A month or so ago, I was talking to someone who's managed in the Champions League. He'd broken into coaching right around the turn of the decade, so naturally our conversation eventually took a turn toward Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, whose players were winning every loose ball, match and trophy in sight -- and ruining soccer in the process, according to this coach.
Now, it wasn't Barca's fault; they were as brilliant to him as they were to you and me. It all peaked in 2011. Barcelona averaged an absurd 72% of possession en route to winning LaLiga that year, and then suffocated Manchester United, 3-1, in the Champions League final. "We were beaten -- there is no other way to address the situation -- by the best team,'' Sir Alex Ferguson said after the match. ''I expected us to do better, but at the end of the day, we were beaten by the better team. They are the best team we have ever played -- they are at the peak in this cycle of their team."
However, he went on. ''Great teams go in cycles and the cycle they are in at the moment is the best in Europe, there's no question of that. How long it lasts, whether they can replace that team at another point ... they certainly have the philosophy.
Can you find players like Xavi and Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi all the time? Probably not. But they are enjoying the moment that they have just now.''
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This is what was driving the coach mad: Rather than recognizing that Barcelona's never-before-seen style of pass-heavy dominance was likely the result of a never-to-be-seen-again combination of talent and coaching, the rest of Europe had, he felt, decided that the way to win soccer games was to copy Barcelona. In a sense, he was right. The style that eventually won out in the post-Pep-at-Barca years wasn't pass-pass-pass, but rather a much more physical, fast-paced, transition-based game that focused on dominating territory rather than the ball.
In other words: the way that Bayern Munich, Barcelona's opponents in the Champions League on Wednesday, play.
It's only the fifth game of Xavi's tenure as manager of the club he grew up playing for -- and it's by far his biggest. Win and they're through to the last-16. Anything other than three points, and they'll be relying on Dynamo Kyiv to get a result against Benfica to keep them alive. If anyone seems likely to attempt to recreate the lost glory of the tiki-taka times, it's the guy who was at the center of it all.
But is that what he's actually doing? And can it work against Bayern Munich?