Match Review – Madrid 1 – 2 Barcelona: False Equivalence

Matches between rivals are layered affairs.  Individual encounters add strata to the competitions preceding them.  Each match has an individual importance but there’s an additive effect that creates a larger history between them.

The life cycle of a rivalry is usually measured in years.  But Barcelona and Real Madrid no longer have the luxury of time.  The rivalry has taken on a frenetic quality with one match coming after another after another.  In this regard it’s difficult to interpret the result of any single match because it exists in a larger trajectory.  At the same time that trajectory itself is difficult to fully interpret because its individual episodes pass through at such a rapid rate obscuring the “larger story” developing.

In addition, while Barceolona has had a longer period of continuity, Madrid is still a team in growing into an identity.  Two narratives in particular inform this growth.

First the general notion that it’s “year two” which is the key for a Mourinho team, that it’s only in the second year under his command that a squad is fully imprinted with his tactical acumen.  Second, is a narrative that has been in development since the Copa Del Rey final last season, one which was accelerated greatly this summer headed into the Spanish Super Cup and then again headed into the first Clásico of the Liga season – Madrid are a team undergoing rapid improvement, a team that is “cutting the gap” with a Barcelona team that is taking a step back.

Indeed, if Madrid are in a rapid phase of ascension and progress within the larger trajectory linking these sides then interpreting any one match is particularly difficult.

Given these factors, what’s required is understanding each match on its own merits and connecting it with the ongoing trajectory between the sides.

The Copa Del Rey is the third most important competition of the season, one that many see as being of limited importance.  And unlike last season when Barça and Madrid met in the CDR finals, this years encounter takes place at the much earlier, less dramatic, quarterfinal stage.  Additionally, this match was only the first leg of the tie.  Given Madrid’s talent they are more than capable of recovering the advantage in the second leg and advancing.

As such, it’s possible to consider this latest Clásico as a relatively minor affair.  The series of encounters to come in La Liga and potentially in the Champions League still loom.

However, none of these matches exist in a truly independent form nor can they be wholly isolated from the series of encounters taking place both this season and in the recent past.  There’s an additive effect that each match has that interconnect them regardless of the competition they happen to transpire within.

We’ll have to wait until the second leg of the tie to fully assess where these teams are within the Copa Del Rey itself.  However, what made this match particularly interesting is that it added another data point to evaluate what these two teams are capable of and where they are in their respective evolutions.  Importantly, they provide a lens to better interpret the results of earlier encounters this season, particularly of the first Liga match at the Bernabeu, a match that was difficult to fully asses as it was the first true season meeting of these two sides.

Given the tactical advantage Guardiola created in the last meeting between these two sides, the focus of this match would be how Mourinho would respond.  For this reason, the changes Mourinho made will be a point of focus for this review.

Context:  The Last Clásico

In order to fully appreciate the scope of this particular Barcelona victory and where these two teams are with respect to each other it’s important to situate the match in context.  Coming into this much anticipated “year 2” under Mourinho, a narrative was constructed about how Madrid would focus its system and team identity around a muscular, direct game meticulously focused on high pressure and lightning fast transitions.  This system would not only be a pathway to victory, it would be a method that would meld the best of Mourinho tactical acumen with Madrid’s own rich history of confident, attacking football in which they are the side that proactively defines the match.

This new model was unveiled with much fanfare this summer in the Spanish Super Cup, a preseason competition in which Madrid indeed played well.  However, ultimately this model could not produce a result in that competition despite Barcelona lacking significant fitness.  As time has passed, this initial burst of attention and confidence in a Madrid that had “closed the gap” seems particularly strange because in the first Super Cup match Barça were playing without their central axis of plan as neither Xavi nor Busquets played.

Nonetheless, while Barcelona was victorious a second narrative emerged from that contest which roughly asserted that in fact despite losing Madrid had in fact “cut the gap” and was more or less even with Barcelona.  And as the season progressed this narrative gained support and credence.  Madrid played outstanding football in both La Liga and the Champions League, again building their play and perhaps even more importantly, their team identity under Mourinho around that system of intense high pressure and fast, direct attacks.

Mourinho himself seemed extremely confident of this new model of play as was evidenced by how Madrid approached the first Liga Clásico of this season.  Not only did Mourinho implement this aggressive, attack based system against Barça, he intensified it.  In the first Clásico Mourinho had Madrid press even higher and more aggressively than they have perhaps in any other match under his leadership.  Four Madrid players pressed the Barça backline and keeper.  The key player in this regard was Mesut Oezil who stepped forward from midfield to extremely high alongside the three forwards.

Unfortunately for Madrid, Pep Guardiola implemented tactical changes in that first Clásico that uncovered and amplified points of weakness in the Madrid system of high pressure.

