Given the regularity with which these teams have met in recent times, we have often been spoiled with the quality being displayed alongside the theatre of the spectacle. Saturday evening at the Camp Nou provided sporadic moments of quality within a game played at a relatively low tempo and lacking in the theatrical, and sometimes Machiavellian, behaviour that we have grown accustomed to.
The main decision for Martino was who would feature in the attacking positions. There was discussion that either Pedro or Alexis Sanchez would join Messi and Neymar in attack. Both would begin on the bench with Cesc Fabregas favoured in the central attacking position. Neymar would begin on the left as per usual with Messi operating from the right.
Starting Line Ups
For Ancelotti, much of the focus surrounded whether or not Gareth Bale would start the game. He did but that wasn’t the most surprising feature. Varane, Pepe and Ramos were all in the starting line up with Ramos placed in a defensive midfield role. At right back, perhaps wary of the problems Neymar had given Arbeloa in the Confederations Cup, Carvejal started.
Madrid would begin the game in a 4-3-3.
Low Key Game
As suggested at the outset, this game was played at a lower tempo than recent clasico’s. The higher level of intensity was missing from the game. Madrid seemed content to regroup and sit off Barcelona, allowing the hosts time in possession. There was nothing unusual about this scenario. It’s one that Madrid have played out so often in clasico’s, absorbing pressure and striking on the break. Yet this attacking threat was missing from Madrid.
There is a problem with the structure of the Madrid team which was evident on Saturday. The coach is responsible for maximising the potential of his players whist camouflaging their weaknesses. Ancelotti has proven he can do this elsewhere but the Italian contributed to the problem experienced by Madrid against Barcelona.
There’s a fine line to strike between deploying players in alternative positions as part of a wider tactical masterplan and just making a mess of things. The key to succeeding with the former and avoiding the latter is early recognition when you have made an error and rectifying it. It took Ancelotti far too long to rectify things in the game.
The graphic below shows the average positions for the players in this game:-
Di Maria, Khedira and Bale are bunched together, occupying similar space. The three players will attract close attention from Barcelona denying Bale the space that he craves.
The question over why Ramos was positioned in central midfield also has to be asked. The last time Ramos played in midfield was back in 2005. The partnership of Varane and Ramos offered great potential last season when Pepe fell out of favour. If a stronger defensive midfield presence was required, why not place Pepe back in there? He has played there before although he often played right on the edge before tipping over. When Ramos collected a yellow card in the 14th minute, it rendered him useless. The combative edge he was supposed to bring was suppressed.
Iniesta ran off Ramos in the 19th minute forcing Carvejal to move in from right back. Iniesta released Neymar and his low shot was deflected into the bottom corner to give Barcelona the lead.
The role of Ramos caused confusion for Khedira and Modric with Ramos clearly uncomfortable in this odd position and giving Barcelona too much space as Xavi admitted afterwards. Khedira was pushing too high leaving Modric in trouble.
The use of Bale in the striking role flanked by Di Maria and Ronaldo may look great on paper but given his lack of fitness, it was always a risk to play Bale in a game such as this. Bale had no impact other than to collect a caution for a foul on Pique and was removed early in the second half. It was another gamble that didn’t pay off.
Messi Positioned Wide Right
The deployment of Cesc in the striking position was designed to provide great depth and verticality to the Barcelona attack. It required Messi to move back to a right wing position and although both Fabregas and Messi would switch positions, the move required Messi to help provide cover for Dani Alves at right back against the Madrid left of Marcelo and Ronaldo. He did this frequently, perhaps not at the level required for a normal right sided attacker though.
Still not quite 100% fit, Messi would have to undertake his share of defensive duties to protect Alves. Whilst his application may have been questioned in the past, it was an area of his performance that could not be faulted on Saturday:-
Alongside Iniesta, Messi made five successful tackles during the game, more than any other player on the pitch. Combined with his work rate when required to close down Madrid players and although he may not have stamped his quality in this game like he done previously, his presence was still an important factor for Barcelona.
