The Pep Guardiola Era of Barcelona is home to many accolades and achievements. Records were created and were broken. One of the records was the unbeaten run of 7 El Clasico matches in La Liga. What is more astounding is the way in which it was done by Barcelona as they dominated the three years like no other team in the history of Spanish Football. In this series, we take a look at the seven El Clasico matches that saw the Catalan club dominate their rivals from Madrid under Pep Guardiola’s tutelage.
Barcelona 2-0 Real Madrid, Dec 2008
It was Pep Guardiola’s first El Clasico in the league as the boss of FC Barcelona. Not many knew how the Catalan would fare as the coach of one of the famous clubs in the world but for one Johan Cruyff who said “I saw one of the best Barcelona performances for years”. Mind you, this was said after Barcelona’s stuttering start to the campaign.
The stakes were high as the former manager Bernd Schuster predicted that it is impossible for Real Madrid to win at the Camp Nou as Barcelona were 9 points ahead of the defending champions Madrid and also on an unbeaten streak of 13 games. It was early stages for Juande Ramos at Real Madrid and it looked as though Real were going to accomplish mission impossible but Eto’o and Messi denied them late in what was a fine performance from Football Club Barcelona.
Made using TacticalPad
Barcelona (4-3-3) | Manager: Pep Guardiola
1.Valdes – 20.Dani Alves, 4.Marquez, 5.Puyol, 22.Abidal – 6.Xavi, 24.Toure, 7.Gudjohnsen – 9.Eto’o, 10.Messi, 14.Henry
Real Madrid (4-4-2) | Manager: Juande Ramos
1.Casillas – 2.Salgado, 5.Cannavaro, 21.Metzelder, 4.Sergio Ramos – 10.Sneijder, 14.Guti, 8.Gago, 15.Drenthe – 20.Higuain, 7.Raul
Pep Guardiola started his side in their customary formation, the 4-3-3. Valdes started in goal as Dani Alves, Marquez, Puyol and Abidal played as the defensive four infront of the Spanish keeper. In the middle, the trio of Xavi, Toure and Gudjohnsen dominated the centre. Eto’o started as the right winger while Henry occupied the left wing. Messi started as the striker up front.
For the away side, Casillas started in between the sticks. Two banks of four of Salgado, Cannavaro, Metzelder and Ramos started in defence while Sneijder, Guti, Gago and Drenthe started in midfield. Higuain and Raul started in attack for the Defending Champions. And this meant that Juande Ramos had set his side up in a 4-4-2.
Initial Pressing from both the teams
It was well known from the start of the season that Barcelona looked to employ the high pressing tactic to win the ball back. Interestingly, Real Madrid also pressed when their opposite numbers had the ball but the pressing schemes from both the teams differed. While Madrid were set up to play more defensively, they also looked to make full use of their attacking prowess.
The Real Madrid press was contented to midfield in most cases and it was seen that they allowed Barcelona to play in the middle-third and then pressed the ball carriers as both the strikers backtracked the central midfielders Xavi and Gudjohnsen.
Just as seen in the image above, Real Madrid allowed Barcelona to play into the midfield and then pressed through the ball near winger and forward. The direct marker usually pressed the ball carrier and this helped Real Madrid to regain ball back. This was successful in some instances but not in major cases.
Barcelona often were able to bypass the press as the likes of Xavi and Messi were technically better on the ball and were able to draw a foul to restart the game. Also they were able to find a player in the next line of attack after evading the press.
Barcelona on the other hand were involved in possession based build up and wanted to have more of the possession. Given their philosophy, they sought to keep the ball at their feet and thereby pressed the ball carrier in opposite numbers. Barcelona employed high pressing from their forwards as Messi, Eto’o and Henry were joined by Xavi and Gudjohnsen from the midfield.
Messi finds too much space
Arguably the best player on the night, Messi started on the right with Eto’o in the centre and there were phases where both these players would swap positions. While Messi played on the wings, he found more space as Ramos was often attracted to the offensive movements of his team. This caught him off position when Messi slipped past him in the right.
Often the ball near midfielder was seen to aid his full back partner to stop Messi from dominating the space but Messi was able to win the 1v1 situation as he was quite naturally faster and technically adept in the field. This caused problems for Real Madrid defensively on most instances.
In the image below Messi could be seen arriving at space from a break and Ramos has been exposed. Both Ramos and Drenthe are attracted to the ball carrier which leaves Messi unmarked.
Also the shape used by Barcelona saw them play very wide and left spaces in the middle during the build up. Henry and Eto’o stayed very wide and Messi was often seen dropping into these spaces to conduct play from the middle. Also he was seen carrying the ball forward with his brilliant dribbling on the ball which also caused more problems for the defenders.
Puyol effective from the back
One of the signature tactics used by Pep Guardiola in his first season was the build up from the back. In that case, the defenders often included a typical ball playing defender and a ball carrying defender. Here Puyol acted as the ball carrying defender for Barcelona as he was seen bringing out the ball and carrying it to the next line.
Puyol naturally very good with the ball at his feet was seen playing long balls to players out wide to Henry and Eto’o. To do this, he would play it as the wingers would find themselves in space as the Real Madrid back four would become a bit narrow freeing out the wingers. In other cases, Puyol would carry the ball from the back to the centre as his channel would be cleared with Yaya Toure dropping back and Xavi and Gudjohnsen occupying the central defenders.
In the above image it can seen that the central channel was open for Puyol to run into, in many instances. This tactic by Pep Guardiola was an intentional one as Puyol was seen driving himself with the ball into the opponent’s box in more than one instances and was asked to join as many offensive moves as possible.
Positional interchange between 4-3-3 and 3-4-3
One of the key principles that is learnt from Pep Guardiola is his principle, the Positional Play. He uses a 4-3-3 which transforms to a 2-3-5 and 3-2-5 with the two eights in the half spaces influencing the game. This was used in his time at Bayern Munich and now at Manchester City. However his principle idea in Barcelona was to make full use of the structural interchange between the 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 though the numbers don’t matter a lot to him.
Often Eric Abidal was seen acting as the fourth midfielder providing more numbers in midfield. In other cases, Pep used the La Volpe principle which saw both the full backs Dani Alves and Abidal moving to the midfield giving more width. This was done as Yaya Toure fell in between both the centre backs who fanned out making it a back three in cases where Barcelona were on the ball and attacked.
Barcelona thrive in counters
Though Barcelona are known for playing out from the back, Pep’s trump card was the counter attack. The possession in their own half often drew Real Madrid’s attackers and this left gaping holes at the back. Barcelona were pretty quick in their counters and Messi’s goal was just a classic example.
In this video below, we can see that once Real lose the ball, both the two forwards are on their bike as the diagonal ball is played to the free man.
Arguably the first tough match faced by Pep Guardiola in his first season in his first stint as a manager in a big league would be to face the Champions and the Catalan was upto the challenge as his team were able to not just see off their arch rivals, but also were able to dominate them. Barcelona were very good in all departments in the 90 minutes and they finally were awarded the points thanks to late goals from Eto’o and Messi.
This result gave them a much needed boost to challenge for the title and win it after four years. Pep Guardiola once again proved how good a coach he could become in the future by winning the tactical battle against a Real Madrid side who were sent out to defend the game come away with a point.