As I’ve detailed here several times, Madrid high pressure is unusual because it is built around the pace of Madrid’s advanced players to close space through velocity.  In this system, Mourinho plays the backline more conservatively.  Rather than playing high up the pitch in proportion to the frontline, the backline stays comparatively deep to minimize the risk of getting beat in space behind them.  It’s still a “high” backline but just not as high as one would expect given how advanced the frontline pressure is.  What this means is that Madrid does not maximize how compact their defensive block plays.  This is unusual for a pressing team as pressure usually is very dependent on staying compact.

Against most teams this aggressive approach works very well and Madrid is able to steam roll over them.  However, against a team with the talent and technical skill on the ball that Barcelona have, this lack of compactness proved disastrous.  Barcelona pried open the Madrid defense by exploiting the interior space within the Madrid defensive block.

This problem was worsened by Mourinho’s specific tactics in the first Clásico.  Because Mourinho played so many players so high in defense, the Madrid block was even less compact than usual, with significant space open between the backline and midfield.  In addition, because Oezil was pressing so high Madrid effectively lost a defender in midfield.  In essence, if Barça could get by this first line of high pressure they would be able to find space inside the Madrid block and would have significant numerical superiority.

Guardiola implemented three tactical changes in that match which maximized the deficiencies in Mourinho’s tactics in that first Clásico.  First he deployed Messi as a true 10 rather than as a false 9.  This proved decisive in the first match.  It’s likely that Mourinho was planning on defending Messi in this match the way he has in the past – by having a CB step out high and follow him across the pitch.  By doing so Mourinho would be able to counteract Barça’s numerical superiority in midfield.  An extra defender would operate in the region drawn from the back.  This would help offset the loss of having a midfielder press very high up the pitch.

Mourinho’s strategy however only works if Messi is playing as a false 9.  It’s much less feasible if he’s playing as a 10.  This is why Guardiola changed Messi’s position.  Doing so seriously comprised Madrid’s ability to defend using the system they had developed since this past summer.  This touches on the second significant change Guardiola made in this match.  Guardiola played Alexis Sanchez as a lone striker up top in front of Messi.  Sanchez occupied two defenders and made it difficult for a CB to step out and mark Messi as Madrid has done in the past when pressing high.

The net result of these tactical changes was that Messi was positioned in the exact space where Madrid’s defensive block was most open and vulnerable.  The remarkable aspect of that first Clásico was that it was the match this season where Messi had perhaps the most space he’s enjoyed against any opponent.  This was exactly the kind of thing Mourinho was brought in to stop from happening.  And Madrid never made an appropriate defensive adjustment.  As such, though he didn’t score, Messi enjoyed significant freedom and became the hub of the Madrid attack.

Indeed, the net effect of Mourinho’s tactics in that first Clásico was the following.  Through high pressure he successfully forced Xavi, Busquets and Fabregas to have to drop deep to build play.  This drew them away from goal (or in Fabregas’s case forced him to run long distances to get to goal-which he ironically did to crushing effect on that third goal).  Getting Xavi away from goal is always a kind of tactical victory.  However, doing so came at an enormous price for Mourinho.  Because by adopting these tactics he left far too much interior room for Messi and Iniesta to exploit.  And it was ultimately those two players who dictated the match.

Against a lesser side this approach may have worked.  A lesser team may have had much more difficulty getting the ball out of their own third.  But that didn’t prove to be a too much of a problem for Barça outside of that initial early mistake from Valdes.  And once the ball was past that first wave of pressure Messi and Iniesta were free to create.  It was those two players more than Xavi who controlled the dynamics. (This speaks to what a devastating talent Messi is – his skill set is so rich that he can seamlessly step in and make up for one of the greatest central midfielders in the history of the game).  In some ways, that last Clásico was as impressive as the 5-0 Manita match from over a year before.

A remarkable aspect to that first match was how passive Mourinho was – he simply watched Messi and Iniesta freely dictate the match and made few substantive tactical changes to try to stop them.  It was as if he was almost stunned by what he was watching.  This wasn’t supposed to happen.  Not this year.  Not with this new Madrid system.

Madrid – Needed Adjustments

Given the problems Madrid had in defending Barça in that last Clásico, it was clear they needed to make adjustments.  Guardiola had taken the initiative in the prior match.  Now the onus was on Mourinho to respond tactically.

The key thing that clearly had to happen was that the Madrid block needed to become much more compact.  They could not afford to allow so much interior space to develop otherwise Messi would again dictate the match from an advanced position.

Mourinho had two primary choices to make his block more compact in this second Clásico.  First, he could elect to play his backline higher.  This would close the most open space Barça exploited in the prior contest.  This would however risk Madrid getting beat at the back, particularly with Sanchez’s pace.

Alternatively, Mourinho could pull back his high pressure, drawing his first line of defenders deeper to reduce the distance between them and the backline.  The problem with this approach is that it would make tactics based on high pressure impossible.  This would be a strategic concession to Guardiola.  After all, the Madrid system this season was focused on intense high pressure.  This was a major part of the team’s identity in “year 2” under Mourinho.  This was the major advancement and area of tactical progress and it was particularly geared to beating Barça.  Mourinho had implemented that system with vigor and commitment only a few weeks prior.

