Real Madrid 2-1 Barcelona: Mourinho rests multiple players but replicates midweek strategy

March 3, 2013

The starting line-ups

Sergio Ramos nodded in a late winner, as Real beat Barca for the second time in a week.

Jose Mourinho rested his entire midfield and attack ahead of the game against Manchester United, and reshuffled in defence, too.

Jordi Roura was without Xavi Hernandez so played Thiago Alcantara. He played Javier Mascherano instead of Carles Puyol, and David Villa rather than Cesc Fabregas.

This was the sixth Clasico of the season and the third in the last five weeks. On the basis that (1) This wasn’t a particularly important game for Real and (2) A usual tactical review would go over a lot of old ground, here are ten bitesize points.

1. Familiar Real shape

Mourinho may have rested the vast majority of his best players, but the shape and feel of the side was very similar to the XI that triumphed confidently at the Camp Nou in midweek. Jose Callejon did a passable Angel Di Maria impression, motoring up and down the line to nullify Jordi Alba’s influence, while on the opposite side Alvaro Morate is in the Cristiano Ronaldo mould – big, strong and aggressive with his positioning.

In midfield, too, Luka Modric was fielded to the left in the Xabi Alonso role, while Pepe was given license to move forward in the manner of Sami Khedira. Kaka connected midfield and attack like Mesut Ozil, although he probably played deeper without the ball and stayed more central. Everything was designed so Real could repeat their midweek performance, and although there was an inevitable drop in quality because this was largely a reserve XI, it worked pretty well.

2. Real’s opener

Alves’ defending for Real’s first goal looked extremely sloppy – Morata received possession and went down the outside, where Alves gave him plenty of time to send a cross towards Karim Benzema at the far post.

Maybe it was just terrible defending, but it looked very much like Alves didn’t know about Morata’s characteristics. Alves got himself in a position to block the Ronaldo-style cut-inside-and-shoot, but Morata was happy to cross the ball with his left foot. Bad defending, or a lack of research?

3. Morata chance

However, later in the first half Morata had a completely free header, which he sent into the near post side-netting, after a good deep cross from Modric on the right. This is something Barcelona have struggled with in recent weeks – Alves being brought too narrow, and a ball over his head towards the far post – they’ve conceded at least four goals in 2012 because of this, and it might be something future opponents can continue to exploit.

4. Barcelona passing rhythm

Barcelona’s passing at the start of the match was quicker and more varied than in recent weeks (when they’ve spent too long on the ball in midfield, and looked short of forward passing options). Here, there was still a problem with a lack of penetration, but with Iniesta in the middle and the play stretched on the left, Barcelona seemed more natural in the way they moved the ball across the centre of the pitch.

5. Pepe/Ramos/Essien positioning

Pre-match teamsheets suggested Michael Essien would play in midfield, Sergio Ramos would be at right-back, and Pepe would be at centre-back. In a way, all three would be more natural in those positions.

Why did Mourinho play with Essien right-back, Ramos centre-back and Pepe in midfield? Maybe for Pepe’s strength in midfield – he did a great job there two years ago after a couple of games where Real had struggled with Barcelona’s midfield passing – but it was probably mainly because of Ramos. He’ll be used alongside Varane against Manchester United in midweek, and Mourinho probably wanted to pair them together, to further their understanding as a partnership.

6. Don’t let Real counter!

There was a strange moment midway through the first half when Pepe went down injured on the halfway line, and Real put the ball out of play so he could receive medical attention. In returning the ball to Real, Barca essentially ‘kicked for touch’ (to use a rugby expression) and thumped the ball downfield, giving Real a throw-in level with their own six-yard box. Barcelona then pressed them, boxing them into the corner.

But is that not the kind of situation Real relish, with their counter-attacking power? Barca committed eight men into the opposition half, and Real had space to break into. They successfully retained possession from the throw, then briefly broke two-against-two before Kaka miscontrolled. Against most sides it’s a logical tactic, but versus Real it’s not particularly helpful.

7. Villa helps press

David Villa did little with the ball, but his permanent positioning on the left helped Barcelona press – the side was able to move forward more naturally as a unit, without the confusion about Iniesta and Fabregas’ positioning. His work rate was also good – Lionel Messi’s first-half chance, when he shot straight at Diego Lopez with his right foot, came after Villa’s pressure forced Michael Essien into a misplaced pass.

8. Barcelona ambition drops

It’s easy to say in hindsight, after Barca conceded a very late goal – especially as they would have been entirely happy with a point. But having started the game moving the ball across the pitch quickly, Barcelona’s tempo dropped dramatically midway through the first half, to the point where they weren’t even attempting to score a second.

Yes, their long passing sequences are part of their gameplan, and ‘one-twos’ feature heavily, but when Messi and Iniesta played a ’seven-eight’ in a position deeper than Real’s central midfield after 31 minutes, you couldn’t help think they were settling for a point rather early. If anyone can pass to a draw, it’s Barcelona – but it didn’t work here.

9. Real set-pieces

Varane nodded in on Wednesday night, Ramos did it again here. Barcelona’s aerial weakness is nothing new – but without Puyol it’s even more obvious. Even if they weren’t always regulars, players like Seydou Keita, Eric Abidal, Yaya Toure, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thierry Henry were often in the side to help defend set-pieces if necessary – now Barcelona don’t have anyone like that, with the exception of Alex Song, who has yet to prove useful.

10. Ronaldo shots

We know Ronaldo shoots a lot, but this was something else – in only half an hour on the pitch, Ronaldo managed six shots – no-one else managed more than three in the entire game.

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