El Clásico is coming and it is a tale of two teams with contrasting form. Visitors Real Madrid have been seeing off every side put in front of them while Barça have struggled in recent weeks.
One of the key factors in Barça’s mini slump was the absence of their captain. Iniesta picked up a knee injury in the fierce game away to Valencia in October and since then Barcelona have suffered a defeat and two draws in six games.
The Sociedad game highlighted what Iniesta does for the team and how difficult it can be without him. The home sides plan was to push high and put an offensive blanket over Barça’s defenders and midfielders, the player most affected by this tactic was Sergio Busquets. The pivote’s midfield teammates that evening were Ivan Rakitić and Andre Gomes but both struggled to help Busquets. After Barça had regained possession, the attacking midfield pair would push quickly forward and try to link up with the front three. However this meant Busquets was forced into attempting harder passes and subsequently gave the ball more often that usual. His pass success rate dropped down to 82.4% which is a considerable decline from the 90+% he regularly achieves.
Zinedine Zidane will no doubt have seen the Sociedad game and will be targeting a similar approach to limit Busquets’ effectiveness in the game. You can expect him to flood the midfield with Isco, Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic while instructing the wingers to pin back the Barcelona full backs. The problem is that when Busquets gets targeted, Barcelona suffer as they have no outlet to get the ball from the defence to the front three. The forwards were forced to feed off long balls during the Sociedad draw and there was a clear division between them and the rest of the team. Barcelona can not allow this to happen again in El Clásico if they want to fully utilise the front three.
This is where Iniesta becomes key, he is the man for the tight situation. If you spend even a few minutes watching his career highlights on YouTube you will see that one of his best talents is his close ball control. He has the ability to get Barça out of a tight spot and this has been capitalised on in Clásicos of the past. Rakitić and Gomes while both being good midfielders in their own right, don’t possess the same level of control that Iniesta offers and against high quality opposition, this really matters.
It is also likely Madrid will deploy a strong midfield in an attempt to bully away control from Barça, another problem that Iniesta can provide the antidote to. It is no secret that he is one of the best passers in world football but one of his main abilities is to pick the right pass more often than not. High tension games such as these can often cloud a player’s mind and make it easier for them to play the wrong pass and concede possession, Iniesta rarely struggles with this.
The captain will be crucial in creating a cohesive union between the front three and the rest of the team. If Madrid smother the midfield, the front three’s impact is greatly reduced. At the Anoeta, you saw Lionel Messi dropping deeper to collect the ball but this meant that when he did have possession, there were two lines of defenders ahead of him and it was easier to limit his impact. After the trident was formed, there was criticism of Iniesta in the drop in goals and assists but it was simply a case of him playing in a deepened position which in turn allowed Neymar, Suárez and Messi to stay forward.
El Clásicos are rarely easy but Barcelona will have a significant advantage if it is Andrés Iniesta leading them out.