Ultimately, Mourinho elected to go the more conservative route, largely turning away from the system of high pressure that was underpinning the team Madrid were becoming.  He played the front line much deeper in defense and didn’t pressure nearly as high (despite Pinto being the keeper).  Madrid played a much more compact block stationed in the middle of the pitch.

A Return to the Trivote

Mourinho further buttressed these changes by altering personnel.  Part of the change in players was due to injury – but much of it was due to tactics, particularly in the key region of midfield.   This was interesting as well because the changes in how compact the block played could have allowed him to maintain.  It would have been reasonable to try to play Mesut Oezil again in a more conservative formation.  Staying more compact would have covered for many of Oezil’s defensive limitations.  However, Mourinho elected to go in almost the entirely opposite direction, returning Pepe to midfield and readopting the trivote formation he used last season as well.

Madrid’s three man defensive midfield was structured zonally with Pepe playing centrally, Alonso on the right of center and Diarra on the left.  Depending on where the ball was one of the three would look to pressure the Barça player in their respective zone.

Playing the trivote, however, involved a trade off.  While it provided more “steel” in midfield, it significantly worsened Madrid’s ability to maintain any kind of quality possession.  Pepe is a extremely poor passer and Diarra is very limited as well.  That meant that all possession had to run through Alonso and that isn’t his strength as his job is to spray passes quickly rather than control a match with the ball.  In turn, this left the Madrid front line starved of service.  C. Ronaldo did a good job of dropping deep to find the ball, but Higuain and Benzema had very little influence at all in the match, Higuain in particular.

Before and After

To get a sense for how dramatically different Madrid organized itself compare the first two pictures below taken from the first Clásico this season to the third image taken in this latest Clásico.

First Clasico: Madrid Pressuring High Not Compact In Middle
First Clasico: Madrid Leaving Space Between the Lines - Not Compact

In the first image, Madrid are pressing aggressively very high. In doing so however, they’ve left open significant space inside of their defensive block particularly between midfield and defense.  Once Abidal beats Oezil’s high pressure, Barça have enormous advantage. Additionally, Messi is unmarked. In the second image, we see how Madrid organized itself within its own half in the first match.  They are set up as a block – but notice again how much space is between their lines.  The midfielders are all sitting high to pressure the Barça midfielders.  But because Mourinho doesn’t want to leave too much space behind the backline is sitting relatively deep.  This opens up significant interior space.

In the third image below we see a radically different organization.  The Madrid block is much more compact.  The key is the positioning in midfield.  Pepe and Alonso are stationed between the lines while Diarra has advanced to pressure.  The LB Coentrao is carefully marking Messi, even if it means altering his position.  C. Ronaldo is playing much deeper than in the first match in order to more closely mark Alves.

Madrid in This Clasico: Defensive Block More Compact and Deeper

But all of this comes at a significant cost.  Playing more compact prevented Madrid from pressing high consistently.  By not focusing on high pressure Madrid allowed Barcelona to control the ball and build a rhythm.  Preventing the opposition in general and Barcelona in particular this kind of comfort was the entire focus of the system Madrid was implementing in “year 2” under Mourinho.  In this Clásico, Madrid regressed backwards, essentially adopting the same system they utilized last season in the Champions League semi-finals.

What makes this particularly ironic is that the system Mourinho changed trajectories to go back to didn’t work the first time.  And it produced no better result this season. In fact, if anything Barcelona looked even more comfortable than they did in that CL semi-final and the match was in many ways an easier one for the Blaugrana.

To force Madrid to change tactical directions in this dramatic a fashion is a major strategic victory for Guardiola.

Barcelona:  Makes Madrid Pick a Different Poison

It’s interesting to compare these two Clásico’s because in some ways the matches were extremely different.  But in the end they produced similar effects.

In the first match, Madrid pressured high and harried Barcelona’s deeper midfielder.  Anticipating this, Guardiola set up a system in which Barcelona’s more advanced attackers controlled the match by utilizing the space that opened due to Madrid pressing so high and not staying compact.   

In this second encounter, Madrid reverted from their new system.  They pulled their front line back to stay more compact and close off the interior space Messi and Iniesta dominated in the prior match.  However, this prevented them from pressuring high as effectively.  This in turn meant that Xavi and Busquets had more space and time to dictate the rhythm of the match.  This was exactly what Mourinho was focused on avoiding when Madrid continued to refashion its system this summer.

On net, together, these two contests were the “same” match in a way.  Barcelona was almost equivalently dominant in each Clásico.  They were just dominant through different means.  In this regard, these two Clásicos well demonstrated the richness of this Barcelona team and the myriad of ways they are able to exert match control and win.

Mourinho abandoned the system he focused on developing for this season.  And all it amounted to was picking a different poison to drink from.  And in doing so he ate away at a number of the substantive tactical changes that were purportedly underpinning Madrid “cutting the gap” with Barcelona this season.

