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Barcelona-Real Madrid: El Clásico Tactics

Lopetegui got it wrong to start, but his changes almost turned the match around - only for Valverde’s own changes to tip the favor back to Barça

FC Barcelona v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Barcelona battered Real Madrid 5-1, although the game was a strange one because Madrid looked like they were inevitably going to pull the scores level when they were losing 2-1. It’s hard to recall a match more clearly going in such distinct phases, or indeed, one in which tactical switches midway from both managers made such a clear impact on the course of the match.


Ernesto Valverde was without Lionel Messi and Samuel Umtiti, and in their place, selected Rafinha and Clément Lenglet. The Frenchman’s inclusion was no surprise, as he was the only fit centerback available. But Rafinha was a surprise - at least prior to his inclusion in the starting XI against Inter Milan earlier. Valverde could have used Ousmane Dembélé or Arturo Vidal in the starting XI, or indeed Malcom, had he prepped either one by making them a starter against Inter.

Barça tried to sell Rafinha off to Inter and Betis in the summer, with both clubs balking at the asking price. How strange it was for him to start this match, although it gave the side some symmetry. With Philippe Coutinho now fielded as a left winger, Rafinha is sort of his mirror. Both provoke debate about whether they are best fielded as midfielders or wingers in a 4-3-3. Of course, Rafinha is not as good as his compatriot, but the instructions were similar. Tuck in and combine, and allow your fullback to bomb forward and overlap.

Meanwhile, Julen Lopetegui fielded a familiar XI, without Dani Carvajal through injury. He chose Nacho to play in his place, somewhat strange given the amount of money spent on Álvaro Odriozola, a natural right-back.

First Half Dominance

Barcelona quickly identified the match-up problem. Primarily a centerback, Nacho is not blessed with pace to play as a fullback. On the other hand, Jordi Alba has loads of it. With Gareth Bale operating on the right-wing and given license to roam, he was not always particularly prepared to help defend overloads. The vulnerability was clear.

With 10 minutes gone, Barcelona had the ball. Lenglet found Coutinho, retreating into midfield to help build play. Nacho followed him and pressured him. Casemiro dropped into the right-back zone to cover as Coutinho passed it back to Ivan Rakitić. Nacho retreated to his spot and Casemiro dropped off, looking to cover Coutinho.

At the same time, Alba was preparing a darting run. Bale retreated and pointed, as if instructing Nacho to cover the area he was unwilling to cover himself. Nacho floated towards Alba, but Alba was at a full head of steam, and Nacho was not. And Alba is just naturally faster. Rakitić found Alba expertly with a looping ball over the top. Alba brought it down well and had the presence of mind to ignore the obvious target - Luis Suárez - and instead look for another option. Coutinho strode into the box unmarked, with Casemiro not bothering to rush back to cover him. He finished with no pressure and it was 1-0 to Barcelona.

The second goal was somewhat similar. Coutinho and Alba were creating easy overloads against poor Nacho. Bale was nowhere to be seen, and Luka Modrić was too unwilling to leave the center - where he is more effective anyways - to give his right-back proper support. Nacho was forced to ease off, lest he get beaten with no cover. Alba then was able to attempt a ground cross, that Suárez was first to, quite cleverly drawing a foul - and a clear penalty - from Raphaël Varane. VAR eventually gave it, and the Uruguayan slotted in the penalty.

Barcelona kept trying the recipe, and Alba was often in acres of space, and a couple of times it looked like Barça would continue scoring from his crosses. A lot of the blame will be shunted on Bale for not providing defensive support, but how often did Cristiano Ronaldo run back and defend his fullback? The answer is rarely. Yet Bale was being asked to do work on the offensive half like Ronaldo. Truthfully the rest of the team pressed equally as disjointedly, often caught in positions where they did not defend anyone, and letting the hole on the flank go unplugged. Nacho was burned, but it was hardly his fault as he was simply overwhelmed by Coutinho and Alba working in tandem.

Rafinha did not have the greatest of matches but he often moved towards the center or to the left, which again created overloads for Alba and Coutinho. He also helped Barcelona in the press and getting back into defense.

Madrid sat narrow, hoping to contain Barcelona’s narrow wingers. But Lopetegui seemed to not give anyone the task of tracking what happened when both the wingers and the fullbacks moved forward. Either Modrić or Bale should have been helping Nacho. And if they were somehow occupied, Isco, Toni Kroos, or Casemiro should have covered. But this often didn’t happen. It wasn’t only on the left, often Roberto was given clear license to motor forward. But Barcelona saw a more obvious mismatch in Alba vs. Nacho, and also, this meant going to Coutinho’s side rather than Rafinha’s.

No plan to cover Alba, who is in red-hot form and is on his worst day still one of the elite fullbacks in world football, is a basic and embarrassing flaw in the team Lopetegui set out.

