Real Madrid were a mammoth eleven points behind their matchday 17 opponents in one of the biggest games in world football. The clásico was rightly billed as a potential season defining game, because a win would see Barcelona increase their advantage to an almost insurmountable level. Zidane had kept his cards close to his chest and didn’t give many hints as to who would be starting.
The manager surprised many when Kovačić was named to the starting line-up leaving both Gareth Bale and Isco on the bench. This was the Croatian’s fourth clásico in just over a year. The rest of the Real Madrid team are the standard starters and were expected to play.
Barcelona had notable absences, as key players in Samuel Umtiti, Ousmane Dembélé, and Gerard Delofeu were unavailable. Additional options to cover for the missing players such as Paco Alcacer and Rafinha were also sidelined. Ernesto Valverde decided to go with Paulinho, giving Barca a supplementary midfield presence. As envisioned, Vermaelen was called on to partner Pique.
Real Madrid’s press suffocates Barcelona
Barcelona were set up in a 4-4-2 on-and-off the ball which would change dynamically, primarily because of Paulinho and Messi’s movements. The former pushed up liberally to join the forward line and offer outlets and vertical passing options. Messi was the opposite in that he would retreat into the centre (which is not uncommon) of the field to help with build-up and play progression. Real Madrid also played in a sort of 4-4-2 on paper. Casemiro was stationed at the base of the midfield while Luka Modric and Toni Kroos occupied the right and left flanks respectively. Mateo Kovacic played fairly deep and centrally but interestingly, it didn’t appear to be in an explicit pivot role.
A noticeable aspect of Real Madrid’s approach at the start was high-intensity pressing. This worked extremely well and suffocated Barcelona to the extent that they couldn’t pass the ball out of the back. Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema would use cover shadows to block Ter Stegen (or other play initiators) access to central defenders and the midfield.
This forced the ball to go out wide where Marcelo and Carvajal aggressively stepped up to challenge Barcelona players. The visitors resorted to unplanned clearances and couldn’t maintain possession for extended periods.
The pressing was employed in tandem with significantly advanced team positioning. Marcelo and Carvajal were fully unleashed and helped amplify Real Madrid’s attacking capacity. The left-back’s role was more focused on chance creation and vertical transitioning. He combined well with Kroos and Ronaldo (reinforcing a macro left side bias) to target Sergi Roberto leading to two of the best chances in the first half. Carvajal for his part stretched the field and made numerous late runs to give or increase numerical superiority in attacking zones.
Kovacic’s role becomes clear as Barcelona grow into match
Real Madrid’s pressing began to wane and Valverde’s men saw more of the ball. Kovacic’s role was clear when the Blaugrana entered Real’s half. The Croatian was assigned with man-marking Messi and specifically tracking his runs to prevent him from dribbling into space or against defenders. The tactic accomplished its objective and Messi was successfully “neutralized.” However, his teammates were more open as a result and he was able to find them with pinpoint deliveries (particularly Paulinho). On the offensive end, Kovacic moved into more attacking spaces and made strong enticing runs in the final third that gave the team an additional body upfront.
Seeing more of the ball invited Barcelona to push forward, giving Real Madrid the opportunity to counter-attack. They did so brilliantly and intricately manufactured a number of chances through swift interplay. However, they were unable to turn any of their wonderful play into goals. This constituted a problem because their energy levels were likely going to drop after engaging in such an effort-intensive display. Furthermore, Barcelona began to slowly test out the vulnerabilities in Real’s defense – which appeared critically susceptible to fast transitions.
Role Reversal - Real Madrid tire as Barcelona take control
Both teams switched roles in the second half. Barcelona took the initiative and were more aggressive positionally. They pressured high and gained control of possession. Real Madrid players seemed to be suffering from fatigue after dispensing a significant amount of energy in the first half. Barcelona’s influence continued to grow and they were afforded too much space in prime areas. In one instance, about four minutes into the half, Rakitic was able to waltz into the box before playing in Suarez. This was a foreshadowing of what was to come.
After threatening for a while, Messi and co struck the first blow in the 54th minute. Busquets shook off Kroos far too easily before laying it off to Rakitic. This is where things took a weird turn. Rakitic drove unchallenged from behind the half way line all the way to the tip of Real Madrid’s box. He passed it to Sergi Roberto on his right who made a fantastic one-time pass across the box to Suarez – the Uruguayan made no mistake with his finish.
The talk after the game focused on Kovacic seemingly pulling back from Rakitic to track Messi’s run instead. Whether that was the case or the midfielder was simply tired is not certain. Reviewing the play, every single Madrid player except for the central defenders are somewhat struggling to recover. Modric, Carvajal, Casemiro, and Marcelo are all culpable and fail to keep up with their opposite numbers. Admittedly, Kovacic’s case is slightly worse as he is facing the play as it develops.
Carvajal’s red card seals Real Madrid’s fate
Carvajal, having a torrid night already (mostly due to a disastrous second half performance), sealed Real Madrid’s fate with his red card in the 63rd minute. Los Blancos were mercilessly exposed on the break yet again but this time with fatal consequences. Casemiro (whose on-the-ball weaknesses were thoroughly exploited throughout the match) was dispossessed in Barca’s half. Carvajal was out of position and again showed signs of tiredness as he didn’t read the play well enough to track back and mark Suarez. Questionably as well, Varane didn’t seem aware the striker was open behind him.
Pique released the ball to Messi who curled a great pass through the defensive hole to leave Suarez one-on-one with Navas. Navas made a great block but there was an ensuing scramble and panic in the box during which Carvajal used his hands to block a Paulinho header. The referee showed the red card, pointed to the spot, and Messi duly converted. Nacho replaced Benzema for defensive cover. Bale and Asensio entered shortly after and although the team made a valiant effort, the result seemed inevitable. Barcelona added one more at the end after Messi got past Marcelo (who also struggled on the defensive end).
The first league clásico of the season was a game of two halves in the truest sense of the phrase. Real Madrid showed vigor, urgency, poise, and control in their pursuit of a goal in the first half but in so doing sacrificed their energy level. Barcelona came out strong in the second half and utilized their superb counter-attacking and transition ability to rip apart Real’s tired defense. Carvajal’s red card doomed the team as they went down a man and two goals.
Real Madrid’s eternal rivals dominated proceedings from then on amassing 18 shots for the day and significantly outpacing Real’s xG. This marks the third loss in a row at the Bernabeu against Barcelona in the league and leaves Zidane’s men fourteen points off the top of the table. It’s not over until it’s over but the league campaign is in serious jeopardy.