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Thursday, December 15

Real Madrid - Barcelona: A Preview

A look at the upcoming El Clásico.


Co-published by totalbarca.com and twelvepointsports.blogspot.com.  Part two can be read here.  Part three, the lineup projection, can be read here.

Saturday, 10 December, 2011.

El Clásico.

An invitation for the upcoming clash between defending European and Spanish champions, Barcelona, and current La Liga table leader, Real Madrid, need not say anything else.

But, if pressed: there may be blood.

The unprecedented four Clásicos at the end of last season's campaign to help decide three different competitions fermented such a hostility between the players of Barca and Madrid that Vincente del Bosque, manager of Spain's national team, openly worried whether the bad blood would poison the reigning World Cup and Euro champions, a team with a starting eleven often featuring nine players between the two rivals.  While that crisis was averted by the leadership efforts of, among others, Iker Casillas and Carles Puyol, captains of their respective squads, so tender were the healed wounds that a flagrant, red-card-awarded tackle at the end of this season's Supercopa by Madrid's Marcelo on the returning, former Barca youth, Cesc Fàbregas, tore through the scar tissue and the resultant scrum marred a brilliant two games of football played at the highest levels.  To say nothing of Madrid manager José Mourinho gouging the eye of Barca assistant Tito Vilanova or David Villa's slapping Turkish German national Mesut Özil.

It's been said cooler heads have, again, prevailed between the players of the two sides.  Casillas called Xavi Hernández, issues were ironed out, Spain went on to win their Euro 2012 qualifying group, so the story has gone.  As compelling as both these histrionics-laden displays and the potential of new ones are, it is the battle of tactics between the two sides, however, that demands the most attention.

As those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, so too does any tactical analysis require a look at what once was.  For this first exercise, the starting point is the same as Pep Guardiola's: August's two Clásicos.

THE LINEUPS

Away at the Santiago Bernabéu for the first leg, Pep Guardiola went with the 4-3-3 shape Barca used to great success throughout the previous campaign.  Featuring wingers cutting inside, fullbacks pushing forward, Seydou Keita dropping back when in possession to form a back three and Lionel Messi as a "false-9", Barca would, as typical, look to maintain possession.  There were wrinkles, however.

Dani Alves, a seemingly tireless player, known for his marauding runs down the right flank, was in much more conservative positions throughout the game, so much so that his counterpart down the other flank, Adriano, rather uncommonly, advanced more.

Newcomer Alexis Sánchez played a "reverse Dani Alves".  While Barca's wingers are asked to either pin back the oppositions fullbacks or track them if they join an attack, Guardiola asked more of the Chilean, wanting him to disrupt any Madrid buildup down the left in addition to marking Madrid's own forward favoring fullback, Marcelo.  Sánchez "flourished" in this role, exhibited by his having committed the most fouls of the match.

Barca's two centerbacks, Eric Abidal and Javier Mascherano, were a fullback and defensive midfielder by trade, respectively.  Such is life without Gerard Piqué or Puyol.

Mourinho had Los Blancos in their usual 4-2-3-1 shape.  While Mourinho's defensive demands of his players against Barca rely upon disciplined -- or, disciplined, in Pepe's case -- positioning, Madrid's attack shape is amorphous during action: fullbacks overlap wingers, centerbacks overlap midfielders, the parties overlapped or adjacent to cover for the runner.  The players are given trust to advance, so long as the attack is sprung as quickly as possible, an attack which is often and by design done on the counter.

While Sergio Ramos frequently advanced down the right, Ángel di María was the chief supplier of width to the Madrid attack down that flank.  In addition to marking Adriano, his task was often to be the outlet ball upon Madrid gaining possession, attempting to get into the space left behind by Adriano's surges, leading a counter at breakneck speed.  Unless Karim Benzema or Özil were in a better position to get in behind, that is.

Madrid's pressuring of Barca was much higher up the pitch, most notably at the start -- but also throughout -- than it was during the substantial majority of last season's Clásicos.  At times they even pressured more than Barca, as the blaugrana had a tired side, full of Copa America players and those from a not-so-easy United States preseason tour.

Meanwhile, Cristiano Ronaldo down Madrid's left was what kept Dani Alves from his usual freelancing down Barca's right.  Wanting to keep the 2 vs. 1 at the back, Guardiola often kept Alves in retreated positions, ensuring Javier Mascherano, a defensive midfielder by trade, could maintain the numerical advantage at the back by not having to stretch wide to pick up Ronaldo.

With Alves keeping close track of Ronaldo, di María was a Torero of sorts to Adriano's bull: he made so little of an attempt to pin him back that that he may as well have been waving a red flag.  On the other end, Barca often tried to get David Villa inwards on Pepe to a) either leave just one centerback for Messi or free one of Iniesta or Thiago if their marker went to provide help on Messi, and b) create open space for Adriano to run onto, essentially what Madrid was encouraging.

