Barcelona 1-3 Real Madrid: Real comfortable defensively and ruthless on the break

February 27, 2013

The starting line-ups

Barcelona suffered their second major defeat within the space of a week, and Real are through to the Copa del Rey final.

Jordi Roura brought in Jose Pinto for Victor Valdes in goal – as always in this competition. The rest of the side was the same as against Milan with both Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta in the side, despite David Villa’s impact against Sevilla at the weekend.

Jose Mourinho chose Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos at centre-back, with Pepe on the bench. Gonzalo Higuain, as expected, started upfront.

Real outplayed Barcelona. Their defensive shape was good, their breaks were typically direct and efficient. 3-1 didn’t flatter them.

Real positive without the ball

In previous Clasicos Real have pressed heavily from the start of the game and dominated the opening ten minutes by forcing Barcelona to concede possession cheaply. Real’s approach was a little less aggressive here, and they followed Milan’s lead of pressing in midfield rather than sitting deep and inviting continual pressure – at least at the start of the game.

The danger with this approach, however, is that a reasonably high defensive line was necessary. Real were torn apart in the 5-0 Clasico because Barcelona ripped their high line to shreds – Lionel Messi coming deep and threading the ball through the defence for the wide forwards. In this match, there was surprisingly little threat in behind the defence from Barcelona, primarily because of the Andres Iniesta-Cesc Fabregas problem on the left, which continues to frustrate.

On the opposite flank, Pedro Rodriguez offers speed and clever runs, but he stayed in a very wide position and therefore wasn’t a direct goal threat – he only got in behind the defence once, in the second minute when creating a chance for Messi, and even this was after he’d checked back and beaten Fabio Coentrao.

Real midfield play

The midfield strategy was similar to Milan’s in theory, if not in actual positioning. Milan played a 4-3-3, Real are 4-2-3-1, which meant the format of the midfield was different, but considering that Milan (like Chelsea and Celtic) often brought their deepest midfielder forward in advance of the other two, maybe it didn’t make that much difference.

There was another familiar theme – Real’s happiness to leave space between their defence and midfield lines, seemingly confident no Barcelona player would move into that zone unattended. Sami Khedira was given the freedom to press the player in his zone – generally Fabregas, who played deeper than against Milan, while Xabi Alonso got tight to Xavi Hernandez, forcing him into backwards passes.

Messi tried to drop into that zone a couple of times, particularly towards the right, but Ramos moved up and stuck tight to him, with Varane becoming the spare man. Messi had a couple of opportunities to turn and run at the Real defence, but overall they limited his influence.

Alonso positioning

Alonso deserves a huge slice of credit for Real’s performance. He’s struggled in many Clasicos, unable to live with Barcelona’s rondos because he’s not a natural tackler, and unable to assert his influence on the game in an attacking sense because of Barca’s pressing. For such an elegant midfield creator, he often becomes a scrapper in these fixtures.

But this was an absolutely superb display. Alonso managed to help nullify two Barcelona players simultaneously – he positioned himself cleverly in front of the defence to prevent forward passes being played into Messi’s feet, yet also stayed alert to the danger of Xavi, always in a position to charge up the pitch and pressure him. Then when Xavi had distributed the ball, Alonso would drop back and get in front of Messi. That freedom to move vertically stemmed from Real’s willingness to leave space in front of the defence.

Again, when Real lost 5-0 at the Camp Nou, Alonso was told to stay deep and Ozil was given the responsibility of tracking Xavi – Xavi moved higher up, Alonso had to react late, Messi became free. Tonight’s tactic – albeit after several subsequent experiences of facing Barca – worked much better.

Equally vital was Alonso’s communication. It’s worth re-watching the first 15 or 20 minutes of the game and solely concentrating on Alonso – not just for his positioning, but for his constant pointing and shouting at his centre-backs. That was crucial considering the partnership at the back – Varane, a youngster who has been primarily used in home matches, and hadn’t played at the Camp Nou before, and Ramos, a terrific defender but one who can be dragged out of position too easily by Messi and Barcelona.

Alonso dispossessed Xavi on the edge of the Real box for the first goal, which summed up his dominance of that contest.

Wide positions

In wider areas, Angel Di Maria sat deep while Cristiano Ronaldo stayed higher up – in fact, he was Real’s most advanced player over the course of the game. This has always been the case for Real, but Barcelona’s shift in full-back play has actually played into Real’s hands – Jordi Alba is now more permanently involved in attacks than Daniel Alves, and Di Maria is the better player to take care of Barcelona’s attacking threat. Previously, Mourinho had sometimes felt obliged to switch Ronaldo and Di Maria, allowing the Argentine to deal with Alves, but forcing Ronaldo away from his preferred position. That is no longer necessary.

Ronaldo’s battle against Alves is always key in these matches. Early on the Brazilian broke past Ronaldo to provide an overlap and cross, but even when this happened Real weren’t hugely concerned – they had a spare defender, after all, and Alves’ advanced positioning meant Pedro had moved central to be looked after by the centre-backs.


