Real Madrid succumbed to Barcelona for the third time this season in a gut-wrenching loss at the Bernabeu. The match in isolation was far from a disaster and was relatively even in terms of actual gameplay and opportunities. However, as the most recent defeat, among several, against Los Blancos’ most intense rivals – it stings to the bone. There was an air of depression that seemed to seep from the pitch into the hearts of Madridistas and at this stage, questions will now have to be asked. Solari deviated from his default starting XI with his decision to field Bale in the place of Vazquez.
The rest of the team was exactly as expected. Real Madrid started brightly and stood toe to toe with Barcelona until a Busquets tackle in the 26th minute fractured Real Madrid’s midfield and gave way to Rakitic’s goal. The team lacked the inspiration it needed to lift itself out of the pit. Pique and Rakitic doubled up with specially deployed Sergi Roberto to lock up Vinicius while Real Madrid’s flat shape couldn’t conjure up any real danger.
Tame opening exchange punctuated by poor attacking on both ends
The match began with both sides aggressively pressing each other in order to prevent patient buildup from the back however the pressure wasn’t maintained for very long. Real Madrid’s press was more organized and productive as it created opportunities including Bale’s freekick opportunity from close range early in the game.
This pressing evolved into combative midfield play where there was little space to operate with Casemiro in particular being placed under duress in certain occasions. Real Madrid reacted to this dynamic by moving the Brazilian a little deeper and allowing Modric and Kroos to operate at the base of possession flanked by the marauding fullbacks.
Chance creation at both ends of the field was at a minimum as neither team could deal with the other’s off-the-ball structure. For example, Real Madrid’s typically active wings were fairly subdued throughout the first half. Vincius and Bale’s participation was limited and the usual winger-CM-fullback triangular rotation and combination play couldn’t be seen. Instead, Real Madrid attempted to break through the middle with vertical ground passes to Benzema, Vinicius, and midfielders who would move into the zone 14 pocket.
This wasn’t overly successful but did lead to a few threatening sequences. Real Madrid’s primary offensive weapon still resided in the quality of its left side with the chemistry of Reguilon, Kroos, Vinicius and Benzema (who often gravitates towards that wing) producing some enticing plays based on the young Brazilian’s pace.
Real Madrid’s defensive lapse and Rakitic’s give-and-go
Barcelona are Barcelona which means they can’t be fully nullified. The quality of their forwards in Messi, Suarez, and Dembele and the effectiveness of their gameplay means they will always be difficult to contain. That being said, Real Madrid’s team defensive structure capably dealt with the visitors as well as could be imagined. Reguilon and Carvajal were extremely disciplined in tracking/limiting overlaps from Alba and Roberto.
Lines were held tight and compact as the midfield showed great judgement to support counter-pressing actions and provide coverage in transition. There were situations that could have led to bad outcomes when the team pushed higher up and were left exposed to the pace/speed of Dembele but Barcelona were not able to capitalize.
The biggest issue in the first half was defensive lapses and Rakitic’s give and go. The solitary strike in the match, courtesy of a Rakitic chip over Courtois, resulted partly because of this but also as a consequence of a sequence of several factors beginning with Kroos losing the ball in Barcelona’s half.
Kroos drove forward vacating the left midfield space. He was tracked and dispossessed by Busquets leaving an unbalanced defensive line to cover.
Real Madrid’s midfield is slow to adjust. Casemiro slowly shifted to the left side but not with sufficient urgency. Kroos is behind the play and Modric occupied the central zone.
The emerging gap forced Ramos to aggressively step up to challenge Rakitic. This was a risky decision. Even though it compensated for the hole on the left hand side of the midfield, it substantially jeopardized the defensive integrity of the back four.
Rakitic cleverly played a one-two with Jordi Alba circumventing Ramos. Casemiro lost focus and failed to continue tracking the Croatian’s run leaving him free on goal.
Real Madrid’s turgid attacking scheme
The second half saw Barcelona drop into a more defensive block as they absorbed non-threatening pressure from the hosts. The Blaugrana took full advantage of their one goal lead and effective 12 point lead over Real Madrid by putting the responsibility to attack on the latter. This in part worked well tactically because of Barca’s counter-attacking capabilities.
In the context of their desperate state at the time and how much Real Madrid needed to commit forward in order to chase the equalizer, the home side did well on the defensive end. Players (like fatigued from an effort-intensive first half) recovered with intensity and shorthanded last defenders smartly forced ball carriers to make suboptimal choices. However, Real Madrid’s attacking was stunted and they couldn’t meaningfully challenge Barcelona in the second half.
Vinicius’ magic was tamed as Sergi Roberto (likely selected specifically to deal with the Brazilian) and Rakitic (and Vidal when he was substituted in) were extremely disciplined in their efforts to deny the youngster space.
The right side CB (Pique) also diligently supported Roberto to prevent 1v1 scenarios from manifesting. Without having the shine of Vinicius’ dribbling in full effect, Real Madrid struggled to create chances and suffered from stale play borne of flat positioning.
This was an issue that even the introduction of the team’s most malleable players in Isco and Asensio couldn’t remedy. The lack of staggering and alternation in Real Madrid’s shape with the ball rendered ball possession redundant. The few times – such as the left wing play in the 76th minute – players moved into central zones in attacking areas were evidence of what was missing.
The loss continues Real Madrid’s recent miserable clasico record
There was something jarring about witnessing the closing stages of the match. Real Madrid weren’t being dominated in any real visceral way. They weren’t being played off the park but there was a feeling of inferiority that was clearly observable.
This was the third loss to their storied foes in less than six months. This marked a consecutive defeat at home to Barcelona and the fourth game without a win this season. The effort was there but it seemed even more damaging to Real’s psyche that it just didn’t seem to be enough – or even close to enough to dent Barcelona’s current dominance over the reigning European champions. Barcelona registered a higher xG reinforcing their slight edge in the match. Their win put them a massive 12 points clear of the hosts.