Real Madrid 1-1 Barcelona: Real press excellently but tire and allow Barca chances

January 31, 2013

The starting line-ups

Real pressed effectively in the first half, but Barcelona exerted their dominance after the break.

With various absences, Jose Mourinho was forced to name a makeshift backline – Ricardo Carvalho played alongside Rafael Varane, Alvaro Arbeloa had to play left-back, so Michael Essien deputised on the right. New signing Diego Lopez started in goal, Jose Callejon was in for the suspended Angel Di Maria, and Kairm Benezema got the nod upfront.

Barcelona assistant coach Jordi Roura chose Jose Manuel Pinto in goal, as is customary in the Copa del Rey. Otherwise, the side was roughly as expected – many would say that this is Barcelona’s current strongest XI, with Daniel Alves showing signs of improvement after a poor 2012.

Real were brave with their early pressing and probably had the better of the first half, but Barcelona increasingly found space after half-time.

Real press

The inevitable main question – would Real sit back, or come out and take on Barcelona? After some indecision from Mourinho in his first few Clasicos in this respect, it’s now accepted that Real’s best chance of causing Barcelona problems is if they press in the opening minutes. And ‘opening minutes’ seems the key, because Real have traditionally started very strongly against Barcelona in the Mourinho era – there was Karim Benzema’s goal after 20 seconds of the December 2011 Clasico at the Bernabeu, a match Barcelona eventually won 3-1. Barca need time to get settled and into their passing rhythm.

Therefore, predictably, Real tried to prevent them settling. Again, Real caused significant problems in the very first minute, when Xabi Alonso won the ball from Pedro Rodriguez, released Cristiano Ronaldo, and he was brought down on the edge of the box by Gerard Pique. That set the tone for the opening 20 minutes – Real winning the ball quickly, Barcelona failing to deal with the pressure.

Midfield

Real’s pressing was fairly standard in its implementation. The front four moved forward to press Barcelona’s back four, while Alonso generally looked to Xavi Hernandez and Sami Khedira was often forced to be more aggressive and get tight to Sergio Busquets, although Real looked more comfortable when Benzema or Mesut Ozil prevented passes being played into Busquets’ feet and Khedira could stay deeper, because this prevented them from leaving a huge gap between midfield and defence.

The Real full-backs stayed very tight to the Barcelona wide players – Arbeloa always does that anyway, but in the first half this forced Pedro very deep into his own half, where he fell into Alonso’s pressing zone. Essien, meanwhile, did a fine job against Andres Iniesta – it was a contest effectively between two central midfielders taking place in a wide zone, but Essien was happy to come inside and track Iniesta’s typical drifts inside.

Barca counters

That, however, meant Real sometimes had problems with Jordi Alba’s forward bursts. Callejon is a decent back-up winger, but lacks Di Maria’s defensive abilities, and Alba got in behind for an early volleyed chance that he screwed wide. With Real pushing so many men forward into the opposition half, Barcelona were forced into an unusual counter-attacking approach that generally involved one of the full-backs pushing forward down the flank, and Cesc Fabregas charging forward from his ‘anarchic’ midfield role. Real didn’t really know how to deal with Fabregas, especially when Khedira was drawn upfield, and the former Arsenal midfielder always seems a good option in Clasicos.

Still, Real continued to play the majority of the game in Barcelona’s half, and created some good chances – for Benzema, for example – when winning the ball quickly. Barcelona played one-twos – they always do – but they found it difficult to move the ball forward in doing so. A defender would pass into the midfield zone, then Xavi or Busquets would be afraid to turn, return the ball and Barca would be back at square one. The away side tried to cope by pushing their entire team deep to provide more short passing options, then getting those same players to spin in behind as midfield runners – but by placing so many players within their own half, it limited the space Real had to press, making it easier for them.

