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Thursday, December 15

Anatomy of La Liga: Barcelona v Real Madrid

A look at the top of La Liga, and whether Real Madrid's play warrants a six point table clearance over Barcelona.  Originally posted 29 November.

After thirteen games played in La Liga, Real Madrid stands six points clear of the defending league and European champions, Barcelona.  What was a three point gap between the two archrivals heading into the weekend doubled due to Madrid's 4-1 thrashing of Atlético Madrid and Barca dropping points away in a 1-0 loss at Getafe, the thirteenth-place team of La Liga.  With a looming El Clásico between the Spanish giants on 10 December, the deepest squad in Europe and Barca seemingly trending downwards, Madrid would not be begrudged hoping to put away La Liga by year's end.

But has Real Madrid's play warranted a six point clearance?  Or, better yet, has Barcelona's play warranted a six point deficit?  To solve this, a comparison between a common opponent -- Atlético  -- and a common event -- Madrid and Barca's first goal -- is warranted.

Barcelona doesn't just have one of the best sides of history, they have one of the most appealing styles of history: a possession-dominated attack predicated on precision passing, well-timed runs, dragging defenders out of place, countless triangles between their players and a seeming desire to pass the ball into the back of the net.  And, when they lose the ball -- almost as rare of an occurrance of scoring off a header or set piece -- Barca pressures the opponent as high up the pitch as any team ever has with a tenacity demanded by a philosophy of getting the ball back within six seconds of losing it.  They are relentless, they are ambitious, they are a squad comprised mainly of players from their famed La Masia factory football academy.

And Real Madrid is almost as good or even with them or, perhaps, better.  Favouring a counter-attacking style which looks to get the ball as vertical as possible in as short a time as conceivable with as few of passes as necessary, Madrid careens at breakneck speed down their flanks with attacking players willing to take on defenders and find their own space to move into.  Players often, regardless of their nominal positions, take off towards goal depending upon who finds themselves further down the pitch when the ball is won.  It is designed to get as many at-least-decent chances as possible as quickly as possible.  Which is to say, going against a side like Barcelona, who holds the ball for so long, it is a style designed to dethrone the reigning champions.  And, in last year's Copa del Rey, it did.


Down 0-1 to Atlético Madrid after fifteen minutes, Real Madrid did not delay in pulling level,  In the 24th minute, Xabi Alonso found himself of ball, just beyond midfield, with Atlético defending in the common and traditional two banks of four:

Position of Madrid and Atlético upon Xabi Alonso's pass (the black arrow) to Ronaldo
 and Madrid players moving off the ball (the white arrows)

Eight defenders and five attackers, yet holes exist for Madrid to exploit.  Chiefly, an unmarked Cristiano Ronaldo, who Alonso of course found, a pass far too easy to allow a player so gifted to make.  With the three back line players nearest Ronaldo all ball watching, it became quite simple for Madrid: Di María moved to the open space in front of the back four and Benzema went behind his marker, his marker none the wiser.  Making things worse for Atlético was how slow they were to converge on Ronaldo, so slow in fact that it made one of Atlético's central defenders step up, creating essentially an ocean of space behind the defense for Benzema.

The chance creation sequence: Ronaldo to Di María, Di María one-touch to Benzema

With three players closing on him, Ronaldo held the ball as long as possible before sliding the ball over to Di María.  This accomplished two things the same way: not only did he create that ocean of space, he was giving Di María a passing lane the size of the English Channel.  But the opportunity had to be seized immediately, as a pass even a split second later would've left Benzema offsides and a chance wasted.  And seize the opportunity Madrid did: Di María one-touched the ball to Benzema who was left onsides by the man who should've been marking Di María in the first place, the man who, had he been closing out on Di María faster, would've made Benzema offsides by yards.  From there, Benzema was in clear and, after a touch, went to round the keeper who was slow to come out.  The keeper clipped Benzema down, the foul was called, a red-card was given and Ronaldo scored from the spot, leveling Madrid, now up a man.


Playing host to Atlético -- as did Madrid -- Barcelona drew first blood after just nine minutes of play.  "Chameleon Eyes" Xavi Hernandez, after a series of feints and twists, passed to an open and supporting Dani Alves.

Position of Barca and Atlético players upon Xavi's pass to Alves

Xavi's brilliance here isn't in the pass he made, it's in the pass he didn't make: sending the ball to Sergio Busquets, while it would've pulled the packed-tight Atlético defense out, would not have pulled them enough out of shape or left bodies in poor enough of positions for any of Barca's trademark one-two's, much like how Madrid scored their first against Atlético.  By playing the ball to Alves, Xavi ensured his own man marker would leave him, giving himself potentially more space and more time on the ball in one of his favoured deep-lying positions.

