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FC Barcelona v Chelsea FC - UEFA Champions League Semi Final

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Don’t Call it Magic: How Chelsea ended Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona dynasty

April 24, 2012; Camp Nou, Barcelona

Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

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Was it Napoli? Yeah, it was probably the second leg against Napoli.

It certainly wasn’t West Brom. No, the match that brought a preemptive conclusion to Andre Villas-Boas’ infamous ‘project’ was definitely not the match where it was illuminated that Chelsea just might do something special in the 2011-2012 season.

That day, an 82nd minute Gareth McAuley strike at the Hawthorns gave the Baggies a 1-0 victory and consigned the abject Blues to their seventh league defeat of the season and the sharply-dressed AVB to days spent trolling ‘help wanted’ ads hoping to find an employer in search of a high defensive line and three-day stubble. To be blunt: on 3rd March, 2012, Chelsea did not seem capable of eliminating Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona – the team that many consider to be the greatest the sport has ever seen – from the Champions League.

On 14th March, 2012, the mood changed. At a raucous Stamford Bridge with club legend Roberto Di Matteo having taken over as interim manager, the Chelsea old-guard that seemed so out of step with AVB’s attempted revolution showed they still had fight left in their aging legs against a fashionable (and quite good) Napoli in the Champions League round of 16. Like horror movie villains thought to have been killed off several films ago returning to wreak mayhem, Didier Drogba, John Terry and Frank Lampard were the three Chelsea goal scorers in regulation. When Branislav Ivanovic finished the Italian-side off in extra time to send Blues fans everywhere into delirium, there was a genuine feeling that previously left-for-dead-Chelsea suddenly had some kind of magic aura surrounding them.

Magic (nebulous concept that it is) can only get a team so far, though, right? Sure, it may be able to get a team past Napoli. And it can probably get a team past Benfica (who Chelsea somewhat unconvincingly beat in the quarterfinals), but Barcelona? The wizards from Catalonia had been practitioners of their own kind of magic under Pep Guardiola.


FC Barcelona v RCD Espanyol  - Liga BBVA Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

The seeds for Guardiola’s possession-based sorcery were sown by Dutch-footballing icon Johan Cruyff. Cruyff first arrived to Barcelona as a player in 1973 after spending much of the previous decade as the main component in Ajax’s wildly successful Total Football machine. Manipulation of space was the key to Total Football’s success. Ajax manager Rinus Michels would have his players shift positions around the pitch in an effort to drag and move opposition players into unfamiliar and uncomfortable areas, thus creating gaps that could be exploited. Cruyff certainly brought Michels’ space-shaping concepts with him when he came to Spain as a player, but his greatest influence on the playing ethos of the Blaugrana came later during his time as Barcelona manager.

Prior to Cruyff’s managerial second coming in 1988, Barcelona were mired in poor results with even poorer play. Cruyff inherited a team bereft of technically gifted skill players that finished sixth in La Liga the previous season. As an example of how different the culture at Barcelona was then compared to modern times, attacking midfielder Jose Mari Bakero would actually have whistles rained down on him from the stands at the Camp Nou if he dared to pass the ball backwards. Cruyff changed Barcelona’s footballing culture, and he started with immediate changes to the first team’s playing style. An attacking, space-contorting 3-4-3 system was implemented. Most crucially though, to develop the talent required to play his fluid brand of football, Cruyff cast his revolutionary gaze upon Barcelona’s training academy: La Masia.

Before Cruyff’s overhaul, Barcelona judged youth players based on their potential physique. Only young players projected to grow up to at least 1.80m (5ft 11in) were retained at the club. Cruyff scrapped that policy and shifted the club’s focus to developing intelligent players who were gifted with the ball. Though he would ultimately grow up to meet those bygone height requirements anyway, one of the early graduates of Cruyff’s revamped La Masia was Pep Guardiola.

