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Tactical Review (2016/17 La Liga): Real Madrid 2 - 3 FC Barcelona

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A bloodied Messi wins the clasico at the death in dramatic fashion.

Real Madrid CF v FC Barcelona - La Liga Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Model of Play

This was the second clasico of the season and a match billed as a potential title decider. Real Madrid and Barcelona came into this game in contrasting moods as the latter were reeling from the stinging elimination against Juventus in the Champions League while the former qualified for the semi-finals in the same competition. Futhermore, Barcelona struggled in their last two matches — losing the first before managing a difficult win against Real Sociedad. Real Madrid, while not flawless by any means, earned one point more over those two matchdays putting them in a favorable position as the league entered its final stretch.

Both sides had to deal with the absence of key players. Neymar, Barcelona’s undisputed starter on the left wing, was suspended while Pepe and Varane remained sidelined due to injury. In slightly surprising news, Bale was named to Los Blancos’ starting line-up after recently recovering from a calf muscle injury. Taking the situation the clubs found themselves in, they each fielded very strong teams. Bale replaced Isco in an otherwise unchanged XI from the last game against Bayern Munich while Alcacer filled Neymar’s vacated spot.

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Real Madrid adopted their typical 4-3-3 formation which transforms into a 4-4-2 without the ball. They employed controlled buildup in order to progress vertically across the pitch but supplemented this with deliberate direct exploitation of any gaps and holes in Barcelona’s defense. This led to an early chance when Ramos drove the ball from behind the halfway line to find Carvajal’s run into open space. That scene would be replicated throughout the match as Marcelo, Carvajal, and the forwards looked to take advantage, especially in transition, of unguarded lateral zones. This worked successfully in terms of delivering the ball to players in those areas of the pitch but the tactic was undermined by subpar attacking actions. Particularly: 1) poor decision-making and interplay between the forwards, 2) underwhelming crossing and play-making from the wings, and lastly 3) low quality shot taking and finishing.

Ronaldo and later on, Asensio, were the two most active proponents going forward. They facilitated counter-attacking and transition-based vertical progression by providing useful outlets to the midfield. Benzema and Bale (for his limited appearance) were not as productive and supportive. Bale struggled to participate effectively and played far too advanced (positionally) to aid the construction of play and creation of chances — he did sporadically drop deep but not nearly enough to significantly have a notable impact. Benzema’s issue was primarily his touch and offensive movements. The striker continually lost the ball in dangerous positions and failed to test the Barcelona defenders in any meaningful way — additionally, he did not make enough of the opportunities that he had.

However, Benzema wasn’t as much of a non-factor as Bale because the former was more involved in the possession and ball circulation phases of play in the offensive third. This specifically suited targeted central attacking that the team put into action at times. Modric was the fulcrum of this strategy. His great on-the-ball ability and mobility enabled him to penetrate through the middle in an attempt to both vary Real’s offensive framework and capitalize on accessible prime locations. Unfortunately, the Croatian wasn’t able to completely influence play by himself and did not receive the necessary assistance from the rest of the team. Kroos’ flat playing profile combined with Casemiro’s extensively discussed issues in possession hampered the ability of the team to implement more dynamic central attacking. The few moments that it worked displayed its potential viability in the context of this match.

Defensively, the team’s strategy was comprised of active pressing immediately upon losing the ball and, secondly, containment of extended Barcelona possession. The success of the press was mixed. Although it caused several key dispossessions that led to good chances, Barcelona was still able to comfortably play out from the back. Part of it was due to the Catalonians’ style of play and first rate passing but overall there was a sense that the pressing was a little counter intuitive. The aggressiveness and urgency of Real Madrid’s recovery play displaced the responsibility to initiate and instigate from the visitors onto the league leaders. This compromised the advantage that being three points ahead and realistically only needing a draw should have given Zidane’s men.

The consequence of pushing as high as Real did was a fragmented and stretched unit that exposed players in matchups. Key examples were Messi vs Casemiro, Marcelo/Nacho vs Alcacer/Suarez, and Iniesta/Rakitić vs Kroos/Modric. Although the individual performances were below the expected standard, the lack of a systematic safety net in the form of a compact and tight shape amplified defensive miscues. This became even more evident when the team was chasing an equalizer in the second half. Ramos’ red card (wholly due to a poor tackle that he should not have made) came from a situation where he found himself completely isolated against Messi. This is an extremely unfavorable scenario (which unfortunately occurred more than once) as any mistake by the center back could result in the Argentine breaking free on goal.

