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Real Madrid CF v FC Barcelona: Semi Final Leg One - Copa Del Rey Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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The Copa on the line and a chance for redemption: Barcelona vs Real Madrid, tactical preview

El Clasico part three. Ancelotti vs Xavi. A Clasico for the ages.

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.

Clasicos are not always consequential, but often important on a psychological level regardless of what’s at stake. We are two-thirds through the three-game series between Real Madrid and Barcelona. On both occassions, Real Madrid had the chance to give the Catalans a mental blow, and failed to do so. Will the third one be any different?

Prior to the Copa del Rey semi-finals (first leg) at the Bernabeu on March 2nd, this writer was one of many who felt it was ‘now or never’ for Carlo Ancelotti’s men to hand a ‘goleada’ to Xavi’s side. Pedri was missing, as was Robert Lewandowski. Barcelona had just lost back-to-back games against Manchester United and Almeria, and despite winning in games prior, were not playing convincingly. They had just been eliminated from Europe for the second time this season. Real Madrid had just handed Liverpool a five-goal rinsing at Anfield.

My optimism was perhaps too naive. Real Madrid typically don’t pulverize Barcelona by a three-goal+ score even when they’re at their peak and Barcelona are nestled into their abyss. Barcelona, in one of their worst periods of the season, created two chances and won by one goal. Ancelotti loved what he saw despite the loss and lack of meaningful chances; Xavi confessed he felt Barca were dominated.

Here we are again, naively saying the same thing: The upcoming Clasico is a chance to turn the season around, to slingshot past Barcelona in the Copa del Rey and use that momentum for a Champions League run. By all accounts, even if winning the double sounds a bit unlikely in this moment, if that happens, the season is successful despite the disastrous league campaign. Barcelona will be without Pedri and Ousmane Dembele again. Frenkie de Jong will join them on the injury list. Real Madrid have arguably the best midfield depth in the world — there would be no excuse not to dominate a midfield of Franck Kessie, Sergio Busquets, and Gavi. (They did so in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semis, but couldn’t use that control to generate meaningful chances.)

How the game goes will largely be dictated by who Carlo Ancelotti starts. If a game of two legs is also a game of two halves, there is an urgency that has to set in. The game at the Camp Nou is essentially the second half. Do the game-changers — the ‘bench mob’ — play from the beginning? Rodrygo and Ceballos have staked their claim for more prevalency. It will be hard to start Ceballos given Ancelotti’s trust in Modric and Kroos (and now, deservedly so, Camavinga). Should Rodrygo be on the field from the beginning to help break lines and create goal-scoring chances? Will bringing in Ceballos and Rodrygo in the second half be far too late?

Rodrygo conjures 5.2 shot-creating actions per 90 in La Liga — the most among all Real Madrid players who’ve logged at least 100 minutes. Second on that list is Dani Ceballos at 4.92, and then Vinicius Jr and Luka Modric in third and fourth. Having at least one of Rodrygo or Ceballos in the starting line-up — probably Rodrygo — gives Barcelona’s defense one extra line-breaking headache to deal with that can help shift the focus away from Vinicius.

Karim Benzema struggled with his passing in transition at the Camp Nou. Rodrygo’s entrance in the second half immediately gave Vinicius help:

In the second clip, despite the sequence resulting in a (disallowed) goal, Rodrygo should’ve probably played the ball back to Vinicius overlapping to his left, but the general point remains: Vinicius and Rodrygo created that opportunity together on the wing in a tight space. You need those runners in the 2nd leg to increase the volume of opportunities that are generated.

That clip provides another interesting wrinkle: At the top of the sequence, Barcelona have five players pressing in Real Madrid’s half, with a huge gap between the front line and the defense. The only player in the middle, Sergio Busquets, is taken out of the play after Vinicius plays the ball to Rodrygo to break. Half the recipe of beating Barcelona is bypassing their press and getting into open water; the other half is converting the chances and making the right decision in the final third. Barcelona won’t be pinned defensively like they were in the first leg often. These transition opportunities are where Ancelotti’s men can find weak-points.

