There are few football matches in the world bigger than El Clasico, and this edition of Spain’s most-hyped match had extra spice. Not only was it a true title-decider with Real Madrid leading the way by 5 points, it also arrived right smack in between the Champions League semi-final legs, of which both teams were involved in – no surprises there. What was surprising was that both sides had lost the first-leg, and victory here for either side could be the decisive springboard to successfully wrapping up the season on both the domestic and continental front.
Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola made some unexpected choices in his starting line-up: midfielder Thiago and young wide forward Cristian Tello came in for Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez respectively, and Gerard Pique was again relegated to the bench for the second match in a row. More than that, Guardiola set up his team to play in a 3-4-3 formation, pushing Dani Alves so high up the pitch he was on the same line as Tello.
Real manager Jose Mourinho also made an unexpected choice: Real started with exactly the same players and their usual 4-2-3-1 shape as in their 1-2 loss against Bayern Munich. It was a brave decision from Mourinho to stick to the same starting XI as Real had performed well below par when they played Bayern, and also to play 4-2-3-1 when he had often favoured playing 3 holding midfielders against Barcelona, but it was a decision that paid off handsomely.
The home team’s 3-4-3 shape was a risky one, mostly because of the obvious vulnerability to attacks down the flanks – the area where Real focuses its attacks through the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Still, this wasn’t the first time Barcelona have played with a back 3, and the versatility of their players always allows them to vary their shape within the game itself, switching positions depending on whether their side has the ball. Sergio Busquets has been a vital part of this shift, often dropping from midfield back into defence. He did the same in this match, and thus in theory, Barcelona could defend with a back 4 when they lost possession (more on this later).
Guardiola’s decision to play 3-4-3 was probably in response to his team’s midweek defeat to Chelsea in London, where a lack of width led to Barcelona’s attacks being predictably narrow and relatively easy to deal with. Tello was specifically brought into the side for this purpose, and Alves was pushed very high up the pitch and played as a right-winger. While it made sense in attack, it did result in sacrificing a player in defence.
Though he is usually adept at playing anywhere down the right flank, Alves’ position as a right-winger was an interesting one considering that earlier this week he had expressed his preference to start from a deeper position. This is what he had to say about Roberto Carlos and Gareth Bale playing as wingers rather than fullbacks in a recent interview: “They think they will attack more, but often they attack less and less well. It happened with Roberto Carlos: as a winger, he was less effective, he needs to start his run sooner.”
Alves is no different, and it was hugely obvious in this game. Receiving the ball out wide, he didn’t have the know-how to beat his man, and his 4 crosses were wayward as none found their target – Real’s left-back Fabio Coentrao had a much better time than he did against Phillip Lahm and Arjen Robben in Munich.
Opposite him, Tello had a much higher impact on the game. Statistically he wasn’t impressive at all: 0 successful crosses from 2 attempts, and 0 successful dribbles as Real’s Alvaro Arbeloa proved a good one-on-one defender. Tello didn’t look good on the highlights either, as he wasted a couple of good chances after being put through behind the defence – one which admittedly did indirectly contribute to Barcelona’s equaliser.
Though his finishing was poor, at least Tello was making intelligent forward runs – a lot more than what his teammates were contributing in attack. At just 20 years of age, he has plenty of time to improve after what was the biggest night of his fledgling career.
Barcelona as a whole played terribly below their usual standards. There was a clear lack of incision and cutting edge in their passing, and they were losing the ball with inaccurate passing due to Real’s excellent pressing. Barcelona improved noticeably in the second-half (although it seemed near impossible for their performance to deteriorate further after that first 45 minutes), but they still couldn’t find a way through to goal.
Their 3-4-3 formation was clearly designed to stretch Real’s defence, and Guardiola seemed to have played Alves (in an unpreferred position) and Tello (young and inexperienced) for purely functional purposes – much like Isaac Cuenca’s role against Milan earlier in the season. By staying high and wide, both wide players simply looked to give Real’s fullbacks something to keep an eye on, and thus help create space in the middle for their midfielders to attack.
