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.


  1. “Alexis: Another strong player from a fiendishly gifted player who is getting better and better. ”

    I think “strong player” should be replaced with “strong game/performance”?

  2. always..wonderful tactical review.

    Also in a crazy way, Fabergas being unsure about his exact position in a way helps, as Madrid too are unsure exactly where he will be playing, allowing him more room and possibility of being marked to a lesser extent..

    1. That’s the game that started it all, BTW.

      Prior to that it had been 5 very bad years for the club, but in the spring of of 2004 we were finally playing good football and winning. Still, we came into that game without as the underdogs and in the first half of that Classico Madrid dominated us, but we turned it around. From that moment on Barca has been the dominant team, with the exception of the 2007-2008 season (2006-2007 we lost it due to our own stupidity, we were still better than them)

      Fond memories 🙂

  3. Again, masterful review.

    A point about Messi. What struck me the most about his performance in this match was his patience. Too often we see Leo try to take over a match through a trademark mazy dribble through pressure, ofttimes ill-advised and frequently leading to turnovers. This game, as much as I can ever recall, seemed he understood how well he was being marked and gave up the ball to other, safer options. Another offshoot of Alexis’ presence.

    This team’s evolution is so fun to watch. Adding Alexis and Cesc has truly brought a different dynamism to the pitch. As Ray Ray says, its truly botanical football. Who knows where, when, and how vibrantly the next sprout will emerge.

  4. I posted a rant about the ugliness on the other thread, as I didn’t want it to pollute this thread where I want us to solely talk about the football.

    Alexis was just an incredible signing. I support Udinese (tho, I want Roma to kill it this season for obvious reasons) in Serie A and I knew all about Alexis. He had the potential, it just depended on whether or not he had the humility [which I had no doubts he had] and the proper guidance and direction to continue to improve.

    Him going to Barca was a great move, so was Bielsa becoming Chile’s NT coach.

    I remember all the Serie A experts coming out of the woodwork when we signed him, saying Alexis would be a waste; he could only play trequartista, he’ll only warm the bench! Besides, he had no room to improve, he’s already 22; he’ll clearly stay at the same level forever. And Di Natale won’t be there, neither will Isla [never mind Messi is clearly > Di Natale, and Alves > Isla. Dumbest argument I’d seen.]

    They were everywhere before. Where are they now?


    1. So funny, I’ve never watched Seria A before this season. Now everytime I see Roma play I have to tune in. Luis Enrique was always my favorite player(well, Koeman before him and Puyol now) but it’s great to watch how his team progress.

    1. Many thanks. Yes Gerry Armstrong is often annoying especially during the Clasico in December. Quite deluded early in that game.

    2. Ugh, I know! Every other comment was “Busquets goes down easily” or “You have to be careful when you tackle Busquets or he will get you in trouble” or similar. It is so annoying and biased. Not to say that Busi is an angel, but I honestly can’t even remember the last time he took a dive.

  5. Smart, but redundant.

    You wrote: “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.”

    This sentiment popped up three or four times: “the system Mourinho is reverting to did not produce the desired result last season either.”

    And so did Madrid-could-still-win-the-tie or its equivalent.

    In such long reviews, you owe it to your reader to keep it as brief as you can. Thoughtful work does not mean unedited work.

    1. To each his own. I say let Euler write as much and whatever he wants. You will not find better anywhere.

    2. As a very wise reader once said:

      If you don’t like the soup, don’t drink it. It’s not as if you paid the cook for it.

    3. Now now, everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. The opinion expressed is well within the community standards and the point is legitimate..

    4. ❓ Didn’t say it wasn’t. All I said was if they didn’t like it the way Euler went about it, they can read another tactics post that is closer to their taste.

    5. ‘If you don’t like it (or have an issue with some details), don’t criticize, or give suggestions, go somewhere else.’

      Still seems a bit hostile..

    6. I was just suggesting a way Euler could improve his or her posts. If you can read this piece and tell me it’s not redundant, I’m way off. Otherwise, this is called constructive criticism.

      And “you can go read another tactics post” is not constructive criticism.

      By the way, Zonal Marking isn’t redundant, and is plenty smart.

    7. And “you can go read another tactics post” is not constructive criticism.

      You’re correct. It is not — it’s a suggestion.

      If you can read this piece and tell me it’s not redundant, I’m way off.

      I have read it and no, I don’t find it redundant. That would mean that it was superfluous and unnecessary. It clearly has a purpose: to review the match from a tactical point of view.

      There’s a reason for every word. If something is repeated, it’s to stress a point. It is indeed a long post which means that reminding the reader of a point previously made is useful so they don’t forget. Stressing Ronaldo acted as a defensive winger is important as it was something that was a key point in the match, something that had a large effect particularly in the first half.

      As for Mourinho, read the preface Euler wrote. “[..]the changes Mourinho made will be a point of focus for this review.” It is great form that he is referring back to it and the purpose is, once again, to remind the reader of the central subject of the review.

      The details are helpful for those who don’t have much knowledge in tactics. If you don’t need it, someone else might.

      You don’t like the length? That’s fine. As you’ve said, Zonal Marking is a great site to fill your needs. But it doesn’t mean what Euler has written is redundant and I find it incredibly rude to come to a post and effectively say, “Make it shorter. I don’t want to read that much.” However, if it’s unnecessary in your eyes and you don’t appreciate what Euler’s written, that is fine; it brings me back to my suggestion: you can read another tactics post. Very simple.

      A lot of time and energy was put into writing this. Euler is making no money from it and is only writing this to share his knowledge with other cules. If anyone owes anything, you owe it to the writer because Euler’s reviews are the most informative and thorough reviews on the net. I’ve seen you comment on Euler’s posts with the same sort of ‘suggestions’ many times, suggestions that had nothing to do with that he’s said tactically, but grammatically. And each time I found it to be very rude.

    8. euler does not OWE the reader anything

      on the other hand, you owe it to the community that reads this blog to be as polite as you can

    9. A very good point. My opinion is that the idea of someone ‘owing’ you something means that there an exchange of goods, be it material or immaterial, between both parties. If I pay $100 for a meal at a restaurant, I think I’m justified in thinking that the establishment owes me nothing short of a good meal. (And it’d better not be just a dish of eggs and chips either. Not even if they’re fried in truffle oil.)

      Of course, you wouldn’t be wrong in saying that you’ve paid up a portion of your time to read this review. But then, balance it with the time and effort it toke Euler to write this review.Time which no doubt could be spent in doing something more profitable. I have doubts that the scales even out. In fact, I think we readers owe Euler much thanks.

    10. “Smart, but redundant.”

      So is that what you also say about our possession based game, in general? lol

    11. First, I’ve actually registered here just to say how much I appreciated the review. I wish the match commentators explained the tactics as much as you.

      In terms of the writing, there were many words, but I understood them easily: clarity is more important than brevity.

    12. “you owe it to your reader to”
      If he was being paid by us to post this stuff, then, yeah, sure. But he’s not. Euler shares this with us out of love. As is, I completely and vehemently disagree with this word choice.

