Arguably the best Barcelona side in the three years under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola went to Real Madrid as the Capital team played as hosts. Having handed their arch rivals a 5-0 hammering in the game earlier in the season, Pep Guardiola would’ve loved to beat his Portuguese counterpart handsomely once again and also up the ante in his fierce rivalry shared with the Portuguese Genius, Jose Mourinho.
Talking about this game, let me give a brief idea as to how Mourinho has been an avid practitioner. A year back, Jose’s Inter faced the Barcelona side four times. The first two games in the group stages where Inter finished second to Barcelona. In the knockout phase however, Mourinho was able to see off the Catalans to win the Champions League. This game however was a different ball game. Barcelona had a hefty lead and just a draw would’ve not disappointed them.
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Real Madrid (4-3-3) | Manager: Jose Mourinho
1.Casillas // 4.Ramos – 18.Albiol – 2.Carvalho – 12.Marcelo // 24.Khedira – 3.Pepe – 14.Xabi Alonso // 7.Ronaldo – 9.Benzema – 22.Di Maria
Barcelona (4-3-3) | Manager: Pep Guardiola
1.Valdes // 2.Dani Alves – 5.Puyol – 3.Pique – 21.Adriano // 6.Xavi – 16.Busquets – 8.Iniesta // 11.Pedro – 10.Messi – 7.Villa
The home manager made a change which was expected by many as he banished the 4-2-3-1 for the 4-3-3. Mourinho brought in Pepe in the holding midfield role while Ozil was left out. Casillas started in goal for Real Madrid as the back four of Ramos, Albiol, Carvalho and Marcelo supported in defence. In midfield, Xabi Alonso and Khedira played on either side of Pepe. In attack, the trio of Benzema, Ronaldo and Di Maria started the game however the two wide players were stationed lower down the pitch than the usual custom.
For Barcelona, Pep Guardiola followed the same routine 4-3-3 and fielded an XI which has started week in week out at the Camp Nou. Victor Valdes played in between the sticks. Dani Alves, Puyol, Pique and Adriano all started in the back supported by a midfield of Xavi, Busquets and Iniesta. Messi started as the striker supported by Villa who came infield from the left wing while Pedro started in right.
Mourinho’s initial game plan
Just as expected, Jose had set up his side defensively and it was quite visible from the way Real Madrid shifted between their defensive structures. Initially Barcelona started with their customary 4-3-3 and passed around however their passing was not quite effective. This was due to two reasons:
- Madrid’s tight defensive structures
- Madrid’s midfield pressing
Real Madrid were sent out in a 4-3-3 with Pepe in the heart of the midfield, Real defended in different structures as they used the variants of 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1 depending on the positions on the ball. When Barcelona had the ball in the first phase, Madrid structured themselves in a 4-3-3 with both the wingers playing alongside the striker up top. The structures interchanged especially when Barcelona brought the ball forward.
As seen from the image below as the ball moved into the second phase from the back, both the wingers fell back while Khedira was one of the three midfielders who stepped up to play along with Ronaldo and Di Maria. Xabi Alonso played alongside Pepe in front of the defense.
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In other instances in the next phase, Madrid took the shape of a 4-1-4-1. Pepe dropped in between the two banks of four to mark anyone who’d drop in between the lines while both the wingers fell back to play along with the two central midfielders.
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In the opening stages, while Barcelona looked to move forward Madrid were very well set up defensively to see out them and hit them on the break and counters especially through Ronaldo from the right. In some cases, Ronaldo was seen switching flanks with di Maria and this helped them cut inside to take shots from distance.
Unwilling to take risks
Right from the start of the game, Barcelona failed to create any clear cut chances and there was no combinations found in the final third which is a trait in itself for the Barcelona teams under Guardiola. This may be due to the fact that Barcelona had a good lead at the top before the game and even a draw would have been a satisfying result for Pep Guardiola. Also Real were set up in a way that Barcelona could not bypass their midfield and it required lofted balls from the deep to take on the Madrid defenders.
It was Pepe who did most of the defending on the night. Though Mourinho is known for his individual man marking, Pepe was not assigned to man mark Messi. Instead, Pepe was asked to stay in between the back four and the two central midfielders in the midfield. This created a 2-1-2 structure which was pretty tight in the centre and did not allow the likes of Xavi and Iniesta much influence on the game.
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However Real Madrid on the other hand were of the same page as they did not create as many chances either. The play was mainly oriented with wings through di Maria and Ronaldo as most of the counters were involved in the flanks for Real Madrid as it was evident that both the central midfielders were very central and the wingers of Barcelona were often forward. Madrid aimed to exploit this gap however the ball near centre back would help the full back to win the battle.
As the game grew on, Barcelona looked to attack both from their build up play and also from turnovers from a Madrid attack. The key for Barcelona’s approach forward was the movements of the front three as understood by Sergio Busquets. It was not Iniesta or Xavi to play the key passes rather it was Busquets. This was due to Real Madrid’s tight structure which denied time on the ball for both the key playmakers of the side.
Often it was seen that Messi would fall back but not as his false 9 movements in the 6-2 game. He would fall back and create space. This would attract the central defender who marks him into the midfield and now after the ball moves back into the midfield, either one of Iniesta, Busquets and Xavi would play it up top to find Messi who would move into space created by him seconds ago. These movements can be seen in the video below.
In other cases, Barcelona looked to attack through the wings as both the wingers stayed very wide in the flanks especially Pedro, with Villa coming in at certain instances acting as second striker. These movements were often seen in counters rather than in the build up.
Real’s fight back
One of the key moments of the game was the sending of Raul Albiol due to the incident that also gave Messi the chance to score from the spot. Real Madrid were a man and a goal down. The 10v11 obviously would be a mounting task for anybody to overcome against a team like Barcelona however Mourinho showed his tactical class. As his centre back was sent back to the stands, Pepe was forced into the central defender zone and acted as the centre back pair with Carvalho.
However Mourinho brought in an attacking playmaker in the form of Ozil for Benzema. This gave them the much need stability upfront as they defended as a unit tightly in the midfield, Ozil just adding more to the numbers. As Real Madrid settled well, Mourinho made another two changes as this time, the pair of Arbeloa and striker Adebayor. This meant that Ramos could now move into the centre along with Carvalho while Pepe could be pushed up forward.
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These changes almost resembled the same case as Pepe played in the same position in the midfield as he started the game. The above image shows the overall structure adopted by Real Madrid after going 1-0 down with just 10 men.
As the game progressed, Ronaldo scored a penalty and levelled the score on the night.
Arguably this game became a point to prove where Real Madrid eventually could kill off the Barcelona jargon and win the title next season. However keeping in mind that Barcelona only needed a draw and were just in a very good position to lift the title, one should not consider this to be a great change in tides. Had the gap between the two teams been low, then the game would’ve been neck to neck.
Mourinho brought a defensive option in Pepe for Ozil in the start of the game and this raised many questions as Real Madrid were set up defensively where they should’ve aimed for three points instead of one. However at the end Mourinho avoided defeat in the Clasico and at least snapped Barcelona’s five match winning run until that point. The 1-1 result meant that Barcelona now held the joint unbeaten streak in the El Clasicos in the league, the record previously held by Real Madrid of the 1930s until it was beaten by Pep Guardiola’s men in the 3-1 win away at Bernabeu in the year 2011.
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