Classic tactics, and just how important IS the midfield today?

Mere hours away now, as that weird feeling starts to build. For me, the left corner of my mouth begins to twitch involuntarily, a stress reaction. So let’s think about some stuff, to take our minds off.

A great many things were different when these two teams last squared off. RM was the best team that anyone had ever seen except for maybe Guardiola’s Barça. Ronaldo was BdO rampant and Kroos was daisy-fresh.

On the Barça side of the aisle there was much uncertainty. Suarez started, even though he was nothing approximating match fit or confident, and Enrique was still figuring out the parts that he had to work with.

My, how times change. Time to look at some key battlegrounds for this one, and try to suss what might happen.

First things first

When you have players of the quality on offer here, predictions are worthless. So many athletes are capable of so many moments of genius that can turn a match that you might as well predict where that hummingbird is going to flit next. That’s the beauty of a match such as this, really. Athletes of exceptional quality have another level. We see it all the time in all kinds of sports from tennis to rugby. The focus is always on Messi and Ronaldo, but they are big match players. They will show up. What isn’t often considered is the host of other big-match players that will be on the pitch today.

It’s a cliche, but throw those predictions out of the window when the first ball is kicked.

Who cares about a midfield?

This is a weird Classic to figure out tactically because if ever there was a match where the midfield has the potential to be rendered superfluous when it comes to decisive moemnts, it’s this one. Here’s why:

Neymar: On the left side of the Barça attack, Neymar will be crucial. He won’t be able to make his attacking game subordinate to his defensive game as he did against Manchester City, where it was more important that Barça not concede than that they score. Balance will be key.

Alba vs Bale: Bale canNOT be allowed to be decisive in any way today. Alba will have to get in his grille and deny him space, and Neymar will have to help. This means a lot of work for both players, and almost certainly a less-attacking Alba. This battle will be crucial. If Bale gets the corner and is allowed to cross balls in, he’s more dangerous than if you cut off that dive for the end line, and force him to shoot.

Alves vs Marcelo: Marcelo got the better of that battle in October, but Alves was, frankly, wrestling with not being complete crap the first part of the season. Alves will have to give as good as he gets, and defensive help for him will be important, from Rakitic as well as Messi.

Messi on the right: This is the biggest tactical wrinkle of today’s match, an in-form Messi away from the heart of the RM defense, which is its strength. Pepe and Ramos will have to defend while moving, instead of standing there waiting for Messi to come to them.

Ronaldo: Because pace has been a traditional weakness of the Barça defense, look for him to be resurgent today, making runs and shooting within anything approximating sight of the goal. He will want to prove something today, which will make him exceptionally dangerous. With Modric back in the side and Kroos rested not to mention Isco, an Iniesta who can score, Ronaldo will have opportunities. Bravo will have to be exceptionally sharp today.

Will this match be decided on the flanks? For me, most likely, despite the midfield talent and quality that both teams have on offer. Barça will, barring anything odd, be coming out with Iniesta/Rakitic/Mascherano. Look for RM to start with Isco/Modric/Kroos.


In the past, Barça could just roll out with Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets, then add Alves and Messi to just keep the ball and minimize any attacking threats RM could muster. But those days of tika-taka defending are long gone. Barça still have the highest average possession in La Liga at something like 70%, but it’s a different kind of possession these days, possession without control, so to speak.

Just because the match will most likely be decided on the flanks doesn’t mean that the midfield won’t have a say. RM, with Kroos and Isco, are more likely to get goals from their midfield than Barça, recent Rakitic tallies notwithstanding. Iniesta will be looking to get as involved as Isco, the man many say will replace him on the Spanish NT, will be. Kroos will be looking to control and command while Modric has the potential to play impeccable forward balls. In many ways their midfield has become Barça-like. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s also exceptionally dangerous.

Busquets is the big question of today. He trained normally with the squad, and got the medical green light this morning. If he is at all fit to play, he should start. His presence in control and command is too crucial not to have on the pitch. It also means that Enrique can start Mascherano in the back line (sorry, Jim), which will allow him to shuttle up and back, helping with midfield defending as need arises or being able to buttress the efforts of Alba in Bale control.


