Barcelona 5-1 Real Madrid: Barca rampant down the left, ending Lopetegui’s brief reign

October 30, 2018

Barcelona dominated throughout the first half and during the final 20 minutes, although Real’s half-time change of system nearly rescued the game.

Ernesto Valverde was without Leo Messi, and left Ousmane Dembele on the bench.

Julien Lopetegui’s main problem was the absence of Dani Carvajal, which meant Nacho continued at right-back.

Barca dominate down the left

Before the match, the attention was on Barcelona’s lack of Messi – but it was Real being without Carvajal which proved more crucial here, as the away side found the right of their defence battered throughout the first half hour. Nacho, who has plenty of experience playing right-back, is nevertheless a centre-back being deployed out of position, and that was very obvious here, as he continually found himself in narrow positions, tempted inside by Coutinho’s typical drifts infield, which opened up space Jordi Alba to overlap into.

This happened with such regularity that assessing almost any other part of the tactical battle, at least in the first half, seems somewhat pointless. Barcelona actually mixed things up in the opening stages, and it was Coutinho who was the first to burst in behind Real’s defence down the left. Thereafter, though, it was about him narrowing his position to make space for Alba.

Bale problems

The direct consequence of this movement was that Gareth Bale had to retreat and effectively become an auxiliary full-back, with Nacho tucking inside. On paper Bale should be capable of this – he’s played at full-back before, albeit very early in his career, and he’s one of the few players in the pitch capable of challenging Alba in terms of speed. In the opening stages, Bale made two decent interventions inside his own third.

Bale’s problem, though, was that he effectively had two jobs here. Not only was he expected to play as a bonus right-back, this was also Real’s first Clasico in the post-Ronaldo era, and Bale’s been waiting five years to become the main man and effectively play the Ronaldo role. Therefore, his attention was upon contributing in the attacking third, and he found Karim Benzema for a decent chance in the opening stages. Playing both roles, however, soon became too much.

Alba overlapping puts Barca 2-0 up

Real weren’t sure how to cope. Shortly before Barcelona’s opener, they found themselves with Nacho pushing out wider to shut down Alba, with Coutinho instead the responsibility of Real’s midfielders. Nothing wrong with that, in itself, but now Bale seemed to be under the impression that Nacho was taking full responsibility for Alba. In the build-up to the opener, Sergio Busquets had the ball in the centre of the pitch, Alba was sprinting down the left, and Bale pointed at Nacho to pick up Barca’s left-back. Bale was level with Alba, and therefore in a position to track his run, but he thought Nacho will shift across and cover.

But Nacho didn’t. Whether it was because Bale isn’t tracking back or because Nacho is too narrow, Alba found space to receive a well-weighted dink over the top from Ivan Rakitic, before composing himself and playing a measured cut-back to Coutinho – who had run off the back of Casemiro – for a simple finish. Coutinho’s positioning and Alba’s speed were the two things causing Real problems in the right-back zone, and those two combined to open the scoring. It was the third time – at least – that Barca had threatened to break in behind down that side.

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Barcelona’s second goal was a penalty, both won and scored by Luis Suarez. Again, it was the combination of Coutinho, in the inside-left position, and Alba, on the overlap, that caused the problems. Coutinho fed Alba, and his low ball into the box tempted Raphael Varane into tripping Suarez.

Barcelona, in truth, could have been ahead by more than two goals at half-time. Perhaps the biggest waste was Rafinha’s badly overhit ball when – yet again – Alba was breaking in behind. A more measured pass, and Alba would have been in behind, and through on goal.

Real switch to 3-4-3

Lopetegui needed to be bold – he was going to lose his job if Real lost this, so there was no point going down without a fight. His half-time change was unexpected. Varane, still suffering from a World Cup hangover, was hauled off with Lucas Vazquez onto replace him. It seemed that Vazquez would play at right-back, where he’s sometimes played this season, with Nacho shifting inside.

This was only half-true – it actually involved Casemiro dropping into defence, and Real switching to 3-4-3 with Vazquez and Marcelo as wing-backs. This helped contain Alba, if only because there was no debate about who would be tracking him. It was clearly Vazquez’s task.

Isco-Vazquez becomes the new Coutinho-Alba

Suddenly, Real started causing serious problems down the right, particularly with Vazquez’s overlapping. Bale generally remained on the right flank, but Real’s best moments came when Isco switched to that flank, and Real gave Barca a taste of their own medicine: Isco drifted in to create space for Vazquez, just as Coutinho and Alba had done in the first half. Within five minutes, Real got a goal back. Vazquez and Isco worked an overload against Alba – with Coutinho nowhere to be seen – Isco cut the ball back, and the finish was provided by Marcelo – himself playing higher up the pitch, now a wing-back, after the formation change.

After that goal, Real rallied. On a counter-attack after a Barcelona corner, Thibaut Courtois hurled the ball downfield to Isco, in the inside-right channel, and he played the ball into traffic, rather than to Vazquez, again overlapping past Alba completely unmarked. That was where Real were likely to score from.

Barcelona started to panic. They conceded possession on the edge of their own box, allowing Luka Modric to hit the post. They defended short corners sloppily, allowing Real to put crosses into the box. Rafinha conceded possession when dribbling inside on the edge of his own box, allowing Toni Kroos to play in Isco. Increasingly, Barca’s defensive shape, which saw Coutinho and Rafinha retreating very slowly to form a second bank of four, leaving Arthur as the number 10, looked unable to prevent Real breaking down the right.

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But the key story was now Vazquez, and his complete freedom down the right. On 67 minutes, Real created a golden opportunity in the expected fashion. Isco was on the right of the front three, drifted infield to drag Alba narrow, on the halfway line, and then played the ball outside to Vazquez, who had the right flank to himself. He sprinted towards the byline, then crossed for an unmarked Benzema, who headed over. It should have been the equaliser, and both goals would have come from Isco and Vazquez’s combination play.

Barca changes re-assert control

Valverde realised the problems down the flanks, and replaced both Coutinho and Rafinha, neither whom were contributing much when Barcelona were defending.

Nelson Semedo, a right-back, replaced Rafinha with Roberto pushing forward to the right of midfield. On the other flank, Dembele replaced Coutinho, providing extra counter-attacking speed – and he contributed to the decisive goal within two minutes, feeding Roberto whose low cross was brilliantly headed home by Suarez. That third goal, at a time when Real had been dominating, felt like the killer. Suarez pounced for his third, and Barca’s fourth, after a terrible Sergio Ramos error from a long ball, then substitute Arturo Vidal headed home the fifth, to make the scoreline slightly flattering.

Lopetegui was, as expected, sacked by Real’s board the next day, with Santi Solari taking charge on a temporary basis. Lopetegui has now lost the biggest two jobs of his career in the space of four months, so it probably won’t be much of  consolation that, with his half-time changes here, he demonstrated his ability to change a match.

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