How Iniesta lost the game at Bayern – and how he can win it back

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Bayern Munich’s wonderful 4-0 destruction of Barcelona last week was a fantastic example of one strategy overcoming another – Bayern were powerful in their challenges and purposeful with their passing, while they prevented Barcelona from playing the ball forward into the final third.

If there was a single individual battle that summed up the match, it was Javi Martinez against Andres Iniesta. Although Martinez isn’t as positionally solid as Sergio Busquets, as reliable with his distribution as Xavi, or as elusive in the final third as Andres Iniesta, he’s a fine all-rounder. His first job was to nullify Iniesta; his second was to impose his strong, athletic style upon the contest. He was the game’s key player, dominating the midfield zone with a succession of successful tackles and fouls to break up Barcelona’s rhythm.

Iniesta was noticeably affected by Martinez’s strong performance, and drifted extremely deep into positions out of Martinez’s reach, into the zones usually occupied by Busquets and Xavi. This increased his involvement in the game, but not necessarily to Barcelona's advantage.

This season, Iniesta has averaged 69 passes compared to Busquets' 79 and Xavi's 95; at Bayern, Iniesta was Barça’s top passer with 93 attempted passes, compared to 87 from Xavi and only 61 from Busquets, who was successfully marked by Thomas Muller. Iniesta is supposed to be the creative outlet, not simply another short passer, but in Munich he received balls in a similar position to Xavi Hernandez.

In a sense, this was Barcelona’s major problem. Leo Messi was clearly not 100% fit and unable to orchestrate Barcelona’s attacking play from between the lines. The Argentine needed support from Iniesta, and while it can be frustrating to stay high up the pitch receiving little service, Iniesta needed to be patient with his positioning to encourage Busquets and Xavi to play forward passes.

Too frequently he dropped deep, Busquets or Xavi played a short pass to him, but there wasn’t the option for a direct forward pass. In Barcelona’s excellent 4-0 victory over Milan, passes from Busquets to Iniesta were very vertical – last week, Barcelona barely gained five yards from those balls.

In addition to attempting the most passes, Iniesta was also Barcelona’s most reliable passer, with a 96% pass completion rate. For a side that prides themselves upon ball retention, high numbers are generally considered favourable.

But Iniesta’s job isn’t to be Barcelona’s most reliable passer – his job is to be their most incisive passer. Iniesta achieved a 96% completion rate with very ‘safe’ passes in harmless zones of the pitch, and he didn’t create a single chance, or even attempt a ball into the penalty area.

Contrast that with his distribution in that 4-0 victory over Milan – there, he misplaced many more passes, but that was because he repeatedly tried through-balls in behind the defence. Rather than simply adding to the numbers in midfield, he provided the link between midfield and attack, attempting six passes which ended in the opposition area.

Iniesta wasn’t the only problem, of course – Barcelona’s entire passing game was disappointing and they barely created a chance in open play. A fully fit Messi will provide more spark in the final third, while Xavi and Busquets must be more ambitious on the ball.

Iniesta’s role is crucial, however – he must be more prominent high up the pitch if Barcelona have any chance of overturning the 4-0 deficit. Bayern have a number of players at risk of suspension from the final if they incur a yellow card – including defensive midfielders Martinez and Bastian Schweinsteiger plus defenders Philipp Lahm and Dante – but Iniesta must be brave enough to take the battle to them rather than retiring to deep midfield.

Barcelona’s No.8 is rightly considered one of the most gifted attacking midfielders in the game, but his reputation would suffer if he produces another underwhelming performance when his side need him most.

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