Luis Suarez changes everything. When he started that first Classic, he was just off suspension. He wasn’t match fit, couldn’t really hit the broad side of a barn with the ball and was stomping around like a mastodon, more an associative player than a threat.

Current Suarez is match fit and scoring goals, popping up on both flanks, dragging defenders around with him, which creates space for the other Barça attackers. RM have Benzema, but he is a player who you can play soft on until he gets the ball, like Pedro in many ways. Suarez demands constant attention, a quality that will unsettle a defense because he also has a knack for playing in a defender’s blind spot, this threat that you need to pay attention to behind you, while you also have Messi running around in front of you.

The potential difference that Suarez can make in this match can’t be understated. The last time Barça faced RM with three creative, associative attackers who could all score at a high level was the 08-09 season, with Messi, Henry and Eto’o. And yes, that includes the Villa years. Villa was a fine player, but Suarez is a completely different situation for a defense to have to manage.

RM comes at you with a trio of attackers who use pace (Ronaldo, Bale) but are less effective when they stop moving, or who use strength and creativity (Benzema) in shot creation. Barça has a trio of attackers who are just as dangerous on the move as stopped, as all three are capable of turning and bursting past a defender, or making a creative pass to find a teammate. In theory, this is a significant advantage for Barça.


I wouldn’t want to be on either back line today. It helps that Pique is in all-world form, and Jordi Alba has never been playing better in the colors. Alves will be solid, and as for that other CB, no worries there though Mathieu with his rather wobbly clearances at times will be a source of stress. The last thing you want to do is gift their mids possession with an inaccurate clearance. If Mathieu starts, look for Enrique to tell Busquets to mind him, so that he always has a short ball to play forward rather than a stressed, “Get this thing outta here!” punt up the pitch.

Ramos being back for them is huge. He isn’t that big of a difference maker tactically, though he is always good for that “Oh, crap!” goal for them. But he brings an edge to their back line that is absent when Varane is partnering Pepe. He is also allowed to get away with fouls that Varane isn’t. He and Pepe will be far more physical than Varane and Pepe, who is less psychopath and more top-quality defender these days. Culers would rather he was still being a maniac, as he was easier to take out of his game that way.

From a team defense front, the advantage has to go to Barça, who attack AND defend with 11 in big matches as Messi contributes on both ends of the pitch.

On the keeper side of things, Casillas has the potential to be more decisive than Bravo. Although the RM keeper isn’t the force that he once was, he still has a knack for the remarkable reflex save and works well with that back line, which is why even though people can’t figure out why he is starting over Keylor Navas, they can if they think about it.

If Enrique was bold, he would start Ter Stegen, but he isn’t that bold and Bravo has done absolutely nothing to warrant loss of his Liga starting spot. Bravo is a fine reflex keeper who won’t screw the side, but his tendency to stay put when facing a threat sometimes allows shooting angles that don’t exist with a more active keeper, something we saw in the Pinto-for-Valdes exchange.


A match will be played. Had Barça not just had a demanding midweek Champions League outing I would say 3-1 Barça. But because they did, I am going with a 2-2 draw, and it will be fraught as fatigue begins to catch up to the team late in the match, when RM will be resurgent and pressing for the win.

But I could be wrong.

By Kxevin

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.


  1. Im totally impressed by your bravery in suggesting Masche there for such an important game, Kxevin. ( was going to use a smilie but I have a feeling they’re not a writing man’s thing ! )

    I’m with you on the Busi, though, if Xavi isn’t going to start because we need two real passers in that midfield. If Masche does start at the back ( and can I be clear if he does I hope he plays a blinder ?) this is not a game for him leaving his post on impulse. I was a bit irritated he still hadn’t learned last game dashing in and getting turned for the penalty. I’d much rather see Mathieu both for reasons of height and discipline (although his distribution still isn’t perfect). Question is whether Busi is fit or whether he’s only been given the green light as a ruse so that RM won’t think it worth working out how to pressure Masche. I’d be surprised to see him start. I think Masche will be given the nod there and if he comes through this he deserves a lot of credit.

