Imagine if you could validly measure every dimension of football, every variable relevant to shaping the dynamics and outcomes of a match. If so, you could build a model of the game and simulate matches in a computer with accuracy.
These kinds of computer simulators for football already exist in certain forms. They are however very limited in utility and adoption because football is an extremely difficult sport to measure and quantify. However, such simulations are commonplace in many different sectors of society, including other sports, such as American baseball.
So for a moment imagine that we could build this simulator and feed into it comprehensive, valid data. This could be, in theory, all of the data from all matches each of the players on the teams of interest has played in his career. You could then ask the simulator to predict what the results would be when the two teams play again.
When utilizing this simulator it would be meaningless to just run the simulation once, however. Too many variables can change and too many different combinations are possible for one simulation to matter. For example, a range of scores would be possible, some of them more likely to happen than others. Just one trial would only give you a small slice of what was probable.
Instead what you do is to run the simulation many times. You would simulate the game at least 10,000 times. Preferably you would simulate the game 100,000 times. When you did that you wouldn’t get a single answer for what the score of the next match would be or which team would win. Instead, you would get a distribution of possible scores for the next game. You would get a distribution of probabilities for winning the next match and by how much.
Running this type of simulator 100,000 times you’d see a number of fascinating patterns emerge. On the whole the best team would tend to win the majority of the time. But the best team wouldn’t win all the time. At the extremes of the distributions, you’d see all sorts of strange scores and unlikely patterns of play. Those strange games and scores would be low probability events – but they would still occur some of the time. For example, in some of the matches you’d find that Xavi might complete 200 out of 200 passes. In others Xavi might only complete 50 out of 100 passes.
And here we break from simulations and reenter life. Ultimately, while you can simulate 100,000 games in a computer to see how the next game would unfold, what the scores of the next match would likely be and how often they would occur, in the real world you only play a match once. The one game you play is only one instance of those 100,000 possible trials. In a sense, this is what history is. Our lives are the one trial that actually takes place out of all the ones that were possible.
And that’s the beauty of sports. How games transpire, the nature of their play, the score, who wins – all of that is unknown and unwritten beforehand. While we may be able to describe what’s probably going to happen – probability doesn’t tell you a great deal about any specific game in particular before its played. You can describe the overall distribution of possible games. But you can’t locate where any one game is going to fall on that distribution. One of those unlikely games in the distribution may be the one that occurs next in the real world. Getafe beating Barcelona 1-0 is a very low probability to occur if you simulate the game 100,000 times. But in certain seasons in the real world, that’s exactly what you’ll get.
Here We Go Again
When you play a team over and over in a relatively short period of time you start moving away from single matches to a series of matches. The nature of the competition changes. Larger patterns start to emerge as the sample of matches grow. At the same time, exceptions will also invariably pop up. If you took the worst team in Europe and played them against the best team in Europe enough, eventually the worst team will obtain a result. It’s just part of the distribution of possible outcomes. Eventually it will happen if you play enough. All sorts of things will happen if you play enough, in fact.
Given a 2 vs. 1 break, Fabregas and Messi will put the ball in the back of the net the overwhelming majority of chances. But not every time. Eventually an instance will occur when Fabregas will inexplicably pass the ball clumsily behind Messi to ruin the chance. That too is part of the distribution of possible events in a match when you play a team over and over.
Barcelona and Madrid have now played ten Clasico matches over the past season and a half. Barcelona has only lost once. And that one match was a 1-0 defeat that was 0-0 at 90 minutes. Barcelona have now not lost in the last seven Clasicos – that is a Barca club record. And over this period of time, Barca have, overall, played football of tremendous quality. It is difficult for a team to dominate any ten matches against another side to that degree. It is truly extraordinary to do so when the other team is likely the second best team in the world.
In the face of that kind of substantive, prolonged success, the result of one match isn’t going to change that underlying dominance. Success has to be earned on the pitch over a significant period of time. That means that Madrid have to show that they can beat Barcelona multiple times over a series of matches.
This was the mistake people made in interpreting the results of last years Copa Del Rey finals and this seasons Spanish Super Cup. Those isolated results – those parts of the distribution of possible events – were over interpreted. Rather than seeing them as possible events in a distribution of potential outcomes, they were interpreted through a narrative in which giving which Madrid had improves so much that they had “closed the gap” while Barcelona was purportedly taking a step back.