With two men obscuring Messi and Pedro providing width -- the stretch the defense sort, not the dangerous, unmarked sort like Napoli had against City -- Alves went back to one of the most cerebral and technical players to ever lace on boots.  Xavi, unmarked, took slight touches forward, giving himself an English Channel of his own:

The chance-creation sequence: Xavi's diagonal, lofted through-ball clearing the Atlético defense for Villa

While David Villa found himself on the end of Xavi's pass, Thiago Alcântara did his part to ensure the most-prolific Spanish National Team scorer was able to receive the ball and did so before the pass was even made.  By driving as he did towards the center, Thiago drew the attention of the defender who should've been marking Villa, making him take two steps in, giving Villa the space required for a clean handling.  Thiago, never a threat to actually receive the pass, simply rounded his run off once the central defender actually meant to occupy him cut him off before the penalty box, his job done.  From there, that central defender marking Thiago had to leave his post to close down on the clear Villa, who calmly cut it back inside and drove the ball home, the keeper never having a chance.


But what could two rivals scoring their first goals against a common opponent possibly show about the greater question of is Madrid's La Liga lead commensurate to them playing better?  The answer lies not in what Barca or Madrid did, but how Atlético defended.

The position of Atlético's defenders for Madrid's first goal

The position of Atlético's defenders for Barca's first goal

That's the full ten outfield players for Atlético defending against Barca, with one of the spare men augmenting the two banks.  Atlético isn't some relegation-fearing team: they're playing in the Europa League!  Barca, playing their 3-4-3 diamond that game, were facing such a compact, parked defense that they pushed forward nine of their own players, leaving only two players in their defending half, one of whom was goalkeeper Victor Valdes.  And Barca faces this brute force commitment to defense in almost all of their league games.

Breaking down nine and ten-men defenses, even for a side such as Barcelona, is not a guaranteed outcome. With the bodies that are required to push forward -- fullbacks or wingbacks needing to provide width, wingers having to cut in to grab centrebacks, holding players taking attacking positions -- there are spaces at the back that, if can't be outright exploited for a clean break, can at least be used as an outlet to stage a counter. And over the weekend, Getafe did just that, in the process winning a corner kick that resulted in the only goal of the game, leaving Barca six points behind Madrid.

Barcelona has reached a point where teams are content to play not for an honest win, loss or draw but for a draw or don't-get-embarrassed.  Sometimes, as Getafe or Sevilla showed, it works.  Other times, as Barca's own 5-0 thrashing of Atlético showed, the bottle can only be corked so long.


Madrid was up three heading into the weekend, not one, because of Barca playing Athletic Bilbao to a 2-2 draw in Basque Country on 6 November, a date Real Madrid annihilated Osasuna 7-1.  After the game, Pep Guardiola, Barcelona's manager, said:
"I'm proud of my players today, but I also want to congratulate Athletic Bilbao.  Everyone has enjoyed this great show thanks to twenty-two very good players. These are the best games I have ever been to, and that comes from the two teams' will to win.  I have said that they are beasts, as I had never played against a team so intense, so aggressive, that leaves you so little space.  If you're not prepared they will beat you, as they have a very intense, peculiar way of playing."
Emphasis added.  Contrast that with his comments after the Getafe loss:
"If you open the game up it is simple, but tonight we did not. There is nothing to suggest that the team are to blame, as they are well hydrated, eat well and rest. Today we must congratulate our opponent, and although I do not think they were better, they have won."
Emphasis added.  Fullback-cum-winger Dani Alves had this to say:
"While people tend to be extreme we need to be balanced. We will never change our way of playing due to results, we have a philosophy and if we are to die then we will die with that."
Emphasis added.  Guardiola, again, before the first leg of last season's Champions League semi-final against Madrid:
"I’m confident about the players we have. We are coming here proud to defend our style of play, with 12 home grown players and set to face a team in the semi finals who have 9 European Cups and seven great forwards."
Emphasis added.

Barcelona's brand of football doesn't just exemplify the best of the sport, it transcends.  So good are they that their manager will praise Marcelo Bielsa -- one of his personal heroes, coach of Athletic Bilbao -- for having the fortitude and the courage to give his team a sporting fight.  It isn't just about winning for Guardiola and his crew, it's about winning their way, on their terms, because of their will and football acumen.

While they are behind Real Madrid, don't mistake a gap in points for a gap in quality: Barcelona's degree of difficulty is orders of magnitude greater than that facing any other club team on the planet.  They may yet lose La Liga to Madrid, but only because Madrid is playing a different game than they.



  1. Idiotic article...So to sum up the foolish rant u call objective analysis, everybody must play the way Barcelona approves before their victory can be recognized. Barcelona's A.r.s.e hole must be well clean by now thanks to your tongue...next...

  2. It's times like this I wish I carried the comment section of these articles over from the old site. Alas, no, and, as always, thanks for reading.