Zidane’s men came back to Madrid with an extremely favourable 3-1 scoreline. The Royal Spanish Football Federation upheld their decision to ban Cristiano Ronaldo for the second leg as well as four La Liga games despite an appeal filed by the club. Following the media focus on the suspension of their star player, it was time to return to the pitch. Real Madrid’s plans did not seem to be significantly disrupted by Ronaldo’s absence for the home fixture of the Super Cup as Zidane appeared to have planned a number of changes to the starting XI. Bale and Isco were replaced by Vazquez and Asensio — both of whom performed well in Camp Nou.
Valverde opted for an experimental setup with a defensive trio of Mascherano, Pique, and Umtiti. This allowed Alba and Roberto to push up into an intended five man midfield led by Suarez and Messi. The adjustment was a slight surprise although the idea made sense as Barcelona looked to stage a comeback against the odds.
Real Madrid’s wave of pressure and Asensio’s Golazo
Real Madrid charged out of the gates at relentless pace entering the contest with such energy, intensity, and urgency that one would be forgiven for mistaking them for being the team down 3-1. Lucas Vazuqez and Marco Asensio were especially instrumental in this strategy as they were able to implement Zidane’s pressing scheme in an effective fashion without sacrificing offensive quality.
Real Madrid’s high press proved tactically apt in the context of the match as it placed a lot of stress on Barcelona’s build up play. Playing out of the back was made more complicated by having less immediate width due to their 3-5-2 shape compared to their standard four man defense 4-3-3.
The success of the high press was evidenced by very dangerous dispossessions in Barcelona’s half that occurred in the first half. One of them was Benzema’s dispossion of Mascherano in the 33rd minute leading to Vazquez’s shot against the post. Kroos and Modric would not hesitate to step up and aggressively mark Busquets or any Blaugrana player that dropped deep to support play progression. The offensive players’ disciplined pressing was complemented by proactive defending from Ramos and Varane. The former, primarily, perceptively advanced when needed to minimize the time Messi and Suarez had on the ball.
Asensio’s goal captured the spirit of Madrid’s electric start when he took advantage of space afforded to him at the top of the box. The young prodigy displayed his remarkable shot once more by blasting a lovely dipping effort into the top left corner. Ter Stegen was frozen and helpless as the ball flew into the net to ignite the Bernabeu crowd.
The second goal arrived as a result of Madrid’s aforementioned high press. One of the blue dots in the red circle of the graphic is representative of a play in the 38th minute when Vazquez tackled Busquets to regain possession quickly after Madrid had lost it. He passed to Asensio who fed Marcelo on wing. The Brazilian, whose width was essential in offense, played in a low cross which Benzema stealthily collected from behind Umtiti and scored with a half volley.
Compact Positioning and Icy Composure
During periods when Real Madrid cooled their frenetic press and Barcelona had stable and continuous possession, Los Blancos shifted into a resilient and suffocating 4-5-1/5-4-1 shape. This denied the opportunity for Barcelona to formulate any creative sequences forcing the visitors to rely on mistakes and transition-based attacking to create chances.
The discipline and organization of Real Madrid’s defense was impressive and rendered Barcelona’s possession stale in these instances. If not for such a robust shell, Valverde’s numerical superiority in midfield would have been much more harshly reflected in the game. The below serve as two examples of what was a common sight throughout the whole ninety minutes as players grouped together and worked collectively to provide full field coverage.
This compactness also enhanced the team’s possession game. One of the most visible areas of Real Madrid’s strengths on the night was its combination play. Part of why this was possible was simply the fundamental ability of the players on the field. The ball retention skills and mobility of most of the XI enabled them to navigate Barcelona’s rush of men forward after going down. From Navas to defense to midfield to Benzema and co, every single player contributed to the synchronized exhibition of movement and passing that allowed Real Madrid to continue to drive the tempo of the match.
In addition to the innate characteristics of the players on the field, Real Madrid’s compactness meant there were always available clear pass options and distribution lanes to every player. This was true no matter where on the field they had the ball. Ramos and Varane worked diligently to ensure Navas always (when feasible) had them as options for buildup. Modric, Kroos, and Kovacic consistently offered support to Benzema and the wingers and vice versa (with Asensio notably dropping deep to facilitate combination play).
A Game of Transitions
One of the main themes of the match was how much of a factor transitions were. This became reinforced as soon as Asensio scored because of the natural dynamics of the game state. Barcelona having to chase the game meant they would inevitably have to take more risks and expose themselves defensively.
Real Madrid consequently were able to counterattack with long passes from their half and switches of play. These particularly targeted the right wing channel as Vazquez’s speed and positioning was leveraged to exploit the space Alba left behind when he pushed up.
While, normally, in these types of games, the team with the lead is not prone to counterattacks and the threat of transition based offensive, Real Madrid’s deliberate tactic to “take the game” to Barcelona from the onset turned the affair into a very stretched game. This led to several occasions where Suarez and Messi where played in behind the defense leading to some dangerous opportunities. However, this was a two way street as the same was true for Vazquez (as noted), Asensio, and Benzema.
The openness of the game was expressed more strongly in the second half. Partially because Madrid also took their foot off the pedal allowing Barcelona to ease themselves back into the game — which was essentially done by that point.
Real Madrid’s intensity and energy overwhelmed Barcelona and took advantage of their reduced bodies in defense to hamper the visitors’ build up play. Asensio’s golazo gave them the additional freedom to fully continue with the high press strategy which led to several great chances including the second goal.
Overall, Real Madrid had more shots and shots on target agreeing with the eye test. Many of Barcelona’s best were in the second half when Real Madrid had relaxed their pressure and focused on closing out the tie. The manager and the club deserve enormous credit for the great start to the season and the management of both legs. The team has now scored in 68(!) consecutive matches.