    13. Look, comparison is almost like cancer. Saying something is better than the other is purely a matter of personal opinion. If WorddrivenBozo believes Zonal Marking’s review is “plenty smart” compared to Euler’s “smart” review, then it is his sole burden of proof. Using only the factor of redundancy to imply the level of smartness is not smart at all, imo. Suggestion of improvement/s in that fashion, does not truly advocate constructive criticism, rather it makes an impression that the reader has perhaps missed the most primitive essence of the review.

      Where as in the start, the author mentiones:
      For this reason, the changes Mourinho made will be a point of focus for this review.

      So, it might mean that there will probably be statements, meant to repeat themselves for the sake of the argument. Statements that may revolve on the vicinity of the focal point, already stated. And when one tries to do a sum over history (handful of clasicos), the peripheral statements are justified.

      Euler’s originality is unquestionable. His reviews adds more to the ever evolving blaugrana experience, for me. Sometimes the non-linear story telling technique, merges with past events/games and all those little of things that makes one think from a different perspective. Every element is indisputable. However, there would always be scope for improvement, but that should be left to the artistic freedom, rather to the norm, convention or trivialities!

      Like that “other 39 seconds” article! How would you compare that with Zonal Marking? And every review is unique. You don’t get to see that with many other reviews sites. But then again, I must repeat, it does not make any reviews better than the other, in an absolute sense. 🙂

    14. Reply to Kari, who wrote: “I have read it and no, I don’t find it redundant. That would mean that it was superfluous and unnecessary.”

      Okay, if you think it’s necessary to repeat numerous things over and over, that’s fine. Personally I think a smart writer like Euler should be willing to trust a reader to be nearly as smart as he is.

      Nice to see you defending your fellow blogger against real and imagined attacks. Sorry you resort to the ad hominem.

    15. Interesting how you have ‘bozo’ in your username. If the blog isn’t your flavor of the hour, the exit is to the left.

      Maybe you should create a blog yourself and awe us with your brilliance. After all, you have such fascinating ideas on how to improve.

    16. Personally I think a smart writer like Euler should be willing to trust a reader to be nearly as smart as he is.

      Thank you for that word in bold! Finally some decency!!

      Personally, I have a thing against pretentious critics. But Im new to this blog and so i dont want to stress myself any further and cross hidden lines.

      But i’d say this, that nobody is “defending” Euler here, imo. Maybe some tried to press you in your own half. Or some (me) got a bit annoyed with your “step overs”, so it was better to let you run into the wings and eventually see you lose the ball.

    17. I don’t know if you meant it the way it sounded but this is the most condescending and ungrateful post I’ve ever read on this blog.

  6. Madrid did all they could to make sure Messi never got the ball. And the few times he did, they closed him down as fast as possible so that Messi couldn’t turn around. Then, one of the few times Messi managed to receive the ball close to Madrid’s goal, and actually be facing the goal, the Madrid players got scared. Alonso should have done better to challenge him, but he just looked scared to overcommit. Messi shimmied left and right a couple of times, then just said, “Hah, I’m only teasing, why would I dribble when Abidal is wide open right there?” Alonso: “Wait, whaaa..?” *Chip* GOLASO!

  7. Hi there,
    This is my first post, though I’ve been reading you from quite a long time for you are a really worth reading forum, including the comments at the bottom, and you support the club of my life.
    I’ve decide to post a comment because I know that it will enrich me as a person as it will enrich my english, since I am not a native speaker.

    I completely agree with euler that we have to interpret this game taking into account two concepts: the general progress of each team and the individual game per se. I agree that Madrid are progressing in a very fast way. However, I am not sure whether to agree that Barça are taking a step back. We need to remember that injuries are not helping the team and we are trying to adapt some natural players as strikers for the good of the team, such as iniesta or cesc. I know we’ve reached a point where it doesn’t matter what’s their natural position on the field because they can play anywhere. They are so adaptive that it doesn’t surprise us at all watching Alves playing as a wing from the start, as he did against Osasuna at Camp Nou.
    I know that against betis we suffered, and we will probably suffer again at La Rosaleda. But I don’t see (perhaps don’t want to) that Barça are taking a step back. Maybe I’ll see it when next Wednesday Madrid will erase us from la copa, if that unfortunate scenario were to happen. Madrid are evolving and they are indeed a great team with powerful players. They were capable of overturning Mallorca who were performing an extraordinary game. No comment on referees decisions, they were capable of. But it seems that Mourinho is scared of Barça, just look what he did when the score was 1-0 for them. He made his team sit back, wait for barça, let them play. It turned out fantastically for us, even tough we needed two defenders to score.
    I am just very excited waiting for Wednesday, it may not have a happy ending but I know these players are able to make the most of themselves every game, specially against the etern rival.
    And I know I must not forget that first we need to go to Malaga.

    By the way, thanks euler for this amazing review, and all the rest who I read every time I can: Kari, Kxevin, Isaiah, and a long etc.

    1. Welcome to the blog, Demosthenes! Please keep commenting in the future!

      I agree that he’s quite scared — he honestly believed he could keep the score 1-0 against this Barca? Ay — but not only that. He was making excuses before the game even began! Like he already lost the game. He’s developed quite the inferiority complex.

      Barca have nearly crushed the spirit of the most arrogant coaches around. That makes me happy.

    2. Welcome to BFB, Demosthenes!

      Euler wasn’t saying that we are declining and Madrid are improving massively, but that those were the two narratives being talked about throughout the first half of the season. Luckily that wasn’t the case and Barcelona in August does not equal Barcelona mid-season!

    3. Hello! Thanks so much for taking the time to post and join the community. It’s always great to have first time posters add their voices.

      I agree with our points and sorry if I was confusing in the piece but I agree with what your saying!

      Madrid are getting better and that’s focused on a lot. But the Barca is also getting better and that was getting somewhat obscured in the notion that Madrid had “cut the gap.”

      As Kevin mentions, I was trying to refer to these two narratives being discussed. To many it seemed almost as if Madrid improving implied that Barca was simultaneously getting worse and that the cycle was “closing.” That’s simply not the case!

      Please continue posting and joining in the discussion.

    4. Dear Euler, Please, you should publish your reviews at the end of each season. That would do lot of good for football lovers. All the best to you.

  8. Great review, seems like we’re running out of superlatives to describe the quality of Euler’s posts, just like we’re running out of superlatives to describe the amazing things done by Barcelona 🙂

    I’ve been scouring the net for the past two days trying to find a good tactical review of the match and haven’t found anything nearly as cogent and intelligent as this one.

    Seriously though, Euler, thank you for choosing Barcelona as your team to support. You’re like having the fan equivalent of Xavi on our side.

    1. “You’re like having the fan equivalent of Xavi on our side.”
      I like this analogy, and may quote you on it in the future.

    2. Sure thing 😀

      I’m really glad Euler’s on our side. Imagine how sucky it’d be if he’d been a Madridista and had been writing such articulate stuff for them. Yuck. Doesn’t bear thinking about ^_^

    3. I’m gonna be honest and say that if Euler WAS a Madridista, I’d keep up on him after I stumbled on him, as I really like reading about tactics.

