Lessons from the Clásico

March 24, 2014

Five thoughts on the 3-4 showdown at the Santiago Bernabéu.


1. Neymar’s positional switch

On this evidence, the Brazilian’s deployment on the right is not to be repeated. The switch created new angles for his dribbles, but it seemed an unwelcome change. Two options presented themselves. Neymar could go on the outside and gamble on raw pace, but with Marcelo the opponent – a Seleção team-mate – success always appeared unlikely. The second option was to cut inside, but Neymar is right-footed and Real Madrid stayed tight centrally. Instead his most dangerous moments came when running in directly behind the defence. Marcelo occasionally struggled in his positioning and Neymar created danger by galloping across the back-line behind Pepe and Sergio Ramos. Doing this, his movement was distinctly different from his customary role on the left, where he predominantly receives the ball to feet, and where he can dribble on the inside and outside to greater effect.

 2. Chinks in the armour

Carlo Ancelotti’s switch to 4-3-3 has been crucial to Real Madrid’s gradual improvement this season. But as with every formation, it has its weaknesses. Before kick-off, reports surfaced that Xabi Alonso had voiced concerns to his coach about the system’s fragility against strong teams. He felt he did not get enough protection, it was reported. While that worry has generally been unreasoned against most La Liga sides, Barça are different proposition and their players did find time and space around Alonso; especially in the pocket behind Angel di María. The Argentine workhorse is a good defender one-on-one, but his positioning and defensive awareness is suspect – as you would expect from a newly converted winger – and opponents ghosted in behind him. Alonso’s argument is also strengthened by the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo sometimes stops tracking his full-back. This can again expose Alonso and force him to shuffle wide to close down players in what effectively becomes a vulnerable 4-4-2.

A side note: the 4-3-3 system is generally favoured for high pressing but can struggle against teams adept at exploiting space between the lines. This very skill is widely mastered in Spain, and there is surely a reason why so many entrenadores play 4-2-3-1; to overcrowd the zone in front of their own defence. It may well have been contributory to José Mourinho’s choice of formation while in Spain. With Barça 4-3-3 works because of the way they press and squeeze their defence and midfield together. A similar argument – if to a lesser extent – can be made for this Real Madrid side. But the rules change in El Clásico, and the chinks in their armour were occasionally exposed.

 3. Ancelotti needs not be disheartened

Real Madrid played well despite the result. This Clásico long hung in the balance, and before Sergio Ramos’s dismissal the hosts created numerous chances. Karim Benzema scored two; he could have had five. While Barça too were strong, the trend is encouraging for a team that works on becoming more proactive and shifting their focus from transitions to more established attacks. That means opening up play and taking risks – and versus Barça such dares are invariably punished – but calls for chopping and changing would be premature. It should be remembered that while Barça have a deeply embedded style of play, Real Madrid are still implementing their own.

4. Messi’s many gifts

Goalscoring statistics for Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have by now bombarded our minds to such an extent that they often eclipse the Argentine’s other gifts. His pass to Neymar for Sergio Ramos’s sending-off was a remarkable piece of genius. It reminded us of the many dimensions Messi possesses: he is at heart a No10 playmaker, created for a role in which goals and assists are provided and valued in equal measure. His rich talents are arguably divided to serve both purposes; his passing is certainly no worse than his finishing. His hat-trick was historic, but the pass is the moment purists will saviour the most.

 5. Xavi still the maestro

There may be elements of truth to the claim about Xavi’s decline, but his influence remains profound. His positioning has been deeper in recent seasons and the number of eye-catching assists has fallen. But Barça dominate games for a reason. Together with Busquets, Xavi runs a less glamorous show than that of Messi and Andrés Iniesta up in the final third, but one of no lesser importance. He still possesses agile movement, positional shrewdness and an undimmed ability to seek out space and find others with passes in tight positions. His solutions are clever and subtle. Xavi’s greatness has lasted so long that it by now tends to be taken for granted, and it is surely no exaggeration to categorise him, at this moment in time, as an underrated player. He may be 34 but, like with this extraordinary Barça generation, the sun is not about to set on his legendary career just yet.