During his first week as Barcelona manager Cruyff spotted Guardiola at a youth team match playing as a right-sided midfielder. At half-time of the match Cruyff approached then-youth team manager, Charly Rexach, and asked him move Guardiola to the pivot position at the base of the team’s midfield. It was a wise decision. From the pivot position, Guardiola would go on to anchor Cruyff’s much-celebrated ‘Dream Team.’ From 1990 to 1994, Cruyff, Guardiola and the ‘Dream Team’ won four straight La Liga titles and, in 1992, Barcelona’s first ever European Cup.

“Johan Cruyff painted the chapel, and Barcelona coaches since merely restore or improve it,” Guardiola said of Cruyff. Along with Guardiola, key ‘Dream Team’ contributors Albert Ferrer, Guillermo Amor, and Sergi all came through a La Masia recalibrated to preach the Cruyff gospel. From the first team down through the academy, Cruyff’s philosophy had been firmly entrenched in the DNA of Barcelona. In 2008, after a spell in charge of Barcelona’s B team, Cruyff’s great pivot, Guardiola, was named manager of the senior squad. The two seasons prior to Guardiola’s appointment saw Real Madrid take control of La Liga with back-to-back titles. Guardiola was given the paintbrush. It was his turn to restore the chapel.

Barcelona v Las Palmas - La Liga Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images

Like Cruyff before him, and Michels before Cruyff, Guardiola sought to have his players manipulate the positioning of the opposition. “The objective is to move the opponent, not the ball,” Guardiola once remarked. How Guardiola’s Barcelona went about moving their opponents has frequently been misunderstood. The Catalan club spun webs of intricate passes around opposing teams in a style that was (at times derisively) referred to as ‘tiki taka.’ Barcelona’s copious passing was undeniably pleasant to look at, but some questioned its purpose. Tiki-taka faced accusations of being beauty for beauty or possession for possession’s sake.

Guardiola himself has been dismissive of the tiki-taka label and the sterile possession it implies. He felt Barcelona’s passing did have purpose, and that purpose was to move their opponents out of position and then attack the space they vacated.

“I hate tiki-taka.”

“Tiki-taka means passing the ball for the sake of it, with no clear intention…in all team sports, the secret is to overload one side of the pitch so that the opponent must tilt its own defense to cope. You overload on one side and draw them in so that they leave the other side weak.”

“And when we’ve done all that, we attack and score from the other side. That’s why you have to pass the ball, but only if you’re doing it with a clear intention. It’s only to overload the opponent, to draw them in and then to hit them with the sucker punch.”

-Pep Guardiola; source: Pep Confidential (by Marti Perarnau)

Guardiola’s Barcelona achieved those overloads using a concept that’s been referred to as ‘Juego de Posicion’ or positional play. With positional play, the pitch is divided into various zones, which players occupy depending on the position of the ball. The idea is that the player in possession of the ball should always have at least two if not three different passing options. Creating numerical superiorities is essential to positional play and players will shift their positions to generate those advantages. With players in constant movement, a team utilizing positional play (Guardiola is one of the few managers who implements it) will often have their starting formation rendered redundant. “Formations are just telephone numbers,” Guardiola has said.

One doesn’t have to look hard to see Cruyff’s philosophies as the antecedent to what Guardiola achieved as a manager at the Camp Nou. A strategy involving players bustling around the pitch shuffling their positioning is right in line with the Dutchman’s vision of how football should be played. Guardiola’s paintbrush was in fine order. Perhaps even more important than Cruyff’s tactical influence on the Guardiola-era at Barcelona though, was the legacy the ex-Dream Team boss left behind at La Masia. For the 2009 Champions League final in Rome against Manchester United, Barcelona’s starting eleven featured seven graduates from their youth academy. That was also the case for the 2011 final against Manchester United in London.

