Which is Europe’s greatest domestic league? The English Premier League is always willing to put itself forward, citing its bombast, entertainment value, and competitiveness as determining reasons. In comparison, other leagues are deemed predictable; dominated by a clutch of storied clubs, from Juventus in Italy, Bayern Munich in Germany, and the Real Madrid/Barcelona combo in Spain. In response, critics can point to the recent poor performance of English teams in UEFA’s premier competition, ironically, just when the Champions League is arguably at its least competitive and most predictable period since its 1992 inception.
Looking at why this has happened, it is clear that a new tier has emerged in the last decade – the category of the Super Club. Population: Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich.
Those three stand above all others. For Barcelona, their rise to the throne was part method, part grace. Method in the way they returned to Cryuff’s principles while trusting in La Masia graduates and grade in being blessed with Lionel Messi, the god born in a crossfire hurricane. Though Bayern’s ascent was slower and more haphazard, their admission into this elite group was probably the famous 2013 tie when they humbled Barcelona. Their subsequent treble merely served to cement the perception. And of course, there is Madrid, winner of two of the last three Champions Leagues.
In my view, the clear superiority of these teams is an anomaly in modern European football. I cannot recall a time when a defined clutch of teams was definitely seen as the best. We have seen leagues dominate e.g. the Football Italia Years, or even particular teams if we were to go further back. With both Barcelona and Bayern Munich out of this year’s Champions League at only the Quarterfinal stage, albeit in very different circumstances, there is a sense that both are in a transition period. In fact, this is the first time since 2009, that only one of the three is in the Champions League semi’s. Add in recent or impending managerial changes and the loss of key players, then the position of these two looks slightly precarious. But even if the recent hegemony were to end, what comes next for these two European giants?
Thanks to Guardiola’s influence, this is one thing that unites them. Having conquered Europe with tiki-taka, Barcelona’s 2013 collapse against Bayern was the first death of tiki-taka. Look at the team now, and you will notice a more direct and ball-efficient Barcelona, the principles of the past, if not discarded totally, then severely distorted. In some ways, the change was driven by necessity. Pep – and what he created – was irreplaceable, something that Gerardo Martino and the late Tito Vilanova found out. Tiki-taka was sometimes called boring, at some point, maybe the players lost zeal for the style. Personnel changes didn’t help either, both on the pitch and in the dugout.
Meanwhile, Bayern went in the opposite direction after that landmark 2013 win. Pep’s arrival heralded a version of tiki-taka, one that would drive Bayern to unparalleled levels of domestic success, but conspicuously just fall short in Europe time and time again. With Pep gone, the tiki-taka project is gone; Carlo Ancelotti now sits in the dugout, a fine tactician himself but far less obsessive than his young predecessor. True to his nature, Ancelotti has tried to tweak Bayern’s style rather than completely revamp it, but this has left Bayern often bereft of ideas and lacking an on-pitch identity.
Both teams were exposed in their recent Champions League exits. Juventus ruthless dispatching of Barcelona raised questions of the team’s style, especially after their collapse in Paris a month earlier. Meanwhile, Bayern were unlucky against Real Madrid but showed an Arsenal-esque tactical shape when down to ten men in both matches in the tie. Pep now prowls the touchline in Manchester, but his shadow stretches to Barcelona and Munich. Look closely and you will glimpse two teams still searching for an identity on the pitch.
A Changing of the Guard
Xavi is gone, and Iniesta is almost past it; Lahm is retiring, Schweinsteiger is in Chicago, and “Robbery” may be gone by the end of next season. Never estimate the trauma of losing key men. These players are important not just for their contribution on the pitch, but because a few of them form part of the fabric of the club’s identity, especially as homegrown players. Barcelona without Xavi & Iniesta? That’s like Bonnie without Clyde.
Crucially, these players also knew a time when their teams were not dominant. Iniesta emerged when Barcelona were still rising from the ashes of the early 2000s, Lahm witnessed the darker days of FC Hollywood, and Arjen Robben was the chief protagonist of Bayern’s failure to stop Borussia Dortmund’s Bundesliga double. How will the new crop react? Graham Hunter, author of “Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World,” gave a fascinating analysis of Neymar’s tears after Barcelona’s failure against Juventus. For example, in a post-Messi world, how will Barcelona respond to not always being first?
Finally, how will these players be replaced? Some would argue that Xavi has still not been adequately replaced. The challenge of replacing Lahm may prove just as tasking, given he is the perfect footballer. And when the wing wizards are gone, how will Bayern choose to penetrate teams? Lessons from history tell us that greatness is not easily replaced, but just how costly will any false steps prove?
Reclaiming Their Identity
Let’s put things in context a bit. Barcelona and Bayern Munich are titans of the European game, steeped in history defined by their respective glorious eras of the 70’s and 90’s in particular. Barcelona survived without Johan Cruyff and will survive without Xavi, Iniesta, and eventually, Lionel Messi. The clubs’ identities permeate the entire structure – from the boardroom to the backroom staff to the pitch. And it is these identities that the clubs must preserve. Though they are intangible and imprecise, difficult to properly define or describe, they are what make Barcelona “Més Que un Club” and Bayern Munich “FC Hollywood”.
This premise is what makes it so crucial that Phillip Lahm does not sever all ties with Bayern; the role of Franz Beckenbauer, Uli Hoeneß, and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge in shaping Bayern in the last 25 years cannot be overstated. Similarly, it is no coincidence that Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola, Barcelona legends, played such pivotal roles in the club’s renaissance. These are the sort of men that help a club retain its identity in a practical way – by shaping transfer policy, youth policy, and even playing style. For Barcelona, Luis Enrique’s impending exit leaves them at a crossroads. Who do they turn to as his replacement? And whose choice will it be? Famously, Rijkaard was Cruyff’s candidate. As for Bayern, will Lahm be given a position higher up? These questions may not receive many column inches but could shape the direction of two of Europe’s current Super Clubs.
At a Crossroads
Players come and go, but these institutions will remain. Of the two, Barcelona are probably in greater flux, mainly due to the heights the ascended, and the grace that took them there. There may never be another Messi, maybe not even another Xavi & Iniesta duet. The key is how these clubs transition into the future; the extent to which they are able to retain and evolve their identities by assimilating modern football practices. Both have lost their way before: Barcelona at the turn of the century and Bayern near the end of the previous decade.
The age of the Super Club is unlikely to last. Primarily because the two greatest players of the time – Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – do not have many years left in them. No doubt, others will rise in their wake. Maybe even in other teams. Barcelona and Bayern Munich find themselves in an unusual position, with their future status possibly uncertain. Yet, there is a way out. Preserve your identities, and these two will find wisdom in the words of The Bard, “To thine own self be true.”