A foreword from me regarding this match: Sergio Busquets is an absolutely phenomenal player. Words fail me to explain his astounding intelligence on the pitch. Manuel Pellegrini probably had Barcelona figured out in this match and in all fairness, did not deserve to lose this match. With better finishing from the Madrid players, the result might have been different. Carles Puyol- what a top class defender he was.
The third match in this series saw one of the more closely contested Clasicos of that era. Manuel Pellegrini’s Real Madrid were the new ‘Galacticos’ with Florentino Perez purchasing a lot of superstars with the likes of Roanldo, Kaka and Benzema coming under the list of high profile purchases. The 80 million£ purchase of Cristiano Ronaldo was a world record buy for Real as they looked to challenge Barcelona’s dominance of the Liga.
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Barcelona (4-3-3) | Manager: Pep Guardiola
1.Valdes – 20.Alves, 5.Pique 3.Puyol, 22.Abidal – 6.Xavi, 16.Busquets,15.Keita– 8.Iniesta, 10.Messi, 14.Henry
Real Madrid (4-4-2) | Manager: Manuel Pellegrini
1.Casillas 4.Ramos,18. Albiol, 3Pepe, 4.Alvaro Arbeloa– 22. Alonso,10.Diarra, 12.Marcelo ,8.Kaka, 9.Ronaldo, 20.Higuain,
Real’s defensive setup:
Real displayed interesting defensive schemes to negate the effects of Barca’s build up. This scheme was also devised in a way to negate Messi’s role as the false nine and close down the space in the centre of the pitch. HIguain and Ronaldo formed the first line of defense for Real Madrid as they held a considerable distance between them and allowed the centre backs to have the ball. Higuain in particular was more active in directing play towards a particular side and pressing the ball carrier once the ball reached the second line or the wing.
The ball was usually distributed to Pique from Valdes and he decided the pattern of the build-up. Puyol was usually directly seen to by Ronaldo and also avoided due to not being comfortable on the ball as well as Pique. The long ball route to Alves in the far side was also avoided. In order to ensure that Barcelona’s source into second line of play was negated, Kaka was tasked with a man marking job on Sergio Busquets. Within a year of making it to the first team, Busquets’ influence on the pitch was well recognised by all and Pellegrini was no exception. Due to these reasons, Pique almost always played it to Abidal in the opening stages of the game.
Higuain did not necessarily press Abidal immediately when he received the ball and instead still held line with Ronaldo. Focus was to ensure that the passing lane to Busquets was blocked such that he could not receive the ball and play it off to a teammate with a single touch.
Real Madrid’s asymmetry in handling Alves on the right:
As seen on the team sheet, Marcelo was deployed as the left winger in anticipation of handling a Barcelona right flank with Messi and Dani Alves. While Messi was always on the roam and focused more towards the center, Alves always remained an ever present outlet on the right. With Iniesta also tasked with occupying the right side and the half space on that side, Madrid had a task on their hand in negating the effect of these players. Arbeloa was the makeshift right back on the night and was often handed with a man marking job on Iniesta. Arbeloa went into midfield following Iniesta contributing to the asymmetry in Madrid’s shape.
Marcelo, in these instances, ensured that Alves was always looked after when he advanced down the right. At times, when Iniesta occupied the right half space, Marcelo fell back into the back line to cover for Alves high on the right side.
Also the front three of Ronaldo, Higuain and Kaka were narrow and lopsided based on the position of the ball and the carrier. The presence of Lassana Diarra and Xabi Alonso in the side ensured that there was enough coverage in the centre of the park for Madrid.
The idea was well conceived by Pellegrini to nullify Barcelona’s strengths. They tried to negate any entry into the centre of the middle third by Barcelona by covering Busquets and closing the central passing lanes, which was achieved by the narrow positioning of the front two/three. While Barca had to drop players onto the deeper half spaces to carry the ball forward, this ensured that even if Messi did drop deep by playing a false nine role, Barcelona did not have enough bodies forward to occupy the space vacated by Messi to damage Madrid.
Offensively, Madrid could make use of overloads of their own with the central midfielders grouping on one side to drag the Barcelona players with them. This meant that they could exploit the ball playing nature of Albiol and Pepe. Ronaldo in particular would drop off to receive passes from the back in between the lines and then spread play accordingly.
Barcelona’s methods to overcome Madrid’s defensive shape:
There were quite a few methods adopted by Barcelona to overcome Madrid’s defensive setup.
- To relieve Busquets off the close attention on him, Gerard Pique sometimes dribbled with the ball into the midfield. This was done usually when there was no other Barcelona player occupying the center in the middle third. With Pique dragging the Madrid players with him, the backline was totally relieved off any attention and Busquets could effectively drop into the backline and dictate play. The intentions were definitely thus, but this scenario did not always materialise due to the aggressive nature of the dribble from Pique or due to worng decision making or inaccuracy in the passing.
- Xavi dropped deep to dictate play and this was the most effective way by which Barcelona progressed further. With Marcelo being occupied by Alves on the right, there was no effective way by which Xavi could be followed that deep except for Alonso or Diarra to follow him. This however would leave gaping holes in the centre and hence Xavi was able to dictate the play.
- Due to the close attention showed on him by Arbeloa, Iniesta started shifting to the right and Barcelona exhibited their own asymmetry. Iniesta positioned himself in the right half space as the half wore on with Xavi dropping deep. This ensured that Barcelona had an option in between the lines of the Madrid block to progress into the final third. Also, Iniesta is a needle dribbler who can evade pressure and also is a an able passer despite pressure on him. Whenever Arbeloa followed him, he could exploit the gap in the backline with the diagonal running from Xavi from deep.
Despite all this, Barcelona opened the scoring in the second half with the introduction of Zlatan Ibrahimovic proving to the catalyst. A simple yet effective cross from Alves from the right side ensured that Zlatan could score and put Barca in the lead. This effective polyvalency and flexibility in tactics was key under Guardiola as Barcelona could mix it up when they needed the goals.
After the Busquets red card:
Sergio Busquets was sent off in the 62nd minute after blocking off a Madrid counter with his hand. Madrid piled on the pressure with Pellegrini introducing Raul and Benzema in the later stages of the game. Surprisingly, Ronaldo was taken off for introducing Raul. However, the combined efforts of Puyol and Pique ensured that Barcelona kepyt a clean sheet against a potent attacking line from Real Madrid.
Credit must be given to Pep Guardiola for taking off Keita and introducing Yaya Toure so that he could play as the pivot after Busquets had gotten himself sent off at the hour mark. The introduction of Toure and Zlatan meant that Barca operated in a 4-3-2/4-4-1 in the latter stages of the game. They closed down any danger from Real and had the likes of Puyol and Pique to help them out at the back.
“We at least deserved a draw because, if I am not mistaken, we had a lot of shots on their goal in the first half” said Pellegrini after the match.
Madrid had more than decent openings to score during the course of the match but the combined heroics of Puyol and Valdes in particular, thwarted Madrid. The introduction of Ibrahimovic ensured that there was a different dimension to the way Barcelona attacked and he got the lone goal of the match which ended up getting the three points for Barcelona. Guardiola continued his 100% success rate against Madrid in the league and the power had well and truly shifted to the Catalans in the Liga.