Barcelona 2-1 Real Madrid: Barca start well, lose control in the second half, then Martino belatedly makes changes to secure the game
Both managers made surprise selection decisions upfront, but Barcelona’s line-up worked better.
Gerardo Martino left out both Alexis Sanchez and Pedro Rodriguez, naming Cesc Fabregas as one of his three attackers.
Carlo Ancelotti omitted Karim Benzema and brought Gareth Bale into the side. Daniel Carvajal started at right-back, and three nominal three centre-backs were used: Pepe, Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos. Diego Lopez returned in goal.
Martino’s starting selection certainly worked better, but Real had a strong period after Ancelotti turned to his bench earlier.
The selection of Fabregas was a slight surprise, and it was particularly interesting to see the role he played. Rather than playing as a pure right-winger or as an additional central midfielder, he spent the game switching positions with Lionel Messi.
Fabregas spent more time in the central position, darting first in front of, then in behind Ramos in the holding role. Messi appeared more frequently on the right flank, involved in direct battles with Marcelo. Late in the first half, with Barca 1-0 up, he played a great one-two with Andres Iniesta before darting in behind Marcelo, and missed a one-on-one with Diego Lopez by a surprisingly large margin.
Often, Barcelona had no-one playing up against Real’s centre-backs, with both Fabregas and Messi coming deep to collect the ball. It meant they dominated possession, could get into dangerous positions between the lines, and also prevented Messi being crowded out by Real’s trio of centre-backs – he found space in the zone between Marcelo and Cristiano Ronaldo.
But this was also an area of weakness for Barcelona – without the ball. The fact Martino’s side had no permanent right-sided player meant Marcelo was often free, and Alves never had any support against Real’s left-winger (which was most frequently Ronaldo). Many of the away side’s attacks were played down that flank – most notably with Ronaldo’s cross for Khedira just before half-time.
Real fluid upfront
Ancelotti made two slightly surprising decisions. First, he omitted the off-form Benzema, with Bale coming into the side. This move seemed likely to push Ronaldo into a centre-forward position, a role he’s played nicely against Barca in the past.
Instead, however, there was more fluidity about Real’s front three. Ronaldo spent most time on the left wing in a familiar battle against Daniel Alves, and Bale started the game in a centre-forward position – although he dropped off and tried to occupy Sergio Busquets. He and Di Maria often switched positions, with Ronaldo sometimes joining in the interchanging, too.
But this seemed to dilute the influence of all three, and it was particularly surprising how infrequently Real managed to construct a counter-attack – whether that was because of the positional uncertainty of the front three, or because of the lack of ambition when playing the ball out from defence, is up for debate.
Real also suffered the same problem with pressing they encountered against Juve – no-one was backing up the front three.
Ramos as a holder
Perhaps more interesting decision from Ancelotti was his use of three centre-backs – and whereas Pepe would be the obvious option to deploy in the holding role, having played that role in the series of Clasicos in 2011, Ancelotti instead decided to use Ramos there.
This wasn’t a particularly successful move – Ramos handicapped himself with an early booking, and then committed a further two fouls early in the second half, which convinced Ancelotti to replace him. In open play, he was troubled by the fact he had no direct opponent to mark, and often strayed too far from the centre-backs he was supposed to be protecting. The constant rotation of Messi and Fabregas was particularly successful in this respect.
Defensive statistics can be misleading, but Ramos barely won the ball.
Barca centre-backs switch
An interesting, and unusual part of Barcelona’s gameplan was Martino’s decision to switch Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano’s positions at centre-back. Usually Pique plays to the right and Mascherano to the left – this time, it was the other way around. It was a minor change, but it’s extremely rare to see centre-backs switched for an individual game.
This decision was made to allow Mascherano to play against Ronaldo. Barcelona have previously seemed reluctant to use Pique up against Ronaldo because of his apparent lack of pace – in the 5-0 Clasico, Pique and Carles Puyol would frequently switch sides in the game depending upon whether Ronaldo was located right or left. This move was more permanent, and although Ronaldo had some bright moments in behind Alves, the change was broadly successful.
