Don’t Write Off Captain Caveman
As the dust settles on the first league Clasico of the season, one would urge caution before suggesting that Barcelona had dealt a knockout blow to Real Madrid’s title challenge. Nevertheless, Pep Guardiola tactically out-maneuvered the grim-faced Jose Mourinho, who lamented the lack of luck at key points of the match-up last night. Yes, at 1-0, Cristiano Ronaldo had time & space to slot home a shot, when he instead miscued a shot well wide & over the bar. Early in the second half, Ronaldo headed wide from a poor Barcelona attempt at an off-side trap off a cross. We’ve seen Ronaldo finish those opportunities with eyes closed, when the opposition isnt Barcelona. But it would be a dis-service to the Liga champions to suggest that Real Madrid’s misses handed Barcelona the victory.
Whilst Mourinho was brave to select Ozil to play in the 4-2-3-1 that he set up (when Karanka had suggested that RM would definitely play with a 4-3-3), the selection backfired. Ozil was rarely in the game, and could not get the better of Busquets who played an integral role both as a forward-moving center back, having started off in his usual anchor role. Even when Busquets dropped into CB, Ozil failed to take advantage. How much of a difference would Khedira have made from the start? That leads us to the second factor that helped Barcelona and that was the movement of Lionel Messi. He was not picked up by Real Madrid players & had no man-marker. When Barcelona were still finding their feet in the first half, Messi dropped deeper & deeper began to carry the ball forward & that helped his side settle. One of those mazy runs saw him slip through Alexis Sanchez who scored with what was a much more difficult finish than you would think.
Another interesting decision was the selection of Coentrao at right back. The idea was a left-sided player going up against a Barcelona attacker turning in-field. Initially it looked to be paying off, but Coentrao’s lack of familiarity with the role may have meant he played Alexis Sanchez onside for Barcelona’s first goal. Even though he had the better of Iniesta in the first half that was a crucial mistake. As the game wore on, Iniesta took on & beat Coentrao at will & was arguably Barcelona’s most impressive offensive player.
Real Madrid had set up to play a high intensity pressing game & that was evident from the first minute. Despite being a factor in their first goal, Barcelona remained patient at the back & continued to play what looked like risky passes to mere human viewers. They stuck to their philosophy when our inner voice was shouting out “hoof it, hoof it”. Victor Valdes got a lot of praise from Guardiola for showing “balls” & continuing to play short passes even after his mistakes in the first half. Despite giving up possession a few times due to the pressure, the Barcelona defence settled just as Real Madrid conceded the first goal, which came right at the time when Barcelona was turning the tide. Real Madrid began to reduce the intensity of their pressing, seemingly as part of their tactical plan for the match. Who could keep that pace up for 90 minutes without tiring? But one tactical reshuffle aided in getting Barcelona’s foot back into the game & alleviating a little bit of pressure on the Catalan side’s defence. Guardiola switched what looked like a back-4 to a back-3 plus Busquets who would drop into the center back role, pushing Pique to the right-sided center back, & returning captain Puyol to right back. This meant Dani Alves moved ahead into a right-wing position. The consequences of this were multi-fold.
Firstly, Puyol would face Ronaldo in one-on-one positions and he would get the better of him on every single occassion, stifling Ronaldo & frustrating him into a disillusioned figure. With Dani Alves moving forward, it forced the Real Madrid “attack” to think more about defending & dropping a little back. It was largely in the second half that the value of this tactical change provided an offensive result & that was when spaces opened up & Alves began sending delicious crosses towards the far post, one of which resulted in a Barcelona goal. Secondly, Busquets would drop into the center back role & have more time/space to spray the ball around. Initially, the move had defensive fruits as he was more disciplined & restricted in his movement but as Barcelona got their equalizer, Busquets began to position himself a little higher too. In the second half, he was virtually back to his original position as Barcelona almost exclusively looked like they had been playing with a back-3. Finally, the move allowed Fabregas to actually get into the game by dropping in as more of an orthodox central midfielder next to Xavi. Consequently, Xavi found himself moving forward, providing more of the forward runs which we are more accustomed to from Iniesta.
So what have we learnt from El Clasico?
- Mourinho probably second-guessed himself once again & this was evident in the tactics he set up
- Real Madrid cannot integrate the high-intensity pressing game for as long as they need to
- One step ahead, two steps back…Did Real Madrid look “closer” to Barcelona during the early season Super Cup? It’s quite likely that they looked more dangerous & could have easily won that title, but then again that was a Barcelona team that was physically about 2 weeks behind the RM preparations
- Pep Guardiola loves to change things on the go. The amount of times Barcelona’s movement & shaped changed during the game, whilst RM remained rigid & disciplined defines both the respective coaches approaches & styles. Pique said after the game that Barcelona were supposed to play with 3 at the back but RM’s pressure meant they werent able to until the 10th minute of the match
- Cristiano Ronaldo does not perform in big games as much as he should for someone of his stature. Messi brings much more than goals to this Barcelona team. Once again he played a crucial role just as he did last season during the Clasico series
- Puyol is a rock at the back of the defence & Barcelona never lose with him in the side. Well, almost never. He produced a defensive masterclass reminiscent of Fabio Cannavaro, the 2006 WC version & not the Real Madrid one. He stifled Ronaldo in every 1 on 1 situation, cleared crosses into the box, cleared the ball with his head, organized & disciplined Pique when he had to, & didnt give a foul away in the process & all this with lingering doubts over his fitness & future. What is clear is that Barcelona is a different side with him at the back. Had he not been playing last night, despite all the tactical talk above, it would not be far fetched to say Barcelona would not have won. A 10/10 performance for the captain
What happens next?
Well if you are Barcelona, you head to Japan to win the World Club Cup. But if you are Jose Mourinho, you have to pick up a dejected-looking set of players & re-inject self belief into them. But that will be easier said than done. RM were driven by the belief that they were as close to Barcelona as they had ever been & privately may have thought that they were, on form, the better side going into the Santiago Bernebau. But being walked off the park at home, especially in the second half, how do you tell those players that they are not inferior to their Barcelona counterparts? Whilst the defeat cost RM 3 points (arguably 4 with the head to head rules & away win for Barcelona), the real decisive factors in determining the champions will be who slips up in “other” games. Luckily for RM, they only have 1 league game before the winter break. Unfortunately, its at Sevilla, one of the harder grounds to go to. Failure to win that game & the sucker punch from last night could be turned into something much bigger.