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El Clasico: Two Themes To Keep An Eye On At The Camp Nou On Sunday

Two broader points, broken down, that both teams will be thinking about heading into the big game.

FC Barcelona v Real Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by Alex Caparros/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.

This Sunday marks the first El Clasico in front of open doors since March 2020, and with Ansu Fati’s return and a new tactical wrinkle from Carlo Ancelotti, the game gains some intrigue and degree of unpredictability.

LISTEN: Clasico mailbag preview podcast with Kiyan Sobhani and Lucas Navarrete.

Here is a quick snapshot of two themes I feel are important — a couple items that will likely be part of the larger discussion on Sunday night’s post-game coverage:

Subduing Ansu Fati

Ansu Fati has immediately raised Barcelona’s ceiling upon return. Amid all of Ronald Koeman’s tactical flaws, wonky squad selection, and all of the off-field agitations, having Ansu back, umm, fixes problems. Ansu is good, a rising superstar — probably already better than he was last season. He helps Memphis Depay lift weights offensively, and allows Ronald Koeman to keep Luuk de Jong as far away from the field as possible. Through 95 minutes in the league this season, Fati has two goals, and has given a visible injection of confidence into Barca’s attack.

Barcelona’s xG climbed up to 2.38 against Valencia upon Ansu’s first start since last season — their second highest total since opening matchday against Real Sociedad. They never truly hit the notes they hit against La Real again, but the Valencia game was a bit closer to what they envisioned the team to be.

Watching a La Liga TV interview with former Real Madrid defender Fernando Sanz last week planted a seed with me — Ansu’s return to Barcelona is not dissimilar to Ferland Mendy stepping on the field for Real Madrid for the first time in five months as if he was in peak physical condition, like he hadn’t left at all.

“In his first game back, he came on for just ten minutes and scored an incredible goal against Levante,” Sanz said. “Despite spending 300 or so days out with injury, and everything that comes with that, his return to action was incredible.”

Ansu back unlocks things that Barca previously didn’t have. And I mean even simple things, like Memphis not having to go 1-on-3 on offense. Ansu can take the left wing, allowing Memphis to roam centrally and link up with either side. Barca were too easy to stop when Memphis was paired with some variation of Luuk de Jong and any other right-attacker. With Dembele injured they missed cut-throat dribblers. Ansu brings that.

Now comes the question for Carlo Ancelotti: How do you approach him? In most cases, simply playing Dani Carvajal alleviates headaches. He’s one of the best defensive wing-backs of the last decade. Even at his worst form, he’s a reliable defensive presence and leader. Without him, you’re likely looking at Lucas Vazquez, and after that, plans B, C, D, E etc (Nacho, Fede Valverde, Alaba, Mendy).

Ansu has the potential to vaporize Vazquez, who’s had a poor start to the season, but did have a nice rebound game against Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday. There are ways around that. If you get the Vazquez of last season, you’ll get some containment. More important will be the coverage from not only Eder Militao, but also the right winger. If we had this discussion during the international break, we could leave room for the idea of a fourth midfielder — Fede Valverde — on the right to act as an extra stop-gap. But Ancelotti basically flat out said Rodrygo can’t be benched after his latest performance, and given the 4-3-3 is the go-to, I’d expcect Vazquez to be combined with Modric and Rodrygo on that side.

Madridistas should breathe. Rodrygo is good defensively, and Modric is Modric. I’d throw another wrinkle: While Patrons in our latest mailbag expressed concern about the Ansu vs Vazquez matchup, they ignored the other side of the coin: How can Real Madrid take advantage of that same flank the other way?

Jordi Alba is currently questionable. “I have a dead foot,” Alba said after getting the ball struck directly on his toe during a 1 - 0 win over Dynamo Kiev on Wednesday. “It hit me on the toe and let’s see what I have,”

Alba’s presence, combined with Ansu, has a higher probability of pinning you. Alba has been good offensively this season, and even still, in 2021, few wing-backs can hit a better ball into the box.

But even with Alba, Barca are vulnerable defensively. The space that he and Ansu will leave on that flank will be vast — especially if Ancelotti decides to soak pressure and slingshot on the counter like he did against Shakhtar. I’d even trust Rodrygo to hunt Alba efficiently — but if Alba doesn’t play, even more. I like Real Madrid’s match-up on that wing, even without Carvajal.

(One wrinkle that crossed my mind, just in minimal passing: Would Ancelotti consider playing Ferland Mendy at right-back and Nacho or Alaba at left-back? Barcelona’s right-flank is less threatening, and the attacks will mostly fall on Sergiño Dest’s shoulders. Mendy could be trusted defensively over any of the current available right-back options. But I barely bring this up because, for one, I don’t love Mendy at right-back despite seeing him there a handful of times; and two: I think Ancelotti trusts Vazquez to do a job in Carvajal’s absence.)

Barcelona’s defensive issues

Barcelona’s defense is a sieve, a black hole waiting to be eviscerated. Where they’ll be most vulnerable is the height of which they hold their defensive line. Gerrard Pique doesn’t have the legs to chase Real Madrid’s attackers in transition, and his partners — Ronald Araujo, Oscar Mingueza, Clement Lenglet, etc — are all prone to mistakes.

But Barcelona’s high-line is not the only place they’re assailable. During slower-paced defensive sets, where they’re hedged into a defensive block, they’re easy to move around. Their press has been easy to play through (especially with Luuk de Jong, who hasn’t been good defensively), and a few vertical passes can undress them.

These balls will be on for Alaba or Kroos to find Vinicius over the top:

Offensive opportunities against this Barcelona team will arise, and I think it’s safe to assume Ancelotti will, again, be less aggressive with his woeful pressing scheme. Dialling the press back against Shakhtar helped the team’s defensive shape, but also allowed more space for Vinicius and Rodrygo to work with. It might sound counter-intuitive, because a really good high press will generate great offensive chances — but if the press isn’t at an elite level, you’ll be better off closing passing lanes in a mid-block. That will unlock transition attacks.

But unless Ronald Koeman lives in a cave with zero knowledge of the outside world, he will be more prepared for Real Madrid’s more conservative tactical setup than Ronald de Zerbi was last game. Shakhtar were confused as to why they couldn’t invite Real Madrid to press. Barcelona should expect it.

And the Catalans are not foreign to breaking down mid-to-low-blocks who don’t press — it’s been engrained in them for the better part of the last 15 years, but few teams will be as good at closing passing lanes and countering the way Real Madrid can, and that should worry Barca — especially with the 2021 iteration of their team.

I’d like to see Real Madrid hurt Barca with third-man runs the way Bayern did (and do) so well. Passing triangles that span the width of the pitch should allow Kroos to hit Rodrygo on the switch after absorbing pressure on the left. From there, Barcelona have been shown to be vulnerable in the right half-space (think Fede Valverde’s run against Barcelona in the Camp Nou last season, or Modric / Camavinga sprinting as an outlet on the underlap). Barca won’t feel comfortable in that gap between their left-back and left center-back. That space is opened up easily with quick switches and off-ball runs.

All that said, Ansu Fati’s return bridges the gap between these two teams, though I like Ancelotti’s new blueprint against Shakhtar which brings more serenity to the team’s defense. This feels balanced, with Real Madrid having an edge.

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