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Thursday, January 19

Real Madrid 1 - 2 Barcelona: A Football Odyssey

A look at Barcelona's on-the-pitch evolution and their resultant 2-1 lead after the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarter-final against Real Madrid.

Co-published on twelve point sports and totalbarca.com

The opening of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey follows a marauding band of apes on Earth well before the dawn of any great human civilization and even the birth of humanity, sharply contrasting the interplanetary exploration seemingly promised by the title.  So outside of expectations was the extended sequence that 241 people walked out of the premiere, with Rock Hudson notably asking, "Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?"  The answer is notoriously difficult in film circles to arrive at but exceedingly simple to say: evolution.

At one morning's own dawn, the apes awake and find near their sleeping ground a Monolith featuring its three physical dimensions in ratio of 1:4:9, squares of the first three integers.  While the apes have no use or appreciation for the crafting of an unknown, deliberate origin, they do begin to almost primitively worship the structure, inspecting its smooth surface and huddling around it as someone cold would around a fire.  Later, while going through the remains of what appears to be several untimely-demised beasts, one of the apes picks up an unbroken bone and begins brandishing it about and against other bones and rocks and what not.  The ape has the first A-ha! moment of any sentient bipedal organism: the realization of a tool.

A killing tool, that is.  After not too much time, the ape and its compatriots, after being shown the ingenuity of a bone-in-hand, savagely bludgeon to death another gang of apes, an unfortunate lot who brought screams and open palms to a bones-from-a-once-feasted-on-animal fight.  It's a level of physical dominance bred from intelligence not seen before on the third planet from Sol.  Following the mauling, one of the apes throws its rudimentary weapon into the air, and as it falls, Kubrick cuts to a space station hurtling through space, explicitly decreeing the space station to be the well-down-the-line progeny of the Monolith-inspired tossed bone and putting into motion the whole 'space' part of the film.

The Monolith keyed the evolution of sapient intelligence on Earth, and so too does Pep Guardiola key the evolution of Barcelona's play.

The Starting XIs
In their 2-1 besting of Real Madrid to open their quarter-final tie in the Copa del Rey at the Santiago Bernabéu, Guardiola began the affair by fielding an intermediate shape between the last campaign's 4-3-3 and the current 3-4-3-ish formation, employing all the players who started in December's El Clásico, save for Victor Valdes making way in goal for José Manuel Pinto, as is the case for all of Barça's Copa games.

The hyrbid shape featured the back-line acting more like a four-man unit than a three-man outfit: instead of asking Dani Alves to play as winger, Guardiola had the Brazilian play more of his 4-3-3 role as a true wing-back.  In possession, Alves bombed forward, a bombing forward made necessary to provide width to the Barça attack, as Lionel Messi still played relatively centrally and Alexis Sánchez still played as a roving centre-forward.  When Barça had the ball in the first half, something they achieved for the majority of the time, they looked as if it was business as usual for 2012.

Out of possession, however, things were different.  In the December Clásico, Madrid left-back Marcelo was a non-factor, pinned back by the winger Alves, but on Wednesday night, new left-back Fabio Coentrão was free to get forward in the rare occurrence Madrid sought to build up play instead of attacking, to say it kindly, in a cavalier fashion.  This was a byproduct of Alves being tasked with marking Cristiano Ronaldo to ensure Barça's defense had an extra man to handle Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuaín, Madrid's two strikers.

In the first game, this extra man was Sergio Busquets, but José Mourinho's tactics this time around called for another solution.  Playing an ultra-defensive 4-3-3 that saw Ronaldo often work back to join the back-line, Mourinho fielded centre-back Pepe in midfield, just as he was deputized to do in the World Series of Clásicos at the close of the last campaign.  And with Madrid content to sit back and counter instead of press high up the pitch, Busquets was needed higher up the pitch to provide support and switch play.

Madrid's negativity wasn't just the crux of the entire game, it was a microcosm of just how different Madrid and Barça and Mourinho and Guardiola truly are.  The La Liga table leaders, at home, needing a positive result, went negative.  Where Guardiola is proactive, self-determinating Barça's tactics not in consideration of any opponent but to play their best brand of football, Mourinho has shown himself to be the worst kind of reactionary, shying at the biggest moments from going tit-for-tat with Madrid's biggest opponent, electing to level the playing field not by means of ingenuity but of regressing the game of football.