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After this win, Barcelona are now more in control of their own destiny. Even if both Atletico and Barcelona don’t drop a single point in the following games, the last game between Barça and Atletico will certainly be an entertaining one. I still don’t get why Iniesta is played on the left wing. Is it to have more control of the ball by fielding Xavi, Cesc, Busquests, and Iniesta all at the same time? Because, as you mentioned, Messi can certainly provide control by dropping deep. So why not have Neymar on the left in order to provide some width and prevent “overcrowding” in the midfield? Unless that’s exactly what Tata is looking for.

by Loop on March 28, 2014 at 7:58 am. #

Di Maria played as winger under Mourinho, however he made is name with Benfica playing as a carrilero, a role which he plays for the national team as well. He is a better carrilero than a winger. In attacking terms he played that role perfectly in Sunday’s clasico, exploiting the space to the left unprotected by Barca by a combination of Neymar being too high and Xavi nut shuffling over to pick him up and Alves not being able to handle him. He ran wild at Barca, especially in the opening minutes and was Real’s only attacking catalyst. However his aggressiveness left Real unprotected at the back, and this is was very evident when Iniesta scored. He is high up the field in front of Xavi, who passes to Neymar who comes short and pulls out Ramos with him. The space left by DiMaria is exploited by Fabregas, who is not being tracked by Modric. This causes Alonso to shuffle over to Fabregas, leaving Messi completely free between the lines, and with Ramos out of position as well he is receives the ball, turns and slides the killer pass to Iniesta.

by Angel on March 25, 2014 at 4:52 pm. #

Good analysis. Di María was fantastic but as you say, Real Madrid do pay a price for having such an attacking left side. Defensively it’s an unfortunate combination to have Cristiano and Di María there. You can understand the dilemma: they will cause trouble against 19 other La Liga sides – Atlético included – but against Barça it will get punished. Does that mean Ancelotti should abandon the partnership? I’m not sure he should.

by Thore Haugstad on March 25, 2014 at 7:01 pm. #

I don’t think he should either. However Messi is simply a player you don’t allow to be completely unmarked, like Real did this past Clasico. One of the centerbacks has to step up and pick him up when he’s not being picked up by a midfielder. Mexes did this job remarkably well last year when Milan shut out Barca. Also Modric was too lackadaisical with his tracking and defensive work. Somebody like Khedira is needed in this type of role and this type of game. Was he even available? And Ronaldo’s lack of tracking of the opposition fullback is truly befuddling. He doesn’t lack the stamina to do so, he just refuses. You would think that at this time in his career and in high level games like this he would be mature enough to not shun this very important duty that every modern winger is expect to perform.

by Angel on March 25, 2014 at 7:44 pm. #

With Cristiano it’s always difficult to know whether he’s following instructions or defying them. I can see the point in leaving him high up the pitch; save his energy for counter-attacks and keep him fresh. Under Mourinho the team compensated by having two defensive midfielders, meaning Xabi Alonso could close down the full-back and Khedira could shuffle across. This isn’t ideal, but it provides a better balance than a 4-3-3 from a defensive aspect. Khedira is still injured and perhaps Ancelotti would have used him had he been available. But I think that would have to be for Clásicos only, as the current system works so well against other teams.

by Thore Haugstad on March 26, 2014 at 8:59 am. #

Ronaldo never tracks back. At United, SAF would often have him as the center forward and have Rooney on the wing. Jonathan Wilson wrote this about that very aspect of Ronaldo’s game: http://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2012/nov/28/cristiano-ronaldo-strength-weakness

by Ahmad on March 26, 2014 at 9:32 am. #

I am a MU fan and don’t remember him being fielded as a CF by Ferguson. He was more of a traditional winger back then. It is with Real and under Mourinho that he started to become more a hybrid and taking more central and high positions in the pitch.

by Angel on March 26, 2014 at 12:04 pm. #

He did it in the UCL final and against Arsenal in 2009.

by Ahmad on March 26, 2014 at 4:26 pm. #