It’s that time again, folks. The first Clásico of the season is upon us and the hype machine is running at full power. Apparently, this is not just a regular La Liga game: it’s a Ballon d’Or showdown between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, a match which could set the tone for the rest of Luis Enrique’s time as Barcelona manager and, of course, the first glimpse of Luis Suárez in Barça colours.
The bookmakers make Real Madrid marginal favourites and it’s not hard to see why. They are the Champions League holders and in the last few weeks they’ve been playing like a team of Terminators blessed with the footballing ability of Brazil’s 1982 World Cup side. They’ve scored 43 goals in 14 games and Cristiano Ronaldo is at the absolute peak of his powers. There’s also home advantage to consider.
Far from arriving at the Bernabéu expecting certain defeat, Barça will also fancy their chances. They’re four points ahead of Madrid in La Liga and have yet to concede a single goal in domestic play. They look more solid defensively than they have done in years and Messi has taken to a slightly deeper role with the consummate ease one would expect of the sport’s best ever player. They have at times looked somewhat toothless in attack, but that’s to be expected when they’ve been missing a player of Suárez’s calibre.
As always in Clásicos, the tactical battle will be extremely interesting. Neither manager will leave anything to chance: Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti’s strange selections were arguably responsible for his side’s defeat in both La Liga meetings last season, while Luis Enrique needs to give a strong showing in his first match against Madrid.
Barça will almost certainly continue with the 4-3-3/4-3-1-2 system Luis Enrique has designed with Suárez’s integration in mind. Assuming the Uruguayan starts, he’ll slot in alongside Neymar and in front of Messi to provide the aggression, direct dribbling power and lethal finishing that Pedro sadly cannot offer.
The team’s focus will be on retaining possession of the ball and dictating terms, but they will be more direct in the build-up phase than we have seen in recent Clásicos. We have seen several occasions this season where they have forced a turnover in midfield and Sergio Busquets has supplied Messi in a pocket of space between defence and midfield, allowing the Argentine to turn and either slip Neymar in or drive forwards with the ball himself.
Against a Madrid side that one assumes will field no ball-winner to sit in that space, a simple vertical pass like that could be the difference.
The $64,000 question is whether Barça’s midfield can protect their defence well enough to stifle Madrid’s star-studded attack. Atlético have managed to avoid defeat against Madrid three times already this season, simply by putting everyone behind the ball and applying constant pressure to the player who has it. While Barça will obviously not go to that extreme, Luis Enrique has undoubtedly taken notes and should have a good idea of how to achieve a similar effect.
He has already created a side that is far more secure than the Barça of the post-Guardiola years. The back four is much more rigid in its positioning and the full-backs’ advances are much better protected than before. There is some debate as to whether or not the defensive responsibility given to Ivan Rakitić and Andrés Iniesta has cost Barça more than it’s won them and this Clásico will be the ultimate litmus test of this new strategy.
It’s certainly true that teams have had much less success when countering into the channels between centre-back and full-back due to the deeper and wider positioning of Rakitić and Iniesta, but this has on many occasions made Barça look like a broken team in the attacking phase. It hasn’t been uncommon to see Messi, Neymar and Pedro stood up front waiting for a runner from midfield to help them overload the defence, while Rakitić and Iniesta stand on the halfway line.
It’s no coincidence that Barça have looked considerably more incisive when Xavi has started in midfield. He doesn’t have the same physicality as Rakitić, so there’s no point in telling him to defend in the same way. With Xavi in the side, Barça have linked midfield and attack much more naturally and the captain’s goal against Eibar was a textbook example of the driving run from a central midfielder that Barça have, generally speaking, desperately lacked.
On the other side, Real Madrid play a loose 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 that enables the front four to flit around the attacking third of the pitch. Generally speaking, Cristiano Ronaldo now plays centrally off of Karim Benzema, with Isco coming in from the left and James Rodríguez from the right, but there is so much interchanging and exploiting different angles of attack that it’s hard to pin any of them down.
Under José Mourinho, this sort of technical universality and tactical abandon was conspicuously absent, but Ancelotti is less obsessed with the minutiae than the now-Chelsea manager and simply trusts that his team of galácticos will find solutions. He will presumably shore things up a bit given that it's a Clásico, but he certainly won't park the bus.
Madrid’s Plan A is direct, lightning-paced attacks which advance through quick combination play. Their blend of physical power, technical excellence and ruthless decision-making is close to unstoppable. Only Atlético have found a way to stop their advances without resorting to foul play.
As many Barça fans will inevitably point out, Real Madrid have been awarded six penalties so far this season and some of them have been very soft indeed. In the view of this writer, however, there’s nothing abnormal or underhand happening. It’s a simple fact in football that if a team attacks as often and as directly as Madrid, and with players who are more often than not vastly superior to their opponents, then the defending side will make mistakes which the attackers will capitalise on.