      But it’s nicer this way, we get so much more of his reviews this way 🙂

  9. Sometimes, it is just a pleasure watching the whole scenario unfold before your eyes..It may be the ‘Tranquilo hombre’ personality that has developed within me after watching game after game of Guardiola’s Barça that even after Madrid scored the goal the first sentence I uttered to the pub and the penya I was watching the game with was ‘Relax people, relax..keep calm, it is a blip, an aberration. We’ll score’.
    Guardiola has instilled this enormous sense of self-belief in not only the players but also in the fans I believe. I don’t believe that I have ever been as nervous as I should be in the clasicos mainly because I think, nay, I know that come what may Barça will dominate the game, stamp their authority on it and win and win well.
    It is this sense of self-belief instilled in the players that makes them perform and play the way they are taught even under tremendous adversity..They are brave and strong not only mentally but as is wont in the Bernebeau recently, physically..They don’t respond in kind to physical intimidation as many weaker individuals would but instead they get better at what they do under that spectre.
    There is a tremendous will-to-win amongst these players and that I believe is the reason the football world should tremble at the sight of this Barça..remorseless, hungry and stronger than the foundations of the earth..
    Visca el Barça!

  10. I haven’t been posting comments on the blog nearly as much as I’ve been wanting to, but I’ve been trying to read each and every one on each and every post. I’ve been so busy and drained that responding as much as I want is, sadly for me, not an option at this juncture of my life (SWITCHING INTO A CAREER YOU WERE NOT EDUCATED IN TURNS OUT TO NOT BE SUPER EASY [for me, anyway]). But I want to!

    Euler, I keep saying it again and again and again but thanks for sharing all of this with us. I’ve had a great relationship with my father my whole life but we’ve never shared any interests in common for until 2010, when I jumped headlong back into soccer and he resumed his interest into it. One thing my father and I love doing is reading your articles and discussing them. After most matches, within a day, my non-tech-savvy dad will ask “Has Euler posted yet?” (not to say that I don’t love the other reviews, more on that another time; my father happens to favor Euler’s tactical posts so that’s what we read together the most). Some day in the future, barring fatal misfortune to me, my father will pass away and I won’t be able to spend time with him anymore. When that happens, one thing I’m going to look back on very fondly is the time we spent after watching FCB games together, reading your articles. So, I’m really, really grateful for that, and continue to any more you choose to write and share in the future.

    Excuse me I’ll write more later but I’m going to take a break, I’m getting very emotional. And I apologize if writing all this was inappropriate and egregious overshare.

    1. wow that is quite excellent Xing..I happen to read Euler’s reviews like I would read research papers at Uni..carefully dissecting them and setting up a gist..I do it at leisure and it is osmething I absolutely love..
      One of my favourite Euler reviews has to be the one he did after the CL final..I printed it out and preserved it for posterity..a work of art!

      Also Euler, I woudl really like to know what your day job is?! It seems it has to be one attached to sport (if not football). I am sorry if I seem to poke my nose where it doesn’t belong but I am genuinely curious


    2. That’s a really lovely thing to share, Xingxian. I wish my dad shared my love of Barça. He likes football but only watches it when I visit, and thinks Barça’s “tippy-tappy” game is boring. Makes me want to shake him sometimes. I’m glad you have this in common with your father, and so nice that BFB and Euler especially can help you be closer to him.

    3. Xingxian,

      Thank you so much for sharing that beautiful sentiment. It’s one of the single most heart warming, meaningful comments I’ve received. It means a great deal to me. I’m so happy that that you and your father enjoy the posts and that they may make you happy in some way.

      And thank you both for taking the time to read.

      On behalf of everyone here at BFB – I know we wouldn’t dedicate the time and effort into writing these pieces if it weren’t for the wonderful community we have here.

  11. I’ve had far too much beer to give this review the attention it deserves, so I will wait and savour it over my morning cuppa tomorrow.

    In the meantime, here are some very telling quotes from Sid Lowe’s Sports Illustrated article on the Clasico:

    In 90 minutes, Pepe attempted just 17 passes, of which only 10 were successful.

    His opposite number in the Barcelona team, Busquets, attempted 117 and completed 109.

    There is a phrase that gets used in Spain: tell me what kind of central midfielder you have and I will tell you what kind of team you are. As far as Real Madrid were concerned, the answer was: not a very good one.

    1. It is a sad day for soccer when a great team like RM have to resort to deploying Pepe in the midfield.

  12. I’ve been a supporter of Barca for a very long time. But, it is Euler’s writings that have made me fall in love with the team. Thanks for the wonderful review of the match.

    It is amazing how you put the match in perspective of the previous matches that have happened between the two teams under Mourinho, and made the effort to highlight the tactical nuances as a collective, not just an individual match.

    Pure genius.

  13. @ Ryan: I saw a video of Villa working out in the gym. He seems motivated but I hope he’s not rushing to play; always better to let things heal properly.
    @ Xingxian: Wow! so happpy that you get to share something special with your dad 🙂

    Thanks Euler! You are so good at analyzing the game.
    I thought Iniesta did ok, not sublime (by his standard). He wasted lots of chances. Messi was so calm in this game, which made me adore him even more 🙂 What I like about Alexis apart from his football skills is his character on the pitch. He’s sort of the forward version of Puyol. I can see him as future captain. Don’t mess with him, RM players! Also, glad to see Tito on the bench. He’s a very intelligent coach who has helped Pep and the team a lot tactically. I would love to read an in-depth piece on Tito’s work at Barca someday. After the CL final, he gave an interview analyzing the team’s performance, and he was saying that they focused on shooting outside the penalty area more in the second half. That, along with his other interviews, give me the impression that he’s such a good tactician. A perfect partner for Pep 🙂

  14. It’s been while Euler. You cover up everything I couldn’t envisage about this match. Perfect review! Thanks!

    – I someway think this Barcelona team is just simply superior in all aspects of football (strategy, skill set, versatility, mental, self belief, and so on you could mention matters in this game) on head-to-head basis with EE. Mou have undertaken various strategies from last season clasicos but nothing bear fruit. Pep and the set of players we have in possession always come up one or two steps ahead. We’re just too multifaceted for them to fathom. So resulting the phrase that Kari mentioned: “inferiority complex”. It’s perfectly pictured the state of affairs that EE dwells now comparatively to Barcelona.

    – I previously thought the less pressure we got on high up the pitch was intentional for saving stamina reason. But you expose it eloquently that it was part of EE strategy to compacting the middle area. Eye-opening! At the end, it’s Pep that always visions the next chapter first and ready with the new script. Still the same story overall, absolute supremacy in the midfield for Barcelona.

    – The multiplicity that Alexis and Cesc brought to our attacking dimension is immense. This match just underlined again that farsighted tactical development that Pep plan.

  15. Hello fellow Cules!! I have been reading this blog for some times now. Thank you for creating it. Euler, you are indeed our Xavi as Jafri said above. I would go so far as to say that you maybe Messi, Xavi and Don Iniesta rolled into one for the brilliance, simplicity and forcefulness of your writing. I enjoy them avidly.

    Since Guardiola took the helm, I can no longer be a fan of the beautiful game who watches just to see his team win. He forces you to think beyond the win or the loss. I think he enjoys football on a spiritual level (not in a religious sense but in the sense that his spirit is through and through football). And this is one legacy, at least for me, that Guardiola and this Barca team will leave. This team is so good that I can’t pick my favorite player among them. I lean hard toward Messi until Iniesta pulled a move that makes Zizou wish he was young again. When I go for Xavi, Busquets mesmerizes me so much that I want him to have more touches on the ball to see that amazing one touch calm. Then Tarzan pops up, and king Abidal. And Mr Shakira goes on a run or Dani shuts down CR7 et… All these have one thing in common: Guardiola’s mastermind. I am spoiled to rotten!! I won’t get over it!!


