Real Madrid 1-2 Barcelona: Real start strongly but Barca eventually find a way through

January 19, 2012

The starting line-ups

Carles Puyol and Eric Abidal were Barcelona’s unlikely goalscoring heroes in the first leg at the Bernabeu.

Jose Mourinho surprised many with his team selection, playing both Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain, and leaving out Mesut Ozil. Hamit Altintop made a rare start at right-back.

Pep Guardiola named the same side as in the recent league fixture at the Bernabeu, with the exception of in goal – Jose Pinto is Barcelona’s cup goalkeeper.

The game took a similar pattern to that match – Real started strongly and went ahead, but Barcelona grew into the game and eventually the pressure resulted in goals.

Real opening tactics

Mourinho went with a 4-3-3 formation and his selection featured his strongest, most powerful players. His midfield trio started with Pepe as the holding player, rather than in the high destroying role we’ve often seen him in against Barca. However, when he moved out of position, Xabi Alonso dropped in to cover the zone ahead of the back four. Broadly, it was Pepe watching Lionel Messi, Alonso on Cesc Fabregas and Lassana Diarra higher up pressuring Xavi. Sergio Busquets was freer, though Gonzalo Higuain was in and around him in the opening moments.

Real pressed on occasion, such as at goal kicks, but their pressing wasn’t as heavy as in the league meeting – in open play they stood off into their own half more, let Barca’s defenders have the ball, and waited to break.

Barca opening tactics

Guardiola started with a four-man defensive base rather than a three, albeit with Daniel Alves pushed up high on the right. As in the league game, Andres Iniesta played out to the left with Fabregas in the midfield instead of as a false forward. The width wasn’t provided from the forward line, but from Alves and Iniesta, summed up by a big long crossfield ball from the former to the latter in the first ten minutes.

Abidal played as a full-back but a relatively defensive-minded one, and he and Benzema cancelled each other out.

Ronaldo v Alves

The key battle in the first half was Cristiano Ronaldo against Alves, with Ronaldo clearly coming out on top. Ronaldo was tracking back well in the first few minutes, winning a good tackle against Alves in a deep position, as well as one higher up on Gerard Pique. Alves was doing his usual thing, trying to push Ronaldo deeper and deeper away from a dangerous position, but with Ronaldo following him back whilst staying narrow, he was in a good position to break.

With the two natural strikers quiet, this was really Real’s only dangerous option going forward – twice it worked very well. Quick balls out to Ronaldo meant Alves was twice trailing in his wake – once Ronaldo stormed forward and scored, the other time he tried to square to Benzema but the pass was intercepted by Abidal.

It was a surprise Guardiola didn’t put Carles Puyol to the right of Gerard Pique in order to assist Alves – Puyol is better in those 1 v 1 situations, and in the 5-0 last year, the two centre-backs switched sides depending on which flank Ronaldo was, in order to keep Puyol on his side.

Barcelona pressure

But the route to goal through Ronaldo was one of only two things Real were doing well. The other was containing Messi, who was quiet and wandered out to the right too much, trying to get away from Pepe but finding himself a long way from goal.

Granted, by maximising the impact of their star player (Ronaldo) and minimising the impact of Barcelona’s (Messi), Real were hardly performing badly. But there was confusion about where the defence was playing. They started high up the pitch, then dropped deeper and deeper, but still in a position where Barcelona could easily play through balls, or chip the ball over the top for runners.

When they started high up, there wasn’t so much ground for the midfield to cover – when they dropped deep – yet not deep enough to prevent Alexis Sanchez’s pace being a problem – the midfield became overrun, forced to do more work and cover a larger area.

Messi was often contained, but it was broadly 4 v 3 in the middle – Busquets, Xavi, Fabregas, Messi against Pepe, Diarra, Alonso. Diarra did a decent job on Xavi, who was an influence overall but not in the final third (which he often is against Real), but Alonso continues to struggle against Barcelona. Fabregas was allowed too much time on the ball and chipped the ball over the top twice – once for Iniesta, once for Sanchez’s header that hit the woodwork. Fabregas also made a good run over the top himself for a ball from Messi, forcing Casillas to sweep – in all, he played his tactical role brilliantly.

Another problem was Iniesta, who got the ball in space far too often. Altintop didn’t really know what to do here – he obviously isn’t a natural full-back, but stayed very deep and allowed Iniesta space to get the ball into feet, meaning Iniesta could then pick up the ball and skip past the Turkish international. He was a major goal threat, and could also come inside to further the midfield advantage.

The line-ups after Real went 4-2-3-1 on 67 minutes

Barcelona had been wasteful in the opening period and went into the break 1-0 down. The line-ups for the second half were unchanged, and the tactical battle was similar, although Alves seemed to be more cautious, and therefore Ronaldo was less of a threat on the break.


Barcelona’s equaliser came from a set-piece. This was hugely surprising – Barcelona are a team of very small players, and Real were using, even by their standards, quite big side. Mourinho sides are usually very well disciplined at set-pieces, but Puyol was left unmarked for a diving header from a corner.

A Busquets chance later on, when he and Puyol both got free from a Xavi free-kick, showed that the problem wasn’t a one-off.

Real did go close to scoring when Benzema hit the post. Diarra (not Alonso, surprisingly) had spread the ball out wide for Altintop who crossed to the far post, and this was something Real didn’t do enough. In the Copa del Rey final win last year they made a lot of their aerial dominance after getting diagonal balls out to the flanks, and in theory with three good headers of the ball upfront should have been more of a threat in this respect here.

Real formation change

Midway through the second half Mourinho moved from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1, which involved taking off Higuain (only one forward was needed – Benzema can play wide in a 4-3-3 but not really in a 4-2-3-1 considering how deep Real were playing, and Benzema had been better than Higuain) and Diarra (more surprising, since he’d had a decent game and offered mobility, while Pepe was on a yellow card and was responsible for the goal). Jose Callejon and Mesut Ozil came on, with Callejon playing predominantly on the left and Ronaldo coming to the right.

Mourinho wanted to be more attacking, knowing he probably needed a goal advantage going to the Camp Nou. Callejon provided a bit of a spark but Ozil again struggled for space against the Barcelona midfield. The move seemed for the sake of introducing an additional attacking player, and for fresh legs, rather than for a major tactical reason.

Barca dominance

In the end, Real ended up looking more vulnerable in midfield, with Pepe and Alonso  much weaker with Ozil protecting them rather than Diarra. Barca kept threatening to get away on the counter and Real were forced into cynical fouls, most obviously Ricardo Carvalho on Messi. That was a byproduct of the more attacking approach, and Real were simply undermanned in midfield after the switch.

Abidal would probably have been the last outfield player you’d expect to score, but the nature of the goal was entirely logical. Real had struggled with chips over the top of the defence, and they’d struggled in their right-back zone – combine the two, and Abidal found himself free with Ronaldo switching off, and he slid in the winner.


In all three Clasicos at the Bernabeu this season (Supercopa, league, cup) Real have taken the lead and then come under sustained pressure from the half hour mark. The results have been different (draw, two goal defeat, one goal defeat) but the pattern has been the same, and the reality is that it’s extremely difficult to dictate the flow of the game against Barcelona. They simply have too much of the ball.

In a sense, the only way to be in control of what you’re doing against Barcelona is to intentionally play very deep, to prevent being pushed deeper and deeper by their possession – although paradoxically you’re then losing control of the game. Real showed promise on the break, but defensively in both open play and set-pieces, they were positionally very poor for a Mourinho side.

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