Modric and Song arrivals indicate Barcelona and Real are thinking about each other’s style
Last night’s Supercopa match – a 2-1 win to Real, meaning they won the tie on away goals – highlighted the huge difference in playing style between the two sides.
Real dominated the game in the opening period when the match was frantic and direct. Constant long balls in behind the Barcelona defence produced numerous chances and a red card for Adriano, and Real could have been 4-0 up before Barcelona had even started playing.
But Barcelona dominated the second half, even with ten men, as Real dropped off and let Barcelona dictate the tempo. Barcelona’s passing is quick, in terms of going from player to player, but the speed of their attacks from back to front is very slow and patient.
Real aren’t in great shape physically, and therefore wouldn’t have been able to sustain their first half aggression all game, but it was probably a mistake to allow Barcelona to assert such dominance in the second period, especially as Real had a man advantage. The key tactical feature of the game was not about positioning, but about tempo.
Both sides were playing without their most expensive signing of the summer – Luka Modric for Real, Alex Song for Barcelona. The precise role of each player is uncertain, but both are more naturally suited to the other side – Modric is a short passer that Barca would probably buy if they didn’t already have so many players in that mould, Song is a physical defensive midfielder that more suits a combative Real midfield.
The two clubs haven’t chosen to indulge more in their own identity, but instead respond to the other’s strength.
For the second summer running, Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid have signed a top-class midfielder that doesn’t appear to slot into the side easily.
Luka Modric’s predecessor in this respect is Nuri Sahin, who found himself unwanted at Real after only a year at the club. Liverpool have got themselves an excellent midfielder, but Jose Mourinho’s admission that he “didn’t care” where Sahin went this season summed up quite how out of favour he was. Two substitute appearances and two starts (withdrawn at half-time in both) was a surprisingly small contribution for such a talented player, although the suspicion is that there was a ‘hidden’ reason Mourinho didn’t take to him.
Still, it’s a warning for Modric. Sahin arrived and there was no obvious role at the club for him – used instead of Xabi Alonso and Real would have been too fluid, used instead of Sami Khedira and Real wouldn’t have had enough battling quality in midfield.
Modric is a very different player from Sahin. He’s less vertical, he’s more composed and patient on the ball, and he’s probably more versatile with his role. Modric’s positional journey has been slightly odd – having broken through as a number ten, he was forced into a wider role in his early days at Tottenham, before eventually becoming one of the league’s best central midfielders. Modric suited Tottenham perfectly – under Harry Redknapp, Tottenham played with two out-and-out wingers in a 4-4-2 (and later 4-4-1-1), and a large part of Modric’s job was spreading the ball patiently from side to side, acting as a central pivot and a controlling playmaker rather than the one playing incisive balls.
But the main feature of his game is his composure. The midfielder at Real most similar to him, Alonso, is a less tidy player, and one who becomes particularly flustered in Clasicos because he lacks mobility. Alonso’s passing range is better, but in a quick game he lacks guile, he doesn’t have the ability to skip away from an opponent.
It is a game like last night’s that Modric would have thrived in. Whereas Real were clearly the better side in the first half when the game was frantic and Real played direct, they were unable to compete in midfield when the game became about Barcelona’s short, slick passing game, which is where Modric comes in.
Modric could replace any of Real’s three starting central midfielders from last year. Instead of Alonso he makes sense for aforementioned reasons, and this might change the positioning of Khedira. Because Alonso lacks mobility, Khedira becomes a more forward-playing combative midfielder, whereas alongside Modric the German would probably play a more reserved role – Modric plays higher up the pitch, and Khedira would cover the space in behind.
Equally, Modric could replace Khedira, with Alonso becoming the holder. This would only be appropriate for home games at the Bernabeu when Real are facing a parked bus. Alonso would provide long-range passes to the flanks, Modric’s balls would be quicker and more incisive – he would become something of a permanently central creative attacking midfielder, as Mesut Ozil scampers to the channels.
But maybe the key role for Modric will be, sometimes, in place of Ozil. Real’s most significant defeat last season came in the Champions League away at Bayern Munich, and the key difference in that first leg was the type of number ten on either side. Real’s was Ozil – creative, forward-thinking and excellent on the break, trying to look for clever balls into the channels to work on. Bayern’s was Toni Kroos, who played much deeper – he dropped into midfield, provided an extra man and gave Bayern control of the game.