    1. Pep has an understanding the game that is simultaneously deep and broad. You just watch what he does with the team – it really is brilliant.

      Just things like moving Messi from the false 9 to the 10 to position him in the space open in the Madrid block in that first Clasico. And then altering the tactics on corner kicks. Just remarkable stuff from the blaugrana maestro.

    2. I believe that Tito Vilanova is not far behind Pep Guardiola with regards to the ingenuity of reading a match and adapting the tactics ‘on the fly’.
      It’s hard to measure how much of the success is down to Pep and how much to Tito, but I’m convinced that only the combination of these two is capable of forming the best team in history.

    3. Agreed. Pep really missed Tito when he was away for his surgery. Tito sees things that Pep misses, and vice versa.

  16. Thank you for providing us with yet another opus, Euler. How many hours work goes into one of these? Really are tremendous – such complete appraisals of the game.

    Also, and I know it’s wrong to indulge some of the people who put forward these arguments, but it really is time people stopped claiming that in their BEST PLAYER EVER!!! thought experiments Messi would never cope with the physicality of previous eras. Whilst the laws might be more protective of strikers now, it is a completely disingenuous argument to put forward given the aggressive and systematic fouling Messi has been on the wrong end of v Real alone over the years. And he’s never cowed by it – he just gets up and reveals another way to cut them open.

    Of course, Messi will never score 1283 goals and win 3 world cups, so the above musings are all irrelevant.

  17. Excellent review as usual, Euler.

    I have some queries though –

    – I am not overestimating Mourinho here, but hear me out. Mourinho tried the trivote last season as a way to halt Barca and was only partially successful, yet getting criticised for making Madrid play like Herrera’s Inter and losing its “rich identity”. He tried the high pressure, high frontline – deep backline – beat them by pace approach and came up short, albeit somewhat marginally. Could he have thought, let me see this Copa Del Rey as game that is played out in two ties. “I shall use what I used last year – risk free, considering this is a minor trophy and that it has a possibility to succeed – and then use the second leg to do what it had done all year – revert to the new pacey/counter-attacking approach.”

    His statements post the match seem to reflect that kind of thinking. The idea was to suffocate Messi and reduce goal scoring opportunities for Barca despite relentless pressure and wait out time in the first leg. And for the second leg to be the game where his team will use what it used during the Super Copa, albeit with adjustments to counter what Guardiola brought about in the La Liga first leg. I would even assume that he thought of a similar strategy over the two legs of the Champions League last year and was ultimately frustrated because of the loss of his marauder Pepe early in the first game.

    While this does not necessarily seem any innovative or an active strategy to overcome Barca, atleast it comes across as a strategy that is tuned to taking on the best team in the world, isn’t it?

    You look at the whole picture now and see where Mourinho has envisioned and positioned his team, it does seem as if his effort has been paid off to some extent. His substantial squad strategy – having substitutes for every major player in the team has worked in the long haul. Madrid are 5 points ahead of Barcelona at close to the half-way mark and are superior in the away games, eliminating their one flaw last season which was losing focus against the smaller teams due to the intensity and extra effort that had to be given in all the games such as the Champions League and the Copa.

    While his strategy has not paid off (as yet, there is still one tie left), he has managed to still position his squad to overcome possibly the best team ever assembled. Which is creditable (as long as you ignore what this strategy has involved in terms of execution sportsmanship wise).

    That brings me to Barca. They have evolved into a better squad than last season – Cesc and Alexis are far more transcendental than Bojan and Jeffren for sure – but and an important but – their short squad approach has meant that they suffer from what Madrid endured last season.

    So, taking your “data point” approach forward, don’t you feel that at this half-way point stage – despite Barca’s superiority individually over Madrid to win the battles – there has to be a finetuning of the overall strategy to win the war?

    Here’s where my concern develops from – the squad is short handed in the advanced third – it is being reinforced by Messi’s steel that enables him to be determined enough to play every game and Sanchez’s brilliance that enables him to be so chameleonic. But Iniesta’s relative wastefulness in his David Villa impersonation, Villa, Affelay and Pedro’s injuries/injury prone-ness and the inexperience of Cuenca, the sheer young age of Rafinha etc – means.. that we need reinforcements there. Not necessarily to play every game, but to give Messi, Sanchez some rest and reduce fatigue.

    That I suppose is the way forward to win against Mourinho’s war strategy and prevent Madrid from winning the Liga despite losing the battles it fought against Barca (if you excuse my war analogies).

    1. Srini,

      You’ve raised so many good points. I hope that I can touch on them properly but the richness of what you’re touching on may exceed the bandwith of a comment. But here goes.

      There’s no question Madrid has made progress. But I’d say they were also making progress under Pellegrini. That said, Mourinho has specifically done some remarkable things. Overall, I’d say his major accomplishment is to get Madrid to defend as a systematic unit of ten outfield players. That’s something they didn’t do nearly as well under Pellegrini.

      I’d also agree that the strategy in a two legged tie can be complicated.

      But I also think if he’s committed his club to a relatively new system he shouldn’t abandon it so radically after one loss. Nor do I think he should abandon it due to the nature of the tie in the CDR. The CDR is not enough for them. At some point they need to be able to beat Barcelona.

      And right now rather than “cutting the gap” they seem to be falling behind in terms of the head to head play.

      And I don’t think these conservative tactics are going to work for them. Even falling behind one goal there was almost no question Barca was going to score in that match. That group of Madrid players – regardless of how well drilled and disciplined they are – simply is not going to be able to absorb pressure for 90 minutes. This is not inter. Ramos and Pepe are not Lucio and Samuel.

      If this was his intentional strategy I think it was a poor one. And a shortsighted one. This approach failed last year in a two legged tie.

      I’ve watched them a lot this season. I honestly think the tactics he deployed were largely a response to losing that first Clasico in the Bernabeu. He reactively went back to the system he himself is more comfortable with. But that’s not a system in which they will be able to grow, develop and flourish. And I say that as objectively as I can. Yes I’m a cule. I suppose I’m biased. But I really watch games analytically to take them apart.

      And I knew the minute that they came out in the system they did that they were not going to win that game. I was much more concerned with the high pressure system they played in that first clasico. This second match was regressive and was a disservice to his players, IMO.

      They’ve spent months not only building that new system, but anchoring their identity around it. That’s not something you can just give up so quickly. No that system wasn’t perfect against Barca. No they didn’t win. But he should have modified it rather than throwing it out.

      On your other point – there’s really only two main areas where another team can hope to gain competitive advantage over Barca: athleticism and depth. This is why Mourinho is focused on both.

      Implicit in your point is one of the great challenges to any club team. Namely, major sides are involved in multiple competitions. Each competition has different requirements. This is why winning the treble or the double is so special. It shows a tremendous flexibility on top of outstanding absolute performance. It’s almost like a tennis player being able to win on different kinds of surfaces – grass, clay, hardcourt. Something like that.

