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Real Madrid v Barcelona - Preseason Friendly Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images

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El Clasico Primer: How Real Madrid can defend and attack Barcelona

Real Madrid and Barcelona arrive to Clasico joint-top of the table with strengths, weaknesses, and shaky confidence. How can Ancelotti take advantage?

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 feels like ‘old times’. The tension between Real Madrid and Barcelona has returned. No, it didn’t ever really go away, but it certainly hasn’t hit the apex it hit in the Jose Mourinho vs Pep Guardiola era. Barcelona are good again and are spearheaded by Xavi Hernandez, who was directly involved in those previously heated bloodbaths. Real Madrid and Barca are going toe-to-toe with each other and have separated themselves from the pack early. This title race will likely go down to the wire. The margin of error for both teams is small. Almost every Clasico matters, but the two games between these two giants that are baked into this year’s La Liga schedule seem to matter even more.

Let’s look at the state of both teams in what is already a mouth-watering and heart-palpable title race.

Barcelona’s defensive line

Xavi’s men come into the Clasico rocking the best defense in the league. They’ve conceded just one goal all season, and their expected goals against, 5.66, holds up as the best in La Liga.

They do it by holding a high line — pressing high with the goal of limiting tests for their backline to face. They would rather defend in the opposing third and prevent teams from entering their own half. No team allows fewer passes per defensive action (PPDA, 6.6) or has committed more tackles in the final third (29) than Barca. Only one team — Real Sociedad — has more pressures in the attacking third. For comparison, Real Madrid rank below league average in PPDA and tackles in the final third. They arrive joint-top of the table with a different style of football. Barca like to control and press high, and have far an away the highest possession average (67%) in the league.

Here are a few caveats in those Barca numbers, which may work to their disadvantage heading into Clasico:

  • The way Barcelona tends to play in the modern era is tailor-made to be taken advantage of by elite counter-attacking teams. Real Madrid have, in the last 10 years, had space anytime they get to absorb pressure and unleash weapons like Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Vinicius Jr, and others. Not every Barcelona side over the past decade has been good enough to control the possession against Real Madrid, but in cases where they’ve tried, their transition defense hasn’t held up on many occassions.

This season, Xavi Hernandez’s team is clearly good enough to hold the ball in the final third and press — but that they have only allowed one goal all season can also be attributed to the fact that most of the teams they’ve faced domestically have not been press-resistant or had the talent to punish them on the counter. Teams that are in the upper bracket — Bayern Munich, Inter Milan — have that ability, and by extension, have beaten them.

Barcelona’s expected goals against: 5.66. The numbers show that their opponents are missing chances. In La Liga, Xavi’s men have conceded one goal in nine games; while in three games against Bayern and Inter they’ve conceded seven while losing two and drawing one.

You can put Real Madrid in the Bayern / Inter bracket of teams that have the power to absorb pressure, evade the press, and punish you with offensive stars on the counter-attack.

  • One of Barcelona’s main firefighters, that in the past allowed them to get away with playing a high line against Vinicius Jr, Ronaldo Araujo, is out injured. That’s a huge blow for the Catalans. Not many defenders can stop Vinicius. In the past year, the two right-backs who have been the toughest assignments for the Brazilian winger have been Reece James and Araujo. Even then, Araujo contained him to his best ability, but was still susceptible to a few moments every game where he lost the battle.

Jules Kounde (who may be Xavi’s best remaining bet in taking Araujo’s place) is doubtful for the match. Hector Bellerin and Andreas Christensen are injured. Xavi may have to put a makeshift left-back, Alejandro Balde, on that side, or put Sergi Roberto in the starting XI. Whatever option outside Kounde and Araujo that Xavi opts for will be a huge downgrade in their transition defense ability.

This Inter attack was off the back of a Bacelona corner, but plays like this were abundant enough during open play:

Real Madrid rarely get to play a team that affords such space. In rare times the opponent invites them to dance behind their high line (like Atletico Madrid did in the first half of the Madrid Derby at the Metropolitano back in September), there are few teams better equipped to feast than Carlo Ancelotti’s side.

But that’s only one side of the coin. On the flipside, to somewhat balance their defensive deficiencies, they thrive in generating chances, gaining momentum, and causing panic to the opposition with their counter-press.

