Tactical Questions for Sunday’s Clásico

Tactical Questions for Sunday’s Clásico

While estimates of viewers for Sunday’s El Clásico reach upwards of 400 million, here are but three questions ahead of the first league meeting of Barcelona and Real Madrid this campaign.

Is Gerard Piqué fit to start?

If UEFA’s Financial Fair Play has any teeth to it, Barcelona has the largest advantage of resources in all of Europe: La Masia.  Even with recent revenue leading to a reduction of its sizable debt while still purchasing Cesc Fàbregas, Alexis Sánchez, Alex Song and Jordi Alba, Barça’s ability to churn out the likes of Cristian Tello and Thiago casts a shadow over a continental landscape where players hold enough power to make player-for-player trades — a hallmark of American sports — something of an oddity, trades whose frequency would need to increase by several orders of magnitude for future player movement to approach current levels.  While the successful — or rich, or both — clubs will still have their opportunities to make splashes on the transfer market, the gap between Barça and Europe’s middle-class can only continue to grow as wholesale changes risk both missing out on the lucrative Champions League and sinking financial stability for the latter.

So, if Gerard Piqué isn’t fit for Sunday, why isn’t Marc Bartra an option?  It isn’t as if La Masia is unable to produce viable defenders, with Martín Montoya and Alejandro Grimaldo the likely future fullbacks of the Spanish National Team.  And it isn’t as if Bartra hasn’t earned a promotion through stellar play with Barcelona B and 29 appearances with various youth squads for Spain.  And it certainly isn’t as if Barça is opposed to throwing its farm graduates to trials by fire, with Tello, Thiago (when healthy) and Isaac Cuenca all playing key roles at some point during the last campaign.

But those players aren’t defenders, and perhaps it is out of fear of how Barça’s back-line can be dragged out of shape that experience at top-level football is favored over Bartra’s potential, that a more ‘steady hand’ is wanted to cover the swaths of space left by fullbacks-in-name-only Dani Alves and Jordi Alba against a team with the firepower Madrid has.  It remains to be seen whether Alex Song is the steady hand at the back that Javier Mascherano is, but for a club which both prides itself on its youth program and owns a track record of throwing its graduates immediately into the fray, the lack of trust shown thus far to Bartra is, at best, curious.

Which formation does Mourinho employ?

From the Supercopa review:

Madrid’s ostensible 4-2-3-1 was much more a 4-2-1-3 or 4-2-4, with Mesut Özil linking up and rotating with the attackers in front and wide of him rather than encamping himself ahead of his holders, Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira.

What started as a “hypermodern” approach to combat Barça’s dominance of the center has largely become Real Madrid’s overall norm.  It’s a tactical conceit that both troubles Barça — doing so under both Pep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova — and allows Madrid to build its defense around a six-man shell.  But with Mesut Özil’s potential fall from José Mourinho’s grace, the ‘traditional’ Luka Modric could be used in a return to a true 4-2-3-1, though it deserves mention that Madrid’s traditional 4-2-3-1 has been hammered the most by Barça in the Mourinho era, most notably in the 5-0 thrashing two years ago.

Also alternatively, Mourinho has shown a hesitance — though not as much recently — during the (roughly) seventy Clásicos played while managing Los Blancos to seek out the game’s tempo from the beginning, not-uncommonly electing to play three defensive midfielders to congest Barça’s attack, content to all but park a bus in defense and look for 3-on-3 (or better) opportunities on the counter.  It’s a decision that will give the game its form.

After the shape, Mourinho’s next crucial decision is whether to press Barça high up the pitch or sit deep and compact.  In a vacuum, pressure makes the most sense: a Barça sans Piqué would mean more is asked of whomever his replacement (probably Song) is, and the increased distribution responsibility could lead to being in the wrong place after losing possession (like Song for Moscow’s second).  And even if Piqué plays, goalkeeper Victor Valdés has no shortage of blunders on the ball in the last year against Madrid, blunders all coming against a pressing Madrid side.

Pressing, however, also opens up Madrid to the possibility of being passed off the pitch.  A drawn game isn’t a terrible result for Madrid: it keeps them only worse for wear in the games played column of La Liga‘s table, where a loss drops them eleven points back after just seven games.  Even still, it would be hard to blame Mourinho for deciding to go for the three points, what with the possibility of seeing either Song or a less-than-fit Piqué starting in defense.

Andrés Iniesta or Cesc Fàbregas, or both?

In Barça’s earlier 2-1 defeat at the Santiago Bernabéu in the last leg of the Supercopa, Vilanova essentially assigned the entire left flank to Jordi Alba after Adriano’s red-card.  But even without a left-winger or eleventh player, Barça was the better side from the very outset of the second half.  If this is the starting point of Vilanova’s squad selection process, that a lopsided shape without a left-winger is viable, the possibility exists, then, to play both Andrés Iniesta and Fàbregas in midfield roles.  Again, from the Supercopa review:

Cesc Fàbregas had utility to offer.  With Barça effective without even a nominal left-winger, Fàbregas replacing Sánchez would’ve allowed Iniesta to reprise his role for Spain in Euro 2012 while freeing Fàbregas to run at goal from midfield, a role he’s much better suited to than, say, the Xavi role, as evidenced by Barça’s near defeat to Osasuna over the weekend.

With only Pepe, however, a lock to play in Madrid’s back-line (Marcelo or Coentrão?  Ramos or Varane?  Ramos or Arbeloa? etc.), playing just one of Iniesta and Fàbregas to allow Sánchez or Tello or David Villa to start in the forward line to test the Madrid defense with diagonal runs in behind the undetermined center-backs is, while a traditional choice, not remotely unlikely.
Playing the two of Iniesta and Fàbregas, in combination with both the passing acumen of Xavi and Sergio Busquets and the supplementing of midfield by Lionel Messi, gives Barça an even greater allowance to control the game through possession, thereby limiting the possible exposure of its back-line.  It is in this risk management where Vilanova’s choice shares some of the difficulty of Mourinho’s: while a Barça victory means eleven points of clearance between the bitter rivals, a Barça loss means Madrid is back but a mere five points with a second Clásico to come in Madrid.  The more Barça’s back-line is tested, the greater the chance Madrid leaves Barcelona with three points.

There aren’t any clear answers for how either of Tito Vilanova and José Mourinho will approach the game.  Each side has a multitude of options available with starting elevens hardly set in stone for a game where a loss needs to be avoided more than a win needs to be chased.  Game theory would look for both managers erring on the side of caution, but when has a recent Clásico ever had a shortage of bravado?

Image credit: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images Europe