Barcelona and Madrid play for the first major piece of silverware this season. The second of a grueling four match set of Clásicos, today’s match will build on the last match from Saturday and add in additional wrinkles. Let’s take a look at some of the major keys to Barcelona winning the Copa.
Circulate the Ball Fast Enough To Break Madrid’s Shape
After the last Clásico, a great deal of attention was placed on who Madrid chose to play, specifically to the utilization of three defensive midfielders. However, even more which individual players were utilized, the biggest change in Madrid’s play was how they defended as a unit. Unlike the first Clásico, Madrid acknowledged that Barça was likely to control the ball and in turn focused on trying to control space on the pitch through shape.
To do so Mourinho implemented a standard template of defense, one which Barcelona has seen often this season. Madrid played in a solid block, stayed compact and looked to compress space in the middle of the pitch. They primarily pressed once the ball was advanced to the midline. However, they varied their pressure over the match incorporating false pressing frequently through Benzema and towards the end of the first half more aggressive pressing high up the pitch as a unit. FC Copenhagen, Arsenal and Athletico Bilbao played Barça in a very similar fashion.
Barça has seen this approach frequently. And the manner in which they beat it is to circulate the ball fast enough to break the shape of the opposition. In other words, Barça utilize the ball to control space, thwarting the defense’s attempt to own the pitch because they can’t own the ball. This was the story of the second leg against Arsenal in the CL.
To do this however requires a very different Barça team than we saw in the last match against Madrid. They are going to need to do two things better. Pass the ball more precisely and couple that with more decisive, attacking off the ball movement. If they do not do this they will find it difficult to break Madrid’s shape.
In this regard, Iniesta becomes a particularly key player. This is not a match where he can afford to take a back seat to Xavi or Messi. He must be incisive both with the pass and with the dribble. Iniesta and Messi are the two players on the team that can break defensive shape by with the ball at their feet. Ghostface must look to make himself dangerous.
Utilize Width Dynamically
In the first Clásico of the season much of the damage Barça did came from attacks off the width. Villa, Pedro and Alves often stayed wide of the full backs and started attacking maneuvers from those extreme lateral positions close to the touch line. This was critical because Madrid wanted to stay narrow in their defensive formation to clot the middle. That dynamic width thwarted the narrow arrangement of the Madrid backline.
In the last Clásico, that dynamic width was missing – and this is a major concern for Barça headed into today because dynamic width has largely been missing since January.
In short, the team needs the wingers – likely David Villa and Pedro – to be more incisive in their movement, passing and finishing off the edges. They cannot just drift to the middle of the pitch and wait for the ball.
Tactically the key flank for the Barça attack will likely be the left. In each Clásico Mourinho has elected to play C. Ronaldo on his non-preferred right wing so that Angel Di Maria can be utilized as a defensive winger to track Alves’ runs. Di Maria may or may not play, but regardless, it’s likely that Madrid will overplay the right flank. This should open up space on the left flank and is part of the reason why Villa needs to stay wide and make himself dangerous. In addition, Adriano has the opportunity to attack off the left, though he does need to be careful given that he will likely be marking C.Ronaldo who constantly looks to break up field.
Move Messi to the Flank – Especially the Left Flank
Madrid defended last match by adding tremendous fortification of the center of the pitch through the three holding players. Messi should not only drop deep to get away from those holding players he should move more laterally and attack off the edges. Though it’s not his favored side, the left flank is where he’ll likely find the most room and generating attacks from that position may create surprise and uncertainty for Madrid’s defensive scheme.
Aggressively Press Madrid’s Holding Players and Mesut Ozil
While Madrid was much more effective in maintaining shape that enhanced defensive focus came at a real cost. Madrid became a much more restrained team in attack. They were often reduced to playing long balls forward because their midfield lacked creativity. It was only when the combination of Puyol being removed for injury and Mesut Ozil entering the game that Madrid regained some attacking spark.
Madrid will likely play another defensively oriented midfield – none of those three holding players they used in the last match is particularly strong with the ball at their feet. The minute the possess it they should be attacked by the press aggressively. This was another aspect of Barça’s game which they did not implement well this past match – the press.
Mesut Ozil even more than Xabi Alonso is the key creative spark on Madrid. Ozil is a gifted player but he does best when he finds space. When he is pressured however he becomes significantly less dangerous. This was not only evident in the first Clásico but also in the Spain vs. Germany match in the 2010 World Cup.
This is why we very well may see him play in a wide position again as he did last match – this gets him out of the center of the pitch where he is easier to press. Regardless of where Ozil is he must be pressed aggressively.
Control at the Back By the Whole Team
In recent weeks Barcelona’s play at CB has come under significant stress due to injuries. For today’s match the health and availability of Puyol will be a major uncertainty. If he is not fit Mascherano will likely start at CB and this will be the biggest match he’s played in all season and at a position he doesn’t have a great deal of experience with.
Madrid have a significant advantage in height over the Barca backline especially if Adebayor plays. The best way Barcelona have of combatting this is to defend as an entire team through pressure. They may not be able to stop what happens at the end of high crosses or long balls in the air but they can prevent those passes from being made or made accurately through pressure.
Minimize Set Pieces to Madrid
Many of Madrid’s best opportunities in the last match came off set pieces. This is not unexpected given their advantage in height. While Madrid was much better about keeping defensive shape it came at a real cost. The richness of their attack had to be pruned away. Simply put, given how Madrid is likely to play with their defensive focus on shape, set pieces are likely going to be amongst their best opportunities to score.
Pinto – Sweeper Keeper?
A major difference between this match and the last will be the absence of Victor Valdes. Pinto as expected will get the start and is in his own right a fine goalie.. However, he is not Valdes and the biggest difference between the two Barça keepers is their ability to play the ball and distribute it from the back. Valdes is likely the best goalie in the world on both those dimensions and the drop off will be felt.
I expect Madrid to try to take advantage of Pinto presence. When Madrid false press or press as block high they will look to force the Barça defenders to pass the ball back to Pinto. The goal will be to try to force Pinto into a poor distribution of the ball which will provide Madrid with a relatively easy scoring opportunity high up the pitch.