It’s that control that Real can lack, especially against Barcelona. Ozil could be pushed to the flank, as was the case in Clasicos during Mourinho’s first season and in the Bayern game, or he could also be benched. Either way, Modric will provide a deeper option.
On paper, Modric doesn’t fit naturally into any of Real’s three central midfield roles from last season. But that is entirely the point – he provides something different to the existing options, and can reasonably replace any of Alonso, Khedira and Ozil in different circumstances.
Song’s transfer was a slightly surprising move from Barcelona. Essentially, he is filling two roles – first, in Barcelona’s continued determination not to sign a traditional centre-back, they required a centre-half who could either play at the back, or as a holding midfielder. Javier Mascherano fitted that brief two years ago, and although he looked uncomfortable in defence for a while, last season he was more reliable than Gerard Pique.
The second role was a replacement for Seydou Keita. The Malian international was clearly a fine footballer – his pass completion rate last season was 92% – and in another side, a less technical side, he would probably be the most gifted midfielder. However, in a Barcelona team with the best midfielders in the world, his main job was at Barcelona’s most physical player. “He is a great player, very strong and physical,” says Sergio Busquets. Guardiola was an absolutely huge fan of Keita, going as far as describing him as his “ethical and moral barometer” throughout his four years in charge.
Whether Song can provide that is questionable, but he broadly fits both tactical roles. He’s not as skilled at the first as Barcelona’s first choice target Javi Martinez, nor as committed as Keita for the second vacancy. But as a compromise, he makes sense.
Song had three different roles at Arsenal in three years. In 2009/10 he played at the base of a midfield triangle, generally behind Denilson, a distributor, and Cesc Fabregas, who became increasingly attack-minded. In 2010/11 things changed, with Jack Wilshere coming into the team alongside Song, and Fabregas ahead. Song and Wilshere worked as a double pivot, each taking it in turns to go forward, with the other dropping back accordingly. In 2011/12 there was another switch, with Song forming a more fluid midfield three along with Mikel Arteta and either Tomas Rosicky or Aaron Ramsey. Then, Song often ended up as the highest midfielder, and recorded 11 assists, the fourth-highest in the Premier League behind David Silva, Juan Mata and Antonio Valencia.
That final season was probably crucial in convincing Barcelona to sign Song. Whereas Real have a much broader squad encompassing a wide range of styles, Barcelona remain largely committed to the Cryuff ideal – and rightly so, considering Guardiola’s great success. The player to replace Keita had to be a footballer as well as a physical, mobile, energetic battler. Song was the best fit for the functional role, from a list of players who could also play tiki-taka.
But it’s nevertheless significant that Vilanova felt the need to replace Keita. Guardiola almost always used him as a substitute, and despite never being a regular, Keita featured a lot. In 2010/11 he was Barcelona’s most-used player – he played in 35 of 38 La Liga games, 9 of 9 Copa del Rey games, 9 of 13 Champions League games. He provided a burst of energy and kept the intensity high.
Maybe it’s no coincidence that Song’s medical at Barcelona received more attention than usual. Do we usually find out specific conclusions from a medical? “He has a very low body fat percentage and very good muscle quality. All the tests have come out satisfactorily and he is available to the coach,” Barcelona’s doctor revealed.
For all the bitterness between the clubs, Guardiola admired Real’s physicality and battling qualities. Their title win was summed up not by the win at the Nou Camp, but the win at the Mestalla when Real bloody-mindedly won six consecutive individual contests on the way to a crucial counter-attacking goal. For all Barcelona’s technical brilliance, they need some aggression at points too.
In last night’s game, Modric’s major contribution and Song’s major contribution were in the same passage of play. In the 91st minute, Modric nipped in ahead of Xavi Hernandez to nick the ball, laid it off quickly, then motored into the penalty box, got the return pass, and shot at goal. Song was there to block it.
It sums up the qualities each will bring to their new club this season – Modric is a central midfielder with quick feet and good spatial awareness, while Song is there to do the dirty work. Depending on how much the two players feature, this season may see convergence of the two teams in terms of style.