In some ways this captured one of the key battles in the game. Barcelona showed hunger, desire and work rate throughout.
Barcelona More Direct
It’s become a common theme this season to state that Barcelona are becoming more direct under new boss Gerardo Martino. By playing deeper at times and encouraging opponents on to them, Barcelona then hope to counter attack in a direct fashion.
The graphic below shows passes from Victor Valdes. It’s noticeable how many passes are now long kicks forward as opposed to building from the back. True, sometimes Madrid pressed high at goal kicks to force Valdes to go long but the short passes under pressure have been removed for a safety first approach:-
The shot by Neymar in the 54th minute was another example of the more direct style. A long raking pass from Iniesta found Neymar running off Carvejal and able to shoot at goal. Lopez pushed away the shot but the threat being carried was clear. Another opportunity fell for Neymar in the 61st minute after a through ball from Messi but Varane showed fantastic recovery skills to block the shot.
The second goal came via Alexis Sanchez. Introduced in the 8th minute to profit from the space now being created in the Madrid team by Barcelona defending deep. The goal was an excellent piece of improvisation, unable to outpace Varane, he cut back inside the defender before chipping Lopez.
In the second half with Barcelona leading 1-0, it was notable how the home side began to sit deeper combined with a greater sense of urgency from Madrid supported by Ancelotti’s positive substitutions. This encouraged Madrid to come forward and enjoy their best spell of the game. Whilst such an approach is nothing new, it is unusual to witness Barcelona moving so deep particularly given the weaknesses within their defensive unit:-
When Barcelona did press coherently, they won the ball back high up the pitch as shown in the graphic above. When they sat deeper, they managed to stop Madrid getting too close to goal although the woodwork saved them following a superb hit from Benzema.
Attempting 30 tackles to Madrid’s 19 again shows how timid Madrid were at times. They seemed to lack desire and gave their opponents far too much respect in the opening exchanges. The withdrawal of Iniesta to be replaced by Song as the second half wore enable Barcelona to regain a degree of control with both Busquets and Song screening the defence. Martino confirmed post match this was a defensive move but it helped re-establish control.
Madrid Lack Association
What style of team is Ancelotti building at Madrid? It’s a question that’s been asked already this season and the performance in the clasico provides no further evidence as to what team will emerge.
Bale and Ronaldo both want to receive the ball to run into space. Neither wants to come deep to link play and associate with other team members. That left the burden of creativity on the shoulders of Modric. Di Maria was essentially shuttling between attack when in possession and midfield when out of possession as Madrid alternated between 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 with or without the ball.
The front three were largely left to their own devices with little support from a midfield that dropped off to quickly when the forwards tried to press or failed to provide adequate passing options in the attacking phase.
This was a disjointed team performance that only really came together in the last 25 minutes when Illarramendi and Benzema entered the field with Bale and Ramos being removed. Madrid now had a better balance in midfield and attack. Illarramendi could collect the ball and distribute quicker from a deep position enabling Modric to play higher whilst Benzema is happy to move deep and link play. In his brief spell on the pitch, Illarramendi attempted 26 passes compared to the 24 attempted by Ramos in his 55 minutes on the pitch.
The consolation goal from Jese was scored via a counter attack in stoppage time.
A New Challenge from Madrid?
A distinctly average clasico as these games go with Barcelona taking all three points. There are still issues for both teams to resolve in the coming weeks not just for the domestic game but also for their ambitions at European level. At the moment, Ancelotti has a significantly harder task on his hands. The alteration in style is still an ongoing process for Madrid whereas Martino has made smaller, easier changes for Barcelona to assimilate.
Madrid are now 6 points behind Barcelona after 10 games whilst neighbours Atleti are just 1 point behind. Will the challenge from the Capital this season come in red and white stripes?