In the end, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid left Sunday’s El Clásico as they entered, with eight points still separating the most bitter of rivals in La Liga’s table.
But both sides certainly did their damndest to leave with three points of their own.
TWENTY-ONE EXPECTED STARTERS… and one enormous surprise
As predicted, manager Tito Vilanova used the away leg of this year’s Supercopa as a jumping off point for Barça’s tactics, forgoing even a nominal left-winger to allow both the UEFA Player of the Year, Andrés Iniesta, and Cesc Fàbregas starting roles. At the back, however, Vilanova elected to deputize the fullback-cum-midfielder-cum-winger, Adriano, at centerback, a move recalling the not-so-distant history of Éric Abidal patrolling the center of defense for Pep Guardiola. It was, bluntly, a shock. What can only be said with certainty about Vilanova’s decision, without speculating, is that he must have believed Adriano was more up to the task than newcomer Alex Song.
Vilanova’s counterpart and amateur optometrist, José Mourinho, fielded a ‘chalk’ starting eleven, favoring clásico experience above all other considerations and Madrid drama, real or imagined. Though, in a departure from recent clásicos, Mesut Özil played far more entrenched in the hole in addition to dipping into midfield as a classic number ten, only sparingly rotating with Ángel di María rather than joining the forward line. Against Barça, playing as a true number ten, Özil has struggled fiercely, and the first league clásico of the 2012-13 campaign was no different, with the German international wholly missing in action for the majority of the game.
Even without an effective Özil, Real Madrid started positively, looking for the quickest path to a shot upon earning possession back. It was an all hands on deck approach, with the most forward of Madrid’s players bombing forward upon recovering the ball, regardless of said player’s assignment or nominal role, the hope being to immediately overwhelm Barcelona’s back-line with numbers. The question exists whether Adriano starting at centerback was the impetus for such instructions from Mourinho or whether Los Blancos were already primed to do so against Song, but regardless of the when, Madrid were effective.
Karim Benzema’s equivalent of skulling a drive in golf to a cross was, again, telling of a structural flaw of Barça’s defense: a legitimate backside weakness. Like defenders in basketball on the weak side of the court sagging ballside towards the middle of the paint, so too do Barça’s defenders slide across the pitch towards the half the opposition has in possession. This is not a novel concept, let alone a unique one, but where other sides aren’t bashful about getting bodies behind the ball to mitigate the potential problems that can come from quick switches of play or far post crosses, the manner of Barça’s pressing means defending the acreage of dangerous space that exists outside a fullback located centrally isn’t a chief priority, to say nothing of the lack of brawn or height playing in Barça’s defense Sunday night to defend crosses.
And it was that acreage of dangerous space Madrid exploited for their first goal.
When Özil made one of his only thirteen completed first half passes in the lead-up to Cristiano Ronaldo’s first, Marcelo was immediately closed down by Sergio Busquets. A backheel flick from a not just pushed ahead but located centrally Marcelo found Sami Khedira who found himself free, as his marker, Iniesta, was blocking the passing lane between the German teammates. Troublesome for Barça was not Khedira being unmarked with the ball but, rather, its back-line was essentially pinched to the width of the six-yard box.
It’s one thing for a defense to be compact, but it’s an entirely different thing for a defense to be compact and with only two markers on one side for two attacking players, an effective eradication of any margin of error. And when the two attacking players are of Benzema and Ronaldo’s quality, it’s an almost certain losing proposition. Khedira’s first touch found Benzema “posting up” on the edge of the box, and after a pivot to the left of the field, Benzema made the all too easy pass to a cutting Ronaldo in behind an out of sorts Alves.
Perhaps Victor Valdés should’ve done a better job protecting his near post, but only minutes later Benzema was denied only by the woodwork after another cutback from a similar stretch of play, and given an earlier ugly miss of a header by Sergio Ramos off a corner kick, Barcelona was lucky to not be down what would’ve been a deserved two goal deficit.
