England’s elite clubs return from the Champions League this weekend having to adjust to the presence of a new force in the game, a turbo-charged Barcelona, tiki-taka and then some. A resetting of the standard was forced upon us we thought after witnessing Arsenal’s comprehensive dismissal of Napoli, a team lying second in Serie A. Was this particular midfield orientation, augmented by the marvellous Mesut Özil, the best ever paraded by Arsenal? Some advanced that argument.
Chelsea looked to have restored a sense of order in Jose’s world with a 4-0 walkover in Bucharest and Manchester United held Shakhtar to a draw, the first English club side to do so in Donetsk, suggesting a corner had been turned in the troubled evolution of David Moyes in the post formerly held by Sir Alex Ferguson. All of these are reasonable conclusions to reach, using the standard measure. The problem is the measure changed overnight, or rather over 90 minutes, on Wednesday. What we saw at the Etihad shifted football to a new orbit. Bayern Munich have taken the story on.
You might argue they had done this already with the 7-0 aggregate victory over Barcelona en route to Champions League success last season. Persuasive as that thought is, it does not completely do away with the idea that Bayern might have caught Barcelona at a low ebb, a point slightly past their peak, and therefore, you could argue, the Barça team that mashed United in the Champions League finals of Rome and Wembley might have had too much for the Munich of Jupp Heynckes.
Either way, the production unveiled by Pep Guardiola in Bavarian colours renders the debate moot. Bayern Munich have become a beefed-up version of the best of Guardiola’s Catalan creation. Possession was just as absolute, the ball zipped about the surface with the same bewildering accuracy and pace, yet the outcome was more emphatic since it relied less on the talismanic presence of one overriding influence, supported by the marginally lesser genius of Xavi and Andres Iniesta.
For Lionel Messi read Arjen Robben, read Franck Ribéry, read Thomas Müller, read Toni Kroos, read Bastian Schweinsteiger, read AN Other in a red shirt. All those years shedding tears of frustration watching Robben disappear in a maze of his own making. Not any more. Not on this evidence. Both he and Ribéry are linked-in, fused to a template of pulsating synchronicity. Each contributed a goal, making the point forcibly that this team has greater potential because it has more varied outlets in front of goal.
Yes, Pedro, Iniesta, Sanchez and Neymar might all offer something in support, but remove the Messi cog from the Barça machine and the whole is fatally reduced. Bayern biffed City with their big-money summer acquisitions indolent. Mario Götze was a late entry off the bench, Thiago is injured.
Further back from his posting in front of the back four, Philipp Lahm was the equal of Barça’s principal doorman Sergio Busquets. There is no comparison at the heart of defence, where Dante adds up to more than Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique combined. And Guardiola described as catastrophic Bayern’s defending at set pieces. From that we can infer they are only going to get better.
They are resilient, too. Micah Richards did his best “welcome to Manchester” number on Kroos, shoving an elbow straight down the German’s pipe. An elephant might have needed smelling salts to recover. Within 30 seconds Kroos was back on his feet, inflicting a more subtle kind of pain. Richards spoke afterwards as if recounting a meeting with a monster. Under the aegis of Guardiola that is what Bayern represent to all who face them.
A team that on the same pitch just 10 days previously overwhelmed United in the Manchester derby were rendered impotent. Guardiola’s restless search for perfection sees him integrating already powerful Teutonic ideals like a love of rigour and method with more obvious quick-passing rhythms of the Latin footballer.
Underpinning all of this is a ferocious work-rate. The testimony of Ruud Gullit when a member of the great Milan side of the late 1980s reminds us of the interdependency of art and industry in football, the former being predicated on the latter. “It is hard work making the game look so easy” was the thrust of it.
Arsène Wenger in particular must have frozen, watching the pendulum swing away 24 hours after it looked like Arsenal had made significant gains. When compared to most, Arsenal have demonstrably improved with the addition of Özil and the commensurate uplift in the output of team-mates inspired by his example. Napoli looked at times as rudderless as City. But when measured against Munich, a team of 11 Özils, Wenger must fear the worst. Yes, he might once more conquer England, but to what purpose if Guardiola has taken the Champions League further out of his reach?
Morrison, Pogba, Powell – United’s lost midfield
The elevation of Ravel Morrison to the England Under-21 squad is another reminder of poor husbandary of midfield resources at Old Trafford. While David Moyes scours the globe for reinforcements in a part of the pitch identified as sub-standard, a trio of old boys and loanees shine an uncomfortable light on the decision-making at the club.
French protégé Paul Pogba is doing for Juventus what he might have done for United, enforcing in the middle of the park and augmenting his work with goals. Morrison was considered too high maintenance by United, complicated lifestyle issues persuading them to usher him out of the door.
Moyes was not part of that thinking but he was instrumental in the departure on loan of Nick Powell, who cracked a couple for Wigan to help them to a first victory in Europe. Wigan manager Owen Coyle believes Powell is a player of international calibre. For a club whose identity is predicated on the development and selection of young players, it is some paradox to see kids once affiliated to the club making their names elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Wilfried Zaha, United’s only arrival this summer before the £27m purchase of midfielder Marouane Fellaini, is considering a loan move in the transfer window just to get a game. Something doesn’t add up.
Joshua must hope Hearn words are hype
Promoter Eddie Hearn tells us Anthony Joshua’s opponent on his professional debut tonight, unbeaten in eight, is here to win the fight. That’s a first for an Olympic gold medallist starting out on the long road to heavyweight nirvana in the paid ranks.
Like his predecessor in the role of Olympic super heavy gold dust, Audley Harrison, Joshua was a latecomer to boxing. He was fortunate to edge a close decision in the final in London against another Italian, Roberto Cammarelle. He could do without a scare tonight. Let’s hope Emanuele Leo is more accommodating and reads between the Hearn lines.
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