It was the first week of May, 2009 and it was the start of many special things. Barcelona came to the Bernabeu as they played the hosts Real Madrid in pursuit of their first La Liga Championship under their most successful Pep Guardiola and their first title since 2006. Barcelona leading just 4 points ahead of their arch rivals Real Madrid and with 5 more games to go, the game at the Bernabeu proved very crucial. It was the most important game of the season. A win for Madrid would’ve put them just one point behind Barcelona.
Madrid themselves were in brilliant form. Having accumulated 17 wins from 18 games unbeaten streak, Madrid were expected to put up the fight and take the game to Pep’s men given that it was their home turf. The last team to beat Madrid were Barcelona at the Camp Nou and not even Madrid’s brilliant form was enough to match the Catalans, as their huge loss showed the football world the rise of a new era – Barcelona under Pep Guardiola.
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Real Madrid (4-4-2) | Manager: Juande Ramos
1.Casillas – 4.Ramos, 5.Cannavaro, 21.Metzelder, 16.Heinze – 11.Robben, 6.Diarra, 8.Gago, 12.Marcelo – 7.Raul, 20.Higuain
Barcelona (4-3-3) | Manager: Pep Guardiola
1.Valdes – 20.Alves, 3.Pique, 5.Puyol, 22.Abidal – 6.Xavi, 24.Toure, 8.Iniesta – 9.Eto’o, 10.Messi, 14.Henry
Real Madrid were fielded in a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 set up with Raul playing off the young Argentine striker Gonzalo Higuain. Robben played in the right wing with Marcelo on the left. And as expected, Robben was the more attacking option of the two. In the centre, Gago and Diarra were played as the double pivot. Pepe missed out on the defensive set-up as Cannavaro and Metzelder partnered in central defence. Ramos started as the right back and Heinze played as the left back.
It was obvious that Marcelo was deployed in the left in front of Heinze to cover Messi who was the in-form man of the season. However this deployment became meaningless when Messi played in the striker’s role after playing as the right winger just for the first five minutes. It became one of those games when the False 9’s re-emergence in its initial stages started to prove as a great tactical phenomenon.
Barcelona with Lionel Messi in the attacking trio, the Frenchman Henry played in the left wing. Samuel Eto’o who initially started in the centre was asked to pave way for Messi as the Cameroonian striker moved to the right. In midfield, Yaya Toure played as the defensive pivot with Iniesta as the attacking no.8 with Xavi playing as the box-to-box midfielder. At the back, Dani Alves, Pique, Puyol and Abidal played as the back four in front of Valdes’ goal.
Pep Guardiola in that season usually set up his side that his team were able to dominate the midfield and this can be seen in the later stages of his career as well. To do this he often used the triangle in the middle with Toure, Xavi and Iniesta in his first season. Iniesta would often sit on top of the triangle as he was the attacking playmaker of the side along with Xavi. In the image above we can see the triangular geometry being maintained well.
Real start as the better side
Barcelona suffered in the initial stages of the game with Real Madrid calculating their measured attack when going forward as they would be haunted when they lose the ball. As Barcelona were very effective in turnovers, Real made sure that they would defend the spaces in their first and middle third without being threatened on the counter after a break.
Also, it was quite visible that Barcelona were missing their effective pressing in the opening minutes, something that had got more praise from that season. Real often looked to play it long from the central areas to the wide areas to evade the press and were successful in the initial stages of the game. Ramos often looked to switch the play by playing the ball to the advancing Marcelo and in the right flank, Robben provided the width.
In many instances in the opening 10-15 minutes, Robben was seen getting past the defence as he was found either by the ball near central midfielder or the ball carrying Sergio Ramos. The Dutch winger was often found in 1v1s against Abidal where he was able to win the duel. In the video below we can identify the movements in the right.
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The right sided dynamics was becoming a threat for Barcelona and were often caught up in that flank. Robben’s movement infield allowed Sergio Ramos to overlap and these exact movements resulted in first goal. This could be found in the video below as Higuain heads in the first goal for Real Madrid.
Messi moves into False 9
Arguably this was the game in which the role of false 9 became more into existence in the 21st century. In the opening minutes of the game, Messi was nowhere to be found and his passes were cut off and he was dispossessed easily. As it was expected Messi started in the right flank and Real Madrid were well prepared to press him and win the ball back whenever he was found out by his Barcelona teammate.
However, just after five minutes on the clock Messi and Eto’o swapped positions. Messi started playing in the center and Eto’o on the right. This is where everything started as Pep Guardiola’s machine started playing deeper and deeper which confused the likes of Metzelder and Cannavaro. In the below instance we can see how deep Messi has positioned himself which attracted one of the centre backs towards him and created a hole at the back. Thierry Henry has gone behind and this has caused Ramos to comeback to cover the space left by Cannavaro.
