The footballing world turns its head every time Real Madrid meet Barcelona. Whenever these giants clash, a huge sense of expectation is placed on everyone at the clubs, not just the players, not just the managers and backroom staff but fans, janitors, everyone involved at the club is expected to gain that one inch that can add up to the mile.
Last time La Blaugrana met Los Blancos, Luis Suarez’ goal was the difference between the sides, with Barça running out as 2-1 winners. This match was a key factor in Barca’s title win, as they won La Liga by a margin of just two points. Since then, Barcelona have done the treble in Luis Enrique’s first season in charge, while Carlo Ancelotti has been sacked due to Real’s failure to win a trophy last season.
So far this season, Barça have lead the title charge, currently three points ahead of second place Real. Neither team has really dominated domestically or continentally though, Barça putting in a few below par performances(particularly against Celta Vigo at Nou Camp)while new Real manager Rafa Benitez has come under criticism for his defensive approach since taking the reigns at Santiago Bernabeu. Barça’s star man, Lionel Messi, has been injured since September, however has been putting in the graft to overcome his injury, particularly to play in this match. In Enrique’s press conference prior to the match, he confirmed the Argentinian would be involved in the match day squad and is fit to play. Real’s key player, Cristiano Ronaldo, has reportedly fallen out with manager Benitez over the team’s defensive approach and believes he isn’t playing to his full potential in the defensive style of play.
Going into this one, both teams will be cautious and are likely to feel each other out tactically in the opening stages before adopting more attacking mentalities later in the game, leading to dramatic late moments.
Real Madrid lined-up in a 4-4-1-1 formation. Keylor Navas remained in net, Danilo, Varane, Ramos and Marcelo was the back four. In front of them in an asymmetrical bank of four was James Rodriguez, who would play quite centrally but making movements into the right halfspace in possession, while he defended the right halfspace but also pressed Alba out wide when not in possession. In the centre of midfield was Kroos and Modric, who played higher up the field than expected. Cristiano Ronaldo started on the left wing, slightly more advanced than the other three midfielders, however, Ronaldo and Bale swapped positions a couple of times during the match. In a central role behind just behind main striker Karim Benzema was Welshman Gareth Bale, we will speak of their roles later.
The Barca line-up was hugely anticipated, considering the recoveries of key men Rakitic and Messi. Many questioned whether the pair would be fit to start, following Luis Enrique’s declaration that both would be fit enough to make the match day squad. In the end one started…the other being named on the bench. Claudio Bravo was in goals, he would be protected by a back four of Dani Alves, Pique, Mascherano and Jordi Alba. Just in front of the back four was Sergio Busquets. The interiors were Rakitic and captain Andrés Iniesta. On the right, making movements infield was youngster Sergio Roberto, while the prolific Suarez and Neymar took up the centre-forward and left-wing positions respectively. Lionel Messi was only fit enough to make the bench.
Defensive Structure in the Early Stages
In defence, a 4-3-3/4-4-1-1 was evident in the case of Real, depending on Ronaldo’s position. Bale started just behind Benzema centrally, looking to mark Busquets out of Barca’s build-up (Bale and Benzema alternated this duty, depending on who was nearer Busquets as Barca began to build from the back), this was done relatively successfully in the opening stages and Busquets influence on the game wasn’t as vivid as usual.
In order to prevent Barca access to the central areas, Real looked to congest the centre without the ball, Kroos, Modric, James, Bale and at times Ronaldo, all came into narrow positions to either mark a player, or just to deny space centrally. When Ronaldo’s workrate was good and he tracked back, he and James would mark Barca’s interiors (Rakitic and Iniesta) if they decided to stay away from the build-up, however, if Barca moved the ball to their full-backs, Ronaldo and James would leave the interior and press the full-back but not getting overly close as if they were beaten (they probably would due to the technical ability of both Alves and Alba) this would leave their halfspace open for the interior to exploit, not an ideal situation considering the quality of Rakitic and Iniesta.
Upping the Intensity of Pressure
After around 20 minutes of defending in a deep block and not pressing Barcelona, preferring to restrict the space, Benitez realised this was not all at a sustainable approach and instructed his forwards and midfield to press higher up the field and with much greater intensity.
Due to Barca’s deep build-up through their centre-backs, this often meant Kroos and Modric would sprint out from the midfield line to press Pique and Mathieu as Bale was unable to do this as he would then be leaving Busquets free. This had a hugely negative impact on Madrid and lead to very poor vertical compactness between their defence and midfield and Barcelona took full advantage of this. Roberto and Neymar often drifted inside to overload the Madrid midfielder who didn’t press, this meant it was often 3v1 in Barca’s favour in the key central areas. In the image below we can see Kroos leaving Modric overloaded by Busquets, Rakitic and the drifting Sergi Roberto.