      For the domestic league competition – there’s no question, building a deeper team is almost a necessity to surpass Barca. I really don’t know if we need more players only because its so difficult to integrate them into the system. I’d go with Cuenca and Tello first.

      I also hope that Iniesta may improve on the wing. I honestly have no basis for this hope as he doesn’t thrive there. But with Cesc on board the team could really, really use Iniesta there. Tactically it would be fantastic to be able to utilize a wide creator within the system. The team really hasn’t had that in a while.

      Conversely, I think Thiago could do very well as a winger. If needed I think Pep should try that as well.

      But at this point Madrid clearly have the advantage in La Liga and having the deeper team with fewer injury concerns is a major advantage.

      We’ll just have to see what happens. I think Barca is going to close that 5 point gap and the title will go down to the very end.

    2. Thanks, Euler. That clarifies that there is an overall regression in Mourinho’s approach rather than any well thought advance that failed to play itself out.

      I also like your reassurance that the 5 point gap will be closed. Keeping fingers crossed that there are not any further injuries to the squad members.

    3. Cule-Camaraderie, my friend :). Pleased to know that your dad is a Cule as well. I still haven’t managed to wean my dad away from cricket as yet though 🙂 But it will be soon, I am sure.


    2. Pepe in midfield as a spoiler is purely a shortsighted, quick-gains Mourinho creation. Their next coach will hopefully have a better solution.

  18. @Euler. Wonderful post. Thank you.

    There could be another reason for Mourinho’s tactical lineup. I strongly suspect that Mourinho didnt try to win this game. Madrid are up against Bilbao in the weekend. Bielsa plays a high tempo game. Madrid really will have to play a running pressing game his weekend. I doubt they could do it twice over 5 days. And he was missing Dimaria(Wouldnt he do wonderfully in the Axe ad?). I think he just laid out the formation which would minimize damage for him i.e. which would not lose heavily. At Camp Nou I think he will revert back to his other plan as Madrid face Zaragoza next weekend. Just as Guardiola is coming up with different tactics to handle different situations Mourinho is doing the same I think.

  19. Also, completely offtrack, regarding the managing styles of Mourinho and Guardiola. Mourinho is I feel a slightly more rigid tactician. He assiduosly prepares for each game. But I think he comes prepared with his changes beforehand. His changes I think are not very spontaneous.

    Guardiola also prepares religiously for every game. But I think his reactions are more spontaneous and local to the game-how would you put it-an engineer’s approach to the game. This contrasts with Mourinho’s semi rigid approach which is more high level. But then Guardiola was a player at the highest level for a long time while Mourinho was not.


  20. Also, completely offtrack, regarding the managing styles of Mourinho and Guardiola. Mourinho is I feel a slightly more rigid tactician. He assiduosly prepares for each game. But I think he comes prepared with his changes beforehand. His changes I think are not very spontaneous.

    Guardiola also prepares religiously for every game. But I think his reactions are more spontaneous and local to the game-how would you put it-an engineer’s approach to the game. This contrasts with Mourinho’s semi rigid approach which is more high level. But then Guardiola was a player at the highest level for a long time while Mourinho was not.

  21. Great review as always

    I was quite suprised that Euler described Higuain as a poor defender as ive always seen him chase and close down space in previous games.
    Off-the-ball, i believe he and Dmaria are madrids most hardworking fwds.
    I just dont think Higuain thrives in a system that requires a fwd to hold his ground and maintain shape when not in possession as opposed to closing down the Opp.

  22. Everytime I read a Euler’s review, I always pray that Mourinho and his staff does not spot this. It would be very much helpful to them becaus ethe review is that bloody good.

    1. I think the same thing, but then, they are so egotistical and ‘plenty smart’ that they will overlook it as ‘redundant’ and useless. Lucky for us, they are ‘bozos’ so they will not see the genius of the professors analysis.

  23. Euler, you are a star. I posted it here somewhere. You should publish your reviews.

    When I saw Madrid line up, the first thing I felt was Mourinho wanted only to avoid a draw, at any cost. At this stage, he is more worried about Bilbao game, as even losing 2 points in that match, means he will take his team away from the league, which is what they need more than the Copa. His line up was meant to not concede in anyways.
    Unexpectedly when they got that early goal, he was sure he could now defend this game out. but…

    I feel, he will come all out to attack at Nou Camp. We just need to see how Bilbao will affect their plans. If Bilbao wins or even draws, RM will try their best to overcome the deficit at Nou Camp (as this means they are not sure about liga any more). But if they gain 3 points in that match, they might just accept a Copa exit. I dont know, just guessing.

    1. I’m having trouble believing any of the Mou was content to lose / go out of the Copa theories. He seriously needs to show the Madrid public that he can beat us, he doesn’t have a watertight lead in La Liga and he won’t last long with his players if he tries to sell them that line either. Rumblings already about them being less than pleased with his reversion to defence as his main plank.

      I am, however, like others worried that the Camp Nou will see another reversal of tactics and he will have a real go at us throwing caution to the winds and anything can happen in a game of football especially as they have a team full of seriously good players. Still, rather be us than them at this stage.

    2. I want him to have a real go at us at Camp Nou but he won’t. Mou has hit a block. Be it mental, strategic or otherwise when facing Barca. All the greats in every sport have to overcome this block in order to improve. Whatever he does, will be within a pragmatic framework. If he decides to field the same number of players in midfield as last Classico, it will never be a la AC Milan when they had Kaka, Pirlo, Seerdof and ambrosini. In this list only Ambro is not gifted on the ball. Pep is playing chess. Mou is playing checkers, maybe not even.

  24. as usual, thank you, Euler.

    I’m happy you gave special paragraphs for Fabregas’ chip and Sanchez’s header that should’ve been a goal, for me that was one of the best moment in the match. It highlighted 2 new weapons that we didn’t have last season.

    also about corner kick, remember back in August in SuperCopa we conceded like 3 goals from corner kicks? not happened yesterday.

    and the fact that our players are relatively small compared to them, yet we scored 2 header goals in 2 matches.

    I just woke up (literally)from a bad dream, EE won 2-1 against Bilbao because Bilbao undeservedly played with 10 men. gah. 🙁

  25. @barcastuff
    Fontas will at least be out for 4 months and will not play again this season. #fcblive #animsfontas [el mundo deportivo]

    poor kid. 😥

  26. Just watching the game again and the racist chanting of Alves is vile. Absolute low life’s who deserve to have a pack of ferocious rottweilers set on them. I’ll say the same if Barca fans do it next leg

    1. *sigh* sometimes when I wax idealistic, I dream of, say, Marcelo and Dani Alves locking arms and walking off the pitch at either stadium. Can’t see it happening for many reasons but…

    2. I’m pretty sure neither Marcelo nor Dani Alves have a problem with each other off the pitch. They (sometimes) play for the NT.

  27. I have to point out that there is no doubt in my mind that Pique share responsibility with Pinto in the goal. Basically, he didnt bother Ronaldo at all in the area. Mascherano would have shut down the shooting path better. Pique intentions are something, the execution is another. If you watch the goal again, Ronaldo had no problem taking that shot. Pique was was too far to make any impact because he is not agile enough to re-position himself properly after Ronaldo’s change of direction.