Barca are aware of their weaknesses defending in transition, and to prevent abundant suffering, they’ve had to become elite at winning the ball high up the pitch. Xavi has engrained it well, and Barca have their positional play on defense in the opposing half well-marinated into their consciousness:

Inter are defending well here. Their issue is not the ability to limit space defensively, but to be in position to evade the ensuing swarm. As soon as Dembele gives the ball away, Busquets and Raphinha go hunting, and more importantly, they are in a position to do so.

Real Madrid’s quick thinking and execution will need to be on its A game. They can beat Xavi’s man-to-man press with quick vertical passes to Karim Benzema who can play as a hold-up striker that lays it off to other attackers making third-man runs. Ball progression is of utmost importance, and for that reason, Ancelotti may be better off with Antonio Rudiger over Eder Militao. The former is better on the ball under pressure. Alternatively, pairing Rudiger and Militao together would give you the best combination of collective aerial presence against Barca, which would help fend off Barcelona’s crosses. (Xavi-ball of late has been cross-heavy.)

Though, whether or not Rudiger is able to play from a physical standpoint is still in the air.

Real Madrid v Barcelona - Preseason Friendly
Two defensive stalwarts. Araujo will not play. Will Rudiger have to join him on the sidelines?
Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images

Barcelona’s attack

Barcelona are really good at generating chances, and that goes hand-in-hand with having one of the best goal scorers of this generation, Robert Lewandowski, on the end of it all. Barcelona fans will hope that their attack is so devastating, that it won’t matter a whole lot if they concede a few transition attacks.

Despite some of the predictable nature of its offense which focuses on getting the ball to its wingers and asking them to go at wing-backs and hit balls into the box, there is some fluidity to Barcelona’s offense. In both games against Inter, one of their wingers tucked centrally. In Milan, Raphinha took up a lot of real estate in the left half-space; while at the Camp Nou on Wednesday night, Dembele went to the right half-space often to overload the right side with Raphinha. Though, it should be noted that Inter figured that out quickly as there were little overlaps from their full-backs and the defense could pick off a relateively one-dimensional offense.

With wingers taking up central spaces between the lines, Fede Valverde’s nominal role on the right wing makes sense, as it enables him to tuck in defensively when needed to narrow the blow and track runners.

There is good reason for Real Madrid to play conservative and slice Barcelona on the counter-attack in this game, but it would be a waste if they resorted to only deep-blocks and counter-attacks. There should be plenty of opportunities throughout the game to press Barcelona high. It would be a shame not to.

Ter Stegen has a reputation for being good with the ball at his feet, but he’s also criminally error-prone. Not enough teams dare to press Barcelona, but those who opt for a man-to-man press tend to have success in hoodwinking Ter Stegen into a bad giveaway or a long-ball which surrender’s Barcelona’s control.

Celta Vigo flipped the game on its head in the second half at the Camp Nou last week by doing so. Real Madrid can choose to do this on Barcelona’s goal-kicks when they have time to set their defense, and / or in the second half when Barcelona may tire chasing transition attacks and Ancelotti introduces the bench mob.

Barcelona’s ability to outscore their own shaky defense should not be underestimated. They have scored the most goals in La Liga and have generated the most chances. Real Madrid have not yet hit that offensive gear we know they can hit with Karim Benzema’s slow goal-scoring start.

Barca also have their own bench mob on offense. Frenkie de Jong has been valuable as a ball-carrier and vertical driver anytime Xavi unleashes him in the second half. Ansu Fati hasn’t been great, but still leads La Liga in assists per 90 in seven games off the bench.

Raphinha leads La Liga in passes into the penalty area and shot-creating actions per 90. Dembele can lose possession a ton and be wonky with his decision-making, but is a dangerous line-breaker and generally does way more damage to opponents than he does to his own team. Xavi’s men know how to put themselves into goal-scoring positions.

It should be noted that neither team arrive to this Clasico in great form, and that’s perhaps what makes this game so interesting. “It’s clear that this could affect us ahead of El Clasico,” Sergio Busquets said after Wednesday’s draw vs Inter Milan which could effectively knock Barcelona out of the Champions League. “We have to lift ourselves.”

For Real Madrid, they do not approach this game with buckets of goals and confidence in their holster, but at the very least, they have observed what Barcelona’s weaknesses are and where they can hurt them.

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