El Clasico. Two words with enormous meaning in the footballing universe. Barcelona and Real Madrid, arguably the two best teams on the planet, squared off for the second time this season. These fixtures have always been contentious, but they've been borderline unwatchable over the last few years as Madrid have resorted to increasingly desperate tactics to prevent themselves from being overrun by their archrivals. Sunday, however, brought an entirely different style of play.
Jose Mourinho's Madrid are now good enough to actually play football against Barcelona.
Jose Mourinho tends to play around with his team shape when having to deal with Barcelona. The accepted wisdom -- mostly pioneered by the work of 'the Special One' himself -- is that to deal with the Catalans you have to defend very deep and then stretch the play immediately on the counterattack whenever you get the chance. Real Madrid threw conventional wisdom away on Sunday, coming out with their standard 4-2-3-1.
Barcelona, meanwhile, responded with a fairly typical 4-3-3.
Barcelona starting lineup (4-3-3): #1 Victor Valdes; #18 Jordi Alba, #21 Adriano, #14 Javier Mascherano, #2 Dani Alves; #16 Sergio Busquets, #6 Xavi, #4 Cesc Fabregas; #8 Andres Iniesta, #10 Lionel Messi, #17 Pedro.
Real Madrid starting lineup (4-2-3-1): #1 Iker Casillas; #12 Marcelo, #4 Sergio Ramos, #3 Pepe, #17 Alvaro Arbeloa; #14 Xabi Alonso, #6 Sami Khedira; #7 Cristiano Ronaldo, #10 Mesut Ozil, #22 Angel di Maria; #9 Karim Benzema.
There was some question over whether new acquisition Luka Modric would make the start for Madrid in either the double pivot or in the hole behind Benzema. Instead, Ozil played there. This is a strong indication the Mourinho wasn't quite as scared of Barcelona as he has been in the past -- Modric is a more naturally defensive option than the German, and it would have been very easy to play him at the Camp Nou.
Indeed, Real Madrid were very aggressive in general , and it seemed as though a lot of the sting was taken out of Barcelona. They've been drilled so well in terms of defending from the front that it's shocking to see the midfielders (sans Busquets) so quiet in terms of pressing. Normally, they're much more proactive about winning the ball when they're not in possession.
Perhaps it's because they didn't have to. To call Real Madrid's passing game wayward would be a serious understatement. The visitors are normally deadly on the counterattack, but they were markedly less impressive here. Khedira, Alonso, Ronaldo and di Maria were all having trouble completing passes, and their inability to play the incisive final ball, save for the two goals, was probably the difference between getting the three points and coming away with a draw.
The big story, so far as tactics are concerned, was Tito Vilanova's management of Barcelona's depleted defence. With Carles Puyol suffering a serious arm injury during the midweek game against Benfica and Gerard Pique injured with a foot sprain, Adriano was selected over new signing Alex Song to pair with Javier Mascherano in the centre of defence.
Macherano, of course, is a converted defensive midfielder, while Adriano's happier as a fullback. Against a potent attack which included both Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, that pairing was always going to have problems, and it was up to Vilanova to figure out how to best mitigate them.
The solution ended up, as most do, involving Sergio Busquets. Barcelona frequently use the 24-year-old as a spare centre back whenever the fullbacks bomb forwards, but despite being slightly more conservative with how they used Jordi Alba and Dani Alves in this one, they still made great use of Busquets' defensive abilities to cover for Adriano's weaknesses, holding him deep whenever Real Madrid were in possession to create something of a back four-and-a-half:
Adriano moving to the left made him a little more comfortable, although it did make the defence dangerously one-sided. Dani Alves ended up tucking in very narrow, opening up a zone on the outside right for Cristiano Ronaldo to exploit. And that, in fact, is exactly what ended up happening for Real Madrid's opening goal.
Mistakes aside, the dynamics of that defense were fascinating. Mascherano and Busquets got more than fifty percent of their team's tackles as they clogged the centre, while Adriano and Jordi Alba guarded the left channel as Mesut Ozil tried to link up with Angel di Maria, notching nine interceptions between them.
The injuries to Pique and Puyol weren't the only obstacles the Blaugranes defence had to overcome. Dani Alves actually picked up a knock about half an hour in and had to be substituted for youngster Martin Montoya, who took up exactly the same position. That substitution ended up costing Barcelona, since it was Montoya (again, tucked inside), who was largely at fault for Ronaldo's second goal.