Madrid scoring first meant as a little as an opener could mean and as little as Madrid's opener against Barça in December meant.  Ronaldo's goal came both entirely against the run of play and by result of Barça defending poorly in the penalty area and between the sticks.  The only repeatable action of the play was Karim Benzema's ability to play a killer through ball: the strike would've been saved by even a motionless Pinto, and Piqué gave Ronaldo the space to shoot rather than Ronaldo gaining it himself.  Before and after the goal, it was Barça on their front foot, playing clever one-twos, finding avenues to play balls in over the top, bringing about save after save from the deserving-better Iker Casillas.  Barça didn't capitalize on their chances in the first half, but predictive was their creation of chances.  Given how Madrid scored their first, it was only fitting that Barça pulled level at the opening of the second half by scoring off a corner kick for the first time all season.

RED: Defenders | BLUE: Midfielders | MINT: "Forwards"
Most notably, the second half saw Guardiola unveil an entirely new shape and tactics for Barça.  Where they've gone 4-2-4 before, they've never gone 4-2-4 with their fullbacks pushing forward.  While they've gone 4-2-4 before, they've never gone 4-2-4 with Busquets dropping into the back-line when required to as he does in their 4-3-3.  While they've gone 4-2-4 before, they've never gone 4-2-4 with Messi and Sánchez complementing each other as they did on the right-half of the pitch.

There's not an often need for fullbacks to push forward in a 4-2-4: width is already supplied by the forward line, and with one fewer midfielder in the centre, added pressure is on them to keep the integrity of the defense.  But against a side sitting back and pressing little?  Onward, Alves and Eric Abidal, onward.

Andrés Iniesta wasn't as sharp as he was in the first Clásico, but the surprise inclusion at right-back for Madrid, Hamit Altintop, was overmatched from the very beginning: it truly would not have been a surprise to see Altintop subbed off before half.  And with Iniesta playing the same role in the second half as he did the first, Alintop was similarily abused, either beaten to the end-line or bested via Iniesta's mazy dribbling ability towards the centre.

This is why Guardiola went with a hyper-offensive 4-2-4.  With Altintop and Coentrão tracking Iniesta and one of Sánchez and Messi inside, huge spaces were open down the flanks for Alves and Abidal, and with Madrid so concentrated on uglying up the game in centre, they were free to get forward...

...or forgotten about altogether, allowing Messi to chip a beautiful ball over the Madrid defense for a well-onsides, unmarked and unlikeliest of go-ahead-sources, the recently-renewed Eric Abidal.

ABIDAL'S GOAL -- TOP: The Frenchman's positioning | BOTTOM: Space created for Alves (solid yellow), open space for Abidal (circle) and attention of Madrid's defenders

Where Mourinho brought on two substitutions to field the 4-2-3-1 shape which was already shown to be a patently inferior option against this Barça side, Guardiola unveiled an entirely new look, adapting to the tactics of the game and exploiting Madrid's obsession and favouring of midfield disruption over attacking football.  Instead of looking to be the aggressors with a 4-2-2-2, Mourinho let Barça play their way.  Instead of looking to get bodies forward to challenge Barça's deficient aerial defense or leaving back the ball for advancing players near the edge of the box to exploit Barça's prone-to-scramble defense, Mourinho all but presented Guardiola's men possession on the finest of silver platters.
We know Madrid's a great team who doesn't need much to hurt us. We could control them but they'll be extra motivated for the return. -- Carles Puyol
Real Madrid has the best collection of physically-gifted and versatile attacking players in the game today, complemented by more-than-offensively-capable fullbacks and a host of creative options in midfield.  Yet José Mourinho, for all of his extensive tactical brilliance, refused to play a brave game against Barcelona, and when needing a goal, switched to a stillborn back-up plan.  Barça has their Monolith in Pep Guardiola, but does Madrid have their Monolith in Mourinho?

Or does the self-anointed Special One need to seek out his own evolution first?

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  1. I would like to point out that it wasn't Xabi Alonso but Karim Benzema who made the pass to Ronaldo for Madrid's goal.

  2. To take it another step forward in regards to the formation, Guardiola has almost flipped the formation. The final diagram you show, almost lends itself to a 3-3-4 formation. The amazing thing is how Barca morph throughout the game. The 3-3-4 would then adjust defensively to the 4-3-3, even at times becoming a 5-2-3 with Busquets plugging the gap between Pique and Puyol. This then allowed the outside backs to bomb forward once possession was regained. I'd venture to say that many teams can do this, but very few, with Barca seeming to perfect it constantly, have the willingness and creativity to morph and adapt a formation to match their style.