Barcelona vs Real Madrid

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.

Line Ups

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

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.

Ancelotti Errors?

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:-

Average Positions

Average Positions

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:-

Messi Tackles

Messi Tackles

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:-

Valdes Passes

Valdes Passes

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.

Pressing Remains

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:-

Tackles

Tackles

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?

Barcelona vs Real Madrid – Three Short Observations

Shape

Real Madrid adopted a very deep and defensive approach for the first half and began the second half in a similar fashion. Madrid were content to drop off Barcelona and only press when Barcelona crossed the halfway line. In many respects it was a typical first half Barcelona performance as they dominated possession (70%) but ultimately lacked penetration. Madrid offered a threat on the counter attack but this waned as the first half progressed.

It was noticeable that in the opening minutes, neither Barcelona full back pushed forward yet once the Madrid shape was recognised, Alves and then Adriano began to move forward and provide overlaps for Sanchez and Pedro respectively.

Mourinho has entered games against Barcelona with a range of tactical strategies to deliver the desired results with just two victories in eleven meetings to date. Recently, when Madrid have attacked Barcelona and pressed them aggressively, Madrid has enjoyed a greater share of possession and favourable results. Last night, this was abandoned in favour of a defensive minded strategy.

Which inevitably begs the question of why did Mourinho choose such a defensive set-up last night?

Firstly, given it was a two legged tie, Mourinho would have wanted to keep things as tight as possible early on. In the first leg of the Champions League semi final in April 2011, Real Madrid were very defensive, only conceding to Barcelona late on following the dismissal of Pepe. Afterwards, Mourinho claimed the strategy was to attack Barcelona in the last thirty minutes of the game with attacking substitutes. A ploy which was denied when Madrid had been reduced to 10 men.

It seems reasonable to suggest that Madrid trying to replicate this last night.

Despite being level at 1-1, Madrid were more aggressive after the hour mark. With the scores level and the away goal secured, Madrid were operating from a position of strength yet the game became increasingly stretched which provided Barcelona with more space to attack and seek openings. Benzema and the anonymous Callejon were replaced by Higuain and Di Maria in the 60th and 65th minute as Madrid injected fresh impetus into their attack as they began to tire.

With the tie delicately poised, it will be fascinating to see how Mourinho approaches the second leg.

 

Pedro

A fine start to the season for Pedro has seen the Canary Islander score two goals in the opening two games suggesting a return to form and fitness.

Last season was something of a disappointment for Pedro both collectively and individually. The season was disrupted through injury and a loss of form. Despite making 48 appearances, Pedro started in only 32 of them and was often substituted himself. As the season drew to a conclusion, Pedro offered glimpses that he was rediscovering form particularly in the Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao.

Now, fully fit and on form, Pedro offers Barcelona a significant goal threat from the wide area reducing the reliance upon Messi.

His goal last night encapsulated the best of his qualities, playing off the shoulder of the deepest defender and accelerating away to collect a through pass before slotting the ball home.

Yet to only consider the attacking qualities that Pedro brings to the side would be a considerable injustice. Although not the greatest technician within the Barcelona side, Pedro understands the role that he is expected to perform perfectly. He combines his attacking role by undertaking the defensive aspects diligently. His pace is essential in closing down defenders and pressing high up the pitch providing the first line of defence.

 

Victor Valdes

The outcome of the entire tie could hinge upon the events of the 84th minute last night. Casillas saved from Messi and Pique, on yet another foray forward, was unable to make contact and force home the 4th goal for Barcelona . Madrid , who were dangerous throughout on the transition, launched a counter attack which petered out when the ball was played back to Valdes in the Barcelona goal. Despite being closed down by Di Maria, Valdes sought another touch on the ball before attempting to dribble beyond Di Maria. The end product was the concession of another goal and the tie, which should have been over, is left hanging in the balance.

After the game Andoni Zubizarreta told reporters: “Mistakes are part of a goalkeeper’s career. Victor has saved us far more goals than he has conceded over the years – I’m sure that after tonight he will go on to have a perfect season.”

Déjà vu?

On 10 December 2011, Valdes mishit a pass at the Santiago Bernabeu after just 22 seconds which resulted in Benzema giving Real Madrid the lead. Yet Valdes continued to hit short passes for the duration of the game. Afterwards, Guardiola commented that

“The best thing was that Valdes kept on passing the ball after the goal. That showed his strength and the strength of the team,”

Valdes will make more mistakes in the future but don’t expect any change in the way he plays. It’s necessary for Barcelona to possess a goalkeeper who is comfortable with the ball at his feet and to continue making passes.

el clasico: Tactical Analysis

And so the league title is almost certainly bound for Madrid after a fine 2-1 win at the Camp Nou. With recent clasico’s providing a fair dose of play acting, melee’s along with a very high degree of technical quality, this game was something of a disappointment, missing all of those ingredients which make them such gripping viewing.

It was tense and the crowd were subdued for much of the game. As were the technical areas. Mourinho stayed sitting for most of the game, he would have been extremely happy with how things panned out whereas Guardiola never showed any urgency towards his team.

After clawing back the deficit from 10 points to 4 points, perhaps he knew it was just too much and the team could not sustain the level of effort required any longer.

Barcelona

Guardiola is known for throwing a curveball in his selections and tactics for clasico’s but I doubt anyone saw his selection or formation in advance. Tello and Thiago starting with Pique, Fabregas, Sanchez, Pedro and Keita on the bench. Cuenca did not even make the squad.

