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Thursday, December 15

Real Madrid - Barcelona: Lineup Predictions

A look at the potential lineups for the sides of José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola.
Co-published by totalbarca.com and twelvepointcourier.blogspot.com.  Part one can be read here, part two can be read here.

Real Madrid, since Carvalho Injury
With the summer transfers for fullback-cum-midfielder-cum-winger Fábio Coentrão, forward José Callejón and midfielder Nuri Şahin, in addition to the returning form of Kaká and Lass Diarra, Real Madrid features an outright embarrassment of riches, allowing José Mourinho the deepest selection of versatility and talent belonging to any recent European side.  So fierce is the in-squad competition for playing time that Gonzalo Higuaín, he of 12 goals in 14 La Liga appearances, is not even assured of match time -- let alone a start -- come Saturday's Clásico.  It's a side that hasn't lost -- or tied -- in fifteen straight matches across all competitions.  It's dominant.

And a real bitch to predict.


What is known (read: known  or reasonably inferred) about Madrid's tactics for Saturday:

-- Only one of Higuaín or Karim Benzema will start, per the self-anointed "Special One" himself, meaning Cristiano Ronaldo and Ángel di María will be called upon down the flanks.
-- Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira will play in midfield.
-- Four will feature at the back, with Sergio Ramos and Pepe as centrebacks the only certainties, given Ricardo Carvalho's injury, Alvaro Árbeloa's recent return from a knock and Coentrão's emergence.
-- Captain Iker Casillas in goal.

Why isn't Mesut Özil, the Turkish German National Team staple, a lock to play?  As the brilliant Michael Cox of Zonal Marking notes, Madrid's big game shape is likely a defensive 4-3-3, not their usual 4-2-3-1, the shape Barca gashed 5-0 the first time around last season.  It's an assertion supported by both Madrid's shape in their most difficult game this season, at Valencia, and their extensive use of it during the run of Clásicos  at the end of the last campaign.  Madrid's 4-3-3 favours a third defensive player in lieu of a central, attacking midfielder that their 4-2-3-1 provides, and with Mourinho already saying Ronaldo and di María are his wingers, there's no place for him in their starting eleven.  Because of this, look for Diarra to be third midfielder.
Potential Madrid 4-3-3 (Khedira and Diarra able to swap)

Of some remaining doubt are the fullbacks, and all because of just one man: Coentrão.

Coentrão, who has played as a left-back, a defensive midfielder and a winger for Madrid, started at right-back during last weekend's fixture for Los Blancos.  Perhaps it was a try out to see if he could handle it, perhaps it was to give a declared-fit Árbeloa more rest before the Clásico, but the experimentation isn't one only a mad scientist could conjure: given how Barca's wingers often cut inside and Coentrão's acumen in the center he's shown as a defensive midfielder, he might well be Madrid's best choice on the right for Saturday's Clásico.

During their midweek Champions League game at Ajax, however, he started on the left, giving Marcelo a night off.  This has to signify that Marcelo is both starting and needed to be on fresh legs.  It's probably the right choice: Marcelo has ample experience against Barca and is better getting forward than Coentrão.  And while Coentrão probably could  play right-back, given the respect Mourinho has for Barca's attack, look for the flexibility he provides to be used as a substitution and for Árbeloa to start at right-back.

Potential Barca 4-3-3

What is known about Barca's tactics for Saturday:
-- Lionel Messi will play.
-- Xavi Hernández, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets will all play, and Iniesta will probably  join Xavi and Busquets in midfield.
-- Dani Alves will play.
-- Victor Valdes in goal.

After that?  For the remaining five outfield players, it's conjecture, and the chief deciding factor will be the shape Guardiola decides upon.


At centreback, Javier Mascherano's form has been tremendous this campaign, and his speed at that position is something Gerard Piqué and Carles Puyol don't offer.  What Piqué and Puyol do offer, though, is a partnership that won a World Cup without allowing any goals in the knockout stages, to say nothing of the considerable experience advantage.  And the "they've only lost one game when starting together for Barca"-thing they have going, the most recent occurrence of which was over two years aft.  At this point, in a vacuum, Mascherano and Piqué would probably be the pairing, but can Guardiola really sit his captain?  If they go 4-3-3, look for Piqué and Puyol, with Eric Abidal as the left-back.
4-3-3 versus 4-3-3

Up front, left to deduce is Messi's position and who will be with him.  With form concerns existing for David Villa, Pedro Rodriguez and, to a lesser extent, Alexis Sánchez, it is Isaac Cuenca who has been playing best among the blaugrana  wingers of late.  His positioning along either flank has been tremendous, and there is the ability to beat his marker 1 on 1 or swing a decent cross in.  If he were to start, it would be on the left: Cuenca is not the winger to track or pin back Marcelo.

