Real Madrid 0-2 Barcelona: Xavi runs the show yet again

April 11, 2010

The most eagerly-anticipated league match of the 2009/10 season, and a comprehensive, deserved win for Barcelona, who will now surely go on to win the title for the second consecutive season.

Pep Guardiola sprung a surprise with his initial line-up, deploying Dani Alves as a right winger, with Carles Puyol at right-back, and Gabriel Milito coming into the centre of defence. Messi played centrally but drifted around, Pedro played from the left, and Keita was used more centrally than in previous matches.

Real’s shape was effectively a 4-4-2 diamond, but skewed because of the players involved. One of the carrileros, Marcelo, is basically a wide-left player, but on the other side width comes from Sergio Ramos at full-back, so the player on the right side of the diamond is Fernando Gago, a more defensive central midfielder. Van der Vaart played quite far forward, with Ronaldo playing off Higuain, generally to the left.

The game started at an unbelievably high tempo, with Real in particular closing down excellently and pressing from the front and making sure Victor Valdes was unable to play out from the back to his two centre-backs. Once the game settled down into a slightly more relaxed mood, it was Barcelona who found their feet and passed the ball better.

As is plain to see on the diagram above, Barcelona constantly had an out-ball in Maxwell on the left, and Real seemed unsure whose job it was to be closing him down – the two forwards didn’t track back, Gago was too central and Ramos was too far away, and so Maxwell was constantly given time and space on the ball, meaning Barcelona’s attacks tended to originate from that side of the pitch. It was generally Gago who was closest to him, but if he came towards Maxwell he then opened up the centre of the pitch (Marcelo stayed wide tracking Dani Alves and van der Vaart was close to the forwards, so it was just Xabi Alonso, shackled by a 14th minute booking, patrolling the centre of midfield).

The result? Xavi was constantly free, and it was Messi’s one-two with him (from the left) that created Barca’s opener.

This summed up the aforementioned problem perfectly. Gago, the right carrilero, has been drawn to Maxwell (yellow). On the opposite side, Marcelo is concerned about Dani Alves (blue). The attacking midfielder, van der Vaart, is high up the pitch (red), whilst the holding midfielder, Xabi Alonso, has to deal with the immediate threat of the ball at Messi’s feet (green). All this leaves a gigantic space in the centre of the pitch (marked by the pink dots) in front of Real’s defence with Xavi (in pink) totally free. He receives the ball from Messi, then chips it over the top of the defence for Messi to run onto, and he finishes.

Once Barcelona got into the lead, they rarely looked like giving it up, such was their superiority in possession. Guardiola switched things around at half-time, returning Alves to his customary full-back role, moving Puyol to left-back and pushing Maxwell forward to left wing, with Pedro playing on the other side. Why he made this change is slightly unclear – he could have wanted to stop the threat of Ramos getting forward unopposed by having a defensively sound player on the left-wing, or he could simply have been moving Alves to where he is comfortable, as he had a relatively poor first half.

The fact that Pedro moved to the right was probably a consequence of the switch rather than the reason for it, but this turned out to be the most crucial change, because it was he who outpaced Arbeloa for Barcelona’s second. “Game over” was the reaction from Sky’s commentator – a brave thing to say with a mere two-goal lead and away against a side featuring the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo – but it sums up the feeling that Barca were so comfortable, going 2-0 up on 55 minutes was going to be enough.

The goal again came from a Xavi pass, and he simply dominated the game (as he did in the corresponding fixture last season when he claimed four assists) – as this video shows. He is a superb player, regardless of what the Daily Mail think.

After that, it was extraordinary how little happened. There was no onslaught from Real – they brought on Guti, Raul and then Benzema but none of these players helped create chances. Barcelona’s only tactical move in the second half was to bring on Andres Iniesta for Maxwell, further helping their ability to keep the ball.

It may not have been as emphatic at the 2-6 win at the Bernabeu last season, or even of the 4-1 defeat of Arsenal in midweek, but in a way this was Barcelona at their most impressive. Although it was a thoroughly enjoyable game, Barcelona’s victory almost seemed anti-climatic given the build-up, because the game was won by a calm, efficient, unfussy display. It doesn’t fit with the Barca cliche about Globetrotter-style football, but it fits nicely with an imminent cliche – that Barcelona are incredibly professional in their attitude to winning games. The statistics will show that Real had more shots and more shot on target, but the two closest opportunities that didn’t go in were from Messi, both thwarted by Casillas saves.

As much as formations and tactics are important, the clearest different between the two sides was their overall outlook on how to create chances. Whereas Barca had ten outfield players comfortable in possession, each capable of both retaining the ball sensibly and playing a more ambitious pass, Real looked almost anachronistic in how compartmentalized their team played. It seems a ludicrous thing to say, but Real’s problem was that their players simply filled their job description. The defenders defended, the defensive midfielders tackled, the winger ran up and down, the creative players tried their tricks and the striker looked to score. That’s pretty much the idea of football, but they were up against a side whose attackers could defend, and whose defenders could attack. Whereas Barcelona looked to create chances through integrated passing and movement throughout the team, Real looked to create chances by depending upon their flair players to make something happen, and it rarely did.

Another interesting point was how ineffectual Dani Alves was when playing as a right-winger. It’s natural to assume that an attacking full-back can slot in fine slightly further up the pitch, but they often encounter problems – they generally have less space and see less of the ball. Alves’ pace and stamina is utilized far better from a full-back position, and those suggesting he should replace Ramires in the Brazil side will have a tough task on their hands making the case after his first-half display.

Overall, a fascinating game to watch and analyse. Real paid the price for letting Xavi have so much space, although this was perhaps a knock-on effect of leaving one full-back free. This sums up why so few top sides are playing with two strikers who don’t track back – Real may have been better off playing a dedicated right-winger instead of one of the front three, to at least occupy Maxwell.

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