Although this summer saw both Barcelona and Real Madrid appoint new managers, the feel and flow of the first El Clásico of the season will not be drastically different. Much has been made of Tata Martino's ‘pragmatic' streak, evident in the reactive, counter-attacking style he deployed while in charge with Paraguay, but Martino was never going to reinvent the Barcelona wheel. Instead, it's a matter of evolution, towards a more varied system that incorporates counter-attacking, and more reserved pressing.
However, in all likelihood they'll still dominate the ball against Madrid -- it would be highly unusual, and a great waste of resources, if Martino asked Barcelona to focus purely on counter-attacking. Instead, that's something we've come to expect from Madrid, but Ancelotti's arrival has changed things. You can't label the Italian a ‘possession', or ‘counter-attacking' manager; as with most coaches, the answer lies somewhere in between. Inevitably, Madrid still record high amounts of possession against weaker sides, but the approach Ancelotti uses in big games -- what will, in essence, define what type of Madrid manager he is -- remains unclear.
Therefore, the key decisions for the forthcoming El Clasico lie with the Italian. First is the issue of formation. After early experimentation with a 4-4-2, it appears he now favours 4-3-3, having used it against Levante, Malaga and Juventus mid-week. In the context of an impending clash with Barcelona, it makes perfect sense: using Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema in tandem as centre forwards would have left Madrid incredibly vulnerable to being dominated in the midfield zone.
Even with a midfield triangle, Madrid probably still won't compete for possession, but now they can compete in terms of numbers. Of course, there are an array of possible selections Martino could opt for to circumvent this issue -- he could, for example, shift Neymar to the right, start Cesc Fabregas and allow Andres Iniesta to drift into the middle zone from the left -- but a series of individual battles in the centre feels more likely.
While Luka Modric, or maybe even Isco, would theoretically clash with Xavi, and Sami Khedira likewise with Barcelona's left-sided central midfielder, it's unclear what role Asier Illarramendi will play out of possession, presuming he starts. Regardless of the personnel, however, the fallacy in the midfield battle will be the same -- Real's deepest midfielder will either have to stay and protect the space in front of the back four, or move forward and prevent Sergio Busquets from enjoying time on the ball.
Again, regardless of the identity of Barcelona's lone striker (either Benzema or Ronaldo), it feels unlikely Ancelotti will ask them to perform specific defensive work. His instructions - or rather, lack of - in the Juventus game indicate this, as Benzema only half-heartedly shut down passes into Andrea Pirlo. Perhaps the golden rule of facing Juventus is that you must close down Pirlo quickly, yet it seemed Real seemed unsure of how to deal with his playmaking threat from deep.
In the end Illarramendi was forced to travel almost thirty yards upfield, by which point Pirlo already had the time and space to hit his trademark diagonal balls. It was typical of the disjointed feel to Madrid's midfield under Ancelotti -- he's yet to really find the right combination of players, and the space between the lines is a recurring issue.
Busquets does not the creative ability of Pirlo but he is Barcelona's playmaker in his own unique way. His short passing is more incisive than his reputations perhaps suggests and he is excellent at triggering attacks with accurate forward balls to teammates between the lines higher up. It would not be as obvious as if, say, if Pirlo was left free, but it could be similarly damaging if Madrid give him time on the ball in deep positions.
The contrast with Illarramendi could be quite stark. Understandably, the youngster has tended to keep his distribution tidy rather than flashy, and Barcelona would be safe in giving him time on the ball.
Ancelotti's secondary issue concerns the right wing. On paper, Gareth Bale, as the better and more expensive player, should start. However, that betrays the importance of Angel Di Maria's selflessness in allowing Madrid to play. Specifically, it allows Ronaldo to play -- much has been made of the relationship between him and Mesut Ozil, but the work rate and discipline of Di Maria is also important. The latter is willing to press, harry and track back if required and that counterbalances Ronaldo's tendency to stay high up on the left.
It remains to be seen if the same applies for Bale. There is the feeling that using him and Ronaldo together might be too much of a good thing -- individually, they're obviously fantastic players, but the balance doesn't seem particularly ideal, as both like to pick up balls on the run, and for want of a better term, ‘go for goal'. By contrast, Di Maria's excellent through ball for Ronaldo's opener against Juve summed up his importance to the side, linking midfield to attack both with and without the ball. At any rate, he deserves to start based purely on his outstanding form over the past two games.
Fittingly, for a fixture layered with such history and intrigue, the tactical battle is similarly complex. But the format of Real's midfield, and whether Ancelotti elects for Bale or Di Maria, feel like the decisive issues.