Besides, it left Ronaldo free to break. Barcelona gave him too many opportunities to run one-against-one on  counter-attacks throughout the game – sometimes against Alves, but often against one of Real’s centre-backs instead, in more central areas. Considering Ronaldo is unquestionably Real’s main attacking weapon, it was somewhat surprising Barcelona found themselves so exposed to his runs, but there was some subtle, good movement and passing from Higuain and Ozil.

Higuain didn’t have a superb game, but he either stayed towards the right side of the pitch, forcing Barca’s centre-backs towards that side, or started left and made runs across them, moving them away from Ronaldo. That’s something Real do very cleverly, as explained here.

Ozil, meanwhile, played an understated role but made typically clever movements throughout. Those two players’ contribution for the move that resulted in the penalty for Barca’s first (Ozil’s lob over Sergio Busquets’ head, Higuain’s through-ball past Puyol for Ronaldo to chase) may be simple technically, but showed a great understanding of what Real needed to do when they won possession – get the ball past their opponent as quickly as possible, taking players out of the game.

Average position diagram, courtesy of, for Barcelona (left) and Real Madrid (right). Three interesting features include Iniesta (8) and Fabregas (4) so close together, Ronaldo (7) being Real's highest player, and Ramos (4) slightly higher than Varane (2) as he moved towards Messi

Iniesta – Fabregas problems

At the risk of repeating what was said following the Milan game, Roura’s continued use of Fabregas and Iniesta in these roles was hugely surprising. Iniesta stayed nearer the touchline while Fabregas floated around in a more central position, but they often got in each others’ way, and Iniesta seems unable to influence the game significantly while Fabregas is taking up his space.

There was one perfect example of the problem, after 10 minutes. Pinto claimed the ball and immediately chucked it long to Iniesta, for Barcelona to break three-against-three. Fabregas started slightly inside of Iniesta, but then made a lazy, casual run into the same ‘vertical’ piece of space as him. He needed to either burst through the middle to provide the potential for a forward pass in behind the defence, or charge to the outside (as Ozil would certainly have done) to stretch the play and allow Iniesta to come inside. In the end, he offered nothing, and Iniesta had to check back, winning a foul from Khedira.

That problem – two players on top of each other – would never have happened under Pep Guardiola. He was insistent on training drills involving ‘boxes’ which forced Barcelona to always cover space effectively – when one man came into your zone, you moved out into another zone. It provides the man in possession with a number of options on the ball, it stretches the play and therefore the opposition defence, and it distributes players across the pitch evenly so Barcelona can press effectively immediately (something also lacking this season). It’s far from unique, and in many ways very basic, but clever spatial distribution was a key part of Guardiola’s strategy, yet so absent here.

Amazingly, using Fabregas and Iniesta so close seems to constrain Barcelona in three separate ways – it doesn’t provide a permanent third central midfielder to help dominate the middle of the pitch, it doesn’t stretch the opposition enough laterally, and it doesn’t offer penetration in behind the defence. Alvaro Arbeloa stuck tight to Iniesta – getting booked towards the end of the first half, which made that approach less possible after the break, but generally coped with him well.

Villa was desperately needed on the left. It was interesting that Messi had commented on Villa’s impact against Sevilla at the weekend, saying, “With Villa up front in the second half, Sevilla’s centre backs couldn’t move forward, which gave me more space.” He hasn’t always worked well with Villa, but would surely have been disappointed to see him on the bench here.

Pattern continues after the break

It was odd that Roura left Barcelona unchanged for the start of the second half, but entirely predictable that the pattern would continue. Barcelona didn’t make the angles for incisive passing, while Real continued to counter-attack. Ronaldo’s second, on 57 minutes, came after another break and before Barcelona had made a change. Barca now needed to score three goals.

At last, Villa replaced Fabregas – but Barcelona quickly conceded another goal, this time a Varane header from a set-piece. Tello replaced Pedro on the right, and now Barcelona had two direct, fresh wide forwards trying to run in behind. Real sat deeper as a result.

But Barcelona now needed four goals, and the tie was effectively over – Mourinho made three logical substitutions, each time introducing a more defensive player in place of the man he was withdrawing. Alba scored an 89th minute consolation, significant only because he was offering forwards runs in behind the defence from the left, something Barcelona should have offered from the outset, through Villa.


It’s worth remembering why Barcelona find themselves in this situation – their manager is recovering from cancer, and Roura haw found himself in a job he doesn’t want, forced to cope with pressure and responsibility without warning. It would be extremely harsh to criticise him strongly considering the circumstances – it’s more polite, perhaps, to simply say that Barcelona are missing Tito Vilanova and his tactical ability, particularly his ability to change matches in-play, which was apparent even in Guardiola’s reign.

That shouldn’t take anything away from Real’s performance: they defended with a brave high line and the midfielders pressed energetically, with Alonso helping to stop both Messi and Xavi with superb positioning. They, like Milan, scored their goals in the expected fashion against Barcelona – two from counter-attacks, one from a set-piece.

And how important is experience of playing Barcelona? Barca’s two key defeats this week have come against sides now accustomed to facing them – Milan played them four times last season, Real Madrid six times. After ‘aggregate’ defeats in 2011/12, maybe Allegri and Mourinho have learnt lessons for 2012/13.

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