All of this could very well change dramatically in the future given how many Clásico’s are remaining.  It could change dramatically next week – again this tie is far from over.  But as a measure of where these two teams are right now, when it comes to developing answers for how to beat Barça, Mourinho has proven to be tactically rudderless and has taken his squad backwards in times to approaches that were utilized last season despite not working.

The Numbers Game

Despite all of the changes Mourinho made in midfield through increased compact play and use of the trivote, there was a very simple tactical advantage that Guardiola continued to maintain in this match.  Barcelona had consistent numerical advantage in midfield throughout either 4 vs. 3 and at times 5 vs. 3.  This meant that Barcelona almost always had an extra outlet in midfield, most often Sergio Busquets.  This is part of why Barça dominated possession and the rhythm of the match even more than they did in the prior Clásico.

The shot below demonstrates this well:

Barca with a 4 vs. 3 Numerical Advantage in Midfield

In the shot above, Diarra has picked up Messi.  Pepe is goal of Fabregas and marking him while still staying deep to help Diarra with Messi.  Alons to the right of the circle is marking Xavi.  C. Ronaldo is marking Alves while Benzema and Higuain are nominally checking the two Barça CBs.

This means that Busquets goes unmarked in the center of the pitch.  This happened over and over and over.  Busquets was free in space and always open as an outlet.  When Madrid went to close him down it meant that a defender would have to stop marking Xavi or Fabregas leaving them free.

Marking Busquets has become a constant problem for Madrid.  In the last Clásico, they tried to have Oezil do this.  However, Mourinho also wanted Oezil to pressure high.  Through his positional intelligence Busquets would just drop station himself in the space in midfield behind Oezil.  If another midfielder picked him up Barça always had Xavi or Fabregas to build play and shunt the ball to Messi and Iniesta.

In this match, Barcelona almost always had extra players open in midfield, which not only made keeping possession relatively simple, it allowed the team to build a rhythm on the ball.

Barça was able to maintain this numerical advantage throughout often augmenting it through simple movement.

Numerical Advantage: Busquets Open as an Outlet in Midfield

In the image above, Iniesta has pulled centrally and Fabregas has drifted leftwards.  We often talk about the importance of width with Barça but width doesn’t mean “hugging the touchline” alone.  Width is relative to the oppositions defensive block and positioning.  In the image above Fabregas has intelligently pulled wide – but not too wide. As such he essentially forced two defenders to mark him – both Altintop and Oezil (entered match as a sub) change position in response to his movement.  This means that while Pepe has picked up Iniesta and Callejon (also a sub) picked up Xavi Messi and Busquets go unmarked.

In this match, Mourinho added the proverbial “hardman” to midfield in Pepe and removed the playmaker Oezil. However, he never made an adjustment to gain numerical equivalence in midfield.  And in a sense the addition of Pepe for Oezil was counteracted by utilizing Higuain in place of Di Maria.  Higuain, like Oezil, is a mediocre defender at best.  Without the ball Higuain is a player who contributes little – and his defensive limitations are a major reason why Busquets had so much time and space on the ball.  In essence, Mourinho removed a poor central defender in Oezil but then added another poor central defender in Higuain.

Now it’s obviously true that Di Maria was injured and this significantly hampered Madrid’s frontline defending.  But it’s a manager’s responsibility to put his squad in the best position to win.  Removing Oezil only to add Higuain centrally in a game where you were going to try to stay compact and deeper was a contrary decision.  A more tactically coherent choice would have been to play Callejon on the wing and Benzema in the center.

Conversely, it would at minimum have made more sense to play Benzema centrally and Higuain wide.  Benzema is the superior athlete and is a better defender.  It’s true that Benzema is probably more comfortable as a wide attacker but Mourinho was ceding possession as it was.  Regardless, it’s Mourinho’s responsibility to work out a system for marking Barcelona’s midfielders.  To date he’s been unable to do so.

Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas:  Expanding Barça’s Dimensions of Attack

In aggregate when you examine the large scale changes Mourinho made in this match, they first speak poorly for how he handled the last Clásico.  To make almost no significant tactical changes in one match and then only a few weeks later to install an entirely system suggests fundamental problems in the original approach.  In that first match, Messi playing as a 10 enjoyed significant space.  Little was done to counteract that.  Now only a few weeks later, Mourinho regresses back to a system based on that trivote that is primarily designed to prevent Messi from finding space.

While this does speak poorly for the prior match management, it does also make sense.  Changes were needed – they were just made late.

However, the problem with Mourinho reverting to the system played against Barça last year is that this isn’t the same Barcelona team.  In many ways it is better.

Last season overplaying the middle and crowding the space around Messi was a tactic that could find success against Barça.  It worked well for Madrid in the Copa Del Rey final for example.  Marked tightly, Messi continued to drop deeper and deeper until not only was he too far from goal, but Barça lost all of its attacking threat in the advanced central position.  But this season Barcelona has added weapons to counteract that kind of strategy, weapons that add a new directness to how the blaugrana can play in the final third.

