Barcelona 1-2 Real Madrid: Real on brink of title
Cristiano Ronaldo scored the winner as Real Madrid effectively clinched the title at the Nou Camp.
Pep Guardiola made two surprise decisions, playing La Masia products Thiago Alcantara and Cristian Tello – the former in midfield, the latter in a wide-left role. Gerard Pique was omitted again.
Jose Mourinho was brave with his starting XI, selecting the same side that had underperformed in Munich in midweek, which meant Fabio Coentrao continuing at left-back.
As with Chelsea in midweek, Real had to depend upon Barcelona finishing poorly – but overall they limited the number of chances Barca created, and were the more efficient side.
Whereas Real played their usual 4-2-3-1, Guardiola’s choice of formation was a surprise. He went for the 3-4-3, which meant Dani Alves pushed very high up on the right, Tello on the opposite flank, and Adriano on the left of a back three. This was an attacking gamble by Guardiola – he’s commented before on how dangerous it is to play a back three without controlling the whole game.
In a sense, it also hinted at Guardiola’s lack of confidence in Barcelona’s attacking department – he felt he needed two wingers to stretch the play on either side, yet also an additional midfielder to ensure superiority in the centre. This came at the risk of defensive stability, and Barcelona were particularly vulnerable to breaks into the channels/wings.
Back three / four
Of course, when Barcelona play a three-man defence they’re always half-thinking about playing with a four. The man to drop in here was Sergio Busquets, who was a central defender when Real broke quickly down the flanks and one of the wide defenders had to move across to the wing, but he became the deepest midfielder when Barcelona had the ball.
Individually Busquets played the role very well, but there were two problems in the defensive transitions with this approach, mainly because of the speed with which Real attacked. Most obviously, Barcelona were bare down the flanks, but there was also the secondary problem that Busquets was forced to leave Mesut Ozil when he was dropping into the back – this gave the German time on the ball to thread passes through to the attackers. In fact, it was a combination of those issues that resulted in Real’s winner.
Real broadly implemented their previous strategy of pressing high early on, then dropping deep. But the initial pressing wasn’t so heavy, nor was the drop-off so sudden and obvious. It was all much more controlled. Mourinho is seemingly happy with the way Real often use a ‘broken press’ – the front four close down, but then the two holding midfielders stand off and make sure they stay close to the defence. This has been obvious in the past couple of months and particularly at Bayern in midweek, and though it looks far from ideal, it’s happened so often that Mourinho must endorse it. It’s at odds with his usual insistence on being compact, and it can give Barca’s deep midfielders time on the ball, but it did result in a couple of Barca errors when passing out of the back.
That said, some level of compactness was retained by the fact Real didn’t drop too deep. Mourinho had famously held out against Barcelona in 2010 with Inter by telling his defence to play extremely close to goal, almost inside the penalty area. Here Real were braver with their positioning, and caught Barcelona offside five times. Only after Sanchez’s arrival did Barcelona have a real threat over the top (more on that later).
But this wasn’t a battle of formations, dependent upon one man getting space, or one side cleverly dominating a certain zone. Barca had more players in midfield, of course, but Real sat deep with six men behind the ball and let them play – Barcelona’s possession was 72%, but Mourinho wasn’t troubled by this. He made his side focus on cutting out balls into the final third, and was actually hoping Barcelona would come onto Real, in order to leave spaces at the back.
Lack of Barcelona cohesion
The real tactical issue, while not wanting to detract from Real’s excellent shape, was Barcelona’s lack of quality in attacking zones. Mourinho will have been delighted about how rarely his centre-backs were dragged out of position, yet also shocked about easy it was for them.
The main problem was the lack of support for Lionel Messi. Guardiola’s decision to go with two ‘true’ wide players on either flank meant Messi wasn’t going to receive much assistance in the penalty box from either of them – Tello stayed wide up against Alvaro Arbeloa, and although his finishes were very poor, he played the rest of his role reasonably well. Alves, on the other side, hugged the touchline more.