    I said in the last comments that I’d be surprised if RM just played three in the middle and I’m sticking to that. I would put Bale on the bench and bring in another defensive DM ( Khedira – is he still around?) or possibly even move Varane there to get him in the team with his pace to give support where needed. If they have four there we need to be sure we don’t lose that battle because Madrid with a lot of possession will be dangerous. We need to run it out of their mids and hope those up front for them revert to type and don’t suddenly become defensive hounds which they did last time.

    Starting to feel nervous and looking for ways to fill the time . . . However, the good thing is most of the above vanishes if unplayable Messi turns up.

  2. It’s incredible to think that Madrid just might have the advantage in midfield in the current situation. A fit and healthy Busquets has to start a match like this but if he’s not 100% then Masch is a shoe in.
    Mathieu in defense with Masch in front is still our best defensive lineup.
    I think the only important thing is how Messi plays. On form there’s nothing that can stop him but a big game from Neymar and Suarez could be key also. I’m getting nervous

    1. Agreed on everything, Ciaran. What worries me is that Madrid know how important Messi is to us. How do they stop him out wide ? They must have a plan. They can’t just leave Marcello there. He’s a liability in defence. Don’t like not knowing. The other imponderable is what if they do manage by numbers to nullify Messi and Neymar? I reckon the mids and Suarez would have to step up to the plate then. Are we up to that ?

  3. DUDES!!!!

    I have been away for so long with so many damn little people around here — actually, the only reason I’ve got a moment to say hey is because they are all sick and therefore SILENT —

    but I just wanted y’all to know that I still have the Barça spirit. I assigned all of my students to cheer on the blaugrana for ‘grandes puntos de crédito extra’ in their classes and expressed my disappointment towards one of my upperclassmen (one of my best, I’m sorry to say), that in spite of his obvious academic talent, ‘sufre de una deficiencia lamentable en cuanto a su perspicacia futbolística’ for coming to class in a washed-and-pressed CR7 jersey.

    And I still do come by to read whenever I can. My new goal is to write BeIN sports during the broadcast because in Spanish, at least, they say hello to everyone watching and say where they’re from. So if you hear ‘Madison, Wisconsin’, you know it’s SoMa & Co.


    1. SoccerMom!!! hi & ltns!!

      i am soooo excited about this game! (in case it wasn’t clear from all of the gratuitous exlamation points 😉 )


    2. It’s strange and good at the same time to find you here. I have no idea if you get notified about replies, but I thought I’d give it a try anyway. It would be so good to hear from you… How are you?

    3. Hey, An old face. Well, you know what I mean . . . ( Slinks away :(. )

      Welcome back. Don’t give them medicine. The peace will last longer and their immune systems will ( may) thank you.

  4. No Busquets or Xavi – let’s see how/if we manage to pass our way out of the back. Then again, the line-up is only half the story, complemented by the actual tactics for these players…

  5. Bravo – Alves Pique Mathieu Alba – Rakitic Mascherano Iniesta – Messi Suarez neymar

    1. Probably our strongest lineup all things considered and certainly the one I expected.
      Good options off the bench too if we are wwinning.

    2. It’s the one I expected. No way Busi has recovered from a ligament injury in that time. It would have been taped up t best and that doesn’t hack it in this game.

      I worry now about our control of the game. Seems to me our only option is to get it quickly to the wide men which might still work. Mind you, they’ve only gone for three in the middle which I think is a mistake. It’s a straight three on three.

      Oh, who knows ? You’d have to say we’re in better form. Bring it on.

  6. So about not having a midfield… Same story so far as he first classic, no control whatsoever, Neymar terrible, Messi hardly involved

  7. “@officialkari: When your entire game plan’s based on the forwards and one is off form, the other two are isolated (bc opp mid > yours), these things happen”


    1. I certainly wouldn’t call our midfield “pathetic”, give some credit to the midfield opposing them (and which they still were able to bypass a number of times). I also would like Xavi for Rakitic at half-time, but it’s a delicate balance between defense and offense here. Best thing would be for Messi to go back to midfield more often but it will remain a mystery whether he’s not allowed to do so or doesn’t want to do so today.