While Madrid’s attack is close to flawless, it’s a different story at the other end. With such a top-heavy side it’s inevitable that there will be gaps in midfield and defence and Madrid leave plenty. They haven’t really tried to fill the space between defence and attack or to protect either full-back in any game so far this season.
Usually they score so many goals that it doesn’t matter, but the fact remains that they’ve looked vulnerable when teams have created overloads in wide areas and cut the ball back into the penalty area. Neither Kroos nor Modrić makes enough of an effort to get back and cover, while the defence tends to drop right to the six yard box, meaning there is usually ample space between the penalty spot and the edge of the box to meet these crosses and cut-backs.
Given how much of Barça’s play goes through their wing-backs, this will be a route to goal they will surely look to take over and again, especially if Alves, Messi and Suárez can isolate Marcelo.
Another obvious problem for Madrid is set-piece defending. Whereas Barça have looked surprisingly secure this season, only really making mistakes at set-plays in games against Villarreal and Paris Saint-Germain, Madrid have looked consistently vulnerable to balls delivered to the near post. Sociedad scored two goals from corners that were met with near-post flicks to the far, while Tiago nodded home a corner completely unmarked and without even needing to jump during Atlético’s incredible victory at the Bernabéu.
Barça have only scored a single goal from set-pieces this season – Gerard Piqué’s header against APOEL – but they have looked more dangerous from crossed corners and free-kicks. There have been more planned routines that have left a man on the edge of the box with a clear shot on goal, for example, and if some of the crosses that they have put in for Marc Bartra this season go into the box against Madrid and are met by Piqué, Busquets or Jérémy Mathieu, they will certainly have a great chance of scoring.
Both managers have a few choices to make when it comes to deciding their starting elevens for the game.
First and foremost for Luis Enrique, he has to decide whether Suárez plays instead of Pedro or whether he makes his long-awaited debut as a substitute. If this was any other fixture the far superior Suárez would undoubtedly start, but the pressure of making his Barcelona debut in the Bernabéu would weigh heavily on anyone’s shoulders. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Luis Enrique spares him and we see Pedro in the XI.
The other big decision to be made is whether or not Busquets will return to midfield after his hip injury. Mascherano has been excellent in the games against Eibar and Ajax, but Busquets offers so much more in terms of his forward passing and Luis Enrique will surely want to play him given the importance of his understanding with Messi. Expect Busquets to start with Mascherano alongside Piqué.
This would allow Mathieu to play at left-back. The Frenchman would offer much-needed positional balance in the back four, while his height will be very important at both ends of the pitch, particularly when defending set-pieces. Piqué has generally attacked the crosses into the box this season, but in the loss to PSG there simply wasn’t anyone else who could do the job and it cost Barça dear. If a ball went over his head, or was simply aimed away from him, Barça were in big trouble.
It would also be useful if Barça used someone with height to be the obstacle crosses had to clear. For David Luiz’s goal, for example, the cross into the box only had to clear Jordi Alba, who might as well not have been there at all.
As for Real Madrid, they will be without Gareth Bale and potentially Sergio Ramos too, although the latter is expected to regain fitness in time for the match. In truth, being without Bale against Barça could be a blessing in disguise for Ancelotti: as Wednesday night’s comfortable win away to Liverpool showed, Isco and James Rodríguez make a lovely pair of wide midfielders in this system, balancing the midfield much more than Bale while offering only marginally less incision.
It will be interesting to see whether Ancelotti selects Dani Carvajal over Álvaro Arbeloa at right-back: the former offers much more going forward, while the latter is a more composed and experienced defender. Given that Madrid’s positional rotation higher up the pitch means that whoever plays is unlikely to get too much protection, Ancelotti will probably go with the latter, but the temptation to go gung-ho with Carvajal and Marcelo joining the attack might be too great.
Given the points outlined above regarding the space between Madrid’s defence and midfield, Ancelotti must be tempted to pick Asier Illarramendi to sit in that pocket of space and anchor Madrid’s midfield, but there’s no obvious candidate to make way and it would mean playing a new formation and system in a massively important game, so it remains an unlikely option. It won’t be a surprise if Illarramendi comes off the bench and drops into that role if Messi’s influence on the game becomes too great for Ancelotti’s liking.
As far as predicting a result goes, the tactical balance is probably in Barcelona’s favour. They're the more flexible side, they're far more defensively solid and in Lionel Messi they have a player who can settle the match by himself. On the other hand, Madrid have home advantage and more simple and reliable methods of chance creation. If Barça exploit Madrid’s weaknesses they can definitely score a lot of goals – the question is whether they can do so without compromising their security at the other end.