As this happens, Henry gets a situational advantage as Henry is running towards the post expecting that Messi will find him while Ramos is facing the opposite side. This gives a head start of milliseconds for Henry who opened himself and slotted the ball past Casillas’ goal.
In many instances, dropping out from the striker’s role gave the upper hand for Messi. His marker Cannavaro would often be drawn into midfield creating space or he would be attracted to the furthest ball carrier. This means that the space is now left unguarded, leaving Messi unmarked. This often allowed the ball carriers, Xavi and Iniesta in many cases, to play the ball into the space which will be occupied by Messi who will make forward runs.
This instance can also be seen from the video above.
Also his presence in midfield as he draws himself from the striker’s zone helped others around to move forward around him. When he had the ball, often Iniesta and Xavi were able to move on to the box while Eto’o and Henry moved into the half space. Hence while Messi had the ball in the midfield he was often free to play it to the players ahead of him and move forward expecting a return.
Real’s offensive pressing and marking
As Barcelona looked to circulate the ball well, Real Madrid opted to press high up the pitch to regain possession. This press often shifted positions between players as Real pressed in variants of 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1 and even 4-3-3. Depending on the positioning of the ball and ball carrier this set up changed. Often Higuain dropped off Raul who led the line for Real.
Both Robben and Marcelo would come inside as they would press in a 4-2-3-1. In other instances, Robben joined the front two while Marcelo the more defensive of the two wingers would stay in midfield. This created the situational 4-3-3 structure by which they’d press high. This pressing was done right from the defenders where a player would step out of the line and pressing the ball carrier deep into the pitch. This became more like man-oriented pressing from Real Madrid and this was totally outplayed by Barcelona.
The image below shows how marking was carried out to Barca’s build up play.
Barcelona’s pressing and defensive scheme
Barcelona defended in a 4-1-4-1 off the ball. With Yaya Toure staying in between the lines, the two wingers stayed wide played along the line of Xavi and Iniesta. When Real brought the ball forward, this structure was carried out to defend better collectively. This can be seen in the image below.
One of the key aspects of Barcelona’s pressing was the movements of players who get out of the line to press the ball carrier. The same pattern that was seen in Real Madrid but Barcelona did it to perfection. This was evident when Xavi pressed the ball carrying defender swiftly and intelligently poked the ball into the path of Messi who made it 3-1 on the night.
Barcelona did brilliantly well to come back from one goal down to score three within the first 45 minutes. This was mainly due to their offensive pressing to win the ball back and also their beautiful build up play between the key trio of Messi, Iniesta and Xavi.
Barcelona dominate the second half
In the second half, the Barcelona of that season started showing off and it was understandable that they were able to play freely after a 3-1 lead from first half. Barcelona dominated the opening minutes through their key players in offensive third however against the run of play Real scored a goal from a Robben free-kick converted in by Sergio Ramos.
Madrid just needing another goal to equalize went forward leaving huge spaces at the back and also held high line. Barcelona were able to find another goal on the break. A quick counter attack starting from Valdes showed how good Barcelona were in all aspects of the game. This video below shows how Barcelona worked their way through Xavi.
Once again Xavi proved to be the key man for the side as he was able dictate the play in the game. He was given a free role and not restricted to a certain zone and he frequently shuttled between second third to final third. When Messi moved into midfield, Xavi often played ahead of him and this allowed Messi to make penetrating runs behind the Spaniard.
Here we can see Xavi’s position relative to that of Messi and this shows how Xavi was given the positional freedom by Pep Guardriola.
Barcelona scored three goals in reply after the second goal from Real Madrid. Xavi was at the heart of two out of the three goals in the second half as he ended the game with an astounding number of four assists.
This game had absolutely everything from Barcelona in terms of attacking display. Prior to this, they hadn’t won anything significant under Pep Guradiola but this victory marked their stance to domination in the coming years. In the next week, they went on to win their first trophy under Guardiola – Copa del Rey, as they eventually ran out as the League winners later in that month.
Though there were some individual brilliance, Henry – 2 goals, Messi – 2 goals and 1 assist and Xavi – 4 assists, it was the collective display that got them the result. They were brilliant going forward with the ball in the build up as well defending in their 4-1-4-1 structure. The game became evident to the success of many brilliant tactical aspects such as the re-emergence of False 9, defeat of man-oriented space cover, success of possession based build up play and structured pressing as Guardiola was looked at as a man who changed the way of understanding of this beautiful game.