Real Madrid 2-1 Barcelona: Bale shines in Ancelotti’s counter-attacking 4-4-2

April 17, 2014

The starting line-ups

Gareth Bale scored a sublime late winner to win the Copa del Rey.

Carlo Ancelotti was without Cristiano Ronaldo, which meant Isco coming into the side. He also used Iker Casillas, his cup goalkeeper.

Tata Martino returned to the system he favoured in the Champions League matches against Atletico, with Andres Iniesta on the left and Cesc Fabregas in midfield. Neymar was given another chance.

Real played an extremely reactive, counter-attacking system, and were forced to withstand long periods of pressure – but they created better chances on the break.

Real shape

The most surprising thing about the starting line-ups was that Real Madrid were basically playing a 4-4-2 system, rather than the 4-3-3 Ancelotti has used for much of the campaign. That said, the formation they used in the previous Clasico, a 4-3 defeat, became something of a 4-4-2 at times when Ronaldo drifted inside and Di Maria overlapped, and Ancelotti had started the campaign with a a 4-4-2, too.

This system probably surprised Barcelona. Bale was expected to begin on the right but instead played as a second striker, starting from an inside-left position. Angel Di Maria played on the right flank and was the most energetic Real player, effectively a midfielder without the ball and an attacker in possession – he darted forward to open the scoring after a brilliant counter-attack.

What was most striking about Real’s system, though, was how closely it resembled the shape Atletico successfully deployed against Barcelona. They played in two deep banks of four, and depended upon the wide players to burst forward to support the attackers. Isco, primarily seen as a playmaker, showed all the defensive aggression of Atletico’s two wide players, making nine tackles (three more than anyone else) despite being on a booking from the third minute. In all likelihood, Ancelotti did his homework, saw the Atletico approach, and replicated it as closely as possible.

Alves poor in possession

Real’s counter-attacking opener originated from a mistake by Daniel Alves in an advanced position, and it wasn’t the only time where he conceded possession cheaply, allowing Real Madrid to counter-attack quickly. The situation at the back, with Barca’s (rather unconvincing) centre-backs playing two-against-two, meant any cheap concessions of possession immediately put Barca under pressure.

Like in the matches against Atletico, Alves always seemed to be the player in space. He had more touches of the ball, 126, than any other player in the game – but yet again, he didn’t always have an obvious target in the middle. It was the same old problem – Neymar was on his flank, so hardly a crossing target, Lionel Messi was in deeper positions, and there was no true left-winger on the far side. Amazingly, twice the man getting on the end of Alves’ crosses was Jordi Alba, who had a decent headed effort and then knocked the ball down for Andres Iniesta’s blocked shot. But Alves and Alba in such advanced positions inevitably caused Barcelona problems further back.


The player who encountered serious positional difficulties was surprisingly Sergio Busquets, usually immaculate in his holding role, excellent at reading the game, and intelligent in reacting to opposition attacks and positioning himself accordingly.

Here, however, he didn’t seem to understand the system he was playing against. It was as if he’d been expecting to play against a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1, and therefore have the responsibility of pushing up to press an opposition central midfielder, denying them time on the ball. Here, he kept on charging up the pitch to pressure opponents, but Xabi Alonso and Luka Modric were positioned very deep, and therefore not in a natural zone for him to press.

Busquets has become increasingly mobile and proactive without the ball, but here his presence was needed in deeper positions. For a start, Barcelona were often two-against-two at the back, and therefore the centre-backs would have appreciated some support. Instead, there was often too much space in front of the defence, allowing Benzema to come short and receive possession easily.

In at least three situations in the first half, Busquets was caught out and left his defence unattended. The most obvious example was on 35 minutes, when Busquets charged down Di Maria extremely high up the pitch, and as Di Maria turned and played a simple ball to Isco drifting between the lines, Busquets was on the same horizontal ‘line’ as Fabregas and Xavi Hernandez, his two midfield colleagues. This meant fully 25 yards of space for Isco to exploit – he ran with the ball, had Bale and Benzema as options, and eventually only a brilliant Alba blocd prevented Isco from putting Real 2-0 up.

Barcelona have structural issues as a whole – they don’t press cohesively, they don’t cover space effectively, and the defenders are frightened to push up and keep the side compact. Busquets can’t be blamed for those problems, but his inability to compensate with his usual intelligent defensive play was surprising. In the second half he played much deeper, but even here he made errors – at one point he found himself covering for Javier Mascherano on the left of the centre-back pairing, but allowed Bale to come inside onto his left foot far too easily to shoot.

Barcelona go 4-3-3

It took until the hour mark before Martino switched to a proper 4-3-3 system, and immediately Barcelona put more pressure upon Real’s backline. Neymar was much more lively from his favoured left-sided role, forcing Pepe to come across and make a crunching last-ditch tackle at one point, while Pedro Rodriguez (who had replaced Fabregas, inevitably) provided some liveliness from the right, even if he was often collecting the ball in deep positions rather than running in behind, and was a little clumsy in possession.

Marc Bartra headed the equaliser from a corner, and then Barcelona had a 15-minute spell of pressure where they genuinely seemed the more likely side to score the crucial third goal. Again, however, it’s tough to credit Martino for this switch when it’s obvious that Fabregas in the side, and this ‘modified’ 4-3-3, simply doesn’t make sense in the big games. A purer 4-3-3 with three proper attackers was the way to go tonight, and Martino only allowed his side half an hour in their best system.

Bale wins it

The danger of so much possession, of course, was that it meant more opportunities for Real to counter-attack, and they scored the winner in the 85th minute with another brilliant goal on the break. If the first was a classic counter-attacking team goal, the second was was a classic counter-attacking solo goal, with Bale simply roaring past Bartra on his way to goal.

Again, the goal came when Barcelona lost possession in an advanced right-sided position, when Alves was high up the pitch, and again Busquets was bypassed easily – not that they were to blame. It’s also notable that, like Atletico, Real didn’t thump the ball clear deep inside their own half – they instead played out, worked the ball forward quickly, and made a defensive situation an attacking opportunity.

It was just individual magic from Bale, the kind of thing Real expected when they paid so much money for him last summer. In a good first debut season, he probably needed a goal like this, in a big moment, to be seen as a real success. He thrived as Real’s chief attacking weapon tonight – supporting the theory that he’s probably at his best without Ronaldo in the same side, playing roughly the same role.

Ancelotti promptly removed Di Maria, Isco and Benzema, bringing on Raphael Varane, Casemiro and Asier Illaramendi, ending up with five defenders, four deep-lying midfielders and Bale on his own upfront. It would have been interesting to see how that would have worked in extra-time – and the match wasn’t far from getting to that stage, as Neymar hit the post in the final minute.


A victory sealed by a brilliant moment of individual magic, certainly, but Ancelotti’s tactics worked better tonight. Real soaked up pressure and were rarely penetrated, and then took advantage of great counter-attacking speed to put Barcelona’s nervous centre-backs under pressure. The winner summed up what an incredible speed advantage Bale had over Barcelona defenders.

For Barcelona, the real worry is that Martino seems incapable of learning lessons from previous defeats, and the persistence with this system – with Iniesta and Neymar out of their favoured positions to accommodate Fabregas, who shouldn’t be starting anyway – simply doesn’t make any sense. Three defeats in three successive matches, in three different competitions, doesn’t make for good reading.

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