After the sending off, the team struggled intensely to regroup and reorganize as they appeared to almost play without a designated centerback cover for Ramos for a while. Once they settled, they did brilliantly and managed to obtain an equalizer. James’ introduction provided an instant offensive boost accompanied with his standard calming influence in possession. This almost begged the question if Isco might have been a better substitute than Kovacic but the latter’s speed was beneficial. The remainder of the game was odd. Everything seemed to be under control and almost tipping in the hosts’ favor until the very last play where Messi scored the winner. Barcelona stuck the dagger in Madridistas hearts leaving the Spanish Capital with full points and bragging rights.

Summary of Select Key Chances

Minute 28: Marcelo-->Ramos-->Casemiro-->Goal

Kroos’ corner was cleared and the ball fell to Marcelo. The Brazilian played it to the far post where Ramos met it. His well taken shot rebounded off the inside of the post and fell to Casemiro who scored from close range. This was one of the very rare instances Real Madrid threatened from set pieces.


Minute 32: [Off Camera]-->Iniesta-->Alba-->Iniesta-->Umtiti-->Pique-->Roberto-->Pique-->Iniesta-->Pique-->Rakitic-->Roberto-->Messi-->Busquets-->Rakitic-->Messi-->Goal

A fantastic goal following patience and intentional possession play. Iniesta worked with the center backs to reset play before it was switched to the right side where Rakitic, Roberto, and Messi combined before the Croatian fed Messi. The #10 dribbled past three players before slotting the ball past Navas.

As hard as the play was to defend because of the timing of Messi’s run to meet Rakitic’s pass — Casemiro was at fault for losing track of Messi who he was clearly marking.


Minute 67: Nacho-->Modric-->Benzema-->Asensio-->Ronaldo-->Shot off target

This sequence of play reflected Real Madrid’s strategy to exploit space in the wings. They won the ball back in their half and Modric played it forward to Benzema. The French man controlled the pass before beautifully lobbing it to Asensio.

The young Spaniard burst into the box and squared to Ronaldo. The ball was a little behind the Portuguese whose effort was off target. Both Asensio (on the pass) and Ronaldo (on his run) could have done better.


Minute 68: [Off Camera]-->Suarez-->Roberto-->Messi-->Iniesta-->Suarez-->Shot on target

Messi played Iniesta into space and the Spaniard took advantage of the gap that existed due to Real over-committing. Iniesta found Suarez with a great ball over the defense but the striker’s half volley was amazingly denied by Navas. Marcelo’s coverage of Suarez was poor in this play.


Minute 73: Rakitic-->Goal

Nacho tackled Messi and Rakitic picked up the loose ball at the top of the box. He feigned a shot to create room and unleashed a great strike that beat Navas. Casemiro’s absence was felt but Kroos and Kovacic’s marking should have been tighter.


Minute 85: Carvajal-->James-->Kroos-->Kovacic-->Modric-->James-->Carvajal-->James-->Kroos-->Marcelo-->James-->Goal

Down to ten men, Real Madrid patiently worked the ball up the field as James combined with Kroos to switch play to Marcelo. The Brazilian took a touch before delivering a great cross that James got to first in the box and scored. This was a tremendous goal highlighted by combination play, quality crossing, and great movement.


Minute 92: Roberto-->Busquets-->Roberto-->Pique-->Busquets-->Roberto-->Gomes-->Alba-->Messi-->Goal

A truly surreal goal to witness. Barcelona were taking a throw-in close to the corner flag in their half with only 30 seconds to go. Even with ten men, many things have to go wrong (and, conversely, right for the other team) for this situation to result in a goal. Real’s inexplicable press is wonderfully bypassed by Barcelona as Sergi Roberto used his pace to breach the forward and midfield lines to create a 5 vs 3.

He played it out wide to Gomes who delayed play a little before feeding Alba. The left back pulled it back for Messi and the Argentine made Real pay with an excellent curler.

Conclusion

This was a very even contest in terms of chances created based on expected goals. Shots favoured Real Madrid who had 22 (14 on target) to Barcelona’s 16 (9). Both keepers had astounding performances and they had a hand in preventing the score from being higher.

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Sergio Ramos, the captain, will unquestionably need to assume significant responsibility for his sending off. It tarnished what had been a solid individual and team performance up to that moment and unnecessarily jeopardized his team’s prospects of mounting a comeback. Thanks to poor execution on Barcelona’s part, Real Madrid didn’t concede immediately after the sending off but there were many chances for them to to do so.

There is an unsettling fear among Madridistas that this could be the beginning of a collapse in the league race as the match and result bring back ugly memories of recent campaigns. Campaigns where Real Madrid gave up their advantage in the final moments of the league. Despite this legitimate concern, Los Merengues have their future firmly in their hands as they have a game in hand and will be champions regardless of other results if they win out the rest of the season. Six finals await the team in La Liga.