Alexis Sanchez has now had two absolutely outstanding matches against Madrid.  In the first Clásico, in addition to his brilliant goal, Sanchez movement in a horizontal band across the Madrid front line created numerous problems.  In this match, Sanchez continued playing as a central striker up top but played in a very different style than the last match.  Rather than playing horizontally from touchline to touchline, he played much more vertically.  He worked the channels between the FBs and CBs, sitting on the shoulder of the defenders.  His explosive pace allowed him to simply run past the Madrid backline over and over.  You can see this more and more emerging as a new tactic for Barça.  This was how the winning goal was scored against Betis in the last Liga match.

While Sanchez didn’t score against Madrid, he generated numerous dangerous chances and hit the post on a sensational attempt on goal.  Sanchez was tactically instrumental to this match because while Madrid were attempting to stay compact in order to defend Messi, Sanchez was repeatedly stretching the defense vertically with his intelligent runs and pace.  When a defense is trying to play a compact, middle block stretching it vertically is one of the best ways to disrupt it.  Last season Barça didn’t have this capability.  This is part of why the matches last season in the CDR finals and CL semis were so difficult.  Madrid packed in around Messi.  This year Barcelona have more weapons to combat that.

In addition, Sanchez was excellent at holding up the ball.  Far from a traditional “target man,” Sanchez can still serve a number of those functions.  Rather than through his size he’s able to use his technical skill on the ball, low center of gravity and balance to retain possession when alone, even when marked by two defenders.

In the vein of direct play counteracting Madrid’s attempt to play compact, Fabregas was also instrumental. Cesc has had an interesting two games versus Madrid.  In the first match he wasn’t particularly good in possession – but then scored that brilliant goal to seal the result.  In this second match, he was improved in possession – though still far from perfect (it was his giving away the ball cheaply that led to the Madrid counter on which they ultimately scored). However, where he excelled this match was in delivering penetrating final passes into dangerous goal scoring positions.  He created 3-4 wonderful chances through his crosses and chips over the top of the Madrid backline in the final third.  Again, this kind of direct play to break a compact defensive block’s shape wasn’t as much a feature of Barça’s play last season when Mourinho utilized the trivote formation against them.

The sequence in which Sanchez hit the post on his headed shot well demonstrates the impact that Sanchez and Fabregas had in the final third:

Cesc with Ball Between Lines; Sanchez Stationary Wide of Coentrao

Above, Fabregas has the ball in a seemingly harmless space. Madrid are defending deep and are compact.  They have a 10 vs. 5 advantage in the final third and look to be in secure position.

Sanchez Start Curling Run Around Defender; Cesc Reads Run Immediately

Through his mobility Sanchez the “central striker” has isolated himself 1 vs. 1 with Coentrao.  From a stand still position he explodes into a curling run centrally around Coentrao who is surprised at the accelerated movement.  Remarkably Fabregas spots Sanchez initiation of the run instantly and immediately starts to execute a cross into the box.  For two teammates that haven’t played very many games with each other to have this kind of telepathic understanding is just phenomenal.  That only happens when both share a creative vision for the game and use of space that few players have.

Sanchez Beats Coentrao; Cesc Delivers Perfect Cross

From a dead stand still Sanchez has accelerated by Coentrao and beaten him for pace within only a few yards.  This kind of explosive quickness is what makes Sanchez so difficult to try to mark.  Its one thing to run past a player over 40 to 50 yards.  Its another skill to be able to flat beat a defender and gain separation over 4 to 5 steps.  Cesc in the meanwhile has already envisioned Sanchez’s run and delivered a perfect cross.  This is the kind of penetrating, direct play that these two players bring to the squad.  Ramos seeing the cross starts to run back towards goal.

Sanchez wins Aerial Battle 1 vs. 2

Sanchez is the shortest player on the field (yes he’s shorter than Messi).  He’s locked in an aerial duel with two much larger defenders who have been pulling at him and trying to muscle him on his run.  Despite being 1 vs. 2 Sanchez holds off both defenders and wins the aerial duel,  coming close to scoring a spectacular goal that glances off the cross bar.  This kind of dynamic athleticism is something Barcelona have not had in a very long time in the squad.

Guardiola Innovates through the Basics

Given the numerous changes he made in the first Clásico and Mourinho’s ineffective response, Guardiola didn’t need to push forward significant change.  He made adjustments to the changes Madrid made in defense and playing the first leg of a tie.  For example, Alves played a more conservative role in this match.  He moved off the defensive line but never roamed too far up field.  In part this was because Messi was often moving right to find space and to help defend.  Guardiola also surprisingly played Puyol as the L CB in the back four which made him the CB when the defense shifted towards a three man backline.  Usually Guardiola has elected to play Puyol on the same side as C. Ronaldo.  In this match he didn’t, which may have been a response to Madrid fielding Benzema wide on the right.

