Real Madrid v Barcelona: tactical preview
The third Clasico in twelve days presents the two managers with more selection problems.
There are some crucial absentees for this match. Barcelona captain Carles Puyol is back, but with Maxwell, Adriano and Eric Abidal all unavailable, Barcelona are without a recognised left-back. This means that, after being desperate for so long to get Puyol back in the side for his pace at centre-back, Pep Guardiola is probably going to have to use him at left-back, with Javier Mascherano in the centre of defence.
Andres Iniesta is also out – another big blow for Barcelona, and one that prevents Guardiola dropping one of his forwards to give Iniesta a place in the front three, which was a possibility. Seydou Keita will probably come into the side on the left side of the midfield triangle.
Jose Mourinho is also without two key players. Sami Khedira, who has been excellent in recent weeks, will miss out through injury, whilst Ricardo Carvalho is suspended after picking up a booking against Tottenham. Lassana Diarra is the natural replacement for Khedira, whilst Raul Albiol should come into the side at centre-back, with Sergio Ramos alongside him, and Alvaro Arbeloa at right-back.
Injury problems mean there are fewer choices for both managers. Guardiola may have considered pushing Iniesta forward and using Mascherano and Sergio Busquets together in midfield, whilst Mourinho would have had a decision to make at the back about Ramos, able to play at either right-back or centre-back.
With Guardiola’s first XI very likely to be the one on the right, it is Mourinho who must make a decision about which forwards to play. His shape has varied in the previous two Clasicos, but he’ll essentially use three central midfielders and three attackers. Karim Benzema started the recent league meeting, but in the Copa del Rey Cristiano Ronaldo started as the main forward, with Angel di Maria on the left and Mesut Ozil on the right. That trio seems likely to start again here, and whilst there have been rumours that Ozil will be deployed at some point as a ‘false nine’, Ronaldo is the more natural striker, and has both pace over the top to threaten Barca’s backline, as well as the aerial power that was their downfall in the Copa del Rey final.
Mourinho used completely different tactics in the recent league and cup meetings. In the league, his side sat behind the ball and soaked up pressure throughout the game, whilst in the cup he used Xabi Alonso deeper in a 4-1-4-1, and told Pepe and Khedira to get into the faces of Iniesta, Busquets and Xavi. It remains to be seen which approach he’ll use here, but the latter seems more appropriate for this game at the Bernabeu. Why? First, Real rested players at the weekend, so should be in a fit condition to press Barcelona throughout the game. Second, Mourinho’s strategy at the same stage of this competition last year (with Inter) was to attack at home, and then defend away. If he’s going for a mix-and-match strategy throughout this contest, it’s surely going to be easier to press effectively at home than at the Camp Nou.
For Barcelona – well, it’s Barcelona, they play the same way all the time, don’t they? Well, not really. And especially not when Guardiola knows he’s got a battle on his hands. He’s constantly adapted his shape for tricky away games over the past year. A quick recap reveals that he played Dani Alves as a right-winger and Carles Puyol at right-back away at Real last season, he switched to a three-man defence at Atletico, did the same at Valencia, and used Iniesta in the front three at Villarreal. He may have another plan here. A back three is highly unlikely since he has no-one who could reasonably play as a left wing-back, so any changes will be more incremental. With Iniesta out and the midfield looking more secure than usual, Guardiola may push Dani Alves even higher up the pitch, as he did against Sevilla, or switch the way the front three operates.
It seems silly to question Lionel Messi’s performances in any way, but in the Copa del Rey final, Barcelona struggled upfront (with David Villa and Pedro Rodriguez out of form) as Messi dropped so deep into the midfield. This was the knock-on effect of Real’s pressing, of course – Xavi and Iniesta didn’t have time on the ball to create, so Messi had to come very short to pick up the ball. He’s more than handy with the ball at his feet, but he’s also Barca’s main goal threat, and Guardiola may want him to play higher up the pitch.
Puyol is not used to playing at full-back, but he’s not alien to it either – in fact, at the Bernabeu last year Guardiola deliberately started him at right-back, and then switched him to left-back at half time. The major worry for Barcelona is still the centre-back pairing, both in terms of pace and in the air. Real will try and expose Barcelona at the back as often as possible.
Pepe is arguably the key player. He was excellent in the holding role in the league, and then equally impressive when pushed further forward in the cup. The physical nature of him and Diarra will attempt to overpower Barcelona in the centre – so Keita may actually come in handy.
Barcelona looked better in the cup final when they played with more width – particularly when Pedro started in wide positions and then moved inside to meet through balls. Barcelona usually stretch the opposition defence well, but when Messi drops deep the 4-3-3 can become more of a 4-3-1-2 and Barcelona suddenly look very narrow if Pedro and Villa make the same run inside. Pedro is more intelligent with his movement than Villa, and must give Barcelona options when they have the ball.
Finally, transitions from defence to attack might be vital. European first legs are generally very tight – but this year, that hasn’t particularly been the case. As mentioned earlier, Mourinho attacked Barca at home in last year’s semi-final, and the 3-1 Inter win was a very open game. Both sides can be prone to counter-attacks – Barca at the back, Real when Alonso is left stranded in front of his defence, and therefore quick breaks will be in the minds of both managers.
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