The problem was that the other Barcelona players weren’t making enough runs into Real’s penalty box. Lionel Messi played as a false nine rather than as a striker, and hence often dropped deep to pick up the ball and start attacking movements. However, a false nine is only effective when his teammates exploit the space vacated by him, and when Messi wasn’t leading the line, the only players in advanced attacking positions were Alves and Tello. The likes of Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Thiago were strangely reluctant to push forward, and stuck to playing in the deeper areas of midfield – areas which Real were very happy to let them stick to.
Xavi did get forward once in the 26th minute, after Messi’s false nine role came into effect. The Argentine did brilliantly to attract 4 Real players towards him, and slipped the ball through to Xavi who shot wide when he really should’ve levelled the score for his team.
Barcelona needed more of those vertical runs from midfield, and that was lacking for a majority of the game. A good indication of the lack of midfield runners was the identity of Barcelona’s players who were caught offside: Tello, Alves and Messi. None of Barcelona’s midfielders advanced into dangerous areas enough, and even when they did, they opted to shoot from distance.
Guardiola finally addressed this issue in a relatively late stage of the game with the introduction of Alexis Sanchez for Xavi in the 69th minute. Sanchez immediately moved to a striking position ahead of Messi, and one of the Sanchez’s outstanding traits is his off-the-ball movements. The Chilean’s runs, both vertical and horizontal, were a much needed boost to Barcelona’s attack. Not only did he score the equaliser seconds after coming on, he indirectly helped create the goal by drawing the attention of Real’s defence with his clever run from left to right. This helped create space for Messi to charge into and result in Barcelona’s goal.
Real responded by taking the lead almost instantly, and despite the valiant introductions of Pedro and Fabregas, Barcelona appeared deflated and devoid of inspiration thereafter, failing to create any more noteworthy goalscoring chances.
Real Madrid’s tactics
Mourinho stuck to 4-2-3-1 shape but there were key differences to the overall approach his Real side took against their greatest rivals, as compared to against Bayern.
Possibly the biggest contrast was that Real took the lead, and were then willing to sit back and defend against Barcelona. Real also defended as team, something that was evidently absent in Munich. One example of this was how Angel Di Maria didn’t get forward as much when Real had possession, and his average position was recorded as just ahead of the halfway line. He was fielded more like a midfielder than an attacker, a player in a deep position with the ability and awareness to play smart forward passes.
Another demonstration of Real’s defending as a unit was the amount of defensive work Mesut Ozil put in. He was compared to his opposite central playmaker Toni Kroos in Munich, and how his advanced position resulted in a broken Real team that had no link players. There wasn’t such a case in Barcelona, as Ozil was actually the player who made the joint-highest number of tackles (4) and the highest number of interceptions (7) out of all 22 players. This surprising statistic occurred due to two factors: Ozil’s undoubtedly laudable defensive work, as well as Barcelona’s relatively poor passing accuracy.
Real’s defensive shape was an interesting feature of the game. Unlike Chelsea who sought to defend very deep, Mourinho had his 4 most advanced players (Di Maria Ozil Ronaldo and Karim Benzema) press relentlessly in Barcelona’s half. Real’s 2 holding midfielders Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira sat back in front of their back 4, and this defensive 6 were always prepared should Barcelona break past their front 4.
Additionally, Real’s defensive line was quite a high one, and they sought to catch Barcelona’s players offside. Alves and Messi were both flagged offside twice; Tello once. Mourinho was probably expecting more runs from Barcelona’s midfield (which didn’t happen), but his centre-backs Pepe and Sergio Ramos were very very comfortable for almost the full 94 minutes.
In attack, Mourinho effectively employed the same tactics as he had used everytime he faced Barcelona. Chelsea had picked up on them in midweek as well, and Real predictably hit plenty of long balls forward, 49 of them to be exact. Goalkeeper Iker Casillas played 20 of those 49 long balls, similar to how Chelsea’s own goalkeeper Petr Cech booted the ball into Barcelona’s half at every opportunity.
