Xavi surprised the world last night and saw his team bunker in defensively and claw out a result playing the Simeone-way. The Barcelona manager is the same man who said the following quote last year: “I don’t think Barca would understand Atlético’s style, it doesn’t fit here”. The same man that in 2016, when talking to Jorge Valdano, said the following: “In a big team like Barcelona or Real Madrid, for me the style of play should be non-negotiable. You cannot play like Atletico de Madrid”. It is funny how life can take your plans and rip them all to shreds. Yet, despite Xavi’s new found tactical appreciation for parking the bus, there was one tactical card that he plays over and over again in El Clasico without fail: moving Ronald Araujo to right-back in an attempt to mitigate the impact of Vinicius Junior.
It was the least surprising move of the night. Xavi’s go-to Clasico tactic has paid dividends for Barcelona as Araujo is a defender that can match Vinicius’ athletics ability and remains composed when isolated 1 v 1. Given Ancelotti and his staff have had amble film to study this duel, there can be critical questions asked of the coach for not developing his own plans to counter the Araujo effect. Once Barcelona scored and then settled into their defensive shape, Ancelotti needed to react with greater urgency regarding on-field personnel and positional changes to make Barcelona uncomfortable and provide his offense with greater threat.
A foil to Xavi’s Araujo plan would be to move Eduardo Camavinga to left back. Although the sample size in small, the numbers speak for themselves. All of Vinicius Junior’s attacking metrics shot up in the six matches Camavinga has deputized at left back vs the six matches prior to his inclusion in that role. Vinicius goals and assist production went up nearly 3x, the volume of shots from the Brazilian increased by +1.5, he contributed an additional key pass per 90, and was taking 50% more touches in the final third. The stats confirmed the eye-test, Camavinga’s ability to combine in the final third, beat players off the dribble, comfort over-lapping and under-lapping, as well as his engine to get up and down the flank gave new-life to Vinicius’ game.
There is no questioning that there are glaring flaws to Camavinga’s game at left back, which were apparent in his appearances for France at the position, and games against Al-Ahly and Mallorca. But, if the conditions of the match or the “game-state” are appropriate, the change in position can be a tactic to exploit deep-blocks and provide additional offensive threat from the fullback position. In last night’s clash, all the game-state ingredients were there for Ancelotti to make the positional change sooner: Vinicius needed support vs Araujo, Madrid were chasing the game, and Barcelona had bunkered in defensively.
Given Ancelotti’s drawer of versatile options within the squad, there was more than just the Camavinga change that needed to be made. Given the player’s talent and maturation over the last 12 months, Rodrygo Goes should be a non-negotiable as a starter in big games. Be it on the right wing or swapping with Fede Valverde intermittently as an advanced #8, Rodrygo’s unique skill-sets and individual quality are a must for the Real Madrid attack. In central positions, he finds pockets of space and can combine through the tightest of defensive lines. That central role also gives Rodrygo the freedom to drift to the left and provide another foil for Vinicius: overloads and one-two interchanges down the left. On the right, Rodrygo’s threat from off-ball runs and on-ball dribbling could have given Balde and Marcus Alonso more to think about as they were barely tested.
Camavinga and Rodrygo are players whose energy and verticality compliment Vinicius Junior’s game. Real Madrid’s second half was screaming for even more energy, verticality, and creativity. All words that would be used to describe Dani Ceballos. The Spaniard consistently scores off the charts as one of Real Madrid’s best progressive passers and carriers. His eye of the needle line-breaking passes through the opposition’s left fullback and center back capitalize on Vinicius’s break-neck speed. Why was he left to wither on the bench? A portion of Real Madrid’s success in the Champions League last season was Ancelotti’s in-game management and substitution choices. In more recent weeks, this aspect of his coaching has been littered with critiques and doubts.
Ancelotti and his staff persisted with a plan that produced 0 shots on target. A plan that did not give his team nor the team’s best player the tools to win a game. Vinicius Junior, Real Madrid’s most impactful offensive threat, was left to fend for himself. Ancelotti continued to feed into Xavi and Araujo’s hands by funneling the attack down the left with little-to-no support. There was predictability to Real Madrid’s game and a lack of ideas in the final third. Given the game-state, positional adjustments and personnel changes like Camavinga to left back, Rodrygo as a member of the attack, and Ceballos’ energy and verticality in midfield were all needed to help turn the match and provide a counter to Xavi’s Araujo tactic and Barcelona’s Simeone-like defensive solidity.