Barcelona were victorious in both of those finals and they were also successful in wresting control of La Liga back from Real Madrid with three straight league triumphs. Heading into 2012’s Champions League semifinal against Chelsea, the only major setback Guardiola had encountered as Barcelona manager was capitulation to Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan in 2010’s Champions League semifinal. Mourinho’s tactics, specifically in that tie’s second leg, would prove pertinent to Barcelona’s encounter with the Blues two years later.

Bayern Muenchen v Inter Milan - UEFA Champions League Final Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

After Inter won the first leg in Milan, 3-1, speculation abounded on just how conservative the notoriously conservative Mourinho would set his Nerazzurri-side up to play in Spain. The answer to that speculation was very conservative, but crude cries of “bus parking” do not tell the full story of one of the greatest defensive performances of all-time, and the first true dent in Guardiola’s hitherto impenetrable amour.

The turning point of the second leg came in the 28th minute when Thiago Motta, already on a yellow, was shown a straight red card for pushing (touching?) the face of Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets. Mourinho summoned his best sarcastic chuckle and applause at the decision and in an instantly iconic moment tapped Guardiola on his shoulder and said to him: “Don’t think you’ve won yet.”

Motta’s red card, in a certain light, may have ended up being a positive for Inter because it certainly concluded whatever pretense the Nerazzurri had at being an attacking force that evening. “We didn’t want the ball,” Mourinho reflected after the match. “Because when Barcelona press and win the ball back, we lose our position. I never want to lose position on the pitch so I didn’t want us to have the ball, we gave it away.” Inter would finish the match with just 14 percent possession, but only conceded once (an 84th minute Gerard Pique goal) and advanced to the Champions League final with a 3-2 aggregate victory. Busses had been parked before, but Inter were a veritable Caravan Club site impeding Barcelona’s path to goal.

Accustomed to manipulating space, Barcelona found there was no space available to manipulate. Inter’s players, defending in essentially a 4-5-0 formation, sat stubbornly in front of their own goal and did not budge. By resolutely maintaining their shape and not being drawn out of position by Barcelona’s movement, Mourinho’s Inter ensured that even the great Lionel Messi had the same spatial freedom as an individual talking in a particularly cramped telephone booth. Inter were a great, big block of cheddar cheese when the world-class chefs from Barcelona were used to turning their opponents into hole-filled Swiss.

Much of the media attention after Inter’s triumph centered (unsurprisingly) on Mourinho. The match at the Camp Nou was viewed as Mourinho’s latest ‘master class.’ And while Mourinho deserved substantial accolades for what his team accomplished, perhaps not enough scrutiny was directed at what Barcelona’s second-leg struggles meant for Guardiola and his footballing ideology. It became even easier to dismiss the match as a one-off managerial gem from Mourinho when Guardiola and Barcelona stormed to La Liga and Champions League titles the following season (vanquishing Mourinho’s Real Madrid en route to both). In 2012’s Champions League semifinal, Roberto Di Matteo and Chelsea showed there was indeed a Mourinho-influenced blueprint that could be followed against the most unstoppable of unstoppable teams, however. Barcelona and Guardiola haven’t quite been the same since.


Chelsea Training Session & Press Conference Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images

Going into the 2012 semi-final tie, Chelsea were significant underdogs. The Blues had plunged to sixth in the Premier League table, a lowly depth for the Roman Abramovich-era. If one gave a quick glance at the team sheet for the first-leg match a number of the names responsible for Chelsea’s not-too-distant glory still would have popped out: Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, John Terry, Ashley Cole and Petr Cech were all there. A closer inspection of the lineup would have revealed more polarizing names, however. It was genuinely frightening for Chelsea supporters to consider just how Raul Meireles and his questionable Mohawk would fair against a Barcelona midfield comprised of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets.