To track Marcelo, the best choice is Sánchez, Guardiola's first choice from the Supercopa.  Sánchez is almost a "reverse Dani Alves" for Barca, given how he tracks back just as aggressively as Alves surges forward.  Although just returning from a lengthy knock, he has flashed a sharpness to his knife -- a sharpness some say Barca has been missing in their draws and defeat at Getafe -- with two recent, beautiful, curling strikes.

To pin back Marcelo, the best choice is Messi.  Against a defense designed to stop a centrally located Messi, having him out right would require some significant tactical changes on the part of Madrid or some radical shifts of Madrid personnel with Barca in possession.  And if the threat of Messi isn't enough to keep Marcelo back, what better possible outlet behind an advanced fullback could there ever be?

Potential Barca 3-4-3
If Messi plays on the right, then Fàbregas plays centrally as Messi would have: dropping back when needed to, pushing forward when needing to penetrate the Madrid defense.  On the left, like Mascherano, Cuenca is probably the right choice, but one of Villa/Pedro/Sánchez will get the nod.  Of those three, Sánchez has been playing the best recently.

The alternative is starting Fàbregas on the bench, and running with Villa or Pedro or Sánchez/Messi/Pedro or Sánchez.  That, or playing Iniesa upfront, with Seydou Keita adding brawn to Barca's midfield.


There is no other option at centreback other than Mascherano, and Abidal would play to his left.  Fàbregas plays as a false-ten, Messi plays as a false-nine, and Villa and Sanchez are the wingers, with Pedro/Cuenca coming on after an hour.  Or, again, Iniesta on a wing, with Keita in midfield.


Regardless of Barca's shape, the midfield chess match is shaping up to be quite the appealing affair.  If Madrid is in their defensive 4-3-3, there's no immediate marker for Busquets: Khedira or Diarra could rotate to him, allowing Alonso to take their man, but if that's how Madrid wants to deal with Busquets on the ball, why play the 4-3-3 at all?  They'd be ostensibly defending -- albeit undoubtedly superior defending -- the same as their 4-2-3-1 without the creative presence of Özil.

If Barca is in their 4-3-3, Alonso would act as a midfield-sweeper, as well as picking up whomever drops from the front line.  The problem for Madrid comes when dealing with Busquets: if he's given time on the ball, how will Madrid account for him?  If Di María or Ronaldo come inside, Barca can outlet down their flanks.  Benzema or Higuaín is the best option, but even Wayne Rooney was made foolish against Barca when picking up midfield detail in the Champions League final.

Problematic for Barca, likewise, is dealing with Alonso.  If Messi has cut inside, either him or Fàbregas has to pick him up immediately upon losing possession, or Alonso will be free to roam between the touchlines, facilitating a quick Madrid counter, with one of Barca's midfielders scrambling to pick him up while the rest of Madrid is taking off the other direction.  This is exceedingly dangerous.

If Barca is in their 3-4-3, this alleviates their Alonso concern and erases both his sweeper functionality and time on the ball with a natural marker.  Not an insignificant consideration.


LEFT: How the 4-3-3 becomes a 3-4-3 RIGHT: How the 4-3-3 becomes a 3-5-2,
with Sanchez and Alves as wingbacks, and either Fabregas or Iniesta playing
 the second forward
While against Milan, Barca showed how their 3-4-3 can easily become a 4-2-4.  That flexibility is shared by their 4-3-3, with both the 3-4-3 and 3-5-2 as viable tactical changes with the predicted personnel.  If Barca does indeed switch to a 3-4-3, they must be sure to pin back Marcelo, or else Madrid will surely follow the blueprint of how Valencia attacked them.


This is going to be fun.  
for live tactical notes during El Clásico, and
come back afterwards for a tactical review
of what should be one of the best contests
of the season.

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