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Thursday, December 15

Real Madrid 1 - 3 Barcelona: Guardiola Eating Mourinho's Lunch

A look at the hurting Barcelona put on Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu. 

Co-published by totalbarca.com and twelvepointsports.blogspot.com.

The Starting XIs
The first Clásico of the 2011-2012 La Liga campaign opened with the fastest goal ever scored in a match between Barcelona and Real Madrid.  With Madrid pressing their archrival deep in their own end, Victor Valdes found himself of ball and was looking to play Eric Abidal out to the touchline.  While not an awful idea, Valdes missed Madrid winger Ángel di María staying in the passing lane, not closing down Gerard Piqué.  The resulting pass was easily intercepted by di María, and after a Sergio Busquets block of both the ensuing through ball and rebounded shot by Mesut Özil, Karim Benzema volleyed home, giving Los Blancos a lead in all of twenty-two seconds.

While the goal itself wasn't a result of either side's tactics, Madrid's pressuring was confirmation of the suggestion put forth by José Mourinho's surprising inclusion of Özil in his starting eleven: Madrid, up three points in the league race with a game in hand and favoured to win, was going to play a positive game.

And, in turn, Madrid was positively bested in every area of the game by a dominant Barca.

Mourinho started the game with their standard 4-2-3-1 with two changes: at right-back, Fabio Coentrão got the nod over Alvaro Árbeloa -- as was the case last weekend -- and Sami Khedira was sat in favour of Lass Diarra.

Guardiola's lineup was the same eleven as predicted, only in one of their alternate 4-3-3 alignments: Cesc Fàbregas played in midfield, Andres Iniesta played out wide, Alexis Sánchez played the centre-forward and Lionel Messi played down the right flank with an eagerness to cut inside.  As is often the case with Barca, there was a great deal of fluidity to their positioning, often rotating among themselves across the pitch.

This chaotic rotation had a negative side-effect for Barca: as warned, Alves was commonly the only Barca player down their right flank, leaving no one to pin back Marcelo who, free to do so, bombed down the touchline.  In one notable instance, Marcelo overlapped Ronaldo and, with the attention on him, started a series of lay-offs that gave Cristiano Ronaldo an unmarked shot just outside the box that just sailed wide.

The Lineups after Guardiola's switch.  Barely pictured: Ronaldo
Much was made before the game about whether Guardiola would run out Barca's favoured 3-4-3 system.  After ten minutes, they hadn't.

And then Guardiola came over and ate Mourinho's lunch for him.
 "I had to decide if we would be brave or very brave." -- Guardiola
In the face of conventional wisdom which suggested a three man back-line would mean death against a team featuring Madrid's talent, Guardiola switched to just such a shape, and the game was never the same after.  Alves didn't merely get forward, he was marking Marcelo, playing as a true winger, leaving a back three of Carles Puyol, Piqué and Abidal. 
"We had planned to start with 3 defenders but in the end we waited for 10 minutes to do it." -- Piqué
From that point on, Puyol shut down Ronaldo, putting in a true Man-of-the-Match performance: his tackling was sure, his positioning was brilliant and the finalist for the FIFA Ballon d'Or was a non-factor.

Sergio Busquets was also brilliant.  Tasked with marking the Turkish German National Team midfielder, Özil, Busquets thrived, leaving Özil with little time on the ball and even less space to move to, allowing Özil nary a chance to justify his surprise selection.  A non-factor himself, Özil was the first Madrid player subbed off.

Barca's movement after Guardiola's change
While this alone would've been enough to earn Busquets accolades, he also had another task: dropping into the back-line when support was needed, just like he did against Milan.  Between denying Özil room to breathe and intercepting passes and providing cover, Busquets was perhaps the most vital piece to the viability of Barca's shape against an attack as threatening as Madrid's.

Guardiola's attacking alignment also created turmoil for Mourinho's men.  With Messi playing deeper than normal and coming into the hole even deeper yet, his natural markers weren't centre-backs but Xabi Alonso and Diarra.  So deep was Messi playing, in fact, that he was more of a false-ten than his standard false-nine.

