It is (pick your own word here) how Bayern Munich always comes along at a key time in the life of the FC Barcelona first team.
They ushered out one era with a resounding beatdown in Champions League.
They ushered in another one with the Luis Enrique side’s dismantling of the Pep Guardiola side.
They ushered out another period with an obliteration so comprehensive, the players just seemed to shrug.
There was even a rebuilding beatdown, just to emphasize how significant the task was for the Barça first team.
And now, after a bumper summer transfer window, a team scoring goals in bunches and a dynamic attack that is widely considered to be one of the best in football, that must mean it’s time for Bayern again.
To say there is uncertainty regarding the state of Xavi’s fledgling project would be an understatement. Yes, it has brushed aside Liga minnows, a car crash in Sevilla, and Viktoria Plzen. But the other two teams in the team’s Champions League group, Bayern and Inter Milan, are elite and will be a significant challenge for Xavi’s team.
And of course, it’s time for the phrase that pays: there are concerns.
Bayern is in weird form right now, coming off a draw, but don’t let that fool you. They have all the tools necessary to torment Barça, whose three biggest challenges will be midfield, flanks and psychology.
Is there any real way that Xavi doesn’t roll out Busquets, Pedri and Gavi for this one? Doubtful. Equally doubtful is some kind of a 3-4-3 variant that would add the likes of De Jong or Kessie to that midfield. What this means is that, unless possession is guarded like the secret to eternal youth, there will be a significant pace and physicality dilemma.
When Barça last faced Bayern, the midfield was run off the pitch. The entire team was, but the midfield was one of the saddest matchups, if such a lopsided display could be said to be a matchup. Bayern could do what it wanted. Gavi came on, ready to get stuck in to any, all and everyone, and did precisely that. It was fun to watch, even if the issue was never, ever in doubt.
The potential is still there for the Barça midfield to get run off the pitch, make no mistake. Bayern is bigger, stronger and faster, and they are also technically proficient. You should be worried. Opponents have learned to play Pedri in a physical manner to gain the upper hand, so expect Bayern to hew to that program. That young man is going to have a fight on his hands.
Busquets, imperious in possession but capable of showing cracks under pressure, will get all the pressure he will ever want to see in today’s match. How he plays, how he handles that pressure, will dictate whether his team has a shot.
Gavi will be Gavi. But if things get to a situation where Bayern is locking down and pushing around Busquets and Pedri, a reliance on Gavi to be a creative and playmaking force is, despite his fancy new 1BN buyout clause, euphemistically described as Quixotic.
Ball movement and controlled possession will be crucial. Buttressing their efforts will be the likely presence of Jules Kounde, which will reduce the distance they will have to cover to get the ball, as his roaming legs will be delivering it to them where they need. Lewandowski is also capable of dropping back to facilitate play and help in building the attack. The less Xavi allows his three mids to be isolated and increasingly vulnerable, the more likely Barça is to get a result.
Not to sound like a broken record, but Barça still doesn’t have fullbacks that can compete at the highest level, against the top teams. These fingers have typed before that this deficiency is likely to define this season. No, Hector Bellerin and Marcos Alonso didn’t solve that difficulty. Quite obviously, Bayern is going to put a lot of stress on the team’s flanks, which are, at best, weak.
The other problem with weak flanks and a slow midfield is both things allow a direct route to the back line. The Araujo/Kounde tandem is good, but no back line is that good if Bayern is allowed to run rampant up the flanks. And they are coming at teams with Mane, Davies, Sane and Mazraoui to name just a few. All are quick and fast, dynamic and technically adept. Bayern’s form hasn’t fully demonstrated how capable those flank attackers are, but Bayern hasn’t exactly lined up against a team with the obvious weaknesses that Barça has, lining up against a more modern footballing side. This is another problem that Xavi will have to solve. Araujo or Kounde at right back? Is Balde ready? Defending with eleven will never, ever be more crucial than it is right now. Dembele’s newfound willingness to defend will be essential, as will Raphinha’s work rate. The question will be whether there are too many holes for people to plug.
Bayern has a legacy of kicking the crap out of Barça. One thing that the summer window has done is brought players who aren’t interested in any of that, in addition to one of the chief Bayern tormentors in Lewandowski. And the only player likely to start for Xavi today will be Busquets, who isn’t as damaged as Alba and Pique, to name just a couple. Ter Stegen is a wild card, but he has always been mentally strong and is resurgent now that his knees seem to be sorted.
But teams have a history, and that history can permeate a group. A couple of early Bayern goals and are all bets off as the road to another beatdown is paved. Or is Xavi’s team mentally strong enough to take this match on, grab it by the scruff of the neck and face Bayern not as a group whistling past the graveyard but rather as an equal.
Barça can create danger in attack with its front three, and if Busquets is allowed time and space on the ball along with Pedri, Bayern will be in for a long match, particularly if Barça can score first. New players don’t come with baggage, but yes, teams have it. This match will be in a precarious state. Xavi’s team won’t collapse, but weaknesses have a way of multiplying and becoming something of an avalanche. Mental preparation will be important, but that only takes you so far. When the ball starts rolling, what happens? When that first bit of adversity enters the frame, what happens? That is something that a manager can’t prepare a team for, like it or not. A manager can say and do all the right things, can do match prep, watch video. But when cleats hit turf, it’s on the players.
Three teams have asked hard questions of Barça this season: Rayo, in getting that opening weekend draw despite Barça playing more than well enough to win; Sevilla was closer to making that match trouble than the final result will indicate and Plzen was a tough nut to crack for entirely too long.
None of those teams is Bayern Munich.
Culers have a right to be worried about this match. They’d be crazy not to be. Lewandowski says the team is ready. Are they? Hopefully. But the very real weaknesses are worrisome. Bayern also has weaknesses that can be capitalized upon. Xavi’s managerial mettle is facing far and away its sternest test. This match isn’t season-defining by any stretch. But get a result, even a draw, and it’s massive, given recent history and the psychological burdens that, like it or not, are there. And the team might not be better equipped than it is right now, mentally and physically, to face Bayern. It’s flush with confidence, and playing at times fantastic football.
What will happen? Who knows. But anyone too stressed to watch it can be forgiven.