This is not to say Madrid didn't consider Adriano to be a threat, or that di María let him fly by without marking him.  Rather, given the alternatives, it was a case of pick-your-poison -- Adriano's spoiled milk versus Messi's anthrax.  It also gave Madrid a clear advantage when attempting to break.

MADRID'S FIRST

The only thing shocking about Madrid's first goal was that it didn't come sooner.  Their start was furious and kinetic, often winning the ball in Barca's half and forcing their back four to provide cover for themselves, leaving space for crosses.  Such was their success in getting Barca out of shape that Benzema, almost heading a cross from the spot that was only saved by Victor Valdes' heroics, had to be challenged in the air by Adriano, the nominal left fullback.

When the goal came, it came within not ten seconds after winning the ball.  Sergio Ramos, gaining Madrid possession down their right flank after a Barca throw-in, curled a ball in behind Adriano for a running Benzema, who had moved into the vacated battleground space.

Position of players as Benzema runs even with Ramos' pass
With Alves marking a just off-the-chalkboard Ronaldo and being the only man on the pitch who could prevent Ronaldo from moving into the enormous space in the center, and with Adriano marking an also just-off-the-chalkboard di María, Barca had numbers on their side, though their advantage was not on the most solid of footing: Benzema had a real chance of getting ahead of everyone and Özil -- also in behind Adriano -- had a real chance of racing ahead of Keita, leaving Mascherano in need of entering a quantum superposition if both defenders were bested.

Benzema, with Abidal step for step with him, paced on, driving towards the corner of the penalty area, attacking his fellow countryman's outside shoulder.  Özil, with perhaps a step on Keita but also to the outside of him, sprinted on, working to get into a central position for Benzema.

Position of players as Benzema cuts back under Abidal
As Benzema gets to the edge of the box, Özil bests Keita in their race.  At this point, Benzema cuts back under Abidal, and Mascherano commits to Benzema, essentially leaving Özil free.  It's hard to fault Mascherano for this, because he may not have seen Keita beaten, and even if he did, when given the choice between letting someone potentially through on goal and making that someone pass to another through on goal, one should always force the pass to be made, as even one more moving part could be enough to induce an error.  As it was, Mascherano closed on Benzema quite well and, as Benzema lays it to Özil, Mascherano is right on top of Benzema.  Somehow, though, the ball gets through, and Özil makes it 1-0.

That is how Madrid wants to score.  Outlet down the flanks, force the defense to scramble with their pace, run onto open space, all before a sneeze is over.  Ronaldo wasn't involved with the play, but his galloping to provide width was threat enough to keep Alves and his speed from helping centrally.  Di María didn't touch the ball, but had Keita won his race or had Abidal caused Benzema to hold up, he'd have found himself in a trailing position, unmarked, either able to attack the goal himself or play a ball through to a, probably then, cutting in Ronaldo.  The Madrid attack is fluid, it's adaptable, it's meant to be able to bypass the center of the pitch entirely, if need be, and not have to sacrifice any speed by doing so.

The Second Leg: Center of the Pitch
But why is it meant to bypass the center?

In standard 4-3-3 vs. 4-2-3-1 matchups, each team has three players in the center:  two attack-intending players vs two holding players, one attack-intending player vs one holding player.  Andrés Iniesta and Xavi matching up with Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso, Özil being marked by Sergio Busquets.  With either side empty of a numbers advantage, it is interplay and positioning and flow of the play which decides midfield superiority.  As shown, for the second leg of the Supercopa, this, nominally, was the case.

Only nominally, however, because of this:

The Messi Effect
With Messi as a false-9 -- wanting to move forward with the ball instead of holding up play, looking to stay between Madrid's midfield and defensive lines, dropping deep to pick up the ball or assist in aiding possession -- Barca gets their extra man to ensure a 4 vs 3 in midfield which, unless they are out of position, prevents Madrid from breaking through the middle.  And Madrid really doesn't have a clear way of preventing this numerical advantage: they play their striker too high up to routinely patrol the center, and bringing one of their wingers inside makes them too narrow.  And even if a fullback pushes forward to add width, doing so leaves the same space behind that fullback which Madrid looks to exploit behind Barca's.

With diametrically-opposed tactics, individual feats of skill and the three finalists for the FIFA Ballon d'Or in Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernández and Cristiano Ronaldo, Barcelona and Real Madrid treated both their supporters and fans of the sport to a breathtaking display of football at the highest level during the Supercopa.  But that was in August.  With both teams since experimenting with new tactics and incorporating their new acquisitions, will Saturday's competition play the same way?


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