Madrid Fight Back

At halftime, Varane was taken off due to injury, and to his credit, Lopetegui took the chance to adjust not just his personnel but his entire system. He put in Lucas Vázquez and moved to a 3-4-3, with Casemiro and Nacho in central defense alongside Sergio Ramos. In effect, this gave the team two things: one, in attack, Bale and Isco could work the inside channels with Vázquez and Marcelo on the flanks. In defense, it seemed to clear up the defensive responsibilities, as there was a back five (including the wingbacks) that couldn’t be easily overloaded on the flanks.

Madrid got their first goal through the wingbacks, first with Vázquez in space finding Isco working the inside channel, and eventually Marcelo getting the finish.

Madrid employed a very risky strategy with a very high press, and it paid dividends then, not only in the goal, but in the following minutes. Barcelona had a lot of problems retaining the ball, either losing it while trying to get out of defense or booting it long. So long as Madrid either kept the home side pinned back, or was afforded time to set their back five, they were reasonably protected and able to pile pressure on.

Marcelo got into more crossing opportunities, and one was headed over the bar by Ramos. Isco and Bale looked more comfortable cutting in and combining, and one time one of their combinations led to a chance for Modrić to hit the post.

Then it was Suárez’s turn to hit the post, although if that had gone in, it would have been against the run of play. Rafinha tried to dribble out of two challenges in his own box, leading to a chance for Madrid which was eventually ruled offside. Still, it showed the desperation for Barcelona to try to retain possession and get some breathing room that Rafinha thought he couldn’t just punt it long.

Vázquez and his energy and pace on the flank continued to be a problem for Barça, and it was almost a mirror image of the first half when Jordi Alba went up to challenge Isco, only for Isco to find Vázquez in loads of space. His cross to Benzema was great, but the striker put a very good chance over the bar. Nacho was not the player to make these runs, and more than that, he had no license to. With Lopetegui throwing caution to the wind, these kinds of situations were starting to accumulate. Madrid looked like they would equalize.

Barcelona Kill the Game Off

Valverde made two important substitutions afterwards. He took off Rafinha and Coutinho in quick succession, replacing them with Nélson Semedo and Ousmane Dembélé. The manager has sometimes been wary of making changes too quickly this season, but this time he saw his team was getting overwhelmed. He injected pace into the side as well as fresh players, and crucially as well, he allowed Roberto to go up and play as a winger.

With Madrid pressed up so high, their vulnerability was the counterattack. Once Barcelona were able to break through the initial pressure, there weren’t too many white shirts around. Dembélé received a ball behind the halfway line and started charging up, seeing it was essentially a three-on-three breakaway. He found Roberto, Roberto clipped in a ball that somewhat fortuitously got to Suárez, who with an unorthodox but brilliant header made it 3-1.

This only multiplied Madrid’s desperation, and time and again Barcelona had opportunities to counter. Still, the way they scored next wasn’t exactly a counterattack, though it was influenced by the fact Madrid was pushed up so high. A long ball from defense should have been cleared by Ramos, and he made a dreadful mistake which allowed Roberto to win the ball and set up Suárez’s hat trick goal. But Ramos was completely alone, and when he made his mistake, there was Roberto and there was Suárez and no one else.

The introduction of Arturo Vidal for Arthur just gave the team another energy boost, someone to perhaps still be getting into the box for crosses in the 86th minute. It was not a counterattack situation, at this point Madrid were too far behind to be too bothered about being desperately pressed up high. But it was still based around the fact that Barcelona looked like they had a lot of energy, both from the subs, and feeding off the frenzied crowd.

In the end, 5-1 was a flattering scoreline to Barcelona. Madrid actually took slightly more shots, which is odd given that they lost so heavily. Understat showed an xG advantage of 3.15 to 2.15 for Barcelona - a good number for them, but far from a 5-1 win. However, taking the phases of the match into account, it’s clear Barcelona dominated between 0 and 45 minutes, and then between 70 and 90 minutes. Madrid took that period between 45 and 70, or in other words, a bit less than a third of the match. The overall impression of the match was colored by Barcelona battering Madrid for most of the match, with Madrid’s resistance looking basically like a blip in the long run.

Lopetegui misfired in his initial selection and instructions, leaving Nacho hopelessly lost against Alba and Coutinho. But he rectified it bravely in the second half, with a unorthodox substitution. However, his team was let down by poor finishing, and once Valverde reacted, they were cut open by a refreshed team. Valverde deserves credit for getting his initial tactics right, and also for his response to the changing of the game’s state. If there’s any criticism to give him, it’s that he could have reacted quicker to the situation, making adjustments as soon as his team was in trouble. That’s nitpicking, because his substitutions worked effectively and his team seemed mentally prepared both in the good times and in times of adversity.

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