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Barcelona's Lackluster Clásico Loss: What Went Wrong?

Tello looked uncomfortable against Real Madrid.  Why was he given the start?
Tello looked uncomfortable against Real Madrid. Why was he given the start?

Yesterday’s Clásico loss to Real Madrid was a colossal disappointment for FC Barcelona. After fighting to bring the points gap from ten all the way down to four, and playing at home in front of 90,000 fans with a chance to pull within one of Real Madrid, the blaugrana barely put up a fight. Sure, there were chances missed and Barcelona controlled the majority of possession, but was there ever really the feeling that the home team would win?

Real Madrid was the stronger side yesterday, and Barcelona would’ve been lucky to pull out even a draw. The authoritative Camp Nou form we’ve grown accustomed to was nowhere to be found. Barcelona looked disorganized, confused, and indecisive. Real Madrid was poised, at times dominant, and for the final ten minutes it was the visitors who knocked the ball around with ease, authoritatively securing their first La Liga title since 2008. What went wrong?

He may be the best manager in football, but Pep Guardiola’s lineup was highly suspect and largely to blame for a lackluster performance against Real Madrid. Pep opted for an unorthodox 3-4-3 right from the get-go. While this formation has achieved success in the past, yesterday—coupled with some inexplicable personnel decisions—it caused more confusion for Barcelona than trouble for Real Madrid.

First of all, Christian Tello was given a start at left forward. This was his first ever appearance in the starting eleven of Barcelona’s first team. El Clásico is a fantastic opportunity for a young player, but I very much doubt young Tello would choose this match for his first-ever start. The rookie looked like a rookie, and while he was by no means bad, this was no time for jitters.

Pep’s choice was made all the more baffling by the presence of Pedro and Aléxis on the bench. Aléxis has been a starter all year. Pedro was the starter all last year. Tello has been fantastic as a substitute. Why were these roles suddenly reversed?

Secondly, Pep opted for Dani Alves at right forward to complete the front three. Alves is perhaps Barcelona’s most important player because he covers so much territory and is as brilliant in defense as he is in attack. But the reason he’s so dangerous in attack is because his arrival on the right flank is a surprise. Already occupied by probing runs of Barcelona’s right forward (Pedro, Aléxis, Messi, or Cuenca), defensemen are often unable to shift over in time to stop Alves as he tears up the right sideline. By starting out up top, Alves was a surprise to nobody—Real Madrid marked him with a very determined Coentrao and effectively negated any threat from the Brazilian.

Thirdly, Iniesta, Xavi, and Messi—Barcelona’s telepathically connected trio—never looked in synch because they never knew quite where to go. Iniesta has spent the past few matches spread out wide in attack. Finally returned to the midfield, he was joined by three other men—Xavi, Busquets, and Thiago—and often a fourth as Leo Messi made his usual deep drops into midfield.

Ideally, these men should shift and flow effortlessly into space, creating a mesmerizing hold on the center of the pitch. Instead, we saw strange sights like Xavi sprinting to keep the ball in play on the right flank, or Messi, Thiago, and Iniesta bunched so tightly the ball had to be played back and around just to keep possession. It seemed that these players spent the whole match just trying to figure out who should go where, and the look on Xavi’s face was telling when he was pulled from the match: confused, frustrated, and upset.

Overall, the 3-4-3 was a flop. Barcelona looked thin in the back (Ozil exposed the narrow three-man defense when he found Ronaldo for goal number two), clogged in the middle, and lacking verticality in attack. Hoping that his men would gradually put the pieces together, Pep stuck doggedly to the formation and Barcelona played their way out of La Liga.

Last time I checked, Real Madrid hadn’t figured out how to beat Barcelona. Why was Pep making adjustments and trying something new? It wasn’t broken, why was he trying to fix it?

Quite simply, the 4-3-3 should have been used. Piqué was fit and should have started. Dani should have been given the right-back position he’s made world famous. Aléxis or Pedro or both should have flanked Messi. Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets should have been given sole authority over the midfield. Tello and Cesc should have come on in the 70th minute and terrorized a tired-out Madrid.

By starting an unorthodox formation, Pep made many of his men uncomfortable, and it showed. Worse, he sent a message to Real Madrid that the Barcelona team they’ve lost to for three straight years was no longer up to the task, and something extra was needed to win. Let’s hope this isn’t true, and if it is, let’s let Madrid prove it. Perhaps in Munich?

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