Predictably, Barcelona monopolized possession throughout the first-leg match at Stamford Bridge. With their mixture of aging club greats and unheralded newcomers, it wasn’t surprising to see Chelsea adopt a passive approach against Guardiola’s juggernaut, even on their home pitch. Not tempted by the success Mourinho’s Real Madrid had achieved in the Copa Del Rey final the season prior by deploying perennial loose cannon Pepe (generally, a bruising defender) in a midfield destroyer role to disrupt Barcelona’s buildup, Di Matteo had Chelsea’s three midfielders sit back. Juan Mata and Ramires, nominally Chelsea’s wingers, tucked in alongside Lampard, John Obi Mikel and Meireles forming a 4-5-1 formation with Drogba as the lone forward.

Drogba’s presence was vitally important. His ability to function as a dangerous one-man counter-attack for even the most desperate of Chelsea’s clearances meant Barcelona’s defenders always had to keep actual defending at the forefront of their minds. Guardiola’s plan was to undermine Drogba’s influence with a stifling offside trap which required the Blaugrana back four (well, at least three of the four) to be especially cognizant of their positioning and not flood forward seeking to participate in attack. Throughout much of the first half, Guardiola’s defensive strategy was successful, as the menacing Ivorian was caught offside on several occasions. In first half stoppage time though, Drogba struck.

By some margin, the least defensively conservative of Barcelona’s four defenders was right back Dani Alves, and it was he who was caught out of position for the only goal of the match. After Lampard dispossessed Messi near the center of the pitch, the Chelsea midfielder drifted a looping pass towards the left flank to Ramires, who was storming into the space left behind by an Alves forward run. Ramires received the ball and surged into the Barcelona penalty area where he slid a pass over to the onrushing Drogba. Exactly no one watching was surprised when the clinical Chelsea striker knocked the ball into the back of the net.

Even with their dominance of possession (the Catalan-side saw 79% of the ball to the Blues’ 21%); Barcelona found it difficult to create clear-cut chances against an exquisitely disciplined and organized Chelsea. In particular, Chelsea were tremendous at clogging the central third of the pitch in their own half. Along with the three central midfielders, Chelsea’s center backs, John Terry and Gary Cahill, limited the space available to Messi in the exact area where Barcelona’s key playmaker would have been most dangerous. As a result, the brilliant Argentine was continually forced to drop deep in front of Chelsea’s midfield just to receive the ball and found several blue-clad bodies blocking his route to goal when he did.

Chelsea FC v Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Semi Final Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Di Matteo’s game plan to stymie Barcelona’s quick, vibrant movements (and most crucially to stymie those movements in front of the Chelsea goal) worked, and the Blues got the 1-0 first-leg victory they desperately craved. Prior to the second leg in Barcelona the following week though, Chelsea had a league match against Arsenal at the Emirates.

Chelsea’s home fixture with Arsenal earlier in the season represented the nadir of the departed AVB’s experiments with an aggressive playing style that was the tactical opposite of how Di Matteo had set the Blues up to play against Barcelona. As admirable as AVB’s desires to usher in a new, exciting era of cavalier football for Chelsea may have been, his vision and Chelsea’s personnel were not congruous. The defining moment of Chelsea’s wacky 3-5 defeat to the Gunners at Stamford Bridge came when the never-fleet-of-foot John Terry, way out of his element near the middle of the pitch, slipped Steven Gerrard-style trying to retrieve an errant Florent Malouda pass. With no defensive coverage behind Terry, Robin van Persie pounced. He blew by the Chelsea captain, then rounded Cech to slot home his second of what would be three goals in the match.

Contrasted with the eight-goal circus that was the first encounter between the two teams, the match in north London that preceded Chelsea’s trip to the Camp Nou may have well have been contested by two groups of athletically-dressed somnambulists. The 0-0 draw was far less entertaining for neutral observers, but it was indicative of the no-nonsense stability that Di Matteo had restored to Chelsea. At the very least, there was no threat of a cheaply earned van Persie hat trick during the match at the Emirates.

