The loss to Barcelona was the final nail in the coffin for Lopetegui as Real Madrid manager. The three times European Champions were thoroughly outclassed and only momentarily looked the part over the course of ninety minutes. A forgetful first half which saw Barcelona exercise incredible command of proceedings was followed by an ultimately depressing second half where Real flattered to deceive.
The line-up chosen by the coach was strong and included all the assumed starters in a healthy roster except Carvajal. Nacho, somewhat unexpectedly, was called on to deputize for the injured right back leaving Odriozola on the bench.
Real Madrid was structurally loose and lacked compactness
Real Madrid’s pressing efforts off the ball appeared incredibly mute as they failed to close down Barcelona during the latter’s buildup phase. This occurred in part because of the scattered positions the players took on the field failing to maintain vertical and horizontal compactness. Busquets was left to his own devices and allowed to cause all sorts of trouble as he clinically dispatched passes into dangerous central zones.
Alba, true to form, stretched the field persistently to great success capitalizing on the mismatch in terms of speed against Nacho. The Blaugrana left back was another vital outlet for Barcelona’s possession (Sergi Roberto similarly but to a lesser extent on the right side) maintenance. He ruthlessly bypassed Nacho in the lead-up to the first goal and got the best of the latter on several other occasions.
Coutinho opens the scoring following Jordi Alba’s bursting run down the wing.
Barcelona’s suffocation of Real was evident when the away side tried to play out from the back in their usual controlled style. Ramos, Coutois, and Varane were denied good passing options and forced into poor pass selections or clearances that quickly gave away possession. Modric and Kroos attempted to drop deep to remedy this numerical disparity but it simply futher fractured spacing and left Bale, Benzema, and Isco even more isolated from play.
Countinho and Suarez major torns in Real Madrid’s side
Coutinho and Suarez were a handful for the Real Madrid defense. There was a sign very early on of what was to come when the Brazilian floated into the half space between Nacho and Varane causing confusion regarding marking assignments. Alba’s width sucked Nacho out wide while Varane was pinned in the middle due to Suarez’s positioning.
Countinho and Suarez did this as well as moving in between the lines constantly which was a nuisance for Ramos and Varane to deal with. There were frequent lapses in marking as a result such as Casemiro picking up and then letting trailing men go. This could be seen by tracking Coutinho’s run for the first goal and similarly Suarez’s movement prior to being fouled by Varane for the penalty. In addition to great movement and destabilizing positioning, Suarez was also a fantastic outlet and supported Valverde’s possession scheme almost perfectly with excellent strategic touches and passes.
Three at the back brings Los Blancos to life but at too great a risk
Varane was substituted for Vazquez at half time and Casemiro dropped back to slot in between Ramos and Nacho. As has been the case under Lopetegui, the coach implemented a three man backline in the second half which woke the team up offensively. The reasons why this works for Real Madrid have been detailed but it suits the natural instincts of personnel while enabling positional balance. Possession improved tenfold in the reconfigured setup as Modric and Kroos were afforded more room to operate centrally with significantly enhanced support from Vazquez and Marcelo. Isco could be better activated for one-twos and overlaps such as the sequence preceding Marcelo’s goal.
Despite Real Madrid’s offense benefitting enormously from the tactical change (coming close to equalizing with Modric’s shot which struck the post), they sacrificed defensive security as Barcelona posed a serious counterattacking threat. After a couple of false alarms, the goals came in abundance as Suarez (twice) and Vidal added three more goals to their lead to put the game far out of reach. This reinforced the idea that Real Madrid’s resurgence was in part facilitated by score effects and Barcelona’s retreat following an intense and superior first half.
In a way, this game symbolized a test of Lopetegui’s approach and how well it could work. The team which had put so much emphasis on retaining the ball and slow play construction could not match Barcelona when it came to possession. Real Madrid somewhat lost its way in a complicated situation. Many were already questioning the choice to become more possession oriented and this game not only failed to answer that but led to more questions about where the project was heading. All the signs were pointing to an unrecoverable position.
Barcelona outdid Real Madrid statistically and based on the eye test. Whatever credit Lopetegui had with the board fully expired with the humiliating loss to Real Madrid’s biggest foe. The manager is now gone and the team will be led by Solari as they try to forge a path to emerge from the current bleak state the club is in.