It's difficult to say just why Montoya stopped tracking the Portuguese on that run. It looks like he bites inside on a pass, but said pass was never on anyway, and in that moment of inattention he completely lost his man. Montoya nearly made up for the error when he hit the crossbar in the last minute, but the injuries clearly cost Barcelona here.
That said, one suspects that if you told Vilanova that he'd have to start Adriano in the centre of defence against Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, he'd have been more than happy with a 2-2 draw. The defence did enough, just, to keep Barcelona from losing. As depleted as it was, that's a decent result.
The Barcelona left
The Barcelona attack has been analysed ad nauseam, to the point where there's virtually nothing left to say. Yes, we know Lionel Messi is amazing, but being better than everyone else isn't really a tactical feature. He's just really good.
Neither of his goals were the result of any flaw in the Real Madrid system. The first came from a poor clearance by Pepe in Iker Casillas' box -- not really anyone's fault but Pepe's -- and the second was an absolute peach of a free kick. Tactics played essentially zero part in either goal, but I'm going to insert the .gif of that free kick because it was really really cool:
But there was still an interesting battle playing out between the two systems. Andres Iniesta versus Los Blancos left back Alvaro Arbeloa on the Barcelona left. Iniesta, of course, is more comfortable in the centre of the pitch than stuck out on the flank (compare his positioning to Pedro's, who provided far more width early on), and he drifted infield frequently.
Arbeloa tracked him, man-marking more closely than one might expect from a Jose Mourinho defender. He was happy to follow Iniesta more or less wherever he went, which the Barcalona man exploited to generate big gaps on the Real Madrid left. Arbeloa's positioning opened up acres of space on the Barcelona left, allowing Jordi Alba to break forward on the overlap fairly regularly.
Alba might actually have been more aggressive, but the hosts were clearly wary of the threat presented by Angel di Maria and Mesut Ozil combining down that flank (especially with Adriano as the covering centre back). And despite Arbeloa's habit of following Iniesta around and opening up too much space, he actually had an excellent match, winning the ball no fewer than seven times, the most of any Real Madrid player.
Not your typical Clasico
With Real Madrid being hugely aggressive in all the right ways (rather than their traditional approach to Clasicos, which consists of simply kicking their opponents until ninety minutes have passed), this didn't feel like a normal Barcelona match.
Since Pep Guardiola took the reigns of the club in 2008, Barca games have been able stifling, beautiful possession more than anything else. Real Madrid have been no exception. Jose Mourinho was humbled in this fixture two years ago, seeing his team carved apart in a 5-0 loss. Since then, his approach towards dealing with the Catalans has been one of containment rather than anything else. It's a reactive approach, but with Barcelona as the superior team, it was one that Madrid had been forced to take.
This time, however, the visitors decided to impose themselves upon their hosts, presumably seeking to take advantage of the structural weakness in Tito Vilanova's back line. They were extraordinarily direct, and although the passing numbers looked more or less normal, there were several subtle differences differences between this match and a typical Clasico encounter.
Take, for instance, the foul count. We're used to seeing Real Madrid foul Barcelona roughly twice as often as the other way around -- the previous two league encounters have seen 22 and 20 of the former versus 13 and 11 of the latter. This time, however, it was a slightly different story.
Apart from one particularly ill-tempered affair in 2011, which saw both teams reduced to ten men, this was the only Clasico since Jose Mourinho took over in which Barcelona actually fouled Madrid more than the other way around. Fouls come, generally, when one side it trying to shut down another. On Sunday, the hosts were at least as concerned about shutting down the Madrid attack as Mourinho's side was at stopping Lionel Messi and company.
There are other telling indicators too. Although they're quite capable of scoring from long range, Barcelona generally prefer to create close-range chances with their passing game rather than shooting from outside the box. Since the 2010/11 season, Barcelona had taken the majority of their shots from range in exactly zero Clasicos. Until this one, where eight out of their ten attempts at Iker Casillas' goal came from distance -- hardly the mark of a dominant Blaugranes side.
In other words, although Barcelona held serve, this wasn't your slightly older brother's Clasico. Real Madrid as as close to their arch-rival's level as they have been for years, and it produced some immensely watchable football. Long may that continue.