To say that Di Matteo merely simplified Chelsea tactically would be underselling the work the Italian accomplished. Chelsea had become a team without a clear identity under AVB. The Blues were neither the high-flying side of AVB’s fever dreams nor were they the rigid brick wall that would go on to defeat Bayern Munich for the Champions League title. That February under the young Portuguese manager Chelsea had electrified Manchester United at Stamford Bridge by racing out to a 3-0 lead (a lead, in classic AVB-at-Chelsea fashion, they would ultimately surrender) just weeks after playing out a dour 0-0 draw away at Norwich. Under AVB, Chelsea could either be an attacking entity or a defensive one; the two phases of the game could not exist in harmony.

Di Matteo established a coherent structure out of the chaos he inherited that optimized the strengths of Chelsea’s key players. The high defensive line featured during AVB’s tenure was scrapped in favor of a lower block (particularly against tough opposition) better suited to the playing style of the Blues’ defenders and central midfielders. Terry no longer had to concern himself with cosmopolitan passing inside the opposition’s half and Lampard, not quite the explosive player of his younger days, was able to thrive in a deeper lying role. And with Drogba saving some of his finest ever performances in a Chelsea shirt for the final months of his initial spell with the club, no matter how little of the ball the Blues saw in a match, they were a genuine threat to score. Di Matteo’s Chelsea stepped onto the pitch at the Camp Nou for the second leg still unfancied, but dangerous.

And several of Chelsea’s most important players likely walked out onto that pristine Camp Nou pitch with a degree of revenge on their minds. Guardiola and Barcelona’s 2009 Champions League title was not without controversy. In the heated second leg of the Blaugrana’s semifinal tie with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge that year, the Blues had no fewer than six shouts for penalties that referee Tom Henning Ovrebo never extended his arm to grant. No one could question Chelsea’s sense of injustice when Andres Iniesta banged home a late Barcelona winner. “All we want is a fair playing surface,” John Terry reflected after the match. “Not one player made one mistake in the two legs…the fact is that six decisions went against us. For the ref not to give one of them is unusual.”

Chelsea v Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Semi Final Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

When the 2012 iteration of a Barcelona/Chelsea second leg semifinal tie kicked off it settled into the pattern that most had predicted: Barcelona with the ball and Chelsea bunkered tightly in front of their own net clinging to their one-goal advantage. Despite the Barcelona pressure, and a few quality Blaugrana-chances being carved out by some stellar one touch passing centrally around the Chelsea penalty area, the Blues were mostly holding strong. In the 35th minute however, the Chelsea dam finally broke.

Unlike the first leg of the tie where Barcelona played in their more common 4-3-3 formation and sought to create width through the wide full-back play of Dani Alves, the second leg saw them line up in what proved to be a narrower 3-4-3. (Alves actually started the second leg on the bench, but was brought on for the injured Gerard Pique in the 26th minute.) The inability to create quality chances from wide areas was ultimately costly for Barcelona as the match went on, but their opening goal was the result of winger Isaac Cuenca (the player ostensibly tasked with generating width in the first half) receiving a pass wide in Chelsea’s box and delivering a cross to Sergio Busquets who subsequently ended the Blues’ hopes of sneaking out of the Camp Nou with a 0-0 score line and a 1-0 aggregate victory.

Two minutes after Busquets’ goal, it went from bad to utterly grim for Chelsea. Away from the ball, in a moment that’s still difficult to comprehend, John Terry, Chelsea’s ever-stoic leader, leapt up and placed his knee into the back of Barcelona forward Alexis Sanchez. Alexis made the most of what really was minimal contact, but what exactly Terry was thinking is anyone’s guess. Referee Cuneyt Cakir showed the Chelsea captain a straight red card.

“I feel I’ve let the lads down…I’ve apologized to them and I want to apologize to the fans as well,” Terry later said of the incident. With Cahill having gone off with an injury in the twelfth minute, Chelsea found themselves without both of their starting center-backs. Down a goal and down a man, any inclination Di Matteo may have had to simply create a facsimile of the first leg was abruptly thrown away in just a few short minutes.

