This was supposed to be the Clásico that didn’t matter. Barcelona had mathematically wrapped up the league and Real Madrid’s full and undivided attention was on May 26, 2018. However, as the Clásico got closer, the emotions and mood in both camps completely dispelled the notion that the match was a mere formality. There was the highly publicized dispute over Zidane’s decision to not give Barcelona a guard of honour – and add to that the fact that Barcelona were on the verge of completing an unprecedented undefeated league season and the stakes were relatively high (if not in purely sporting terms then for the simple reality of the rivalry).
The BBC made their return to the limelight as Zidane deployed the recently unseen 4-3-3 — on paper at least (it became more of a 4-4-2 with Bale joining the midfield). Casemiro, Modric, and Kroos combined to form the midfield while the sturdy Ramos-Varane CB partnership was flanked by Nacho – playing for just the second time since his injury against La Palmas on March 31st – and Marcelo.
Valverde essentially fielded his most favored and preferred line-up in the standard 4-4-2 Barcelona have employed this season. Messi and Suárez spearheaded the team in front of a four-man midfield of Iniesta, Rakitic, Busquets, and Coutinho. The back four were, unquestionably, Umtiti, Pique, Alba, and Sergi Roberto.
Messi in the hole and Barcelona’s fullbacks
In the reverse fixture late last year, Messi was closely man-marked by Kovacic which had helped neutralize his direct influence on the game and forced the Argentine to work further away from Real Madrid’s net. Zidane didn’t employ such tactics this time around and the threat posed by Barcelona’s 10 when not closely watched was clear to see. He was able to drop in the hole between the lines from where he could cause significant damage with his dribbling and throughballs.
Offensively, Barcelona’s fullbacks were an important outlet as the Blaugrana tried to capitalize on their incredible speed and attacking potency. This caused particular trouble on the left side due to the Kroos-Marcelo combination on the left. Kroos played higher up the field than the other midfielders forcing Marcelo to push up to close the gap in defense. When bypassed, it left the team extremely vulnerable and disorganized. On the right, Alba’s speed was tricky to contain, but Nacho’s sturdier defense (aided by limited offensive participation) and Bale’s support was able to minimize the left back’s activity to a degree.
In addition to the structural factors, Marcelo’s defensive intensity and judgement was questionable and appeared to be targeted. This led to the opening goal when Sergi Roberto burst into the unguarded flank to find Suárez at the back post.
Kroos’ role and Madrid’s somewhat successful press
As aforementioned, at the beginning of the match, Kroos played further up the field which hampered Real Madrid’s possession control but provided valuable support to Ronaldo and Benzema who would otherwise be isolated. This resulted in the wonderfully executed equalizer.
As a result of Kroos’ advanced positioning and general aggressive structure, Real Madrid tried to regain possession quickly and high up the pitch, which had mixed results. It led to some great recoveries that kick-started enticing attacks but also posed a significant risk when the pressing was disjointed.
As the first half wore on, Kroos retreated more and more into the midfield to give Real Madrid another passing option in the middle. This allowed Zidane’s men to hold onto the ball much better and dictate tempo for extended periods.
Shorthanded Barcelona cause Real Madrid a lot of trouble
Sergi Roberto’s sending off at the end of the first half meant Barcelona were down to 10 men for the whole second half. Both coaches made changes at the interval with Zidane substituting Ronaldo for Asensio while Valverde brought on Semedo for Coutinho to address the red card situation. The following were the reasons for Barcelona’s strong showing in the second half:
• Refereeing errors – there was a clear foul on Varane for Messi’s goal and Marcelo was blatantly fouled in the box and neither was picked up by the match official. These major incidents shifted the balance of play in Barca’s favour and placed more pressure on Real Madrid to attack (which led to desperation and low-quality play).
• Defensive setup – Real Madrid pushed up very aggressively as they chased the equalizer to Messi’s goal early in the half. This caused the team to take extreme risks at the back and at times only held the line with one centerback, which resulted in nervy 1v1 matchups. Zidane rectified this by moving Casemiro into a three man backline with Ramos and Varane after Bale equalized. Prior to and after the adjustment, Casemiro was instrumental in breaking up Barcelona possessions and recovering the ball.
• Casemiro and Nacho limited offensive participation – both Casemiro and Nacho didn’t offer much going forward. This was addressed when Zidane moved the former to the back and substituted the latter for Vazquez.
Notes on Bale and Benzema
Benzema had a fantastic game and one of his best qualities shone throughout. The striker’s consideration and decision-making on the wing is almost second to none as he constantly makes the right plays and rarely ever just blindly crosses the ball. It is a great benefit to the team that he still presents a viable offensive threat when attacking from the sides.
Bale had another relatively off night. He did not have the same level of involvement as Ronaldo, Benzema, or even Kroos offensively. This led to some complaints about him being “invisible.” Several factors legislate for Bale’s relative anonymity in offense. His defensive assignment seemed stricter than Kroos’ and he played deeper than Benzema and Ronaldo – this meant he logistically wasn’t as offensively focused. Many of the runs he made and movements to create space were not compensated by good deliveries.
However, Bale’s minimal attacking influence wasn’t strictly due to teammates not giving him the ball. He bears individual responsibility for not adapting his style to better suit the tactical framework during possession phases. Furthermore, his individual instigation wasn’t at the same level of Ronaldo and Benzema.
Real Madrid overcame some initial pressure from Barcelona due to their pressing and stretched structure to manufacture several great opportunities and equalize following Barcelona’s early goal.
The second half saw Barcelona go down to ten men but do surprisingly well due to some issues with defensive control and attacking balance that Zidane rectified. Refereeing mistakes also completely changed the dynamic of the match. Overall, xG and shot numbers show Real Madrid created more and better opportunities.