ONCE IS A COINCIDENCE…
For the second straight clásico, Martín Montoya’s coming on stabilized a vulnerable Barcelona defense. Where Dani Alves was content to bomb forward without regard not just for the vulnerability left behind but also for whether his surges were required in the specific build-up, Montoya again showcased what appears to be an innate ability to perform risk analysis on the fly, marauding forward only when his doing so is required, and only doing so if the space left vacated behind him had appropriate cover. Montoya wasn’t the best player on the pitch or, given the talent involved in the match, even in the upper half, but he did nothing to embarrass himself and again showed he takes nothing off the table for Barcelona upon his inclusion into the squad. Even if Alves’ injury isn’t significant, Montoya has earned more run.
THAT MAN MESSI
As is becoming routine, the three years running FIFA World Player of the Year rescued Barça yet again, capitalizing on a horrid failure of an attempt at a clearance from Pepe to put an outplayed to that point Barça back on level terms. To that point, stopping Messi’s textbook dribbles from deep positions right-of-center was the focus of Madrid’s defense, and waiting for Messi after each feint and step-back was another Madrid defender, limiting Messi’s on the ball influence. As a result, Pedro had to create more on his own instead of darting diagonally behind the defense to get on the end of through balls or drag defenders out of alignment, and without a winger playing opposite of him to make those runs, Barça’s attack stagnated more and more with each dispossession of Messi.
But, when the second half came around, Messi went about his work a different way. He began floating left of center, breaking the symmetry of Madrid’s defense. When out right, he went around a defense to its outside in lieu of looking to slice through its middle. The added uncertainty of Messi’s attack achieved its intended effect, and Messi punished the suddenly nervous and reaching challenges of Madrid with a scorching free kick to lift Barcelona to a 2-1 lead in a game where it was lucky to not be down 2-0 and, even yet, where a 3-0 deficit would not have been undeserved.
THE SUSPECT SUBSTITUTION
In a game where Barcelona suddenly found itself a half-hour away from an eleven point lead over Madrid in the domestic table, Vilanova elected to augment Barça’s attack by bringing Alexis Sánchez on for Fàbregas instead of bringing on Alex Song to help solidify the back-line. So, consequently and accordingly, Madrid equalized soon after, with Özil “finding” a cutting Ronaldo, a discovery made possible by a wrong step from Mascherano and Adriano’s misplaying of the offsides trap. The pass to Ronaldo went through, of course, the space where a third centerback would’ve been occupying.
Here’s the thing. Barcelona, while it had the better of the second half, had still yet to create the opportunities Madrid had created in the first. Messi pulling two goals out of thin air doesn’t magically change that Barça had been, on the whole, outplayed, nor does it signify an avalanche of goals to come. While Barcelona had plugged the dam at its back, it would be wrong to intimate a fortress has suddenly been erected in front of Valdés’ goal.
Even if it is granted that Sánchez’s introduction increased the probability of a Barcelona goal, the loss of a central midfielder would also increase Barça’s difficulty of keeping possession, and since the chief threat of Madrid’s attack wasn’t an unmarked Arbeloa destroying Barça’s left flank necessitating the introduction of a winger to track him, Sánchez’s substitution also meant Madrid was no less likely to score. Even if it is granted Barcelona was most likely to score next, that difference in probability doesn’t make up for not further limiting Madrid’s chances of scoring.
Up 2-1, the more valuable target for Barcelona was not Iker Casillas’ goal but the three points suddenly on the table after being outplayed for the first forty-five minutes. And it isn’t as if an attack featuring Sergio Busquets’ distribution, Jordi Alba’s runs, Xavi’s passing, Iniesta’s “illusionista” act and, last but not least, Lionel ****ing Messi is hard pressed for attacking ability. Martín Montoya hitting the crossbar in the eighty-eighth minute, an emphatic continuing of his climb up the footballing ladder, made the 2-2 scoreline deserved, but it must be wondered if Tito Vilanova left points on the table, letting Real Madrid off the hook.
Even if Vilanova did, he’s in good company: Pep Guardiola did the same against Madrid in the second leg of the last campaign’s Copa del Rey quarter-final.
For tactical notes during matches and other 140 -character chicanery, follow @tpcourier.
Image Credit: Miguel Ruiz (FCB)