Iniesta v Khedira
The most interesting individual battle was Andres Iniesta’s clash against Sami Khedira in the centre of midfield. Khedira started by pressing Iniesta intensely, but the Barca playmaker was often able to slalom past his marker, and his creative potential became particularly important to the home side.
Iniesta was given the platform to play a prominent role in the final third because Busquets and Xavi Hernandez were dominating possession with relative ease from deep in midfield. With Fabregas and Messi also dropping deep to help connect midfield and attack, Iniesta didn’t have to position himself alongside Xavi to ensure Barca dominated the centre ground – he could concentrate on shuttling forward to turn Barcelona’s attacking trio into an attacking quartet.
Iniesta created more chances than any other player, including a dart forward for Neymar’s goal (reminiscent of his play for Samuel Eto’o’s opener in the 2009 European Cup final), the wall pass for Messi’s one-on-one opportunity, and the long diagonal for Neymar’s second half chance.
However, while Khedira struggled in a defensive sense, he often sprinted past Iniesta when Real were constructing attacks, and became a key goalscoring threat. In particular, he timed his runs into the box effectively to meet crosses – Ronaldo’s fine delivery from the left found him in the six-yard box, forcing Victor Valdes into a good save. He had more attempts than any other Real player.
With every other attacking player on the pitch drifting around into different zones, the role of Neymar was particularly distinct. He was told to stay wide on the left, stretching the play and attacking directly in behind Carvajal. On multiple occasions, once Barca found their passing moves had become too congested, and they’d tempted Real players towards the ball, they hit long diagonal passes out to the Brazilian.
That was obvious on a few occasions in the first half, and while Carvajal didn’t have a terrible game against Neymar, he certainly came off second best. Real will feel a touch unfortunate to have conceded the opener, which went through Carvajal’s legs and was deflected in, especially because they had cover throughout that move – Varane was the freest defender, and could sometimes double up behind Carvajal.
But when the attack was more direct, and Barca switched play quickly, Carvajal had no cover. Neymar’s chance at the start of the second half, coming from nothing more than a huge ball in behind Carvajal for a one-on-one with Diego Lopez, would have been an appropriate way for the game to be settled.
For all the (reasonable) talk that Barcelona are playing a less possession-orientated game because of Xavi’s declining influence, the central midfielder was a huge force in this game – rarely venturing into the final third, but dominating the game from a deep-lying role.
He completed 81 passes, which isn’t a particularly high total for Xavi – but it was 31 more than any other player, a staggering dominance of the passing statistics. This was partly because he spent long spells completely unoccupied – at the start of the game, Real tried closing him down with Modric, but his pressing dropped very quickly.
Xavi is very clever at finding space – consciously or unconsciously, he always drifts away from the player tracking him in the direction he know his opponent doesn’t want to move in. So when Jose Mourinho used Mesut Ozil on him during the 5-0 Clasico, Xavi pushed higher up, where Ozil was uncomfortable. Here, Modric was occupying him so Xavi moved deeper – Modric couldn’t push that high up, because Fabregas and Messi were buzzing around in that space behind him, and also because Real were sometimes letting Alves fly forward down that flank too.
And while Xavi didn’t create any chances, his passes were positive – the two most frequent recipients of his balls were Messi and Iniesta.
Real Madrid dominated the first part of the second half. After half-time, they pressed higher and won the ball back in more positive situations, putting Barcelona’s defence under a lot of pressure.
Asier Illarramendi had been disappointing against Juventus in midweek, but here Real improved significantly once he replaced Ramos in the holding role. While Real were on the front foot, Ramos’ distribution was very obviously rather limited from that position, and he was also in danger of collecting a second yellow card.