As stated many times before, it’s not enough to throw Rodrygo on late. Though it might work here and there — and last season it certainly did — it’s limiting the offensive punch. The margin of error against teams like Barcelona is small. Scoring from limited opportunities was so last season and ultimately unsustainable. The math doesn’t lie: To score more you need to create more. You may need to hammer away 10 times to get one goal.

Real Madrid will have to improve their transition offense in general. The scouting report has been out for a while: Once you lose the ball to Real Madrid, they will try to find Vinicius. Stop him with multiple bodies, by any means possible. Barca have Ronald Araujo, Jules Kounde, and a Raphinha who has worked hard defensively these past two Clasicos. Real Madrid likely won’t roll out a higher line and start pressing now to generate more chances by aggressive ball winning. Transition needs to improve to maximize chances. More than just Vinicius is needed. (Real Madrid allow 11.04 passes per defensive actions in La Liga — more than 10 other teams. They are not an aggressive pressing side.)

If Real Madrid opt to not implement an aggressive press, they should at least press strategically on goal-kicks or when Marc-André ter Stegen has the ball. I have long been a proponent of daring the German goalkeeper to make a pass out of the back. Ter Stegen has been superhuman this season in goal, but still struggles with the ball at his feet when the opposing team implements a man-to-man high press where they allow him time on the ball while closing his outlets:

Ter Stegen will struggle against those sequences, though, it’s not isolated to just him. Barcelona had all kinds of difficulty escaping the counter-press in the first leg. While I’m skeptical we’ll see a repeat of what happened at the Bernabeu (Ancelotti’s pre-game presser screams conservatism), Xavi — a far smarter football brain than I — expects Ancelotti to go gung-ho.

“I expect an aggressive Madrid,” Xavi said. “They will come out to press. In the Cup they were superior. We will try to subdue them.”

Where Real Madrid fans should hold hope may not lie in how Ancelotti approaches this game, but how Xavi does. Real Madrid had 65% possession and 13 shots in the first leg — but not a single shot on target. Regardless of how Xavi and Ancelotti both spun that match (both felt Real Madrid dominated), Barcelona’s performance worked and Real Madrid’s didn’t.

But it’s fair to say Barcelona couldn’t escape their half. It will be interesting to see what counter-punches Xavi has planned to make it different this time if Real Madrid do press. Keep in mind that he fixed a lot of that in the league Clasico — but he also had Frenkie available, unlike tomorrow.

“Without De Jong and Pedri, we might not have the ball as much as we would like,” Xavi said. “But we will try to control the game and play attacking football.”

Real Madrid are better off tomorrow if Barcelona do come out to “control the game and play attacking football,” in part because it brings Barcelona’s line higher up the pitch and, as a result, makes them far more permeable than the defensive barricade they had in the first leg.

Real Madrid have to be smart about how they approach this game. In the Valladolid post-game press conference, Ancelotti alluded to saving Rodrygo for the second half by saying “It could be 90 minutes or 120 minutes. Rodrygo is an option to start or to come off the bench”. In today’s presser, he said “I still think we played well in the last two Clasicos. We were very close to winning the last one at the Camp Nou. We may make changes to the line-up, or we might not. But, we want to play the same way.”

Ancelotti may want to hold the Ceballos and Rodrygo cards for the second half when he feels Barcelona are more tired, but if he does that, the subs will likely have to come earlier in the second half. Kroos and Modric can press — if Ancelotti chooses to do so — but as we saw in the first leg, they can’t sustain it much beyond 45 minutes, and it drains them when it comes to tracking defensively in transition.

The most fascinating part about playing the same opponent multiples times in a short time span is seeing the tactical adjustments made along the way in reaction to one another. Ancelotti can make amends for the previous two losses by eliminating Barcelona tomorrow. It will be a fascinating encounter. Is a classic Clasico on the horizon?

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