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El Clasico: How Barcelona’s Attempt To Contain Real Madrid Wasn’t Enough

How Vinicius caused Barcelona problems without registering a shot; and the importance of Alaba and Kroos’s ability to progress the ball

FC Barcelona v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Santander Photo by David Ramos/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.

It was merely the opening goal of the game — one of three — but probably the most important juncture of a Clasico that would ultimately end in despair for Barcelona: In the 32nd minute, David Alaba popped up at the top of Real Madrid’s box to pick Memphis Depay’s pocket, before passing it out wide to Vinicius Jr and sprinting up the field to become Real Madrid’s highest outlet on the pitch. Vinicius, instead of playing an obvious pass down the flank, executed a more difficult pass centrally to Rodrygo — allowing Alaba to surge forward as a third-man runner. Rodrygo played it to the Austrian, who slung a shot — on an xG of 0.05 — into the far post. It was a sequence straight out of a video game.

It was a brilliant moment to highlight, because it stood for so much more than just a goal. In one passage of play, Alaba showed his defensive awareness, off-ball movement, and ball-striking ability. Between point A and point B, Vinicius deep-fried (‘cooked’ is too polite of a word) Oscar Mingueza and showed his passing range. Rodrygo, even when he’s not getting many touches, proved he can be efficient in a single moment when the team needs him.

13 minutes later, Barcelona headed to the tunnel, and came back out with a change in personnel. Ronald Koeman kept Mingueza — whatever was left of him — off the field in exchange for Philippe Coutinho. Mingueza was not having fun defending Vinicius.

“They got it right in the first part and we didn’t,” Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets said after the game. “We knew they were going to let us have the ball but they had speed with Rodrygo and Vinicius.

Busquets knew what we all knew: Real Madrid’s tactical blueprint vs Shakhtar was a premonition of what was to come. And Barcelona played it much better than Shakhtar did — partly because the scouting report was out, and partly because Barcelona are just better than the Ukrainians. But that they could not stop it entirely was a testament to how efficient Real Madrid can be despite not generating many offensive chances. Ancelotti’s men did not overrun Barcelona. By all accounts, this was an even contest that could’ve leaned either way. Barca pressed well and their transition defense held up for large stretches of the game. They held Vinicius to zero shots and one key pass. Benzema and Rodrygo were detained to just one shot each.

But Vinicius hurt Barcelona in other ways, and it’s fair to assume Real Madrid wouldn’t have won this game without this alpha version of Vinicius — the relentless line-breaker who had four completed dribbles and, frustrated by Barcelona, was fouled six times. At one point, after Vinicius fell easily in the penalty area, Jordi Alba ran over the field to share some thoughts. Vinicius didn’t back down, stood his ground, and barked back. It may seem simple, subtle, but it’s the spice Madridistas need to see in the Clasico from their players in the post-Ramos era. Vinicius served as a leader at the Camp Nou tonight — a welcome sight.

Barca bled despite doing well to stop the bleeding, and that’s a good sign for Real Madrid. Ancelotti’s men struggled finding the right pass in transition. Benzema’s link-up play wasn’t at its best, and the balls over the top from Alaba, Modric, or Kroos weren’t prolific enough. Even still, they conjured enough attacking impetus to see out a win.

I don’t think Real Madrid got enough credit for their defense, for what it’s worth. Much of the ESPN broadcast tonight went out of their way to say Barcelona were the better team. I don’t see it. Koeman’s men ran 34 crosses tonight — 10 above their season average where they lead the league in said department. Alba and Memphis combined for 22 of them. Real Madrid picked them off with numbers, and hit their rotations well. I don’t call that inferiority, I call that comfort and organization. Ancelotti’s men contained Memphis and Ansu. The coverage from Militao, Alaba and Casemiro was solid.

It wasn’t flawless. Barcelona had moments where they got into Real Madrid’s box without much resistance, but those plays were few and far in between. Two stick out: Sergino Dest’s big chance in the 26th minute, where Alaba hedged off Dest when he didn’t need to; and Aguero’s goal at the end, where Alaba slipped, and Ferland Mendy allowed in a cross from Dest. Had Aguero played from the start, with Dest at right-back and Mingueza on the bench, Barcelona may have had a better to target to exploit Real Madrid on those crosses.

Where Barcelona really hurt Real Madrid was with their high press — evident from the first 90 seconds of the game where they swarmed Modric into a deep giveaway. The theme remained prevalent throughout. Vazquez (first half), Casemiro and Mendy in particular struggled under pressure, and Real Madrid didn’t punish Barcelona’s high line like they hoped. It is part of the reason why this Barcelona team — off the rails on and off the pitch in 2021 — didn’t get humiliated in transition like it did against Bayern and Benfica. Their press was better than in those games, and Ancelotti’s men missed a huge opportunity to take advantage of (a lot) of space between Barca’s defensive line and Ter Stegen.

FC Barcelona v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Santander
During moments where Real Madrid were able to escape the press, Toni Kroos — who outplayed Gavi handedly — was a huge reason why
Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Credit to Toni Kroos and David Alaba, who were so crucial to Real Madrid’s ball-progression in those moments. As we pointed out on the post-game podcast, Kroos came out of this game nearly unscathed, with a passing accuracy of 98% — in a game where Real Madrid were suffocated. How? For one, because it’s Kroos. But mostly because Kroos injects cooling fluid into his cyborg circuit before each game. If some players, like Casemiro, panic and put their foot through the ball, Kroos will turn, and turn, and turn again, until he finds an opening.

Sometimes escaping the press was down to a simple skill: Ball-carrying and dribbling. Militao and Alaba both had important plays where they simply brought the ball past the half-way line and things opened up as Barca hedged off to mark passing lanes. That’s part of the reason Camavinga may have deserved a look: His bread and butter is dribbling out of pressure, and slaloming his way out of tight spaces to advance th ball.

This Clasico felt like a good barometer of where Real Madrid are when things don’t necessarily go their way in a big game: They look organized enough under this new-found scheme that they can give themselves a chance through good defense and through (mostly) Vinicius transcending collective offensive struggles.

But Ancelotti did state in the past week that these conservatively-approached games won’t be applied against everyone, and that we should expect to see the high-press come back. It will be interesting to see if the team can make any progress on their quest for aggressive and cohesive pressing (so far there’s been zero progress) during the upcoming schedule against teams that won’t have much of the ball: Osasuna and Elche.

With tonight’s big win at Camp Nou, Real Madrid still find themselves with just one loss in the league this season, and with a game in hand to put themselves top of the league — a solid spot to be in given that Ancelotti has yet to consistently have his full-strength XI available to him.

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