However, there was one area where Guardiola changed tactics radically and it’s a change that hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it should have.

A great deal of surprise took place when Barça equalized off a corner kick.  And in many ways this was unexpected.  But if you look at the match itself this was clearly a planned strategy.  Normally, Barça takes the majority of their corners short.  This is especially true against Madrid, a much taller team.

However, in this match Barcelona repeatedly took their corners long. Prior to the goal, Barça had six corners and over and over Xavi sent the ball into the box.  There was clearly something that Guardiola saw that triggered this change because on face it makes little sense for Barça to try corners into the box repeatedly against Madrid.  It wasn’t even as if the goal scored on a surprise because prior corners were taken short.  Xavi looked to find Puyol multiple times prior.

In addition, not only did this overall strategy pay off directly in a score but created another dangerous opportunity off of a free kick.  but Barcelona took a related approach on set pieces.  Barça got a second free header later on off a free kick   that Busquets should have buried.

Madrid has recently conceded several goals off corners in matches.  It’s likely that Guardiola found a weakness and decided to try to exploit it.

Taking corners long isn’t a small decision for Barça against Madrid either.  Drawing your CBs into the final third against a team that counter attacks as fast as Madrid is not something to take lightly.  As such, there must have been a tactical weakness Guardiola identified in how Madrid defend set pieces for Barça to change tactics in this fashion.

There was also something very fitting and ironic about Puyol’s goal.  The centerpiece of Mourinho’s revamped tactics for this match in many ways was Pepe, a player Mourinho would after the match describe as indispensable to Madrid.  It was Pepe who was responsible for marking delayed runners from deep within the Madrid corner kick defensive scheme.  It was Pepe who failed to mark Puyol’s run.  It was Pepe who was caught ball watching despite the fact that Barça tried to find Puyol on corner repeatedly throughout the game.

In addition, Barca also took a similar approach to other set pieces in this match.  Xavi played a free kick long into the box that Busquets went largely unmarked on and should have buried for a goal.

If there was a weakness in Madrid’s corner kick defense that Guardiola spotted, I’d guess it was related to Pepe’s awareness and positional intelligence.

In the End Messi is Decisive 

As I’ve detailed here, between these two Clásico’s Mourinho scrapped months of tactical changes to revert back to a system Madrid tried to use against Barça last season.  A system that didn’t work.  The focus on this change was to try to suffocate the space around Messi.  Focusing on Messi freed space up for other players however, – Xavi and Busquets in particular, so Messi had a significant indirectly tactical influence on the game.

However, what must drive Mourinho mad, is that despite all of the changes Mourinho both made and sacrificed in order to stop Messi, the world’s best player again created the decisive blow out of almost nothing against Madrid.  This must drive Mourinho to distraction.  No matter what he does and how many resources he deploys to stop Leo it makes little difference.

The image below is the moment prior to the goal:

Abidal's Run for Winning Goal - Messi Marked by 3 Defenders

Madrid have done what they were tactically instructed to do in many ways.  They’ve suffocated the space between the lines Messi operates in, closing him down with three defenders.  They’ve overplayed the middle, the region Barça as a team are naturally drawn to.  They’ve made trade offs which result in Barcelona’s least likely offensive threat having the most time and space on the pitch.  In theory that’s what you want.

This was a kind of broken play.  It developed off a throw in taken by Abidal.  Many have criticized Altintop’s central positioning. It’s true that he should have been wider.  But on that throw in it’s originally C. Ronaldo who looks like he’s going to pick up and mark Abidal.  All match long Altintop or a Madrid defender had marked Iniesta.  Altintop did the same here, though over exuberantly.

Mourinho made multiple substitutions in the second half, especially after Barça equalized.  He sent on attackers in hopes of scoring.

One of the changes he made that seemed relatively minor but proved to be decisive in the end was to switch C. Ronaldo from the left wing to the right wing.  This was likely done in part in order to relieve C. Ronaldo of some of his defensive duties.  All match long, C. Ronaldo played a disciplined defensive game against Alves. C. Ronaldo played very deep all game, almost acting as a defensive winger.  Moving him to the right against the conservative, much less threatening Abidal allowed C.Ronaldo to play much higher, to position himself to break quicker for the counter Madrid was so in need of.  By this time in the match scoring on the counter or a set piece were really Madrid’s only hope for winning.

And in the still shot above you see C. Ronaldo doing exactly all of those things.  He’s stationed as high as possible in the block.  If you re-watch this sequence you can actually see him leaning heavily forward towards his right waiting to spring towards the Barça goal at speed.  If you re-watch a few moments before the still shot above you’ll see C. Ronaldo actually glance back towards the byline and leftwards.  Originally he was the one who picked up Abidal after the throw in.  It was after that he pulled forward looking to break.  And when C.Ronaldo glances backwards he must have seen Abidal.  It would have been very hard for him to not have seen Abidal given how wide open in space the Barça player was.  His glance back looked like it was intended to locate where the Barça left back had gone.

