Real Madrid v Barcelona: tactical preview

April 16, 2011

Possible starting line-ups

Barcelona have an eight-point gap going into the second of five Clasicos this season.

No-one needs reminding what happened in the previous fixture between these two sides. The 5-0 was a truly historic result, and the heaviest defeat of Jose Mourinho’s managerial career. Mourinho has a reputation for learning from his mistakes, though – his Inter side were outplayed by Barcelona at the Camp Nou in early 2009/10, but he returned in the semi-final to record an unlikely victory. With another Barcelona v Mourinho semi final coming up in the next few weeks, he has an even better chance to replicate last season’s heroics in the European Cup, but first and foremost, Real will be much better prepared for this contest.

Pep Guardiola is well used to these kind of fixtures. His Barcelona side have gone to the Bernabeu in the past two seasons and recorded convincing victories – a 2-6 in 2008/09 and a 0-2 in 2009/10. If Mourinho’s objective is to correct previous errors, Guardiola’s is to keep things exactly the same.

Team news

Real are without Pedro Leon, Fernando Gago, Esteban Granero and Lassana Diarra. None of these players are first teamers, and really the only relevant player there is Diarra. Many felt he should have been used as an additional holding player in the first game, to deny Barcelona space between the lines. Mourinho’s half time substitution, where he brought Diarra on for Mesut Ozil, was damage limitation and a recognition that the starting XI had been wrong.

Barcelona’s problems are more serious – Eric Abidal and Carles Puyol have been unavailable for the last few matches, and though Puyol returns to the squad for this game, there are doubts he’ll be risked – especially with more important games to come. Javier Mascherano was used as a surprise centre-back in the midweek win over Shakhtar, but he is suspended for this game – meaning Barcelona really are struggling at the back and holding midfield. Sergio Busquets will have to be used as a centre-back alongside Gerard Pique, presumably with Seydou Keita playing in central midfield, in the deep position. Upfront, Bojan is injured.

There has been some suggestions both sides might field weakened teams for this contest, but it seems unlikely.

Mourinho’s decisions

Mourinho has a few dilemmas for this match, and always has a surprise up his sleeve. However, he’ll probably consider this match the least important of the four upcoming contests, and so any shock moves might be held in reserve for later on in the series.

It’s worth outlining two possible changes he could make to his usual system, however, both of which seem to have been trialled in recent Real games. It’s worth considering that Mourinho often tries something in a less important game as preparation for one of the big ones – in last season’s Coppa Italia semi final away leg at Fiorentina, he went ultra-defensive for the last twenty minutes of the tie, despite the fact Inter were completely in control anyway. That seemed bizarre at the time, but it served as great preparation for his second leg tactics against Barcelona a fortnight later.

First, the use of Alvaro Arbeloa and Marcelo in tandem down the left in the midweek win over Tottenham could turn out to be a strategy to combat Dani Alves’ runs down the right. There is a precedent for this too – Valencia dealt excellently with Alves at the Nou Camp by playing two left-backs together late last year, and Mourinho himself made a very late change in last season’s semi-final second leg by swapping the “injured” forward Goran Pandev for Cristian Chivu, more of a defender, on the left.

Second, Mourinho used centre-back Pepe as a holding midfielder in last weekend’s win over Athletic Bilbao. Pepe is not entirely out of position there – for Portugal, Carlos Quieroz often used him in that role – but it’s the first time Mourinho had done so. Real so obviously struggled in the 5-0 with Lionel Messi in space between the lines (remember, he didn’t score but assisted two identical goals for David Villa with through balls), and besides, if not playing Diarra, a holder, was a mistake in that game, Mourinho might turn to Pepe for extra protection ahead of the back four.

But never mind who to play, Mourinho has to think about how to play. Playing a high defensive line at the Camp Nou failed miserably, and although there has been a notable improvement in how Real press – see the games against Spurs – they’d surely come off second best in high tempo pressing contest. A deep defensive line and a counter-attacking strategy is much more likely here.

Guardiola decisions

With Puyol, Abidal and Mascherano all out, it’s difficult to see what decisions Guardiola has in terms of selection, particularly now that Busquets and Keita will be played out of their natural roles. Guardiola may have considered playing Andres Iniesta as part of the front three, but that’s no longer an option. His biggest issue is probably the fitness of Puyol, and whether to use him.

That said, there is the issue of mentality. Barcelona have a commanding lead in La Liga (the 5-0 is effectively a half point for the head-to-head battle too, assuming no turnaround in that scoreline here) and therefore they don’t need to win. Barcelona are not a side who would play for the draw as such, but they are the best side in the world at keeping possession, and therefore it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them focus even more than usual on ball retention. Guardiola wouldn’t say it to the media or to the players, but he’d surely take a boring 0-0, safe in the knowledge that Real would then have to make up nine points in the space of six games.

Key battles

There are hundreds of factors at play in these four contest, but for the sake of brevity, let’s stick to three. The main man in this fixture the last two seasons has been Xavi Hernandez. Four assists in the 2-6 and two more in the 0-2, where Real completely failed to pick him up. Ozil seemed to have the responsibility for marking him in the 5-0, but this failed miserably as Xavi simply moved higher up the pitch – where he scored the first goal. ‘How do you stop Xavi?” is not a problem there is a definitive answer to, but Real simply can’t give him the freedom he enjoyed last year.

The other pressing concern is, of course, Messi. He now frequently takes up a very deep position – pretty much as a classic enganche – before dribbling or running off the ball and ending up as a striker. He loves space between the lines, and whilst even under pressure he’s a huge threat, Real surely must cope between in that zone. This is why Diarra’s absence is important, and why Pepe in a holding midfield role is a possibility. Neither Sami Khedira nor Xabi Alonso are classic holders, and that cost Real earlier in the season.

Perhaps the most important issue, however, is Barcelona’s vulnerability to pace upfront. Guardiola has been desperately shuffling his troops recently to avoid Busquets and Pique’s lack of speed being exposed, and this week commented that Real Madrid are the world’s best counter-attacking side. This broad issue could dictate a huge number of decisions from either manager, ranging from how high up the pitch Barcelona will play, to where Mourinho should play Cristiano Ronaldo – could his pace be best utilised as the main striker at some point in the four-game series?

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