Real Madrid 3-4 Barcelona: intelligent players find space in a crazily open match

March 24, 2014

The starting line-ups

Barcelona came out on top in a brilliantly topsy-turvy Clasico.

Carlo Ancelotti named his expected starting XI.

Gerardo Martino selected Neymar rather than Pedro Rodriguez or Alexis Sanchez as his second forward, and continued with Andres Iniesta tucking inside from the left, as he’s often done in big games.

This was the most fast-paced game you’ll see all season, with neither side controlling the game but both attacking relentlessly.

Overall pattern

Both fielded roughly their first-choice starting XI, and played attacking football throughout. Often the the pattern of these games has been rather stunted because everyone knows the situation – Barcelona will try to dictate the game, Real have to work out how to respond. That wasn’t the case here. Barcelona still had more possession, but Real did little to alter their regular tactics, and the first half, in particular, was simply about who could play better football.

The first half was played at such unbelievable speed it often defied analysis. The midfield zone, in particular, possessed an astonishing array of technical quality, with no true destroyers or runners, and almost every player in that zone being extremely good at using the ball quickly and efficiently.


A huge number of the attacks were direct breaks from deep positions – Real still retain a great counter-attacking edge, particularly considering the nature of their two star attackers, while Barcelona are more counter-attacking than at any point in the last six years, too.

This meant two things. First, the game was constantly end-to-end, and neither side ever enjoyed much control. Second, the goals didn’t occur in relation to the balance of the game at one particular moment. Often, one side were having a decent spell – and would end up conceding the next goal.

The tactical battle, in terms of formations, was difficult to pay too much attention to, such was the rapid nature of turnovers. Fabregas and Modric should have been tracking each other, but often didn’t. Marcelo and Neymar seemed happy to attack in advance of the other. Real conceded too much space between the lines, Barca too much in the wide areas. The game was a tactical shambles, but thrilling for the first 45 minutes.

Mascherano-Pique switch

There was only one interesting positional feature that was unquestionably the result of managerial design. Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique switched sides – Mascherano to the right, Pique to the left of the centre-back duo. This was almost certainly because Martino wanted Mascherano, rather than Pique, who lacks speed, to act as cover against Ronaldo. In the 5-0 Clasico in 2010, Pep Guardiola actually asked his centre-backs to switch according to which side Ronaldo was on – Puyol would follow him across when he switched flanks.

It was also interesting that Barcelona dominated possession so clearly (68%, albeit including a period when Real were down to ten men) considering Ancelotti has tried to pack his midfield with passers, and said he’d hope to win the midfield battle here. Instead, the confidence of Xavi Hernandez and Sergio Busquets in possession was crucial in asserting Barca’s control of possession – if not necessarily control of the game.

Di Maria

The first half’s key feature, and the most fascinating aspect in a long-term context, was the role of Angel Di Maria. He played as a shuttler on the left of Real’s midfield trio, and while he’s often regarded as a winger, excelling on the right of Jose Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1 by providing balance on the opposite flank to Ronaldo, he’s actually more at home in this deeper role. He made his name there at Benfica, and played a similar role for Argentina at the last World Cup.

Di Maria created Real’s first two goals, both finished expertly by Karim Benzema – and also teed up the Frenchman for what should have been his hattrick goal – Pique got back and blocked on the line. The interesting thing about Di Maria’s performance was that he essentially acted as a winger despite Real’s three-man midfield, with his drifts out to that flank unnoticed by Barca. Neymar was too high up the pitch to offer support, while Daniel Alves was sucked inside by Ronaldo, who was also troubling Mascherano.

It meant Di Maria continually got time out on that flank. He was able to cross unchallenged (for the first goal), or pick up speed before dribbling past opponents (for the other chances he made). No-one knew who was supposed to be stopping him. Xavi Hernandez was theoretically his closest opponent, but it feels unnatural for central players to track opponents into wider roles – it’s a simple, natural part of football that wide players track opponents inside, but central players let opponents go free when they drift wide. They protect the centre of the pitch.

But with teams increasingly protecting that central zone, it’s often easier to make progress down the flanks and cause overloads in those positions. That’s why the concept of the central winger is less ridiculous than it sounds – if you can create a 3 v 2 out wide, and a triangle to work the ball past the opposition, it’s difficult for them to get players out there to stop it.

Di Maria certainly hasn’t invented this concept – he’s not even the first to do something similar this week. In a sparkling performance against Olympiakos on Wednesday night, Ryan Giggs drifted out to the left from a central position, and was given all the time he liked to cross and find Wayne Rooney for a near-post header. Giggs has played that role before to great effect – he crossed unattended for Antonio Valencia’s opener against Arsenal two seasons ago, for example. James Milner caused Manchester United problems in a similar respect the previous season – right-winger David Silva drifted inside, central midfielder Milner constantly overlapped into space. Who picks him up?

Crossing isn’t in vogue at the moment, but that doesn’t mean using the flanks can’t be effective. One of David Moyes’ key training ground sessions involves creating 3 v 2 situations in wide areas, which is only possible (in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 system) if a central player moves wide. Moyes might not be the most fashionable coach at the moment, but the method worked well for him at Everton, often with Leon Osman moving wide to become the third wide player.