What a strange moment of cognitive dissonance all of this must have been.

All match along C.Ronaldo had played an excellent defensive game.  His work rate and intensity were strong.  But in the moment he likely sees Abidal completely open in space wide and doesn’t mark him.  It’s plainly clear that Altintop has pulled centrally to track Iniesta. Perhaps he assumes Abidal is in an off side position, though that would be quite an assumption given his positioning.  Perhaps he sees the situation as a potential massive advantage.  Abidal playing that forward was a risk.  There is no defender in front of C. Ronaldo.  The winger has space to run into.

Perhaps it may have just seemed implausible to him that Abidal, a player with one career goal for Barça, could represent an authentic threat on goal, especially given where the ball was.  C. Ronaldo seemed to just be waiting by himself, waiting to spring with his voracious strides on the counter, waiting for the three Madrid defenders to dispossess Messi and set him free.

What makes witnessing genius so surprising after all is how unexpected it is, even when it has happened before.

The Ugly

I have something to say about the nasty, brutish nature of this match. I’ll save that for another post.  Make no mistake about it.  The Clásicos have become explicitly violent.  It must stop.  But unfortunately I don’t see a way that’s going to happen until a Barcelona player is seriously injured and then lamentations will be the order of the day.

One thing I will say now – it is a completely disingenuous, false equivalence to somehow argue that “diving” is somehow equivalent in nature to violence. It is completely repugnant to justify violence as a supposedly acceptable and just response to gamesmanship.

Barelona are in no way a perfect team.  No team is.  But violence belongs to another category of ills, one of much more serious consequence.

And if you feel different than you’d have to support the notion as a general principle.  You’d have to think that it would be ok for a team to risk breaking Angel Di Maria’s ankle or blowing out his knee with a cowardly scissor kick from behind just because gamesmanship is a fundamental part of his play.  You’d have to be ok with a team risking a fracture to Pepe’s hand or his clavicle because he’s constantly clutching some body part and rolling around.

In other words you would have to be ok with the game turning into a bloodbath.  Which is something it has been in the past and in certain areas.  The consequences have been awful.

Player Evaluation:

Guardiola:  The world’s best manager simply does it again.  Perhaps the best tactical mind in the game.  He has created changes and systems to completely thwart and negate almost everything Madrid tries to do – even under the much praised Mourinho.  He always keeps Barça a step ahead so Madrid is always reacting, even to the point where they’ve thrown overboard the system that was to be the central focus of their identity as a team.  Always adds an extra wrinkle that pays off because of his deep understanding of the game at large.  Today it was with corner kicks.  Unbelievable.

Pinto:  Madrid’s goal was almost entirely due to his egregious mistake.  Pique appropriately shunted C. Ronaldo to a wide angle where the attacker could really only manage to try to score along the near post or between the keepers leg.  In other words, in the two places that a goal from that distance should never score from.  After that however Pinto settled in.  Completed 25 passes – more than any other player on Madrid besides Alonso, who completed 34.  Interesting to see Madrid not try to pressure or harass Pinto, even after that terrible mistake.

Pique:  Solid game playing as the R CB in both the 4 and 3 man backline.  Often isolated against C. Ronaldo and overall did well.

Puyol:  Just when it seems that he’s done almost everything possible for the shirt. He does more.  51 straight matches undefeated.  Scored a goal off a sublimely timed run from deep.  Yes Pepe with his limited football intelligence should have picked up the run.  But Puyol is a master of that kind of delayed danger.  And watch the goal again – he sprung free – but it was still not an easy ball to get a solid header on as it was diving low.

Alves:  Played a sort of in between game in many ways.  Overall was fine – but occupied a very different role than the prior Clásico.  Not quite on the backline but not quite a winger.  Alves was more an outlet for the ball to relieve pressure.  Defended well when called upon though it was unusual to see him beaten for pace on C.Ronaldo’s score.  The one positive tactical change Mourinho did was to pinch C.Ronaldo inwards to create separation from Alves.

Abidal:  What a match.  What a player.  If Puyol represents the heart of the team, Messi its brilliance, and Xavi its intelligence, Abidal perfectly encompasses its professionalism.  Showed fantastic footballing intelligence to make that run behind the Madrid defense when he was functionally ignored.  And as good as the run was, the finish wasn’t easy given the angle.  In a game where Barça missed a number of quality opportunities on goal, Abidal finished off the match with the kind of poise that marks his game.  Defensively he was enormous.  Swallowed up Benzema and repeatedly covered for the team on the counter making several crucial intercepetions.

Busquets:  A flawless game.  Busquets plays with a machine like quality, like an engine where he just circulates, circulates, circulates.  Madrid has yet to come up with a way to stop his game.  Often the midfielder with the most time and space on the ball, Busquets used ball extremely efficiently.  Defensively was an anchor between the lines.  Would have been man of the match were it not for the sublime performance of his partner.