Therefore, with the Real defence stretched, runs had to come from midfield. Thiago played quite deep and seemed to have the job of playing in Busquets’ position when Busquets was busy with defensive tasks. Xavi Hernandez tried to get forward (and should have scored in the first half when Messi slipped a good pass through the defence) but Iniesta, the midfielder starting highest up, very rarely got into dangerous positions himself, and should have been doing more to get in advance of Messi when the Argentine dropped deep.
It was hugely surprising that Guardiola waited until 69 minutes to change his side, even when taking into account Alexis Sanchez’s injury. As soon as Sanchez arrived on the pitch, he had an impact – not necessarily with the goal itself, which was a scrappy effort, but with his initial run from a central position towards the right (exactly the run he kept making against Real earlier in the season) which distracted the defence and allowed Messi to run with the ball to the left, from where the chance was created.
Barcelona needed more runs – both vertical runs from the midfield to play an active part in things, and lateral runs from the forward line to test the positioning of the Real defence. Until then, it was a quiet night for the Real Madrid centre-backs. Messi’s false nine positioning wasn’t a problem, because even when one centre-back was drawn out, no-one looked to exploit the space Messi had created, and the other centre-back could cover comfortably. The one exception was the Xavi chance, when four Real players were attracted to Messi. These situations needed to be created more often.
With defence almost taking care of itself, Real’s true excellence was in their attacking play. With 28% possession it didn’t come in huge bursts, yet they had six shots on target, double Barcelona’s total. They didn’t need a player in the role Ramires played against Barcelona on Wednesday (tracking the full-back, then bursting past him), because Barcelona weren’t playing any full-backs. Instead, their breaks were more about interplay, like their goal in Munich, and they got four players in positions where they could break forward. Even when Busquets became a defender, Real could often attack four versus four, and Ozil was able to float laterally to pick up the ball and orchestrate these moves.
Counter-attacking is one way Barcelona can be exploited. Their other major problem is from set-pieces, and although their weakness in these situations is often overstated (they usually defend zonally very well), when they’re without Pique the problem is more severe. Eric Abidal would also help in these situations, as would Seydou Keita. Real were an obvious threat from corners and went ahead from their first, but they did well to simply win them in the first place – seven, compared to Barcelona’s four. It probably wasn’t a deliberate strategy, but it’s rare that an away side has so many corners at the Nou Camp.
Mourinho’s was delighted with the shape of his side, and basically only made straight swaps – the one exception was the introduction of central midfielder Esteban Granero for Di Maria, meaning Ozil went right, into the position he’d just created Ronaldo’s goal from anyway.
Guardiola made three switches. First there was Sanchez on for Xavi – he went upfront and Messi dropped deeper, more of a clear 3-3-1-3. Then Pedro replaced Adriano – a very attacking move in theory, but Alves retreated into the back three and Puyol swapped sides. Pedro offered a little more than Alves, who remains better at bombing forward rather than starting as a forward. Finally, Cesc Fabregas came on for Tello – Iniesta went into the forward three, but by this point Barcelona seemed to have lost belief.
Real would have celebrated a draw like it was a win – as Guardiola admitted before the game, a draw would have meant the end of Barcelona’s title hopes. But the symbolic importance of the Real victory shouldn’t be overlooked. Had Real won the title yet still failed to overcome Barcelona, they would have faced accusations they were simply better at swatting aside minnows, rather than a better team than Barcelona in direct confrontations. This result means there is no doubt – in this game, and in this season, Real were the more efficient side.
Their winning goal summed up what they have done so well all season – they broke quickly, directly and got Ronaldo into goalscoring positions despite him starting on the left. It was also reminiscent of the goal away in Valencia, which showed their ability on the counter-attack better than any other goal they’ve scored this season.
That directness was badly missing from Barcelona’s play, as was the integrated movement that has been so important in their attacking play under Guardiola. Here they were too dependent on Messi, and offered him very little support.