The final game of the series is probably the best game of the lot with both teams playing at a high level. Jose Mourinho came up with a set plan for the game and looked to be on his way to breaking the hoodoo when his team took the early lead. The match turned out to be a proper chess like battle with Guardiola making changes to his side based on how Mourinho had set his team out to stifle Barcelona. The game had added stakes as Madrid came into the match three points ahead of Barcelona in the league table and after three years of the Catalan club’s success in winning the league, Real Madrid would have been desperate to ensure that they could put an end to it.
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Real Madrid (4-2-3-1) Manager: Jose Mourinho
1.Casillas// 15.Coentrao 4.Ramos 3.Pepe 12.Marcelo// 14.Alonso 24.Diarra// 22.di Maria 10.Ozil 7.Ronaldo// 9.Benzema
Barcelona (4-3-3) Manager: Pep Guardiola
1.Valdes// 2.Alves 5.Pique 3.Puyol 22.Abidal// 16.Busquets 6.Xavi 4.Fabregas// 8.Iniesta 9.Sanchez 10.Messi
Madrid’s pressing in a frenetic start
Real Madrid started pressing right from the moment Barcelona kicked off and succeeded in forcing Valdes to make a mistake. This scramble led to Madrid scoring via Benzema within the first 30 seconds as they got off to a brilliant start. The pressing from Madrid was well thought out by Mourinho as Madrid forced Barcelona into hurried progressions that destabilized them. This was done by Benzema forcing play vertically from the centrebacks. He used his cover shadow well to block the passing option behind him and stop the pass between Puyol and Pique.
Once the pass was played to Pique or Abidal on the left side, di Maria pressed him very aggressively and closed him down quickly making use of his excellent pace. Ronaldo did the same on the other side by positioning himself in between Alves and Puyol. Barcelona looked to try and negate the press by using Busquets but Madrid pressed very intensely in the center. Ozil was tasked with marking Busquets and the other two central midfielders- Alonso and Diarra ensured that they covered Xavi and Iniesta in this situation as Madrid forced Barca into a very unstable rhythm. This worked in Madrid’s favour as Barca could not enter the final third and there was a lot of randomness in the centre. Turnovers occurred in the flanks and Madrid looked to pick Barcelona off on counters.
Guardiola tweaks structure immediately
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Noticing his side’s inability in sustaining any form of stable possession, Guardiola made changes in Barcelona’s base shape. Alves was pushed up high on the right and the rest of the back-line formed a back three. Sergio Busquets acted as an auxiliary defender on the left side as he slotted in between Pique and Abidal at times to negate any Madrid presence when they attacked. With Busquets moving to the left half space, Xavi dropped to his side and helped dictate play with his presence. This can be clearly understood from the below image which shows how Busquets and Xavi started outnumbering Ozil in the second phase.
There was also the case of giving Alexis Sanchez to roam around, especially after the first quarter of the game as Guardiola looked to make use of Alexis’ off the ball movement. With Iniesta being the prime outlet on the left, the combination play was a bit scrappy on the left side when Barcelona looked to build play through that side. With Messi shifting centrally and dropping deep, this opened up the possibility of Sanchez being able to make diagonal runs in behind from the left and this was exactly the case when Barcelona scored their first goal at the half hour mark. The press resistance of Messi played a crucial part in the goal as he was able to commit a number of Madrid players before releasing the ball to Sanchez.
Overload the right- underload the left
With Alves being specifically asked to move higher on the right and Xavi occupying the right side of central midfield, the right side was of major focus to Barcelona in their build up. This meant that Iniesta was always used as an outlet on the left side to switch play. While the added presence of Iniesta might have definitely helped Barca’s case in the center, it also meant that Barcelona could always vary it with Iniesta on the ball far side and use his individual quality to break the Madrid lines.
Some of the manipulations of Madrid’s man orientations were fantastic from Barcelona with Busquets and Xavi being able to drag their markers around to open up space or passing lanes for the ball carrier. The role of Fabregas was very interesting as his initial starting position was on the left side of the midfield. With Alexis and Iniesta now occupying the side predominantly, Fabregas was instead used to help position himself optimally to provide stability in midfield. This was done by either offering himself as a route outside the intense pressing from Madrid in the center or as the game wore on, ensure that Xavi or Messi had some of the pressure relieved off them due to his presence in the ball near area.
Counterpressing from Barcelona stunts Madrid
As stated above, Barcelona’s heavy presence in the centre of the pitch meant that they could effectively curtail any Madrid attack in its bud. While Barcelona were renowned for their counterpressing under Guardiola and displayed the trait in all of their matches, the reason for its special mention in this match is the adaptations from Pep in Barcelona’s basic structure that had an impact on the counterpressing. The focus on the right side meant that the player density in the ball near area was high for Barcelona and they could win the ball back immediately or at least push Madrid into frenzied passes vertically.
While the switch to the back three was intended to provide stability in build-up, it also pitted Puyol on the right side of the Barcelona defense. Puyol’s excellent reading of the game and anticipation was a key factor in his interceptions and clearances as he was able to win almost all of his individual duels. With Madrid looking to use Ronaldo as an outlet on the left when they won the ball, the ball being won on Barcelona’s right side as they focused on the side clearly, Puyol being situated on the right side proved to be an indirect consequence that tilted the game further in Barcelona’s favour.
The mental strength of Barcelona in addition to their excellent quality was on display in this match as they came from behind to win convincingly after going behind to Benzema’s goal within the first minute. Guardiola’s tactical tweaks played no small part in their superb comeback as Barcelona made history by being unbeaten in seven consecutive Clasico matches in the Liga. Madrid however went on to win Jose Mourinho’s first La Liga title that season as they finally ended the Barceona monopoly under Guardiola.