    Glad that Euler joined the camp of preaching about the importance of having a nine in the selection. For once, not the whole offense line is sinking into the midfield as the team previously suffered. Alexis stayed up there bringing the predictable impact of stretching the opponent lines horizontally and freeing Messi from some pressure. And Alexis is gaining the needed confidence and obviously the players like him , he is there to shine…

    Already praised Pep brilliant move to shift the offense to the left flank at the beginning of the game thru Iniesta, predicting that Mou will shut down Alves flank – where i saw Ronaldo starting more as a left midfielder than a left wing.

    Busquets is the man of the clasicos for me. He is the player who balance the whole orchestra, the drummer. He is the insurance card that cover any tactical complexities during the game.

    Time to close the 5 points gap and kick the can.

    1. Personally I feel even Alves was culpable. Or at least could have done more. If you see in the replays, he pulls up short and just inexplicably stands there while Pique makes a half-hearted attempt to close Ronaldo down. If he’d continued running, he might have been in position to clear the ball. Pinto of course should have stopped that but what can you expect from a 38 year old?

    2. Yes, agreed re Pique.

      Pique also put Alves at a disadvantage. Alves came running in and, thinking that Pique had shut down Ronaldo, he stopped to cover any passing shot/cross that Ronaldo could put across the front of the goal.

      In hindsight, if Alves had continued his run and got between Ronaldo and Pique to kick the ball away, the goal may not have happened.

      Gotta feel for Pinto, and I do. The guy gets such little gametime to hone his skills and reflexes, that it must be super-hard to come out into a high pressure game and concede a goal so easily.

    3. It’d have been better if Alves had seen fit to get there in time to cover his man in the first place. In the first few minutes of the Clasico against Ronaldo it wasn’t wise to be posted missing.

    4. I agree Pique should have been closer to Ronaldo, Ramzi and that allowed him to get off the shot. However, he had the right idea in showing him wide and onto his weaker shooting foot. Given how quickly Ronaldo can change direction Pique had to make sure he didn’t do that. I don’t think he could have known that Alves had made up ground behind him and was covering the cut inside. It had to be a fair bet that Ronaldo wasn’t going to score from there on his left foot from that angle with the keeper covering the angle. Sod’s law that Pinto fluffed it.

  28. As far as red cards – Pepe (clearly)
    – Carvalho
    – Alonso
    – Ramos
    – Coentroa
    all could of been sent off

  29. Hi Euler (and BFB community), love reading your tactical reviews! They are like a footballing bible to me, I swear to God 😀

    One point I wanted to touch upon: the corner kicks. While undoubtedly everything starts and ends with Pep, I think that Tito Vilanova has a lot to do with corner kick strategies at Barça. I’m sure everyone remembers the 2-6 Clasico and the goal Puyol scored – almost an exact replica of the one scored in this game. After that game, Xavi and Puyol said that Tito was the one that noticed a flaw in Madrid’s marking. EMD had a report on Thursday, I think, that Puyi, Xavi and Tito discussed the same flaw during HT. The article cited Puyol saying: “If Xavi puts it there, I score.” Just goes to show what a pena this team is (as Xavi always says), our assistants are very football astute as well.

    1. Yep. Tito’s influence is really underrated IMO. We really missed him the last couple of weeks and no doubt Pep has as well.

  30. @K_legit, Blitzen, lyd, Euler, Messifan, everyone: Thanks for your rplies. A lot, I mean it. I really love this blog and this community.

    @Blitzen: Haven’t said it for a while, but as always, I love the Blitzen awards. I’m trying to get into the habit of doing a ‘memory of the match’ sort of thing and it’s primarily inspired by the Blitzen awards. Also <3 you for all else you do.

    @Euler: how often do you analyze non-(CL/La Liga/CDR) matches? It's greedy of me to hope you write more than you do, but IF you do, I'm sure I wouldn't be alone in loving your coverage of things like Africa Cup of Nations, Asia Cup, European Championships etc.
    On another note, my father in his earlier days limited his analysis of soccer to figure out which Fenerbahçe S.K. player he should be shouting for/at. He's a professor and a brilliant man (and I like to think I am take after him 😉 ) but thinking of soccer as a strategic and tactical exercise is clearly new to him. And me (only been getting into the habit for about 16 months). We've been trying to adjust quickly, and one moment of pride we had is after you mentioned corner kicks in this post. The first time the long corners pop up (and I remember, perhaps falsely, some happening in the 3-1 Liga match), my father frowned and asked "Hold on now, that can't be right. FCB always takes its corners short. What's going on?" and I noticed it but honestly didn't really look into it. When we were talking about your analysis we felt some pride over noticing (if not, admittedly, analyzing) something you felt needed pointing out. Hopefully we'll get better at it, but we'll enjoy ourselves regardless.

    I'm pretty sure I speak on the behalf of many, many people here:
    @All the mods: Thanks for running and maintaining this wonderful site.
    @Everyone: Thanks for being you. I remember getting into soccer and wanting to join a community and the closest thing I had to it was the comments section at That… wasn't quite the same as this. Finding that first KXevin article that got me hooked was a very happy accident.

    I probably won't be able to post/comment as much as I want over the next few months/years but I want to keep reading and enjoying, even if I don't say anything!

  31. Epistemic frustration is the curse and the genius of soccer, which, compared to, say, basketball, obscures causes, disguises responsibilities, and makes all forms of knowing and categorizing moot. Not in a radically skeptical way, but just in terms of guys kicking stuff, I sometimes wonder whether it’s possible to know anything at all.

    By now, you’ve heard it said that Messi’s greatness depends on winning the World Cup. That’s a sentence that makes sense in terms of the narrative machinery surrounding the game—Messi’s compared to Maradona, who won the World Cup, so if Messi wants to be as great as Maradona, he has to win it too—but as a form of knowledge, or of expectation, it completely takes itself apart. It’s the kind of statement that can’t be made without simultaneously collapsing its own logic. Not in a radically deconstructive sense, but just in terms of guys kicking stuff[…]

  32. Wonderful stuff Eular. Have to say your analysis is as insightful as any, if not better, around.

  33. Euler, the contradiction of playing Higuain and leaving Ozil out, from a defensive perspective, hit me as well during the match. One of the reason to play Higuain was perhaps to draw the CB’s deep during a counter, so that C.Ron or Alonso could have room to take long shots and plus the aerial threats from full-backs, so basically Mourinho just gambled with Higuain to get a goal. But on the contrary, he played so safe with his trivote, that it makes me want to conclude that he refused to engage in a tactical battle with Pep anymore. As if in the December-clasico, Pep treated him like a zombie and damaged his neural network, by a good degree.

    I dont want to sound sympathetic towards EE at all. But im really convinced now that Mou is wasting this RM squad. Players like Kaka, Sahin, Ozil are certainly not happy playing his methods! Any quality player who likes to think, improvise on the pitch cannot play this brute-force, memorized game. Ozil for me is not compatible with Lass, Pepe in any way. The only good option is to use Khedira-Ozil-Alonso as the midfield trio and press medium to conserve energy, use full backs to move forward in a 5-3-2 system. They should back themselves to shoot and score from outside the box! But Mourinho plays Ozil in such a way that he burns out by the 6oth min in clasicos.