Another stroke of brilliance from Guardiola was putting Iniesta, a centre-mid by trade, out on the left wing.  With Mourinho starting Coentrão for the expressed purpose of tracking an advanced-positioned winger inside, Madrid had no prescribed plan for Iniesta's role, one which he has played for Spain before and in Barca's alternate 4-2-4 shape from campaigns aft.  Iniesta was sublime with his movements: while he was often the provider of width down the left, he also made dribbling slaloms and spirited runs from deep positions towards the centre-backs, bypassing Coentrão entirely.  And because Coentrão was hesitant to join the attack -- which, if that was the plan, why did he start over a truer right-back in Árbeloa? -- Iniesta was free to drop into the centre of the midfield when out of possession, ensuring Barca had more bodies back than Madrid had forward when counter-attacking.
"Alexis did a perfect job. He kept their centre-backs busy so we had superiority in other zones." -- Guardiola
Sánchez, the nominal centre-forward, kept Madrid's centre-backs busy by both running touchline to touchline and making knifing runs for through balls.  As predicted, he was picked for the edge he brings to the Barca attack and didn't disappoint, scoring the first goal after being found on one of his knifing runs by a just-dribbled-through-the-defense Messi.  Much like Busquets was the solidifying player at the back, Sánchez was the key gear up front, keeping Pepe and Sergio Ramos away from Messi and moving outside to keep Coentrão from running inside with Iniesta.

Also, while Sánchez was the most-forward of the Barca forwards, he wasn't so far removed from Messi, Iniesta and Alves to be part of a different line.  And with Busquets essentially playing as a centre-back whose chief assignment was marking Özil, Barca's shape frequently looked like that of a 4-2-4, an assertion supported by their average positions:

Via Opta Sports (@optajose)
Two points of note:

-- Alves wasn't a winger until roughly the 20 minute mark of the first half, leaving his depiction on the left to appear more recessed than the tactical change exhibited.  

-- Fàbregas and Xavi appear close to the frontline, but this is something of a Simpson's paradox: because of the defensive-minded Diarra starting alongside a not-frequently-foraging-forward Alonso and Busquets marking Özil, Barca's midfield duo were free to make a multitude of runs into the penalty area, skewing their average position forward, to go along with the often dropping inside of Messi and Iniesta.  While Fàbregas' goal came on the end of a cross from Alves, Xavi also had an opportunity on an Alves cross as well, exemplifying how forward they pushed.

Regardless of the label one wishes to ascribe upon their shape -- 4-2-4, 3-3-4, 3-4-3 --  Guardiola's change proved Madrid's six-point table lead was, as noted, one not commensurate with both team's actual level of play.


  1. Interesting points but lets not act as if tactics totally changed the game. While the tactics surely gave players from both teams the chance to win, the truth of the matter is that one team capitalized, the other did not.

    We can go on and on about these issues but fact is that that little man in the number 10 shirt is a genius, a clutch player in the order of Michael Jordan. He had no business getting past alonso, diarra, and Ramos and still be able to thread a sublime final ball. Genius!!!When it matters most..... at least for barca. Without him, barca does not win the last 5 clasicos. His influence is huge. The 2-0 champions league semis, the two super copa games where he scored 3 and had two assists. Unbelievable.

    Ronaldo again failed miserably, a boat load of bad decisions as with every other clasico, run instead of pass, shoot instead of pass, dribble instead of pass. All proved to be bad decisions and the fatal ones were the glaring missed chances.

    I understand that you are commenting on tactics but if Ronaldo scored or passed to Di Maria, we are talking about 2-0 in the first 15-20mins at Bernabeau. But as they say, the victors generally get to write history, and this praise of Pep's genius may not have happened.

    Anyway such is life, I give credit to the barca boys they are wonderful players indeed.

  2. Tactics didn't change the game?

    You mention Messi running past Alonso, Lass and Ramos. And it's a very fair point to make: Messi is, after all, Messi.

    But Alonso and Lass aren't centre-backs. To counter Madrid pushing a centre-back higher up the pitch to mark him, Guardiola recessed Messi even further, keeping him in positions favourable to Barca, allowing him to create chaos in the Madrid defense.

    He's certainly a clutch player in the order of Michael Jordan. But Jordan needed Phil Jackson to succeed. Guardiola ensures that one of the best players ever is almost always being utilized properly. On a wing, as a false-9, as a midfielder, whatever.

    As for Ronaldo not passing, he should've. But Barca weren't in their new shape at that moment -- what the Santos manager called a 3-7-0 -- and the missed chances game is a very tricky one to play: Barca missed enough chances after that which would've more than leveled the score. Maybe Mourinho then goes conservative with his 4-3-3/4-5-1 (Ronaldo LM/Di Maria RM), maybe he doesn't, but what can be said and said certainly is Barca, after the shape and tactics change, decimated Madrid.

    Thanks for reading.