  8. Neymar really needs to work on his finishing. And now even his passing has been poor. His giving balls away a handful of times already and a few unforced errors. Rakitic really needs to stamp his authority in the middle. Many times already in big matches he’s gone missing.

    1. Rakitic can’t play in right spaces, can’t pass under pressure, doesn’t offer himself. Imagine a midfield without either one of Xavi or Iniesta. It’ll be a non existent midfield.

    2. My sentiments exactly. Rakitic is decent against small teams, but he is not for the big games

  9. We need to have more control in the centre. Maybe sub in Xavi as soon as the half begins. Also we are playing with handbrake on and are averse to speeding up the play. Mids and forwards not fully integrated. Need to be more cohesive to carry a consistent threat.

  10. Absolutely hammering us… they deserve to win this game if they play like this 2nd half. No control in the midfield, the front three doesn’t defend at all and after spending 200m, we are still “Messidependencia” and he is having an off game too

  11. Ok, we’ve got away with it so far. I know who should be getting stripped and who should be putting on his tracksuit but will it happen ?

    This was obvious. They had to have a plan to take the wide men out of the game which they’ve done.nonly way round it is to occupy them more in midfield where Iniesta has far too much to do.

    No great confidence it’ll happen though. And from a position at the start where they lacked confidence they’re now riding high and will be difficult to stop without keeping the ball away for longer and getting it to Messi.

    1. I reckon that Busquets is a bigger miss than Xavi to be honest. Masch isn’t good enough in possession and our midfield is getting overrun.

      We are still in this match though so everyone should calm down a little.

    2. I actually am surprised by Mascherano tbf. His passing is above average and he dribbles well forward. He penetrates something Busquets never does.

    3. He is great at penetrating forward but that’s the job of the CB, which he usually plays

      What Busquets is great at and Mascherano is not is the quick pressure release passes with someone on his back, and smart positioning to receive the ball and then distribute it. Without those things we get overrun a lot more easily

    4. I thought Masche had a great game tbh, apart from losing Ronaldo for the goal. His passing isn’t as fluent as Busi’s and he probably doesn’t show quickly enough for passing out of the back but his passing was as you say quite assured, he isn’t scared to move forward into gaps with the ball and he certainly put himself about.

      What I said before the game though was that if he plays at DM we need both Xavi and Iniesta to keep the circulation going.

  12. This is what happens when you play both Mascherano and Rakitic in midfield, stretch the lines out, and don’t stress control of the game

  13. So it turns out ” no midfield” doesn’t matter until we play the absolutely top TOP teams , same exact story so far as the first Classic. Your move Enrique

  14. They did it! Yay!

    Now imagine how good we’ll be if our forwards actually manage to convert some of their top chances (second half)…

  15. Well, they took care of the wings, but that left the middle open.

    And surprisingly it looked like they got tired in the second half

    We got lucky that it was level at half time, but overall the team did great in the second.

    We should have scored more and won the head to head though, but finishing was once again poor

  16. What a result. Never mind about Xavi. I don’t think I’ve got many Clasicos left in me. Is everyone else edging closer and closer to the TV? Saved by a moment of genius – which is why we bought Suarez – a much better press in the second half and probably most of all by the best CB in the world.

    1. I stood right in front of the tv for the last 10-15 mins. Got too stressful for me.

  17. Great win.

    Let’s not forget our players are very fatigued following the City game. They aren’t robots. We got the 3 points. Let’s move on and take some necessary steps like:

    1)get Neymar practicing shots
    2) get Suarez practicing passes.

  18. 2 matches in a row with piss poor finishing and passing in the 3rd part of the field, especially Neymar. Suarez (in the last few mins) and Messi were guilty too. It could’ve been decided much earlier. Suarez ran his socks off. They really should pass the ball to him when he’s free. The ball almost always goes to the other side. In the 2nd half Neymar had a dribble and decided to take a shot instead of passing it to Suarez who was in a better position. Messi usually would’ve passed it instead of forcing a shot.

