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El Clasico Pre-game Thoughts: Lineups, Barcelona’s weaknesses

Barcelona have plenty of struggles this season, but they tend to always find a way in Clasico. What should we expect? Kiyan Sobhani’s column.

FBL-LIGA-ESP-REAL MADRID-BARCELONA Photo credit should read OSCAR DEL POZO/AFP via Getty Images

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts -- are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.

Barcelona have conceded 14 goals from open play this season in La Liga — more than any other team in the top five, and more than 19th place Leganes. Double that of Real Madrid’s seven. No longer does Barcelona gag their opponents into a low block, with teams praying to hit on a rare counter-attack. Barcelona haven’t conceded through the counter even once this season, per WhoScored. Real Sociedad danced around them and dictated play with more possession, and more (and better) chances. There is something to take away, here.

Like last season, Barcelona get away with mediocre performances. It wasn’t until Klopp rolled around when it mattered last season and put an end to the heists. This season has not been dissimilar. Ernesto Valverde has yet to find a scheme that gets the best out of Antoine Griezmann, and though he’s gotten good individual performances from Frenkie de Jong, Luis Suarez, Marc Andre Ter Stegen, and Lionel Messi (who is, somehow, arguably in his peak) — his team have been underwhelming away from home.

Yet, here we are. Amid their worst start to a league campaign in 25 years, Barcelona are joint-first. After weathering injuries early on, they head into Clasico with a healthy roster apart from Ousmane Dembele, and possibly Arthur who was left out of the squad against La Real (possibly due to a snowboarding accident, according to reports). They have outperformed their xG by nearly 14 goals. They just find a way — whatever that way is. On Wednesday, they face a Real Madrid team that will be without Eden Hazard and Marcelo — among others.

Even Griezmann, whose fit is awkward at times, has bailed out Barcelona with timely goals, and has publicly stated how driven he is to make his new left-wing role work for the sake of the team. And then there’s the usual caveat: Barcelona can sleepwalk for the entire season and then wake up against their most hated rivals. That’s science.

But there is enough sample size this season alone for Zidane to build a solid blueprint around. Valverde’s men struggled against Dortmund, Inter, Atletico and Real Sociedad — all big games. One common trait: They don’t press that well relative to what their identity suggests, and struggle winning the ball before teams slice them vertically. Against Dortmund and Real Sociedad, both Marco Reus and Mikel Oyarzabal made dangerous off-ball runs in the space behind Nelson Semedo / Jordi Alba. That’s the space you want to attack. Those runs from Modric against Valencia in the half-space are where Barcelona struggle closing down.

Barcelona are not as confident in their press as before — even if statistically their PPDA (passes per defensive action allowed in opposition’s half) is less than last season. A good team needs seven passes or less to break through. There is room to act swiftly and calmly in build-up and torch their hesitancy and collective incoherence:

Arthur has his hands in the air as much as he does trying to sprint to the right spots. One diagonal switch and a Sancho dribble is all it takes to break the rest of the line.

Barcelona are a good pressing team. They are comfortably above average. It’s just that: good teams will exploit and magnify the kinks in their defensive shape. And Real Madrid are, um, a good team. There is good reason to expect Zidane’s men to put their foot on the pedal and not sit back and absorb pressure for long stretches.

Not having Eden Hazard is a huge blow for Real. Hazard had finally started to look like Chelsea Hazard again. His absence means Zidane loses an edge of efficiency in attack, and without him, Real Madrid put more pressure on Benzema to do everything — drop in midfield to defend, score, start counter-attacks. Benzema does that stuff anyway — with or without Hazard, but the onus grows without that output from the left, especially if Marcelo doesn’t play. Vinicius creates chaos more than he creates goals. Mendy is a more predictable offensive player. Isco’s role and performance has high variance and dependant on the ecosystem around him. (All three of Vinicius, Mendy, and Isco are good. There is a place for Vinicius’s line-breaking ability, Mendy’s ball-carrying and defensive astuteness, and Isco’s ability to bind the midfield and attack.)

Hazard gives you added press-resistancy on the left. He is far and away the best dribbler on the team (and second-best behind Lionel Messi in the entire league), and gives you control in tight spaces. His absence also puts more on the shoulders of Toni Kroos. Kroos has been a top-three performer this season on Zidane’s roster. He’s the one that picks out outlets centrally when the build-up looks suffocated:

Those moments will arise in Clasico. The other central midfielders will have to get into good passing lanes like Modric does above in order to break Barcelona’s lines and get them uncomfortable defending in transition the way Odegaard and Real Sociedad did over and over again on the weekend.

It’s virtually impossible and almost futile predicting anything that Zidane will do. But, look out for a scheme that involves four central midfielders: Casemiro, Fede Valverde, Toni Kroos, and one of Luka Modric or Isco. That leaves Benzema in attack along with one other winger with pace: Bale, Rodrygo, or Vinicius. You have your defensive structure covered while giving yourself the ability to control games and pass your way into the final third with good outlets.

More midfield coverage — especially with Casemiro staying home — generally works out well for everyone, and gives freedom and mental security for getting into goalscoring positions. Both Fede and Kroos gave Valencia problems at the top of the box — finding space to shoot while Celades’s men focused on the runs of Isco and Modric in the half-spaces. Casemiro covering for moments like this where Fede wins the ball with sheer will and brilliance will be conducive to giving Barcelona problems:

Barcelona have the ability to break in those moments, but look at how Fede sprints and pressures the backline to ensure there is no easy path to a counter-attack. Real Madrid can implement a counter-press against Barcelona, and both Ramos and Varane have been good at stepping up and snuffing attacks from a high-line. Casemiro’s return provides some insurance.

One underrated storyline here is Arthur’s absence. Rakitic has not been stellar this season in limited playing time — far from it. Against Atletico he was frail on the ball and easily dispossessed without contributing much to the attack. He was invisible against Real Sociedad. If he plays, he may morph into the Croatian Clasico SuperNova as he’s done — but this season’s early returns haven’t been encouraging. De Jong and Messi (who will naturally drop deep) will do heavy lifting in midfield. Look out for Busquets’s elite ability to play a surgical pass over the top of a high defensive line.

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