Barcelona’s defenders didn’t look as shaky as they did in London in dealing with long balls, but nevertheless, Real were always favourites to win balls in the air. As a team, Real won 65% of the aerial duels, with Ronaldo and Benzema winning 3 aerial duels each. Barcelona’s weakness in the air by extension, naturally leads to a weakness from set-pieces that Real exploited to maximum effect. From corners, Ronaldo had a header saved by Barcelona’s goalkeeper Victor Valdes and Pepe had a header off-target: early warnings to Guardiola’s side. Real’s goal indeed came from a corner when Pepe outjumped Adriano, Valdes and Carles Puyol both made costly errors, and Khedira forced the ball into the net.
The other weakness Barcelona have is their susceptibility to attacks down their flanks, a weakness that Chelsea, and then Real, exposed fully. Ronaldo’s goal came about via Barcelona’s left flank, as Ozil drifted over to the empty space there, before playing a whiz of a pass to Ronaldo who had made a superb run at top speed.
Ronaldo was caught marginally offside once before his goal, a warning to Barcelona of Real’s speed in the counterattack. The swiftness of Real’s counterattacks have been a hallmark of their season, and it was perfectly exemplified through Ronaldo’s goal. Both Ronaldo and Benzema had great games: Ronaldo with his stunning bursts of speed and eye-catching dribbling skills to take the ball as far away from his own goal as he could, and Benzema with his clever, slippery runs into the channels and to the flanks.
Truthfully, what Ronaldo and Benzema did in this game wasn’t dissimilar to what they did against Bayern, but the difference was that in this game they were protecting a slender lead whereas in Munich they were pushing for a goal. And yet when Barcelona drew level – and Real didn’t actually have to win the game to continue being favourites for the title – up stepped Ronaldo to hit the winner just seconds after Sanchez had scored.
Real’s second goal was not only a result of their players’ excellent pass and movement, it was also because of Barcelona’s defensive shape. As mentioned above, with Barcelona playing with a starting back 3, Busquets often dropped back into defence to form a back 4. Barcelona’s problem was that their transitions from attack to defence was simply too slow compared to Real’s astonishingly rapid counterattacks. Furthermore, Busquets’ movement from midfield to defence left Ozil totally unmarked and free to drift wherever he wanted without the attention of Barcelona’s defenders. By the time Busquets had closed down Ozil, Ronaldo was already propelling towards Ozil’s pass.
Lastly, Mourinho sought to really protect Real’s lead immediately after Ronaldo’s goal by putting on central midfielder Esteban Granero for the tired Di Maria – strengthening the midfield and increasing Real’s chances of keeping possession.
The losing side of any El Clasico will be naturally disappointed, but Guardiola has reason to be even more frustrated. His decision to sacrifice a defensive player for an attacking one flopped miserably, as neither width nor midfield provided the kind of support in attack that he wanted them to. Thiago and Xavi played too deep – was there even a need to play with 2 deep playmakers, not even considering that Busquets was positioned behind them? – and whisper it under your breath, but Iniesta’s form has been frankly terrible over the past few weeks.
Only Messi performed to his usual standards in a Barcelona side that lacked a cutting edge – the loss of David Villa to injury has finally begun to have an impact. Perhaps the real question should be: Do Barcelona need an-all round striker, a world-class forward to put chances away like Villa and/or Eto’o to be successful?
Guardiola has plenty of things to think about before Barcelona’s must-win clash against Chelsea: the ideas of both offensive and defensive width, attacking midfield runners and defending long high balls and set pieces (Pique must surely fancy his chances of a starting spot in the next match) are all elements he must address. For a Barcelona side that has been so used to tactical fluidity, those are big big problems.
Real Madrid on the other hand, will cherish this victory for a long long time because of its multi-layered significance. Not only was it Mourinho’s first ever league victory against Barcelona, it was also the game where Real scored their 108th and 109th league goal of the season – beating their own record of 107 league goals in 1990. But most importantly of all, Real gained a well-deserved 3 points, and were virtually crowned champions of Spain for the first time in 4 years – and they did so by finally beating Barcelona, in the Camp Nou no less.