FC Barcelona v Chelsea FC - UEFA Champions League Semi Final Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Up to that point in the tie, the Blues had set themselves up with a five-man midfield. Terry’s red card forced Di Matteo to shift Ramires over to the right-back position forming a 4-4-1 formation with a player who typically played right-back (Branislav Ivanovic) and a player who typically played left-back (Jose Bosingwa, who’d come on for Cahill) comprising Chelsea’s center-back pairing. The always-great Ashley Cole was at left back, but three-fourths of the Blues’ backline were now playing out of their primary positions (though generally a right-back, Ivanovic had played some center-back in his career). With that patchwork backline and one less man in the midfield than they’d been accustomed to playing with in the tie, Chelsea were shell-shocked. The team’s airtight organization was replaced by a porous chaos.

Shortly after Terry’s red card Barcelona capitalized on Chelsea’s newfound instability. Andres Iniesta scored with precious little hindrance to put Barcelona up 2-0 in the match and 2-1 up on aggregate in the tie. As the players walked back to the center circle to resume play after the goal, the notion that Chelsea had any chance of tilting the tie back in their favor seemed insane. The Blues had improved under Di Matteo, but this was still an old, not particularly vintage Chelsea team that had entered the match looking up at Newcastle in the Premier League standings. A team featuring Jose Bosingwa (now defending out of position!) was seriously going to beat the greatest club side ever assembled? Of course Barcelona were winning. No other outcome was fathomable. Order had been restored.

Then the earth spun off its axis. It’s a bit of a cliché to say that goals change matches, but in first-half stoppage time when Ramires exploded onto to a gorgeous Lampard pass (not too dissimilarly from in the first leg when he set up Drogba’s goal) and cheekily chipped Barcelona keeper Victor Valdes to put the Blues ahead on away goals, Chelsea’s bleak hopelessness was instantly and undoubtedly transformed into sanguine exuberance. Ten-man Chelsea’s task for the second half was still extremely difficult (and it’s worth noting ‘extremely difficult’ was a significant upgrade on ‘absolutely impossible,’ which was the outlook after Iniesta’s goal), but simple: keep Barcelona from scoring and a trip to Munich and the Champions League final would be the reward.

Di Matteo’s key tactical adjustment at half time was to shift Drogba from his requisite center forward position to the left side of the midfield. This gave Chelsea a 4-5-0 formation (like Inter had used in 2010) and allowed the Blues to defend with the five-midfielder shape they were comfortable in prior to Terry’s red card.

‘Comfortable’ may be the wrong word to describe the herculean defensive display that Chelsea delivered in the second half, but there were certain elements of Barcelona’s play that didn’t trouble the Blues as much as one might have expected. Bosingwa having to contain Messi from an unnatural position initially seemed like big trouble for Chelsea, but Bosingwa’s natural pace as a left-back was advantageous for his new role.

Unpredictability was essential to Barcelona in the days of Cruyff’s management and it was essential to Barcelona under Guardiola. The capricious, eccentric movements from the two managers’ players would confuse the opposition, and a confused opposition is an opposition more prone to making mistakes. Mistakes lead to gaps in a team’s defensive structure and the exploitation of those gaps defined Cruyff and Guardiola’s teams. In the second half against Chelsea, Barcelona were predictable. Guardiola (who was surely having flashbacks to the struggles his side had against ten-man Inter two years prior) responded to Chelsea sitting deep by seeking to get as many players into the attacking third as possible.

“They never had players bursting at pace through the defensive lines: everyone was too near the box already -€” they couldn’t build up enough pace to be traveling at speed when they ran onto the ball,” Jonathan Wilson wrote of Barcelona’s second half problems in Inverting the Pyramid. With Barcelona’s movement lacking dynamism, Chelsea were able to maintain their organization and not gift the Blaugrana any openings to seize upon. Drogba (unlikely to have enticed Di Matteo to consider him for a full-time midfield role) did concede a penalty that Messi shockingly clanged off the crossbar, but Chelsea largely reduced Barcelona to low percentage long-range shots -€” hardly a Guardiola signature.

