Head coach Jose Mourinho of Real Madrid gives instructions. Real Madrid takes on FC Barcelona in the 2012 Spanish Super Cup on August 23, 2012. (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
The battle between Real Madrid and Barcelona has been shifted as Jose Mourinho's strategy has focused on his squad, rather than his team, and so far it seems to be working for Los Merengues.
It's a great understatement to say that when Jose Mourinho was hired to take charge of Real Madrid, he had his work cut out for him. The problem was obvious: before them stood their arch-rivals, having put together a team that was one of the greatest ever to exist. The objective was similarly blatant: find a way to stop them and build an even better team.
There is a large obstacle in the way of achieving this. If you were to select an Earth XI to compete in the Intergalactic Cup, the potential midfield of such a side would consist largely, if not entirely of Barcelona players, to say nothing of the talents of Lionel Messi, Carles Puyol, or David Villa. In short: Mourinho has a seemingly impossible task to overhaul the Catalans. A team cannot presently be bought which is capable of outplaying Barcelona, because the best players in the world, in midfield at least, already play for them, work effectively as a unit, and are used to operating with one another. Even if Mourinho had a bottomless pit of cash, he cannot buy what does not yet exist, much less mould them into an effective team.
In the face of such a problem, Mourinho adopted an alternative strategy: one of quantity over quality, using numbers to make up for a deficit in ability: a good first XI and a large squad could defeat a great first XI and a small squad. In a team game of limited numbers, the plan is not obvious, and while initially Madrid looked no more likely to defeat Barcelona in a game between the two, the story over the course of the season changed shape drastically. Barcelona's weakness was laid bare: too reliant on too small a clique of players, too tired, too little backup. As seasons drag on and become battles of attrition, numbers and options begin to tell, particularly when injury strikes. Mourinho's ever-rotating cast of attacking talent meant that off-days were kept to a minimum. There was always a plan B, always enough players playing well enough to beat lesser teams, and eventually it proved enough to secure the league title. It was a victory achieved not through blowing the opposition away, but by outlasting them.
Mourinho is not alone in this strategy. In England, Sir Alex Ferguson was faced with a similar problem in an opposition he couldn't compete with (albeit for purely financial reasons) in a straight match of quality, and so instead focused on options, bringing in the likes of Ashley Young and keeping a large stable of defenders. The net result didn't improve United's first XI, and they duly crashed out of the Champions League at the group stages, but in the league they came as close as it's possible to be to winning it, punching significantly above their weight. Similarly, Real Madrid spent their resources of manpower and money more wisely: there was no expensive tinkering to try and eke out infinitesimally superior performances out of a great team, as Barcelona attempted with the financially-disastrous Ibrahimovic experiment, and there was no continual first XI, backup players instead kept fresh and ready to be used when needed, not allowed to fester and rust.
With the Euros negating the recovery of Barcelona's exhausted players, there is every reason to think Mourinho's plan will succeed again. The next phase of his plan must be to build an effective first XI as well. Numbers can prevail in the league, but they are less likely to do so in European competition, where great teams must be defeated face-to-face. A good squad will have an impact in keeping players fresher in the later stages and providing options for specific tactical plans, but if El Clasico were to take place in the Champions League semi-finals, Barcelona would be clear favourites for good reason: they are still simply a better team.
This is a long-term project for Mourinho, but he has moved to begin addressing the problem with the likely signing of Luka Modric.The Croatian is the ideal player required to take another step in this direction: he strengthens Madrid's first-team, with a midfield trio of Xabi Alonso, Luka Modric, and Mesut Oezil being, while not quite the equal of the Catalans, as close as it is possible to get at present. The Tottenham playmaker also brings a versatility to the Real Madrid squad which they have previously lacked, which gives them yet more flexibility to adapt their game for speciic teams.
Barcelona have not stood still, of course. As well as securing the signing of Jordi Alba, there is the continual development and emergence of a seemingly neverending string of talent produced by La Masia. The key for them will be to not only get the best out of these players, but ensure that the likes of Thiago Alcantara have a role to play in the coming season: if they are sidelined and marginalised, Barcelona will suffer. The coach of their B team, Jordi Mestre, had recently suggested of one of the more promising talents, Gerard Deulofeu, that it would be a mistake to throw him in at the deep-end, citing the example of Bojan. While this is true in terms of the long-term development of the player, a speedy integration into squad duties is vital if Barcelona are to last a whole season.
Eventually, the two teams will meet somewhere in the middle: Barcelona will have to adapt to the decline and eventual retirement of Xavi Hernandez and Carles Puyol, but will also strengthen their backup and available options as other talents emerge. Real Madrid, conversely, will use their financial power to improve their first-team wherever possible. For now, however, La Liga will remain a battle of quantity and quality. The sensible money will still be on Mourinho to claim the title while Barcelona remain favourites on the continental stage, but there are two variables this year: the impact of Luka Modric on Los Merengues, and the impact of Tito Vilanova on Barcelona. Unfortunately for the Blaugrana, in both cases the possible outcomes are skewed in Madrid's favour. They will ensure that the coming season is an unpredictable one, but at present, it would be little surprise if it was Mourinho who held all the cards in May.
We'll have updates throughout the day and live coverage of the match in our Real Madrid vs. Barcelona, 2012 Spanish Super Cup StoryStream. For more on the Blaugrana, head over to FC Barcelona blog Barca Blaugranes. For more on Los Blancos, check out Real Madrid blog Managing Madrid.