But those matches didn’t prove lasting. They proved to be more the kinds of matches that will occur if two teams play enough. No team – not even the best team in the world – can play at top form all of the time in every encounter. There is going to be some kind of distribution of performance.
And for the most part, that’s likely what we saw in the second leg match of the Copa Del Rey quarter finals. Overall, it was an extremely strange match, one that went through multiple phases and had little structure or coherence.
Madrid played an outstanding match. Credit to them. This was the best Clasico they’ve played under Mourinho. They played at the upper end of their distribution of best possible performances. Indeed, this may have been the best match Madrid have played under Mourinho. They forced much of the play, especially in the second half.
At the same time, Barcelona played towards the lower end of their distribution of possible performances. Now much of this is due to the quality of competition Madrid provided. But Barcelona’s odd performance went past the issue of the external competition alone. There were significant internal issues. For example, to open a match, when Dani Alves is making an extremely poor back passes under minimal pressure that Pique doesn’t bother to run for as it goes astray and the mishap provides Madrid with a clear shot on goal – that’s most directly related to an issue of Barcelona’s internal performance.
I’m going to focus first on those internal issues just to describe them briefly. Please note, I’m not saying in any way that the match simply came down to Barcelona not playing well. Madrid played an excellent match and pressed the initiative of play. The point I’m trying to make is that the overall nature of the match and its odd form was the result of Madrid playing very well and Barca playing relatively poorly. Both happened at the same time. Both teams operated towards different ends of their distributions of possible performances.
Barca – Poor Dynamics: Off the Ball Movement, Rapid Circulation and Pressing all Limited
Regardless of what formation Barcelona plays, the entire system is highly dependent on the players performing dynamically. The keys to Barcelona being able to play their game are decisive off the ball movement, rapid ball circulation and high tempo pressing. None of these qualities were present yesterday.
The lack of off the ball movement yesterday was perhaps the most telling and influential issue in the entire match. Barcelona played an extremely static, lethargic match in which there simply wasn’t enough dynamism and tempo.
Barcelona had 66% possession in the first half. But even on rewatching the match – it never felt like Barcelona controlled the ball to that degree. That difference was due to a lack of coherence in possession. Madrid did a wonderful job of pressing and doing so with great energy. Barcelona however has faced many teams that press aggressively.
There’s a clear route to address this issue – dynamic off the ball movement to open space and recreate triangles in new areas as pressure develops. The team has done this many times against different teams in the past – including against Madrid in the first Clasico played this season.
Barcelona simply didn’t do this at nearly the rate or with the effort they usually do it at, especially in midfield. They were far more static than they usually are. And off the ball movement is something that a team can control itself – it isn’t up to the opposition – it’s about workrate, energy and speed.
One of the major impacts this had was that Barcelona wasn’t able to build out play from the back. While the defenders had poor to mediocre games with their passing, the midfielders didn’t move dynamically enough to provide outlets.
A moment that crystallized this for me was on when Puyol played the ball to Abidal on the left. The backline was being pressed. Abidal tries to send the ball back to Puyol and Puyol rushes his touch and is forced to kick the ball up field wildly. (It was remarkable how many times Barca broke with their system and tried to pay the ball long.) The main problem in that situation was that Fabregas was simply standing in space watching the play. Rather than running to the ball to provide a new triangle and outlet, Fabregas tried to stay in “open space.” The problem was that the backline players couldn’t orchestrate build up to get players in open space the ball with consistency or quality (more on this later). This isn’t an indictment of Fabregas, Puyol or Abidal. It’s just an example. Similar dynamics were in play with Xavi, Alves and Pique.
Without crisp off the ball movement, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to circulate the ball effectively. At the same time, slow ball movement limits off the ball movement. They are different parts to the same subsystem in the possession game.
What made this even worse was that Barcelona’s press also lacked dynamism. A disproportionate amount of the defending was done by the back line. And that was due to the fact that the more advanced players didn’t pressure the ball nearly as aggressively as they usually do. Again – credit to Madrid as they moved the ball very quickly and used their pace to make the field large. That said – there was something off with Barcelona on the night. They played a relatively lethargic, static match in both phases.
Barcelona Too Focused on Static Space
Ironically, part of this static play stemmed from how Barcelona set up tactically. Madrid came out pressing high while also leaving their back line relatively deep. They took a similar approach in the first Clasico of this season – only in that match the Madrid match was even more intense in the opening phase of the match. As such, there was space available on the interior of Madrid’s defensive block.
