El Clasico has become more than a football match, indeed one could it even call it a sporting spectacle. It’s a match that always garners the attention of the footballing public be it the casual football fan or the Spanish football enthusiast. High on drama and quality of football, it is an encounter that always promises a lot and more often than not delivers. The Copa del Rey final was a fitting stage for the latest installment of the drama. For the Catalans, it was an opportunity to put the disappointment of the Champions League behind them and what better way to do so than by prevailing over old rivals Real Madrid. Martino’s men had a week to forget as they lost ground in the title race after falling to defeat against Granada. Real on the other hand came into the game with an opportunity to secure their first piece of silverware in the Ancelotti era.
Barcelona 1-2 Real Madrid
FC Barcelona: Pinto; Alves, Bartra (Alexis, 87′), Mascherano, Alba (Adriano, 45′); Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas (Pedro, 60′); Neymar, Messi, Iniesta.
Real Madrid: Casillas; Carvajal, Pepe, Ramos, Coentrao; Modric, Alonso, Isco (Casemiro, 89′), Di Maria (Illaramendi, 86′), Benzema (Varane, 90′), Bale.
Goals: Di Maria 11′, Bale 85′ – Bartra 68′
Real line up in 2 banks of 4 off the ball, sit deep and hit Barca on the counter
It may have become an obvious tactic but there seems to be a blue print to beat Barca. Sit deep, absorb the pressure and then hit Barca hard on the break seems to be the best way to get at the Catalan club. This is however much easier said than done and Ancelotti’s men deserve credit for their performance. Additionally, Di Maria’s early goal meant that they could afford to employ more cautionary tactics with a lead to protect them. The absence of Ronaldo prompted a reshuffle of personnel in the starting XI but there was certainly no lack of cohesion in the side. The capital club lined up in 2 banks of 4 with Bale and Benzema forming the front 2 off the ball. The front 2 were responsible for selectively harrying the Barca midfielders and defenders. Behind them were the 4 midfielders who were quick to drop deep and narrow forming a blanket of protection for the back 4. The excellent Di Maria continued his resurgence at the club with a good display on the right and young Isco too put a shift in on the left.
This led to a crowded midfield and ensured that Barcelona could not create any overloads through the centre and had a part to play in the fact Barca struggled to create that many chances from open play. While they sat deep defensively, it would be a disservice to say that this was all they did. After recovering the ball, they weren’t shy of committing men to the counter attack with Di Maria especially more than happy to join in the attack transforming to a virtual 4-3-3.
Real Madrid just look like a team that is proficient at playing counter attacking football and this came to the fore last night even in the absence of their talisman Ronaldo. In Alonso, Modric and Isco they have 3 players with great vision and passing ranges to start off counter attacks and further up field it was all about the pace and link-up play between the trio of Bale, Di Maria and Benzema.
The above screenshot depicts a phase of play that perfectly captures Real’s tactics on the night. Real Madrid sat deep and with as many as 9 outfield player (circled in red) behind the ball. Isco then recovers the ball and starts off a counter attack finding Bale. A couple of incisive one-touch passes, first by Bale and second by Benzema released Di Maria who slotted home to give Real the lead. The offside, or lack thereof, call was a tight one but that is an argument for another time and place.
Barcelona fail to exploit the left flank
As established above, Real choked Barca’s play through the middle thus seeking security in numbers. Barca found little joy through the middle and on the right with Neymar having a quiet game (barring the late shot which hit the post). There however seemed to be opportunities on the opposite flank as seen on a few occasions in the first half. Carvajal has nailed down the starting berth at right-back and has certainly impressed us but he didn’t have the most comfortable of games. Barca threatened to get behind the youngster on a couple of occasions early on. With Di Maria tucked in-field, the overlapping Alba had an opportunity to get at Carvajal.
Barcelona though couldn’t drive home this advantage. With Neymar on the right and Messi playing in his customary false 9 role, it was left to Fabregas and Iniesta who alternately took up the role on the left hand side. Obviously both Fabregas and Iniesta prefer to play centrally which meant that they didn’t really test Carvajal as much as they could have. In retrospect, perhaps moving Neymar to the left for a while in the first half when Barca were chasing the game could have proved to be advantageous. Pedro did come on for Fabregas in the 2nd half but unfortunately for him and Barca, he failed to leave a mark in the Clasico.
Bale occupies the ‘Ronaldo role’ once again
The Bale-Benzema-Ronaldo axis has been the heart beat of the Real Madrid attack and the loss of Ronaldo meant that Ancelotti had a decision to make. Di Maria’s resurgence at Real Madrid has coincided with his deployment in a deeper role and there must have been a temptation to keep him in that role especially in a game as big as the Clasico. Ancelotti however chose to entrust Isco with a deeper role and play Di Maria on the right hand side. This meant that Bale occupied a more central role, to good effect as the result shows. The 3rd component of Real’s attack was Karim Benzema who although had no goals to his game, played his part in the victory. The Frenchman was instrumental especially at the times he drifted wider roles dragging defenders out with him thus creating space for the likes of Di Maria and Bale to exploit.
Once again, the first goal serves as an example to show how Benzema’s movement created space for Di Maria. The Frnchman pulled out to the left flank compelling a defender to follow him thus creating space for Di Maria to run into. A first time ball from the former found the Argentine who opened the scoring.
Messi’s performance, or lack of it
Lionel Messi came under scrutiny after the Champions League tie with Atletico Madrid, with critics stating that he lacked desire in his bid to help Barca win at the Calderon. This was followed by a disappointing performance against Granada, where a certain young Tiago Ilori helped keep the Argentine quiet. His performance at the Mestalla though, was arguably his worst this season.
Multiple times during the game, his movement was lacking, there seemed to be a lack of urgency in terms of contribution to attack and his entire gameplay in general was rather lethargic. In fact, Real Madrid didn’t even have special plans specifically for the Argentine, besides their overall ‘sitting-back’ approach as discussed above. And as already discussed, the lack of creativity through the centre was a factor in Barca choosing to use the wide areas a bit more. They aren’t best with aerial crosses from out wide but that was forced upon them. This forced transition of play wasn’t altered in Messi’s game. He still tried to drop deep into the false 9 role and failed to get into attacking areas when he was needed, as the most advanced attacker.
The above is a small example. Lionel Messi (circled in white) is still trying to drop deep in a bid to receive the ball but Barca have adopted a wide approach, citing the lack of creativity through the centre. While his team-mates attempt to get into the box, Messi is seen without any real movement didn’t make much of an effort to get into the box. When Barca moved forward, rather than making runs into the box, he continued to drop deep in space, this worked against both him and his side.
Where does this leave them?
It was a night to remember at the Mestalla for Gareth Bale and his team-mates as they secured the first trophy under Ancelotti. The Welshman in particular continues to win over doubters and any questions over his big game temperament should be put to rest for the foreseeable future at least. Madrid would have celebrated with aplomb but there’s no question of sitting on their laurels. The quest for La Decima and overhauling local rivals Atletico in the league are the next two items on the Real Madrid agenda. For Barcelona, it’s been a nightmare week. Exit from the Champions League and yesterday’s loss means that the Spanish League is the sole focus. Much of the spotlight will be on their clash with Atletico late in the season, but if Barca are to be crowned champions this season, then they’ll have to hope for slip-ups from their rivals even before that game.
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