A 4-3-3 when defending but switching to a 3-3-4 when in possession and moving forward. As I had suggested in the preview, Puyol initially tracked Ronaldo meaning Dani Alves started higher up the pitch on the right. On the opposite flank, Tello provided the width. Thiago operated at the base of midfield with Busquets moving between midfield and central defence as required.

Barcelona Starting Line Up

Real Madrid

Mourinho kept faith in the team which lost to Bayern and went with his usual 4-2-3-1 formation resisting the temptation to switch to a 4-3-3 and adopt a more conservative approach.

Real Madrid Starting Line Up

Madrid did not press as heavily or as coordinated as they have done in previous clasico encounters. The front four were pressing but nowhere near as aggressively and the remainder of the team were dropping off. This “false” pressing from Madrid was adversely affecting Barcelona though as they made a number of forced and unforced errors in their passing.

Have Busquets, Thiago and Iniesta ever made so many incomplete passes in the same game?

This was a game that Barcelona had to win to keep alive their hopes of winning the title. The onus was on Barcelona to take the initiative whereas Madrid would have been content with a draw. As such, all of the interesting features arise from a Barcelona perspective.

Nothing that Madrid did was unexpected or unusual. They did their jobs very well with discipline, organisation and a high workrate.

Lack of Central Focus

With Messi dropping deep and Tello and Alves wide, there was no player to occupy the Madrid central defensive pairing of Pepe and Ramos. Subsequently, when Messi took possession and tried to run with the ball, he was easily crowded out centrally.

Barcelona enjoyed 78% possession but much of it was in a central area and in front of the Madrid backline. Busquets, Thaigo, Xavi and Iniesta were all central and only on a few occasions did anyone break further forward ahead of the ball offering a passing opportunity into the Madrid penalty area and pulling the Madrid defence. Too often the passes were across the pitch.

Barcelona needed much more vertical movement from their players and in this respect the late arrival of the subs was very surprising.

How much has Barcelona missed not only the goalscoring of both Pedro and Villa this season, but the movement and finishing that they offer?

Alves Starting Position

Dani Alves played the entire game as a right winger and had little impact on proceedings.

The strength of Alves is when he breaks from deep and at pace, attacking the opposition full back and also providing an overlapping outlet for Barcelona and linking with his team mate higher up the pitch e.g. his link play with Messi previously and now with Sanchez.

On his own and from a standing start, he is not going to beat his opponent so Barcelona were left with Alves on the right, either failing to get around Coentrao or turning back inside.

There were also a number of occasions in the first half when Alves received the ball wide right and no Barcelona player was near him. Each time, Alves was forced to turn back infield. If Sanchez or Pedro had received that pass, Alves would have been overlapping and providing an outlet.

Removal of Xavi

Barcelona have played a slightly more direct fashion at times this season due to two key factors.

1. Sanchez and Fabregas are willing to make more vertical runs, particularly Sanchez coming from out to in and off the shoulder of the deepest defender. As a consequence, Barcelona will look for both players more often and play slightly riskier passes as a result.

2. Xavi has missed some games due to injury. With Xavi, no other player in the Barcelona squad can fulfill the same role. Without his controlling and measured approach, the other midfielders will play more direct passes.

The removal of Xavi after 68 minutes has been misinterpreted in some quarters. Xavi has been struggling with an Achilles injury for some time. He is also severely fatigued now. This has implications not just for Barcelona but also for Spain at the Euro’s.

Also, that Messi was more effective, making the run which led to the goal after Xavi was removed, has also been misinterpreted. The removal of Xavi and the run from Messi are not related. The introduction of Sanchez was key. He occupied Madrid’s central defenders and pulled Pepe wider when Messi broke allowing him enough space to drive towards the Madrid penalty area. The goal resulted after a few deflections.

Focus on the Champions League?

Mourinho went with his strongest eleven. It was clear were his priority lay.

For Guardiola it is not that straightforward. Tello made only his third senior start and Thiago at the base of midfield was also unusual. Why not Keita who provides a stronger presence? Why does Pique remain on the bench?

Fabregas and Sanchez were clearly being rested ahead of the Chelsea game.

It’s an extremely risky strategy which could backfire if Chelsea manage to emerge from Tuesday night with a positive result.

Conclusions

In the clasico preview here, I listed 5 key factors which I considered would have an influence on the game.

Will fatigue be a factor?

Madrid surprisingly kept the same eleven who had started the game against Bayern and the team performed well including Di Maria who put in a considerable defensive effort. If anything, it was Barcelona and Xavi especially who looked tired.

Will Madrid press?

Yes, for the first 25 minutes or so they pressed and held a relatively high defensive line. At 1-0 up, they dropped deeper and looked for quick counters.

Will Madrid continue to be so direct?

Madrid continued their recent direct approach both in terms of hitting some longer passing and also by moving directly towards their opponents goal when they won the ball. Barcelona are always much more considered when the regain possession.

Ronaldo’s role

Ronaldo did his share of defence duties and also scored the winning goal. All in all, a very successful night for him.

Barcelona will dominate possession.

And they did with 78% to Madrid’s 22% but as at Stamford Bridge, the possession was in a comfortable zone for their opponent. Barcelona passed and passed in front of the Madrid backline.

How can Barcelona retain width?

The use of Tello and Alves high and wide failed. Tello in only his 3rd start showed glimpses of his pace but against a deep backline, he could produce little. Alves, as outlined above, is not a winger.