Rafael Benitez, meanwhile, has discussed a rise in the number of goals from cut-backs recently, and cutting the ball back is a way to create chances from wide without simply lobbing it into the box.

Di Maria’s performance here was the best possible example of this – the only problem, of course, was that by playing so aggressively he inevitably left his defence unprotected, and he therefore contributed to Real’s lack of control.

Messi role

Di Maria’s role might have been the most interesting, but he wasn’t the star performer. That honour fell to Lionel Messi, who scored a hattrick with two penalties and a well-taken snapshot. As ever, with Messi, his goalscoring record doesn’t do justice to his all-round contribution.

From the first five minutes, it was evident Real had no real plan for stopping him drifting into deeper positions. In fact, they seemed utterly surprised by the fact he continually took up those positions, despite the fact he’s done so in the past dozen Clasicos. Real have had various plans for stopping him in the past – sometimes a centre-back tracks him out, sometimes a defender is used in the holding role to stop him (often Pepe, but Sergio Ramos in the reverse fixture). Here, Real simply let him go, and he wreaked havoc with constant through-balls, particularly for Neymar. He’d set up Andres Iniesta for the opener within seven minutes.

Part of this was simply genius from Messi, but Real’s surprising lack of midfield structure was also a problem. Xabi Alonso got drawn higher up the pitch to close down opponents – particularly Cesc Fabregas, who did little on the ball himself, but along with Hernandez and Iniesta managed to overload Real in that zone, seemingly allowing Messi freedom a little higher up. Even then, Messi should have been closed down quicker. For the chance he created for Neymar after just three minutes, he had 25 yards of space to himself between the lines, and although that was an extreme example, it set the tone for the game.

This was the first time Real’s ultra-technical central midfield trio has really been exposed, and they needed a more defensively aware player in that zone. Supposedly, Alonso believes this 4-3-3 is too open against strong opposition, and thinks he needs more help defensively – if so, this game supports his case.

Not only were Real unable to handle Messi moving away from their defence, they also struggled to deal with his runs in behind – as shown by the ease he broke past the defence to receive a Fabregas pass after 15 minutes. Curiously, that was one of the few occasions the Real centre-backs ’split’, with Pepe moving high up the pitch to close down, but it’s the kind of thing they should have been doing when Messi was in front of them, rather when he was going in behind.


The third player who played an interesting role was Benzema. Usually, the Frenchman’s role at Real Madrid is to be the functional, unspectacular forward who is selfless so the likes of Bale and Ronaldo can star.

This was a complete role reversal. Were you watching Real Madrid for the first time, you’d think Bale, Ronaldo and Di Maria were in the side primarily to service Benzema with a stream of crosses and cut-backs. The vast majority came from Di Maria.

Benzema scored two fine goals, but probably should have had at least two more, and amazingly he had eight shots in total, despite playing just 66 minutes. While he’s probably played better for Real Madrid, this was his most dominant performance. The surprising thing was that Bale and Ronaldo were relatively quiet in a game which theoretically suited them, being about end-to-end, quick, direct football.

Second half

As so often, after a ludicrously open first half, the managers calmed things down at half-time, the tempo dropped after the break, and the second period was based around penalty decisions – two for Barca, one for Real.

Perhaps the key to the tactical battle was the first Barcelona penalty incident, because it resulted in the dismissal of Ramos for bringing down Neymar. Inevitably, Ancelotti had to bring on an extra centre-back, Raphael Varane, and he chose to take off Benzema – despite his obvious influence on the game. Real moved to a 4-4-1, with Ronaldo upfront and Di Maria now permanently on the left.

At this point, it was highly surprising Martino didn’t immediately bring on an extra attacker. He introduced Pedro Rodriguez, but in place of Neymar rather than in addition to him – he waited ten more minutes until bringing on Alexis Sanchez in place of Fabregas, and moving to a ‘proper’ 4-3-3.

On one hand Barca wasted this period of time, on the other Pedro had a good impact, primarily with his positioning and movement. He simply understands how to create space for others better than Neymar, and in the final period of the game Alves became an attacking force for the first time (partly, of course, because he wasn’t being overloaded by Ronaldo and Di Maria and could fly forward).

Alves hit the post with the score at 3-3, and his late impact was reminiscent of his display in the closing stages of the win at Manchester City, who were also down to ten men. When playing with a man disadvantage, the last player you’d want to play against is Alves, and he was much more attack-minded in the second half.


This could have gone either way. The game was extremely open, which made for a great spectacle, but it was so open that the tactical battle was barely discernible at points. It’s difficult to believe either manager was truly comfortable with this, which partly explains why the pace slowed after the break, once they’d had their chance to interfere.

The main lesson, in such a crazy game, is that  attackers with the greatest natural appreciation of space – Messi, Di Maria, Iniesta – are the ones who thrive. It’s doubtful Di Maria was instructed to play as he did, for example – he just realised the space was out wide, and shuttled out there to exploit it.

This was a players’ game rather than a coaches’ game – and the most talented player on the pitch, Messi, was the one who had the greatest impact.

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