Lionel Messi was relatively quiet, dropping increasingly deep from a right-of-centre false nine role. Carvalho has always tried to stick tight to Messi in these games; when Messi was ‘between the lines’ the Portuguese centre-back followed him, but when he dropped past Alonso or Khedira, he was allowed to go free. Meanwhile, Varane was given a ’sweeper’ job, asked to tidy up behind Varane, often to halt the runs of Fabregas or Pedro, and played the role superbly.

Late in the first half, as Barca had some possession, Alves started to get past Cristiano Ronaldo, forcing the latter to foul the Brazilian on one occasion – risky, as he would have missed the second leg through suspension.

Second half

The second half was played in a different manner – Barcelona’s usual dominance of possession was more obvious, and equally crucial was that they played more of the game in Real Madrid’s half.

An important change, as odd as it might sound, was the fact Barcelona kicked off. Having been rattled in the first minute of the first half by Real (something they never seemed to recover from) Barcelona kept the ball for the first 80 seconds of the second period – going nowhere, knocking the ball around in defence and midfield, happy to slow the game and assert their dominance. That spell was brought to a halt with Essien’s tackle on Iniesta in a typically central position, considering it was a ‘wide’ battle.

Barcelona chances

But still, this half was about Barcelona – partly because Real’s pressing dropped. There was less intensity from the front four, and a significantly lower level of closing down from Khedira and Alonso in midfield, possibly because they’d become increasingly concerned with Fabregas’ freedom.

Barca’s opener came from an atypical event: Barcelona (and more specifically, Messi) winning possession in the opposite half – their pressing was barely noticeable at some points. But the goal did arrive with Fabregas getting in behind the defence, and this became a clear problem for Real – they continued to play a high defensive line, but had no pressure on the ball. At 0-1, Fabregas got in for another chance from a simple through-ball from Iniesta, who had all the time he liked to look up and chip the ball over the defence from a central position (that wouldn’t have happened in the first half). Fabregas was stopped by a superb Varane tackle, but more runners got in behind later – Messi, who was flagged offside to Roura’s disgust, and Pedro, who chipped the ball wide of the far post.

Modric

Mourinho was unable to stop this completely, but he did help the situation by introducing Luka Modric, in place of Callejon. Real were losing the midfield battle, and Ozil wasn’t helping defend, so Modric came on and immediately offered renewed energy and tenacity in the centre of the pitch, winning possession after 30 seconds on the field, and providing another body in a central zone to close down.

Now, the game became very open. Roura failed to change things significantly from the bench, but Barcelona continued to break quickly and exploit the space in behind, and Alves became an attacking threat once again, breaking past Ronaldo to cut the ball back for Fabregas, whose shot shaved the crossbar.

Real created chances too: Ozil went to the right after Modric’s arrival (his control near the touchline was extraordinary at one point) and Real became dangerous down that flank – Ozil played a pass across the six-yard box towards Ronaldo that was brilliantly cleared by Pique, while Essien delivered a great cross to Ronaldo from the far side, too.

In the end, it was a set-piece that got Real back in it – a header from Varane. He was probably the game’s outstanding performer, and it was a fitting end to the game.

Conclusion

Barcelona probably created more clear-cut chances, yet it felt like Real deserved something from this game. They pressed Barcelona excellently in the opening period, although they had two problems – (a) that level of pressing was unsustainable for 90 minutes, and they were always likely to face a backlash in the second half, and (b) they failed to take fully advantage of winning the ball so frequently in the opposition half – Ronaldo and Benzema were both quiet, and Real didn’t score in their period of dominance.

Barcelona’s attacking was forced to be more direct than usual – the full-backs sprinted towards goal to good effect, choosing their moments to venture forward and catching out Real’s wide players. Fabregas, too, was a constant attacking weapon in that roaming free role – his understanding with Messi is brilliant, and against a side leaving space in behind the defence, he becomes very difficult to stop.

Real Madrid 1-1 Barcelona: Real press excellently but tire and allow Barca chances

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