Since Luis Enrique took over at Barcelona around a year and a half ago, his side have evolved into a more direct style of play. At first he was criticised by some for going against the club’s famed attractive style of football, playing short passes and being focused very much around a possession based approach, however, following a successful season, many of his doubters disappeared and accepted Barca needed to evolve in order to progress as a club. In this match though, Barca played out from the back always and didn’t play many long balls at all, unless being totally forced with no other options, eventually this drew Madrid in and allowed Barca to exploit the space left centrally.
A key part of Barca’s game was circulation among the back four and Bravo until a lane opened up to a more advanced player. Pique and Mascherano (Mathieu in place of Mascherano after the 28th minute) sat pretty deep and helped circulate the ball horizontally. Goalkeeper Claudio Bravo was involved a lot, especially after Real began to press higher, the Chilean keeper even completed 54 passes, 10 more than Ronaldo, 13 more than Bale and 28 more than Benzema.
In order to escape Madrid’s press, Barca would move the ball to one of their full-backs and the ball-near interior would move close to him to allow him to move the ball away from the touchline, into an area where Madrid wouldn’t find it as a easy to press. When Barca moved the ball into a halfspace or into the centre, this took Madrid’s pressers out the game and allowed Barca more space.
Overloads Cause Chaos
One tool which Barcelona used to dominate areas of the pitch was to overload certain zones. The left flank and centre of the pitch were two areas which Barca particularly looked to overload to gain numerical superiority.
In order to cause confusion and big problems for Real’s right side, Jordi Alba, Neymar and sometimes Iniesta would overload the left. The trigger for Iniesta to drift wide was James Rodriguez’s positioning, if Rodriguez remained up the pitch and was unable to get back quickly enough, Iniesta would remain centrally and allow Alba and Neymar more space against Danilo, if Rodriguez was back in his standard defensive position, Iniesta would sometimes move into the left halfspace to create a 3v2 against Danilo and Rodriguez. Another trigger for a player’s movement was the decisions of Neymar. If Neymar chose to cut inside, Alba would overlap and Neymar then had the choice between carrying on dribbling infield or passing to Alba, who could then cross, this pattern of play came with great success for Barca and Alba was often able to create a dangerous chance with a cross or cut-back. The second option was for Alba to underlap and Neymar to use his dribbling skills on the wing, or to play a pass infield to Alba who would be in a very good position in the halfspace.
Analysing Barca’s Beautiful Golazo
Following a night of stunning football from Barcelona, the introduction of Lionel Messi from the bench was only going to increase the attractiveness of the football on show. And attractive football involving Messi was certainly what we got.
Barcelona played some nice combination passes in the middle of the pitch, with a touch of Messi genius in between, then back to quick combinations. Following these short passes, Kroos, Modric and most importantly, Ramos were all dragged out of position to press the ball. Ramos leaving the defensive line was a costly error. The ball again came to Lionel Messi, who was (unsurprisingly) able to escape Madrid’s press in a very tight space, as Messi dribbled into the centre, Jordi Alba had moved onto Madrid’s last line, while Neymar stayed on the left wing, this caught Carvajal in two minds as he was obviously unable to mark both of the, this problem could have been solved if Ramos had remained in the line, as Real’s back four could have shifted one player right in terms of marking. Suarez moved into the gap Ramos left in the defensive line, instinctively anticipating a ball through the gap as Messi continued dribbling. Messi played a pass into Alba who nicely played a first time ball into Suarez who took full advantage of the gap, Ramos was obviously unable to recover in time and Luis Suarez delicately chipped the ball over Keylor Navas. 0-4 to Barcelona.
Amid rumours that Real Madrid president Florentino Perez had an influence on Rafa Benitez’s attacking team selection, perhaps the Real boss couldn’t be expected to take the full blame for his side’s humiliating defeat. Although, during the match, the tactical modifications Benitez made didn’t always benefit his team. The decision to press Barca higher and harder was a poor decision by the coach and was a move which gave Barca plenty of momentum to get three more goals.
Despite Real’s poor tactics and individual performances, nothing can be taken away from Barcelona, who were excellent. One player who has passed his peak is midfield magician Andrés Iniesta, however tonight, Iniesta was wonderful, he dictated the tempo of the game and took full advantage of the space left by Real in key central areas. Luis Enrique, who was criticised for his poor tactics originally, got everything right seemingly, and deservedly so left the Santiago Bernabeu with a smile on his face.