    I liked the subs by Lucho. Perfect! Busquets for anonymous Rakitic as a double pivot which we really need against strong teams and Xavi for Iniesta who’s not able to control the midfield. Xavi needs to stay on for at least another season. It’s a must!

    Valencia now has a chance of catching Madrid. Nobody would’ve imagined that just a few months ago. What a season it’s turning out to be.

  19. It is one thing to go for possession, but to give it away easily so many times is just not good. It was disastrous passing in the first half. To see Iniesta give it away too – just surprising. But I liked how we adapted in the second half – it was simply a case of LE telling the guys to pass well I guess. The way we killed the game off was superb.

    On a bad day at office, Messi still created some clear cut chances not counting the goal, only to be let down by poor finishing. What a joy it would have been if it was 3-1 in the end with a Messi goal!

    I was worried every time the ball was passed to Benzema.. he creates chances out of no where. Along with Marcelo, who looked more dangerous than Ronaldo. Oh by the way ,nice finish by Ronaldo, but then, that was it from him really.

    Pique is awesome.

    Mascherano showed why we need Busquets – because we need to win the midfield against top teams.

    Overall a 1-1 or 2-2 would have been fair too, but given the sheer number of clear cut chances by us, I think we (kind of) deserved it. 4 points then.

  20. Ok, so now it’s Rakitic time? He’s not good enough for big games?
    Or it seems that almost every one is forgetting how many big games he had last season.
    When you have invisible Iniesta on your side with Masch as the third midfielder, what do you expect? Of course you will get overrun from them.
    Another thing, our front three must cooperate more and forget about selfishness. It will hunt us in the forthcoming period if they contiue like that.
    Other than that, great game, great result, great spirit and incredible second half.

    1. Besides invisible is him not offering, not getting into position to be at a right angle to be in a passing lane. His passing under pressure is still suspect. He even apologized once today. Hopefully he’ll get the hang of it next season. I understand that it’s his first season.

      Btw being a boss in a Sevilla midfield is different compared to Barca. Im not expecting him to boss the midfield this season but he’s been too hot and cold and I still can’t see his role. Some matches he’s playing AM and some he’s deeper at CM. Perhaps that’s Lucho’s tactics.

    2. He wasn’t brought to boss the midfield, he is here to ease the burden of our tired midfielders.
      Not getting into some position to receive the ball has nothing to do with the fact that the one trying to pass the ball to you is having a bad day and making amateurish mistakes.
      As for his different role in different games, that’s LE tactics.

  21. For the record, Suarez’ goal doesn’t happen without Rakitic making a run and making Ramos drop deep to play Suarez onside.
    It might not be popular to give him credit but that run was every bit as important as Suarez’ finish or Alves’ pass.

    1. And those of you who think that he goes missing in big matches you must have an incredibly short memory forgetting the goal by City killing off the contest or his man of the match performances in the Europa League final or visit Madrid twice last season.

    2. I never like to use a goal as an indicator for a players performance. Would you say that Ronaldo had a good game tonight? That is why it’s important to watch the match. I wanted to add this above actually but missed it. I know many thought Rakitic had a great match vs City but I didn’t think so and I’m confident others wouldn’t be singing praises had he not scored a goal.

  22. Gonna sound like an apologist for Kxevin’s “whining culers” narrative but on this occasion I do think tonight is for just celebrating the three points and the effort expended by our side, all of them. We’ve just won the Clasico after all. We can have a think about what could have gone better in the days to come.

    1. YESSSSS! Amazing how they have turned the tables around. And Vale via is only 5 points behind Madrid while we are 4 points ahead.

  23. Okay. I might be cruel but have to mention Pep’s bayern lost 3rd place against Monchengladbach tonight & 2nd place Wolfsburg monch back. AND we are winning against our strong opponents.

    Btw, Mathieu can have packets of cigare tonight.

  24. So so so happy!!!!Two big wins in a space of 5 days!!!!!Thank u Lucho thanks to all the players!!!!!!!Proud of u always!!!!!!!

  25. What makes me feel creepy that even after the win some possession guys out there is crying that Lucho doesn’t use “barca system”.

    1. Agreed. No time for that though.. let’s just enjoy today\tonight for what it is!


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