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Xavi will not change how he plays; Ancelotti has plenty of options to punish Barcelona

Real Madrid have the ammo they need to not only beat Barca, but to give them heavy psychological damage


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.

During this morning’s pre-game press conference, Barcelona head coach Xavi Hernandez made it clear that they would not deviate, even in the slightest, how aggressive they are in their nominal scheme despite missing key players.

Barcelona, who roll into tomorrow’s Clasico without their best midfielder, winger, and striker — Pedri, Ousmane Dembele, Robert Lewandowski — will push up the field regardless.

“We have to have the ball, be brave, have personality, minimize losses in possession,” Xavi said. “Real Madrid have strong players and can take advantage of giveaways. We have to play with personality and use the same game model we used in the Spanish Super Cup.

“We will compete face to face. We will show our football model and personality,” Xavi continued. “the team’s intention is to always win in every game and also be the protagonists of the game.

“We will try to have control.”

One difference between Barcelona and Real Madrid is that the former often doesn’t have a plan B. It is one system, one plan — to hell or high water. The eggs are in one basket, and the hope is that all the eggs are healthy. In this case they are not.

Real Madrid have always been more malleable. Like water, they can take the form that’s needed in the moment.

It is part of the reason Real Madrid have won more than anyone, ever, but in this particular case, it should give Carlo Ancelotti the whiff of luring in a wounded animal. Barcelona have blood in the water, and that makes them vulnerable for a variety reasons, the most noteable one being quite simple: Barcelona play one way and one way only. It works in La Liga almost 100% of the time, and it fails in big games (against Real Madrid, against big teams in Europe) almost 100% of the time.

Ancelotti has more options than Xavi tomorrow and that is irrefutable. He can bring on more weapons off the bench in the second half, and he can play with either an aggressive high press, a mid-block, or a conservative, compact counter-attacking blueprint.

“It could be that we play without Kroos and Modric,” Ancelotti said in today’s pre-game press conference. “You have to take into account that these are matches where you need a lot of things like energy. It may be that this is why Kroos is not in the eleven, but because of the experience and knowledge that is needed in these type of games they can have advantages over other midfielders. I have to evaluate it, because you have to think carefully which players to drop at this level.”

Xavi spoke about repeating what they did in the Super Cup but did not take into account (at least publicly) one thing: Barcelona and Real Madrid are in two different mental states than they were in Riyadh. Expanding on that, Real Madrid’s press is better than it was then, they have started to show good variance in their tactics, and there is now more youth and energy in the midfield that has enabled them to press more. Modric and Kroos are not as undroppable as they were two months ago.

If Ancelotti opts to be the aggressor, he doesn’t have to bench both Modric and Kroos. He can start one of them and surround them with high-flying two-way midfielders to get a good balance of experience, organization, and dynamism. That’s probably the best approach. Having the organizational brainiac of a veteran all-timer would help channel the team’s energy.

By all means, Ancelotti should be the aggressor. What happened in the Super Cup was a mistake that shouldn’t be repeated. Real Madrid were predictable. They sat deep and hoped to feed Vinicius in transition. Everyone in the stadium knew it was happening. Barcelona’s transition defense — especially with chief fire-fighter Ronald Araujo back — is too good. And even if it fails, they prevent it primarily by winning the ball higher up the pitch. Such an approach from Real Madrid only widens the gap in confidence between both sides. Barcelona grow with each pass, Real Madrid regress in their shell and have trouble expressing themselves.

Take a page out of Manchester United’s book. Had Erik ten Hag approached those two legs in the Europa League in a deep block the same way, they would’ve likely lost.

Instead, Ten Hag counter-pressed and got all kinds of offensive opportunities against a scrambling Barcelona defense. (I wrote about that more here yesterday.)

Xavi will likely deploy Araujo as the team’s right-back. He did so against United to try and impede Marcus Rashford, and has done so often to do the same against Vinicius.

Both Vinicius and Rashford are good enough to get to their spots anyway, and even when Araujo does well against Vinicius, the Brazilian still has one or two moments where he gets behind him and creates danger. But Ancelotti’s job is to increase the volume of those successes. One or two moments may not be enough, and there is a real case that Real Madrid should put multiple goals past this Barcelona side if they draw up the scheme properly.

Easier said than done, but the mindset and approach will dictate that. Ancelotti, at the very least, can put those wheels in motion. In a recent Clasico win, he was asked after the game why Real Madrid didn’t try to score more and run up a scoreline that would humiliate Barcelona. His answer was that Real Madrid’s job is to win, not humiliate the opponent.

You can easily argue that tomorrow should be treated differently. This is a game of two legs. By the time the second leg rolls around, Barcelona will have key players back. The damage needs to be done tomorrow, and should be approached in such a way that Barcelona will find the damage irreversible in the Camp Nou.

Reports today in the Spanish press revealed that Andreas Christensen left training today with ankle discomfort — further disclosing holes in Barcelona’s defense. We could be looking at an Eric Garcia sighting at the Bernabeu tomorrow. Garcia has struggled with his defensive assignments.

But even if Christensen makes it, you could get a Kounde - Christensen partnership. As Jose Perez and I discussed on today’s preview podcast, when Xavi pulls Araujo to the wing-back position, Barcelona lose an organizer in the middle. Kounde has been error prone. Can Karim Benzema break free behind the lines? Will Ancelotti start Rodrygo as the third attacker so that he can overload the left side and create space and link up with Vinicius? These are some of the many questions Ancelotti will be thinking about as he announces his starting XI tomorrow.

“In the Super Cup we lacked commitment and forcefulness, and made some individual mistakes that will not be repeated,” Ancelotti said today. “We are close to winning an important competition and we are going to compete. It is not the decisive match, but we want to take advantage”

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