In the spring of 2011, Real Madrid and Barcelona played a series that was without precedent in modern football. In less than a month, the two teams played a total of four matches across three competitions. One was a cup final, with the other three matches establishing the favorite to win La Liga and the UEFA Champions League. For the first 284 minutes of that series, Barcelona failed to score from open play.
Pep Guardiola has dominated Real Madrid during his time as Barcelona manager, with the most notable exception being Madrid's 1-0 victory in the Copa Del Rey final, Madrid's best performance of that four-match series. Barcelona got a draw at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in the first match of the series to all but clinch the La Liga title and won the Champions League tie against their rivals, effectively "winning" the series.
The series, however, was changed irreversibly by a red card shown to Pepe in the 61st minute of the first Champions League match and the third match of the series. Up until that point, Barcelona had only scored one goal in the first 271 minutes of the series, or three normal matches worth of time (the Copa Del Rey final went into extra time). That goal was a penalty, scored by Lionel Messi in the league match. Raul Albiol was sent off for the challenge that led to the penalty, and he's unlikely to see any time in a big match for Madrid in the near future.
Barcelona was probably the better side in that match. The Copa Del Rey final was a fairly even encounter. Barcelona were probably the better side in the first Champions League match as well, but they weren't able to find a goal until after Pepe was sent off. Barcelona won the series and they deserved to win the series, but they did not look flawless in doing so.
In the final game of the series, knowing that he was not going to be able to overturn a 2-0 loss at home, Jose Mourinho changed his tactics. The game seemed like little more than a very heated exhibition after the first Champions League encounter, and the teams walked away from the series' final match with a 1-1 draw.
The first three games of the series saw Jose Mourinho use a system which he does not use with Real Madrid for most matches and that he had not yet used against Barcelona until that league match last spring - a 4-3-3/4-5-1 hybrid, not unlike the one he utilized for long periods of his tenures at FC Porto, Chelsea and Inter Milan. It is extremely effective and a Mourinho staple, but hardly revolutionary. Managers have been utilizing a defensive-minded 4-3-3/4-5-1 hybrid, counter-attacking setup for a long period of time. Mourinho just does it better than anyone else. In the Copa Del Rey final, Mourinho and Real Madrid perfected it.
Both the Spanish media and our fantastic Real Madrid blog Managing Madrid are using the term "trivot", an abbreviation for triple pivot, to describe the midfield that Mourinho used in these matches and that he is likely to use on Saturday. Instead of playing with an attack-minded playmaker - a true trequarista, if you prefer - Mourinho will likely play two hard working, box-to-box midfielders along with deep-lying playmaker Xabi Alonso. This will require the two central midfielders in the trivot with Khedira to get up and down the pitch quickly, and it will require the center forward to do a lot of work off the ball.
For 284 minutes last season, Barcelona struggled to break down a team playing this system. Despite the fact that they have arguably the best player in the word in Lionel Messi, arguably the best passer in the world in Xavi Hernandez and arguably the best finisher in the world in David Villa, it took 284 minutes for them to score against this team from open play. When they finally did, they did it against a team with ten men. Obviously this means that they weren't actually playing the 4-3-3 anymore, since they didn't have 11 players on the pitch.
Real Madrid had not used this setup against Barcelona before the four Clasico series, and they did not use these tactics in the final game of the series. Every goal that Barcelona scored against Madrid in the games where they started in this system was scored against a team with ten men, and one of them was a penalty kick. This means that, while Barcelona have defeated Real Madrid when they started with the trivot, they've never actually figured out the trivot. Pep Guardiola has never come up with a gameplan to break down a team playing in that formation, and Barcelona's players have not been able to use their individual talent to break down a team playing that system.
This is not to say that Barcelona did not deserve to draw the first Clasico and advance to the Champions League final, as they most certainly deserved to do both of those things. Jose Mourinho was furious with the referee at Pepe's sending off in the third Clasico, but his tackle on Daniel Alves was a terrible one. Raul Albiol's sending off in the first Clasico was correct, as he had denied David Villa a clear goal-scoring opportunity. Player discipline is just as important to football as formations and individual player roles. If players lose their discipline and get sent off for ill-advised tackles and their opponents create goals because they are playing against less than 11 men, the results are still deserved.
Barcelona deserved all of their results against Real Madrid last season, but that does not change the fact that they did not beat the trivot. They have beaten Real Madrid, but they have yet to prove that they have an answer for the system. When a side has the talent that Barcelona has, they should be able to find an answer for any tactic, especially if they're going to be seeing it for the fourth time. Sixth time, if you count the Champions League tie against Inter Milan in which Wesley Sneijder's role wasn't exactly one of a true trequarista.
The pressure is on Pep Guardiola to throw something new at Real Madrid. If Barcelona fails to score from open play against an 11-man Madrid side playing the trivot, Guardiola will face harsh questions from the media. They will be deserved, as Mourinho's setup is no tactical masterpiece. Guardiola's already seen it against his team, played by two different Mourinho sides. Mourinho's been using it on and off for the better part of ten years.
Sexta vez va la vencida, Pep.
For more on the two teams, head over to Real Madrid blog Managing Madrid and FC Barcelona blog Barca Blaugranes. Check out SB Nation Soccer and our El Clasico StoryStream for more in the build-up to the game. For more from around the world of football, follow @SBNationSoccer on twitter.