What Xavi and Fabregas were doing was to station themselves inside of the open spaces in midfield behind Madrid’s forward waves of pressure. A significant difference between this match and the Clasico in December at the Bernabeu was that Xavi and Fabregas didn’t drop back as deep or as frequently to help relieve pressure and build play. Instead they prioritized finding space in midfield.
In some ways this made sense – if the back line and Busquets could get the ball forward Barcelona would find significant space and be able to attack rapidly behind the waves of advanced Madrid pressure.
The problem was that the passing of the backline was very poor all night long. From that very first terrible pass Alves made – the defenders just didn’t circulate the ball well in the face of the very effective Madrid press.
What Barca needed to do was to drop the ball playing midfielders much more deeply and do so much more often to support build up in play. This would have created more coherence in possession. Instead, Barca prioritized keeping Xavi and Cesc in open space furhter up the pitch.
All of this was exacerbated by the loss of Iniesta. In the last two Clasicos the left flank has been the one in which Barcelona was able to find the most time and space on the ball. As such, the left flank served as an open outlet to relieve pressure as needed. This is part of why Guardiola wanted to play Iniesta wide.
The same dynamics developed in this match. Unfortunately, Iniesta getting hurt greatly altered how Barca could use the left flanks as an outlet to relieve pressure. Pedro is still playing in very poor form. And at baseline, retention of possession isn’t nearly as much part of his game as Iniesta’s.
On the whole, Barcelona wound up getting caught up in a vicious cycle. The prioritized having their central midfielders find space while the holding player and backline build up play. When the ball did get to those midfielders they looked to attack the space in front of them. Barcelona was extremely focused on trying to attack the space behind the Madrid defense. Repeatedly they attempted to play the ball forward or long to Sanchez very quickly.
While this made sense from the standpoint of attacking space, one of the things that resulted was that Barca uncharacteristically played without enough patience. In a sense, the team played too directly. That is, the balance between direct and indirect play was thrown off.
This was damaging because it added a kind of openness to the game which clearly favored the tempo and style Madrid wanted to play through. This is part of why Barca couldn’t control of tempo in the match like they usually do.
Part of this issue has to do with Cesc Fabregas. Fabregas has been brilliant this season in the final third. He’s thrived there. But as a midfielder in deeper positions he’s had challenges playing the Barca possession game. He often looks to play very direct passes. At times that works well. At other times though it leads to careless giveaways and even more importantly – slows ball circulation. Cesc seems to be looking to pick out the most direct pass rather than the most fluid one touch pass and this slows down how fast he moves the ball. He doesn’t “dwell” on the ball. It’s just different from how Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets and Thiago circulate the ball.
In a game like this one, what Barcelona needed in midfield – especially to protect the two goal lead – they needed more composure in midfield rather than forcing direct play to take advantage of space behind the Madrid line.
Madrid Changes Systems and Barca Doesn’t Adjust
Much will be made of the results of this match. We’ll again hear refrains of Madrid “closing the gap,” etc. This isn’t what makes this match noteworthy, however, from the Madrid perspective.
What makes this match notable for Madrid is that this is perhaps the first time they’ve played a game in which their system is built around the talents of Mesut Oezil.
This is a major transition for Madrid. Even more than C.Ronaldo, in this Clasico, Madrid’s system was structured around Oezil.
What I mean by this is that this is the first match in which Mourinho has been willing to realign his team in ways which prioritize maximizing Oezil’s strengths while minimizing/ hiding his weaknesses by providing him protection through the roles of other players.
In the past, C. Ronaldo and Xabi Alonso were the ones around whom the Madrid system was structured. Oezil was required to adjust his game to accommodate their strengths and weaknesses.
C.Ronaldo has improved significant in his areas of prior weakness. His defending and work rate – especially against Barca – are significantly better. This allows Mourinho different freedoms with his system.
Xabi Alonso is often described as Madrid’s “metronome.” While Alonso has been a fine player for a long time, it’s simply not true for him to be considered the primary orchestrator of the Madrid attack. Madrid are at their best when play is being run through Oezil – not Alonso. It’s Oezil who plays in the style and in the space that provide a fulcrum for their attacking play. Alonso’s skill sets are more supportive. In addition, Alonso has had a relatively poor season so far.
Indeed, while many of the tactical challenges Mourinho has faced at Madrid have related to defense, what to do with Oezil has been a fundamental issue that he’s needed to address. Oezils’ role was always going to be a defining factor. For sometime Mourinho’s put the issue off. Madrid were dominant enough against most sides to do so. However, the challenges of beating Barcelona and an inconsistent season to date from Oezil pushed the issue to the forefront headed into this Clasico.
