Complacent, exhausted Barca ran out of time

The life of a great football team is brief: as the great Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann observed, “the third season is fatal”.

The fourth proved so for Barcelona. The end was surprisingly rapid — three games in the space of a week, all of which could have been won, none of which were — followed three days later by the announcement of the resignation of Pep Guardiola. Barcelona still have fine players, and the appointment of Guardiola’s assistant, Tito Vilanova, as his successor should ensure a continuity of philosophy, but this won’t be the same side.

Guardiola’s Barcelona lasted four years, the last of which, even if they win the Copa del Rey, will be judged a failure.

The odd thing about Barcelona’s fall is that they came so close to reaching the Champions League final. They hit the woodwork four times over the two legs against Chelsea, missed a penalty and, in the first leg at least, wasted two clear chances. Heroically organised and disciplined as Chelsea were, Barca were essentially unlucky.

The point is that a year ago they could have been unlucky and still won; they’d have created so many chances that it wouldn’t have mattered.

Instead, in the latter stages at the Camp Nou, Barca looked oddly toothless, passing the ball in front of the massed ranks of Chelsea defenders without ever threatening to penetrate them.

If a manager stays at a club more than three years, Guttmann said, his players tended to become bored and/or complacent and opponents start to work out counter-strategies. His solution was to move on, changing clubs every couple of years; the alternative, which is what Alex Ferguson has achieved so successfully at Manchester United, is to keep changing the players.

The intimations that Barca were lacking something have been there all season. They had started to look mortal. Against Espanyol in January, for instance, they started with the usual tempo, pinging the ball around, seemingly creating opportunities at will.

Cesc Fabregas put them ahead in the 16th minute, after which they eased off, almost as though they thought further goals were inevitable.

Alvaro Vazquez equalised late on, which allowed Real Madrid to increase their lead at the top of the table to five points. Both Chelsea goals in the second leg stemmed from a pitiful lack of concentration at the back, as though they thought, 2-0 up against 10 men, the game was already won.

That lack of edge was certainly in evidence late in the second leg against Chelsea. Where were the little darts, the little bursts of pace that might have opened Chelsea up, or drawn fouls — as Fabregas had to win the penalty earlier in the half?

Where were the flurries of four or five rapid passes to unpick the Chelsea lines? The sharpness to produce them wasn’t there. And, because Barca are so lacking in height, there was no other option; Chelsea could happily concede corners in the knowledge Barca barely posed a threat from them.

Viktor Maslov, the father of pressing, led Dynamo Kyiv to three successive Soviet titles between 1966 and 1968, but was removed from his managerial position in 1970. Ajax won a hat-trick of European Cups between 1971 and 1973 (a period in which Rinus Michels departed to be replaced as coach by Stefan Kovacs), before Johan Cruyff’s acrimonious departure after other players voted for Piet Keizer to take over as captain. Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan won a scudetto and two European Cups before the sheer effort, mental and physical, of maintaining the hard-pressing approach overwhelmed them.

Particularly against Real Madrid, Barcelona looked shattered. For all Guardiola’s use of young players, this is a remarkably small squad; four years of almost constant success looks to have worn them out.

Guardiola recognised the dangers. He signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic to try to give Barca the option of going aerial, but his personality didn’t sit comfortably at the Camp Nou. The signings of Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez, and the experimentation with a back three were attempts to give Barca variety.

The victory at the Bernabeu in December showed how effective that extra tactical option could be. But in the end, Guardiola couldn’t hold off the decay — perhaps even hastened his side’s decline through too much tinkering. Entropy is remorseless.

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