and defended deeper as a team but their bad start had galvanized Barcelona and also affected their game psychologically. The midfield seemed reluctant to play vertical balls for fear of exposing their own defence. Instead, they held on to the ball running into cul-de-sacs. This was not the sort of possession that Guardiola had wanted.
Yes, Barcelona scored late. Yes, Messi had made the difference. But it's important to understand that Bayern didn't just get unlucky on the night. People who analyse football stats for a living will tell you that the most relevant parameter to evaluate a game is clear goal-scoring chances created, including those that lead to goals. If you take away the first goal -- not a clear goal-scoring opportunity, unless your name is Messi -- Barcelona still outperformed Bayern 5-1. They were well worth their win.
MESSI MAGIC BEATS BAYERN
- What the papers say: Messi 'brutal' as Barca batter Bayern
- Hunter: Messi raises the bar again
- Roden: Dani Alves reminds of importance
- Barca ratings: Messi steals the show
- Bayern ratings: Neuer gets a 9/10
- Three Points: Messi stars as Barca win
- VIDEO (US): Messi masterclass
The Bavarians, conversely, didn't deserve a draw, let alone a win. Marc-Andre ter Stegen didn't have a single save to make. Bayern created nothing of note, whether from open play or dead balls. The way they lost their shape -- and heads -- after the partially self-inflicted opener was reminiscent of last year's collapse against Real Madrid in Munich and the last 15 minutes in regular time against Dortmund in the semifinal of the DFB Cup. An experienced team of Champions League and World Cup winners shouldn't disintegrate in such a manner.
And Bayern shouldn't have conceded the first goal the way they did, either. Messi playing knots into Jerome Boateng will be the abiding image of the night, but in Germany, the post-match inquest immediately concentrated on the strange set of circumstances that led to the 1-0.
Bayern had a goal kick. A few Barca and Bayern players were remonstrating with the referee following a tumble from Neymar in the box. Manuel Neuer rushed his kick out to Juan Bernat to take advantage, as he later explained, for Barca being out of position for a second. Bayern are conditioned to play that way, and against a team who made a measured build-up play from the back all but impossible due to their man-for-man pressing, hitting the free man on the left was considered an obvious move by the keeper.
"We had numerical advantage on the left," Neuer said later. The problem was that Barca reacted quickly to close down the flank. Bernat tried to run past Dani Alves but lost the ball. A second later it was in Neuer's net.
That sort of goal will strengthen those who feel that Guardiola's system could do with a bit more realism. But the biggest discussions will swirl around individual players. Mario Gotze's ineffective cameo was dismissed as "youth football" by Franz Beckenbauer. Philipp Lahm, the captain, looked miles away from his usual fitness levels and assuredness on the ball. Xabi Alonso and Bastian Schweinsteiger both struggled; Thiago seemed strangely overawed by the occasion.
All in all, the performance suggested that the big transition in playing staff the board are working on might have to happen a bit earlier than expected. Bayern played like a team without a future on Wednesday night. Next week, they need to show that they have at least a present.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.