In this match – rather than trying to make Oezil into another player he isn’t or trying to make him cover for the limitations of other players – Mourinho – accepted Oezil for the player he is and created a system around him which would cover for his weaknesses.
Oezil is a fascinating player. He does certain things at a truly world class level. His vision, final pass and intelligent movement in the advanced third are tremendous. But while he has good touch he doesn’t have great touch. His dribbling is fair. In addition, shielding the ball and holding it to retain possession aren’t strengths. He really is a 10 rather, one who is at his best in advanced positions, rather than a central midfielder.
The lifeblood of Oezils’s game is finding space. He’s brilliant at finding the interstices of a defense. However, he is limited in his ability to create space for himself. He needs other player to create space for him to enter. And Barcelona have exploited this weakness to press Oezil out of matches over and over.
In this match Mourinho did two things to radically change Oezils’s role and the Madrid system. First, he had Oezil start wide and gave him a highly free role from that right flank position. Second, he played Kaka alongside him centrally. Kaka’s role was very interesting. One of his main functions in this match was to draw pressure away from Oezil. In the past, when Oezil has played centrally against Barca, he’s had to play against Busquets and the Barca holding player has completely neutralized Oezil by preventing him from finding space.
Moving to the flank in a free role alongside another creator transformed how Oezil can operate against Barca. Facing a defender who has to retain shape, Oezil was able to utilize his intelligent movement to find space. Abidal as a LB cannot track Oezil across the pitch. This meant that Oezil was free to come off the flank and move across multiple zones without a defender necessarily marking him. In a sense, he turned the Barca LB position into one that wasn’t consistently facing an opposition attacker. This turned that LB position into a redundant position (this is somewhat analagous to what Messi does to CB when playing as a false 9- they often wind up guarding no one).
In addition, when directly facing Oezil, Abidal was somewhat uncertain on how to play a wide creator whose game is built around subtle movement and vision in passing. He looked surprised to be facing Oezil for through much of the first half and the unpredictability of his movement heightened this.
Oezil moved in a horizontal band from the left flank to the right in that free role. Essentially he went where he could find space, dragging defenders with him or settling in open areas of the pitch. He was Madrid’s most dangerous player for most of the match.
Madrid’s first goal exemplified this. Pinto sends a poor clearance long to Xabi Alonso. Xavi goes to pressure him. Busquets is marking Granero centrally. Abidal and Puyol are double marking C.Ronaldo. Oezil subtly moves off the right touchline staying advanced of Fabregas and Pedro but deep of Busquets. He’s found open space in the advanced third which has been created for him by Alonso, Granero and C. Ronaldo.
Because the Barca pressure is late to come, Alonso sends a simple ball to an open Oezil. Free in space he Oezil has ample opportunity to send a perfectly waited through ball between Abidal and Puyol for C. Ronaldo to run onto. The movement is very small. It seems simple. But it’s decisive when coupled with his vision.
In prior Clasicos, Oezil rarely had that kind of space. He was the player being pressed and marked, most often by Busquets.
Unfortunately, Barca didn’t make effective adjustments to this new role for Oezil. The thing that was needed was an extra holding midfielder. That would have neutralized Oezil’s ability to find space. Barca could have done this in several ways. They could have had Xavi or Fabregas play deeper more consistently alongside Busquets. This would have allowed them to better mark Oezil as he moved across midfield. Alternatively they could have taken off an advanced midfielder and played Mascherano. Finally, they could have changed to three at the back withdrawing Alves deeper, shifting Abidal to L CB and taking off an ineffective Pique for Mascherano.
Playing Oezil as the nominal right winger also had the effect of having Oezil defend Barcelona’s most conservative player in attack. This was a major benefit as Oezil is a limited defender who has been badly exposed by Barca in the past. In addition, Oezil has fatigued quickly. Defending Abidal helped him mask both of these limitations as the LB rarely got forward. An interesting approach Guardiola could have taken would have been to move Abidal to CB and put Adriano in at LB. This would have given Barcelona another ball playing outlet on the left flank to try to make up for Iniesta and would have forced Oezil to defend much more than he did.