Xavi:  Sublime.  Make no mistake about it.  Given the tactical focus Madrid exerted on not allowing Messi to dictate play and on clogging the midfield, the challenge was thrown to Xavi to control the match.  And he was flawless.  Constantly marked and harried in midfield, Xavi as always rarely gave up possession.  When a team defends the way Madrid did, the pressure is squarely placed on the shoulders of the team’s central midfielder to exert match control. And Xavi did that masterfully again versus Madrid.

Fabregas:  Better this game versus Madrid than the last.  Still developing his way within the possession game.  That’s just going to take time.  In the final third however Fabregas is simply breathtaking.  In this game it was his passing on final balls rather than his runs to goal which were remarkable.  His scoop pass to Inesta over the Madrid defense – just brilliant.  And Fabregas also played a thankless role on the pitch doing a great deal of the dirty work for the team in his box to box role.  Ran all game long.

Iniesta:  The genius was on display on multiple occasions.  But this is was also a match where you just sit down with Iniesta, get him some much needed sun and Vitamin D and just ask him – why is it that you can pain the ball all over the pitch like a footballing DaVinci just not towards goal?  Even mediocre finishing from Don Andres would have made this match 4-1.  The hesitations in the box were particularly unfortunate.

Messi:  An entire defense was structured to stop him.  For much of the match it did.  He never truly got into the flow of the match.  But in the end when the team needed it – he didn’t only see an opportunity no one else could envision, he created it.  No matter what Madrid try to do they simply cannot stop this player from wounding them.

Alexis:  Another strong performance from a fiendishly gifted player who is getting better and better.  He add entirely new dimensions to how the team can play with his athleticism and technical play.  Often we compare his qualities to those of Henry.  And there are similarities.  But honestly, Sanchez is better on the ball.  Still not sure what his “position” will be for Barça.  But he looks outstanding in the central strikers role.

Team:  As a unit they are just scratching the surface.  Not only is Messi getting better but Alexis and Cesc expand this team’s capabilities.  They still are integrating and the team is still trying to understand how to play with them.  But it’s coming fast.  You can see it the way that the team is now starting to pick up Alexis’s runs at speed.

The End:

Barcelona falls behind in another match 1-0 within the opening fifteen minutes at the Bernabeu.  And once again, Madrid’s goal seems like only a temporary inconvenience.  This is a team that has seen almost everything.  That has been a bad situations and got out of them.  A few weeks ago after falling behind in the first 30 seconds it was Puyol who had to rally the team and exert leadership.  Madrid’s goal in this match – hardly required an exhortation.  Madrid scored but the goal was against the run of play – and you could just see then by their reaction and calmness that they felt that they were going to control the match.

Again, this is only the first leg of the tie.  In no way are Barça assured of advancing.  But this is a team that knows that.  They take very little for granted and fully understand that success doesn’t come from words but from actions on the pitch.

So the tie is still to be settled.  But within the context of the ongoing trajectory of matches between these two sides, this was a significant blow to Madrid.  Mourinho abandoned the core system Madrid were basing their team identity around and reverted back to a style the players and supporters never embraced.  This was a regressive move backwards by Mourinho as it took the team back to a style that they were to move away from in this second season.  And he made that backwards move after the first Clásico the team played this season.  Engineering that kind of radical change means that you must obtain a result.  Madrid did not.

And all of this is curious because the system Mourinho is reverting to did not produce the desired result last season either.  It’s unclear why it would this season, especially since Barcelona have seen Madrid play in this style before.  Playing in a deeper, confined block decreases Madrid’s ability to utilize the one area where they are clearly superior to Bara – their athleticism.

Though he wont’ admit it – much of this gets back to Guardiola.  The changes he put into place in that first Clásico precisely amplified vulnerabilities in the Madrid system that were there but latent.  Vulnerabilities lesser sides could not crack open and exploit.  To cause Madrid to give up that system even if it’s only one game is a significant strategic victory for Guardiola.  He forced Madrid back into a largely reactive mode in a year where they were supposed to exert their will on matches with Barcelona.

This very well may be a temporary retreat by Mourinho.  He may be using the CDR to experiment.  But if he is, that experimentation is not being conducted out of confidence nor is it within the spirit of the aggressive sporting project that Madrid were purportedly to grow into.  And his players will know that.  That’s not an easy knowledge.

It’s only one game.  It’s only the CDR.  Madrid could very well win the tie in the second leg.  But at this point in time, these first two Clásico’s were not only victories for Barcelona on the pitch but also strategically.

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144 Comments

  1. Azulgrana
    January 23, 2012

    I’ve never been so confident after trailing behind EE like this encounter. After CR 9’s goal, EE defended desperately. Constantly loosing their defensive shape. Messi’s deadly assist for the winning goal left me yabba-dabba dead. There is still 90 minutes left to play, but FCB may well be the one club where Mourhino’s magic and ingenuity simply refuses to work. He has no answer to Barca’s dominance!

  2. camiseta
    January 24, 2012

    thank you Euler, now I need some time to digest your words :).

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