    It’ll be fun to see how RM reacts after a draw/defeat in liga, before the liga clasico. The squad might burn out like Ozil and proportionally at the same time! like what happened after 6-2!

    1. Superbly written btw! I wanted to ask, what do you expect from RM in the next leg, given the playing conditions and recent circumstances?

    2. Yeah I hope Euler has time to come up with a tactical preview; about what we can expect EE will do to try and win, and what the Mister might do to stop them.

      Maybe Mou’s going to go back to high pressure and a compact shape? That caused us the most problem in any of the games I think. We do get uncomfortable if people disrupt our passing rhythm.

    3. Yeah Im hoping for a tactical preview too.
      And an extension write-up for “The pepe
      Ugly”. 😀

      The thing is, if Bilbao can cause an upset, then Mou would be forced to take a proactive stand in the 2nd leg. And EE does have the ability to produce at least two goalscoring opportunities every match, no matter how awful their strategy is. As we saw with the C.ron goal and the Benzema header that hit the post. But the doubt remains on whether the inferiority complex would dictate terms or not.

      Staying compact and pressing high are not mutually exclusive strategies. Given the width of Camp Nou pitch, it is an impossible task to perform both and not concede, imo. They must play a “caution with aggression” game, in order to take the game to extra time at best. Otherwise barca would tear them apart and the game would be over by the end of first half. However, i think they must press high on 0-10, 40-45, 45-50, 80-90 minute ranges. And stay compact otherwise.

      the squad that should be fielded is this..A 5-3-2 setup
      v altintop-alonso-ozil v

      With lass playing both DM and CB to counter the midfield number superiority that we always have. perhaps ramos playing in rcb to overlap. So in this setup they can counter attack with 5 at least and with pace. As Euler mentioned, they are superior in athleticism department. pepe should not play, as he’d either be suspended or EE would try to protect him from a season banishment.

      look, we deserve a classy clasico this time. I can safely predict the liga clasico to unfold as a very one sided affair, judging by the rate of the evolution of both teams. And we’d have a bigger squad to chose and more efficient. Assuming no further injuries! So its the last chance this season for them to play for pride, dignity etc.

      Visca el Barca 😀

    4. My gut tells me they’re going to crush Bilbao cause they’ll want to prove a point after the Clasico.

      I’d think that a high pressing game and a high back line would be what they’re going to implement… Thankfully the presence of Cesc and Sanchez has made it easier for us to use long balls over the top and a more direct style of play to counter the high back line so it’ll be more high risk for them if they do that. The advantage they gain is that they’ll be in our part of the pitch swarming our players and not letting us pass the ball around calmly. And the high back line will mean less space between the midfield and defense to operate in.

      I estimate they’ll keep this up for the first part of the first half when we’re settling down, and then they’ll come at us again before the end when we’re tired. Sergio Ramos and Carvalho will be the CBs, Marcelo as LB and Coentrao as RB. Pepe’s out for two weeks for one reason or another so it’ll be Lass and Alonso in midfield, and isn’t Di Maria going to be back from injury? They could abandon all pretense of trying to control the midfield and have Ronaldo and Di Maria as wingers, with Benzema up front and Higuain behind him as an SS. That would be my all or nothing lineup… That’ll probably never happen, but it would be fun to see Mourinho come out and try to make a game of it :p

      I agree with you on the five at the back though Lyd. Considering that we can have five or even six people in midfield at any given time, I think they should give up on trying to compete with us there and just batten down the hatches if an initial bout of sustained pressure on us doesn’t work.

    5. Jafri: If any teams have to crush Bilbao, they must have to play out of their skin. Can EE do it? maybe. Can Bilbao crush EE? Maybe again! Bilbao have really impressed me! But im afraid the ref will have a huge role to play in the result today.

      Oh i forgot about di maria. i feel sorry for those potential patches of grass about to be damaged at Camp Nou, by this train-wreck of a winger. But if i was managing RM, god forbid, i would use him as an impact sub, replacing someone who is about to pass out, like Ozil.

      mou tried to use coentrao in LM in some matches i saw. So in that sense he can probably function better than altintop in the line up i proposed. just maybe. and besides, too many portugese spoils the game. I think it’s better to play those in the starting 11 who suffered less so far,against us.

      If mou was actually a good tactician and motivator, he could have build a squad around ozil and kaka. and play a 4-2-3-1 with alonso-kaka-ozil-maria-c.ron-benzema up front consistently and that would have been exciting. But it seems he can only work with his cheap tricks and fellow portugese thugs. “you’ll never get to hear about footballing tactics and strategies from him.” i once read Tito saying that.

      i hope he plays with a positive attitude and high backline. then it will be more fun to break the strings in his zombie brain.

  34. … briefly emerges from holiday hangover, snow shoveling, jet lag and Airborne-resistant airplane virus to thank The Professor for another masterclass in Clásico reviews. Cheers! (Retreats to hibernation)

    1. Awww. Argh. I got a can of Campbell’s Chunky Chicken Soup and a new plow with SoMa’s name on it.

  35. As usual, a few things:

    –EULER! In lieu of any already exhausted superlatives, that will have to suffice.

    –If Worddriven Bozo has a point to make about a review, be it a redundancy, typo or whatever, that is his/her right as a member of this family. I would rather imagine that the comment was meant not as “the review is too long,” but rather “there are already a lot of words, so why repeat yourself?” I, a trained editor, read right past it. Which shows the difference between reading for pleasure and work. One of my favorite editors said to me once, “Say what you want to say, and let me worry about making what you said match what you need to say.”

    Sometimes we have time to edit each others’ pieces, sometimes not. So yes, readers sometimes catch things. It happens. And suggestions/criticisms can be raised in this space. Nothing at all wrong with that, as long as they conform to the family standard, as Worddriven Bozo’s initial observation did. And said comments have come a long way from “You just love…./hate….biased jackass.” This is good.

    All of the writers here take such suggestions in the spirit in which they are intended, and grow from there. Hell, look at some of the drivel I churned out at The Offside, compared to the drivel I churn out now, right? The community makes everyone better, from writers to commenters.

    It must also be said that as far as I know, the only one of us who writes and deals with writers for a living is me. So I don’t know how many folks understand what it takes to write a piece the size and quality of this review, while maintaining the literary through line. It’s masterful, as are all of his reviews. Is it perfect? No. But what thing in life is? I rather hope that people will see the amazing totality of the piece, which is, frankly, staggering. And I do this for a living. I don’t know how anyone puts up with my reviews any longer. Euler has ruined everything for us hacks everywhere.

    –This space and the work therein is a labor of love. We do it because we love the club. Nobody is getting paid for it except for Isaiah, who has absconded with the BFB corporate AMEX. It is our pleasure to do this work. But it is hard. What Euler does is harder still. Not bragging, but I think that the quality of what we do here might sometimes make people think we’re being paid for it. Nope.

    –Demosthenes has the best handle on this site since lovelymofo. Yep.

    –We closed on Tuesday, and move on the 31st, so it won’t be long before my life will be stable and you all will once again be pelted with my linguistic effluvia. My condolences. Meanwhile, huge ups to Kari, Euler, Calvin, SoMa, Isaiah and the team for kicking out the jams while I lay here, eating peeled grapes. That pulsates with the awesomeness. And you can get little doses of us on Twitter, so anybody’s who’s on there and isn’t following us, should be. For sure and for true.