It will be interesting to see if this match marks a turning point for Madrid where Oezil becomes the focus for how they structure their system against Barca or its only a temporary change Mourinho makes. He’s had hesitancy committing to Oezil fully this season so this is something that will require time to clarify. For example, when Di Maria returns how will he use Oezil? Would he consider using Di Maria centrally in order to allow Oezil to retain his free flank role? These are the kinds of issues that I’m referring to when I talk about the Madrid system being “built” around Oezil. It entails major changes like moving Di Maria from his strongest position to accommodate Oezil.
Madrid in a 4-4-2
In the second half, Mourinho essentially played a 4-4-2 with the substitutions of Granero and Callejon. C.Ronaldo and Benzema served as the strikers and Oezil retained his free, wide creator role. This is a formation RM have never utilized against Barca under Mourinho.
In theory, it should have allowed Barca to dominate possession and control the flow of the match. Barca had significant numerical advantage in midfield vs a 4-4-2. Potentially 4 vs. 2. But because of the problems Barca had with their passing from the backline and the overall team dynamics, this advantage didn’t materialize.
This was a match in which Barcelona played without needed energy despite it being a Clasico. In some ways it reminded me of the second La Liga match the two teams played last season. Barca went ahead in that match only to see Madrid equalize. Barca was going through a bad stretch then suffering from injuries to the backline. It was clear the team was fatigued and looking to simply get through the match without losing.
Part of what we saw may have simply been due to the team losing concentration during the second leg of a tie they felt comfortable they would take, especially after going up 2-0. However, this team looked fatigued – similar to how they looked in the second half of last season and I do wonder if that may have been a factor as well in this match. With the extremely small squad and accumulation of injuries the players are putting in a lot of minutes. Just something to watch out for. It’s almost February, a month when the team has frequently struggled for form.
Messi in Space
Madrid’s pressure defending worked very well this match. And many are saying this match and set up represent a major tactical victory for Mourinho. And as I’ve recounted, the system he developed produced a number of positive effects, ones that Guardiola will need to design a response to.
However, there still remains a major tactical issue that Madrid have not addressed – there was still significant room on the interior of their defensive block. In fact, Messi was frequently able to find significant space to work within – as the first Barcelona goal demonstrated.
The fundamental issue still remains. When Madrid press high they do not stay very compact. That means there is space open within their defensive block.
In the first Clasico Barcelona exploited that space very well. Tonight their off the ball movement and circulation weren’t adequate to use the space they were afforded. In addition, the midfield didn’t provide quality service to the front line, Messi in particular. It seems unlikely that Barca will consistently make these same mistake.
Ultimately, Messi was able to find room. How you feel about the way Madrid played tonight as a long term solution partly depends on whether you think it’s a viable strategy long term to allow Messi to have space to operate. To date, Mourinho has not devised a system in which Madrid press high and also cut off the interior spaces in which Messi thrives. This is not a minor issue.
Team: Inconsistent performance. A few moments of pure brilliance put them into the position to win. But they squandered a lead at home and didn’t play well overall. In the end they saw through the needed result and did so under great distress. That’s a credit to their experience and mental toughness.
Guardiola: Kept his first team line up from the prior two Clasicos, slightly altering his formation compared to last match. Probably should have made additional changes to counter Oezil’s new role and Madrid’s switch to a 4-4-2. That said, he had very few options to change the match with his small bench, especially with the injuries to Iniesta and Sanchez. Ultimately, he shepherded his team to the next round of the CdR against their biggest rivals. And that was his job.
Pinto: His shot stopping was phenomenal at times. In many ways, saved the draw with his critical stops. His distribution, while better than prior years, still can be problematic. And in this match he put the team in danger several times and generally didn’t promote possession, often playing inaccurate balls long.
Alves: Wildly inconsistent match. Overall Alves was off – his passing was especially problematic. Scored an absolute wonder goal that will be remembered for years. Not Dani’s best day by a long shot. But he provided brilliance when it was needed.
Pique: Very poor match. Poor passing and lapses in concentration. Pique’s form this season is concerning. He’s not as consistent as he was in the past. And that’s a major problem for Barca as he should be in the process of taking over the mantle at the back from Puyol at this time.
Puyol: As usual, the heart of the defense. Gave his all on the pitch. Defended nonstop making one critical intervention after another. His passing wasn’t particularly strong however and that made building play difficult. Tired in the second half significantly. That showed on both of Madrid’s goals – especially the second. Had to dig deep to get through the match but as usual he led the team to the result they needed. 52 matches without a loss I believe.