Illaramendi’s passing was quicker and Real’s interplay in the final third was much improved, because their holding midfielder was looking to play the ball forward into that zone:
Now they were regularly getting the ball into dangerous positions, Real threatened in a variety of ways. Crosses from the flanks continued to cause problems, substitute Benzema (on for Bale) found acres of space between the lines and he had a superb long-range effort thump the crossbar, while Barcelona constantly found their defence penetrated with through-balls.
The best chance fell to Ronaldo, who broke in behind Alves after Modric had regained possession quickly, a good example of Real being more proactive without the ball. But there were other dangerous moments – when Di Maria broke through the defence but miscontrolled, and when Ronaldo went to ground under pressure from Mascherano, who was the last defender.
Barca’s defence was being breached far too easily, and Busquets – magnificent so far this season – wasn’t doing enough to protect the back four.
Eventually, after heavy spells of Real pressure and multiple warnings, Martino made two substitutions and effectively won the game with these two moves.
First, he brought on Sanchez to play in Fabregas role – and the Chilean would later score the crucial secod goal with a brilliant chip at the end of a direct move.
But an equally important move was the decision to bring on Alex Song for Iniesta, which meant Barcelona played with a double screen in front of the defence for the final 20 minutes – they regained control of the game and Real’s chances dried up.
Substitute Jese, on for Di Maria down the right, scored a late consolation on the counter-attack in stoppage time. Real will be disappointed they didn’t construct more of these goals when the game was still alive.
“With Cesc, I wanted to give us more between the lines and for him to alternate positions with Messi,” he said. “When we saw the formation of Real Madrid, with Ramos at midfield, we opted to play one on one on the wing with Messi and Neymar.”
This move worked nicely – Fabregas and Messi always provided a forward passing option for Xavi, they combined neatly, and Messi found space in a pocket of space towards the right – he should have scored from that position. The only problem was without the ball, when sometimes Barca looked bare down that flank.
Martino also spoke of how the system “allowed Mascherano to run with Cristiano”, explaining the shift at the back.
With regard to bringing on Song, Martino said: “The Song-Iniesta sub was a defensive one, I won’t say that Song was supposed play as a number ten! It was a way to win the game and I’d do it again…in the first 20 minutes of the second half, I saw that we were too far back and giving the advantage to Real Madrid. We made changes to modify it and regain control, which improved our defence of the counter-attack.”
In one sense, Barcelona’s substitutions were perfect – one move to freshen up the attack, one move to protect the defence – and Martino deserves great credit. However, Real had rallied dangerously in the period before that, and Martino surely waited too long before addressing the problem.
Ancelotti explained his decision to play Ramos in midfield. “The aim was to put him there to have some balance in midfield. After the match against Juventus, Illarra had muscle fatigue and I didn’t want to risk him because he started the season with a serious injury. I talked to Sergio and he was happy to play in that position. He played well, and that is why he played there.”
But Martino’s decision to move Messi away from that zone worked nicely, and for long periods Ramos looked uncomfortable.
“[Bale] didn’t play badly during that hour,” Ancelotti said. “It doesn’t make much difference for him to play on the right or in the middle. We started like that to put more pressure on Busquets, but alter 20 minutes I changed his position to on the wing to give him more room.”
The decision to pressure Busquets made sense on paper, but had little real impact on the pitch – because Xavi was free, Barcelona simply used him as their deep-lying passer. Bale’s attacking impact was limited, but Real’s transitions out of defence weren’t great and Bale is still lacking match sharpness, so he shouldn’t be criticised too much.
Overall, this was simply a demonstration that Barcelona are more comfortable than Real under their new coach – Martino is using a familiar system and hasn’t needed to make major changes. On the other hand, Real seem like a side in transition and a couple of surprise, unsuccessful selection decisions didn’t help.
Barcelona 2-1 Real Madrid: Barca start well, lose control in the second half, then Martino belatedly makes changes to secure the game