    That’s all I got for now. Back to packing and cleaning.

  36. Once again a review worthy to print on paper, Euler.

    Two little corrections:
    -Sanchez’ header hit the post, not the crossbar (I’ve read it quite a few times – in other reviews – I dunno why many people thought it hit the crossbar. It’s impossible to deflect in that way by hitting the crossbar).
    -The header which Busquets should have scored was off a freekick, taken by Xavi (not off a corner).

    1. Thanks for the corrections! When you mentioned it – the replay popped into my head. I was so mad! The header was high and looping and on those shots the challenge is always to get the ball down. Sanchez actually did that – but then it hits the darn post! Alexis actually executed the harder part of the opportunity. What a header.

      Alexis is very short. But he’s good with his head. At Udinese they would frequently play corner into the box for him in the air so that he could use his jumping ability and headers.

      And thanks for the correction on the Busquets header as well. It was a free kick. I just forgot as I was writing.

      I’m going to fix those points in the review just to make sure its factually accurate for later reference. Don’t want mistakes about game events left in.

    2. Would definitely have been a nominee for goal of the season. And mostly, as you’ve said, due to the execution of the header under the given circumstances. Maybe there were more beautiful team-play goals or dribblings, but hard to find a more impressive header where the smallest player comes out on top in a duell against two bigger defenders.

      I don’t watch Serie A, so I unfortunately only know some highlight videos from Sanchez at Udine.
      His physique is impressive, it reminds me a bit of CR (albeit a less tall version). Fortunately, his character and style of play is far different from Thong Boys 🙂

    3. Thinking about it… style of play per sé is not that different, but his teamplay and defensive awareness is a lot better.

  37. Thanks for all of the thoughtful comments everyone!

    A number of people brought up the issue of Tito and his importance.

    It’s a really good point. There’s no question that he plays a critical role. Different managers have different leadership styles. Pep doesn’t seem autocratic in any way. He has a distinct vision of football and how he wants the game played but he’s clearly willing to listen and interested in the what others have to say.

    Pep’s often remarked on the contributions that the players themselves make to how he structures how the team will play.

    And of course he’s spoken at great length and with great affection about Tito – most recently when he dedicated his coach of the year award to Tito.

    It’s just a bit difficult to write about for different reasons. Ultimately the leadership role is the managers. And traditionally when people write about tactics the focus is on the manager overall responsibilities and leadership.

    Nearly all managers need support from their assistants. Especially now as the game has become so complicated.

    I bring this up specifically because as it is, I don’t think Pep gets nearly the credit he deserves as a tactician. Success is attributed to the players, to the fact that many have played for so long, to La Masia, etc. So I try to focus on the things that happen in the game that are generally attributed to the manager.

    But the point is a very good one. Tito is great and when he’s not on the bench he’s missed.

    Let’s hope everything is going well with his health.

    1. A number of people brought up the issue of Tito and his importance.

      I honestly think Tito is the reason Pep has stayed this long as manager (and is about to renew, hopefully). He has known him since childhood, has been with him since he coached the B team, and is a crucial part of his team. Tito is the one who grounds Pep, calms him down, stops him from working too obsessively, and protects him from the outside world. Remember Graham Hunter’s piece on Pep for FFT? One of the first things he said was that he had to make his way past Tito to get to Pep. Tito is Pep’s best friend, his rock, the one he can trust with everything. Pep gets stressed when Tito isn’t there to calm him. Thank the gods he is back.

  38. OT – I just want to say Happy Chinese New Year for all cules here that celebrate it.

    – May the year of Dragon bring a lot of silverware for our Barcelona.

    – May the year of Dragon bring more luck especially in our away matches.

    – May the year of Dragon bless our players and prevent them from injury.

    – May the year of Dragon would mark Pep and Tito contract renewal

    – May the year of Dragon make this community better and better and better

    Gong Xi Fat Cai! Orange for all of you 🙂

    PS: back discussing football.

  39. The one thing RM will have to do is keep the ball better. Counter attacks are great and all but their haphazard nature statistically reduces chances of scoring. RM has players who can cycle possession even against Barca and they must choose to be brave enough to do this sometym.
    Pamberi neBarca!

  40. Some fun facts:
    a. Carles Puyol is on a par with Cron in terms of el-clasico goal tally.
    b. C.ron is yet to score at Camp Nou. 🙂 Cmon VV!
    c. Pinto played more passes than any of the EE players, except Alonso.
    d. Iker managed to spend more time with the ball than Higuain.

    I may have cooked ‘fact d’ here.

  41. just dropped by to say, keep up the good work euler and co.
    Still reading the blog like a maniac whenever obligatons allows me to , yet it has gotten nearly impossible to comment and participate due to various reasons.

  42. I wrote this on another blog:

    My idea of a “rhizome” to describe Barcelona came to me while reading the French philosopher Giles Deleuze. Simply, it “describe[s] theory and research that allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation.” (Wikipedia) So, for example, a team like Madrid or Manchester United or Inter Milan have very specific creative hubs that if cut off of their source (Alonso, Rooney, Sniejder) they are robbed of their ability to function. This is the message behind a wonderful piece like this — — which sort of hints at the idea that Mourinho, in his painful mission to beat Barcelona, is experimenting “too much,” regressing in principles and styles, ecosystems really, that his players thrive best within. Alonso and Ronaldo, players who week in and week out in La Liga are second-to-none, are suddenly starved of their vital functions, their creativity and niche, and forced not only into a different habitat by Barcelona but by Mourinho himself. The results are, of course, devastating.

    Barcelona, on the other hand, have multiple creative hubs. Plus, they aren’t really hubs, since they, in turn, are connected to other nodes and branches and so forth with no point really being “central,” aside from Xavi (but in other games its more obviously Messi or Busquets or nobody at all). This is why Messi can be stifled for mostly an entire game and the team doesn’t miss a beat. Or why Iniesta can play with a preternatural width on the left that no inverted player in the world seems to have the discipline to do. The key to all of this is Guardiola, the composer, who has realized that he’s crafting an organism that is constantly self-regenerating, a viscera without a surface. All of his players don’t even have to be told what to do, since they are always “doing” football.

    1. Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of rhizomatics is an interesting one to think of in this context.

      Thousand Plateau- what a great book! As is Anti-Oedipus. Deleuze’s books on Spinoza and Foucault are also great. Almost everything he wrote.

      Their ideas anticipated a lot of what we’ve seen happen in different sectors of society.

    2. Also interesting is D&G’s concept of desire, which is not perceived as a lack or a void but a multiple, productive force. It would be interesting to do an analysis of, say, Barcelona’s “culture of winning” and the way in which that continually feeds into and reinforces their possession-style football. Whatever the case, Guardiola has clearly tapped into something revolutionary in sports, whereas he has founded a system that doesn’t has no conclusion, that reproduces desire by its very own vitality and not by any sort of external lack. Barcelona’s players don’t simply want to win trophies, they want to play well, become better players, and continuously find enjoyment in playing the game. Villas Boas’s failed experiment at Chelsea, Enrique’s possibly fated one at Roma would be neat to take into account.

      Deleuze’s book on Spinoza is great, yeah, but my favorite has to be ‘Proust and Signs.’

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