Abidal: Played both a solid and somewhat confused match. When required to directly defend was generally fine. But he wasn’t exactly sure how to approach defending Oezil wide. Could have done better tracking C. Ronaldo’s run on the goal. Next match against Oezil he’ll be much more ready and prepared.
Busquets: He was often left as the primary midfielder to build play. This was a situation where he couldn’t only circulate the ball short as he was often closest to the backline. Played well. Him not marking Oezil was a significant problem.
Xavi: The team didn’t run its play through Xavi enough. They became too direct and impatient rather than working it through him as a central control point. Part of this had to do with the team often building play from the back on the left via Fabregas.
Fabregas: Not a good match. He didn’t spend as much time in the final third as he usually gets to due to Barca’s issues in possession. His play in central midfield to support possession hasn’t been of the quality anticipated or needed. Often he looks to play the most direct pass. This has certain advantages. But in deeper positions the benefits are often more limited and it leads him to play “slow.” He keeps looking for that direct outlet rather than circulating rapidly. It’s just something he’s going to need to keep working on. As good as he’s been – he’s still integrating.
Iniesta: Played a key tactical role as a wide outlet to relieve pressure. Without him filling that role the team tried to play through the middle too much. The loss of his possession skills proved to a crucial, especially in the second half. His loss to another hamstring injury – for whatever time it will be – is a significant blow. He’s fundamental. And the team cannot drop any points if they hope to take La Liga.
Sanchez: Made some nice runs that came close to producing scores. Not quite as good as he’s been over the past two months or so. This may in part have been do to him moving to a wider right position. Given how Alves was playing – the advanced right position had limited support. His loss is also very problematic. The team simply is running out of forwards and Alexis has been growing into a critical goal scorer and all around force. He will be missed.
Messi: In a poor match for the team overall, Messi was the team’s best player. Created the decisive first goal out of nothing. Brilliant pass after a brilliant run. Only player in the world that could have created that score. Earned the free kick that set up the second goal. Made numerous dangerous runs. Worked hard defensively. Man of the match.
Pedro: Came on for Iniesta on the left wing. Finished his chance off Messi’s brilliant pass very calmly which was very good to see. We got a glimpse of Pedro the natural goal scorer again. However, outside of that shot, he had very little influence on the match which was disappointing. Given Madrid’s pressure this wasn’t a match Barca could afford to have a player function in a relatively anonymous role.
Thiago: Very difficult match for a young player to come into given its intensity and pressure. Overall he played well. With the injuries to Iniesta and Alexis Thiago is going to need to step up and play an expanded role.
Mascherano: Not on for long but did very well while playing. Made a few strong interventions. Bringing him in earlier was probably a move Pep should have made.
Two legged ties are really one match of 180 minutes divided into two parts and locations. And while this second leg didn’t see Barca at its best – they didn’t need to be. Over the 180 minutes of the tie there was no question who the better team was. And that team was the one that progressed.
Madrid played an excellent match. But that’s not enough. And given the level these two teams occupy moral victories really don’t amount to much. For the second straight season Mourinho has used extremely conservative tactics in the home leg of a two match tie and it has been a tactical failure, putting his team in poor position to advance. Rather than learn from last season, he reverted to what he’s most comfortable with in that first leg.
Overall, much will likely be made from this portion of the tie. We’ll likely hear another swing in pronouncements about Madrid “cutting the gap,” etc. Too much is made from each one of these Clasicos. Prior to the first meeting of the season Madrid was seen as an overwhelming favorite. Two matches later Madrid were seen as completely overmatched. This was never true. This was just an overreaction and swing in opinion that wasn’t warranted.
This latest individual match was not one where any kind of new, definitive conclusions can be drawn from. It was an strange match in many ways, one that doesn’t provide any clear indication of a fundamental change between these two sides. The second leg of a tie often turns out differently than anticipated. It’s just a very different dynamic from a Liga match or the first leg of the tie.
The real story between these two teams isn’t being told any longer on a match by match basis. The story is contained in the larger set of encounters that’s taken place over the past season and a half. It’s that larger sample of matches that gives the most clear account of what these teams are.
Barcelona’s objective in this match was to make sure they advance. It wasn’t simple – Madrid played very well and showed great strength. But ultimately Barcelona overcame the challenges Madrid posed and achieved that objective. And to continue to produce needed results against the world’s second best side even when you aren’t playing at your best is quite a testament to how good this team is. Over a long season producing these kinds of results in difficult matches, in matches where you aren’t at your best, is what grows into overall success.