It would be foolish to say that luck played no role in Chelsea’s ultimate victory over Barcelona. Luck plays some role in every match, but Chelsea’s triumph wasn’t a fluke. Guardiola’s Cruyff-influenced playing style is dependent on creating and attacking space. Simply put: Chelsea made it so there was no space. Over two legs, and particularly in the second half of the second leg, Di Matteo’s Chelsea were so compact that Barcelona’s players couldn’t break into advantageous offensive areas. And Guardiola’s reaction to Chelsea’s compactness failed. Barcelona were so deliberate and calculated as the second leg went on, it actually made it easier for Chelsea to keep their shape.

Fernando Torres scoring the stoppage time clincher felt like an act of pure magic, but it wasn’t. With so many Barcelona players forward repeatedly and futilely crashing into Chelsea’s defensive wall, the opportunity for the Blues to land a sucker punch always existed. The unbeatable were beaten. Chelsea were going to Munich.

FC Barcelona v Chelsea FC - UEFA Champions League Semi Final Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

On 27 April, 2012, just days after the Champions League defeat to Chelsea, Guardiola announced he would step down as manager of Barcelona at the conclusion of the 2011-12 season. Guardiola’s time at Barcelona’s chapel was over and the paintbrush would be handed off to someone else. Barcelona have still been good (very good, actually, as Chelsea found out in a rematch in this season’s Champions League round of 16) in the seasons following Guardiola’s departure, but the path to that success has deviated from the road traveled by Cruyff and his former midfielder. For Barcelona’s 2015 Champions League title, the number of players in the Blaugrana’s starting eleven who had spent time at La Masia was down to just four, and Jordi Alba was the only academy-bred player who wasn’t in 2011’s Champions League final lineup (and he even spent a significant chunk of his development at Valencia). Big-money purchases Neymar and Luis Suarez were the essential players in that team’s success.

The playing style at Barcelona has also changed in recent times, with the current iteration of the Blaugrana appearing to be a bit more reactionary than the teams of the Cruyff and Guardiola eras. This February even against tiny Eibar, Barcelona just barely won the battle for possession and spent significant stretches of the match playing on the counterattack. With flashy transfer signings replacing La Masia graduates in the starting lineup and the utilization of tactics that show at least some willingness to cede control of the ball, Cruyff’s chapel has undergone renovations greater than any paintbrush is capable of achieving.

After taking a season’s sabbatical following his Barcelona exit, Guardiola has been successful, but perhaps not as successful as he would like. There was an air of formality to the three consecutive Bundesliga titles he won with German powerhouses Bayern Munich, thought it would be harsh not to acknowledge that he did have the Bavarians playing some truly exciting football. However, defeats in three-straight Champions League semifinals with a roster that overstuffed with talent likely stung. And while Guardiola has conquered England with his comically well-funded Manchester City team this season, in two campaigns with the Citizens he has failed to advance beyond the quarterfinal stage of the Champions League. Guardiola has simply not had the same success in Europe post-2012 and he enjoyed pre-2012.

Maybe Guardiola received some consolation after his Barcelona team’s defeat to Chelsea when he saw Di Matteo’s side go on to pull off another stunning upset in the final against heavily favored Bayern Munich (at their home stadium, no less). “It’s destiny,” he may have thought. It wasn’t. Chelsea brilliantly executed another outstanding Di Matteo game plan to again defeat a team that didn’t have a worthy response to rigid, compact resiliency. Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Ashely Cole and Petr Cech, all among the finest players of their era, each gave performances befitting of their tremendous legacies. Great football players playing great football isn’t something that requires divine intervention. You can call it beautiful. You can call it exhilarating. But don’t call it magic.


Reposted with permission. This article first appeared on Eric McCoy’s personal blog, The Away Goals Rule. He’s written several excellent FanPosts for WAGNH before; be sure to follow him on Twitter as well.

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