Any discussion of el clásico will center on the fact that Barcelona have dominated recent meetings, at least as far as results. There have been close encounters in the past, but Barça have prevailed in many different situations. Zinedine Zidane himself was beaten by Ernesto Valverde’s men, so it’s clear he, himself, is not a silver bullet.
What’s clear is that the Frenchman’s first priority to win this rivalry match is to contain Lionel Messi. The best player in the world has a long history of winning these types of meetings, and he is once again expected to take center stage.
Zidane has kept a flexible policy when it comes to his starting XI, and that could be useful as he may have to change his usual approach in order to successfully put the brakes on the Argentine.
The Madrid press has reported that Zidane is working on ways to stop this “headache” of a player, but the most likely seems to be to use a double pivot.
While Real Madrid usually have played 4-3-3, a switch to 4-4-2 or 4-3-1-2 could be in the cards. Marco Asensio, Lucas Vázquez, and Eden Hazard are all injured, meaning the team is short on wingers. However, Vinícius and Rodrygo are real live wires and can still pose a threat. In addition, the team still has Gareth Bale and can use Isco on the wing.
Karim Benzema spearheads the attack and has become the focal point since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo. Attacks that used to go towards Ronaldo, with Benzema often doing the dirty work for it, are now going towards him. The Frenchman is tied for the league’s top scorer with Messi; each has 12 goals.
They are also without Marcelo, although Ferland Mendy was bought for the specific purpose of offering an alternative at left-back.
Seven players have been suggested as certain to start by Madrid media. Thibaut Courtois, Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos, Raphaël Varane, Toni Kroos, Fede Valverde, and Benzema. We probably could add Casemiro and Mendy to that list. That leaves you with two possible question marks.
Luka Modrić or Isco, and then Rodrygo, Bale, or Vinícius, are the most likely, I think, to take those remaining spots. Luka Jović is another possibility.
Jović could be paired with Benzema upfront, but more likely, I think, is Rodrygo or Bale and Benzema. Bale has been relegated to the bench lately stemming from contract controversy, so I suspect it will be the youngster making his clásico debut. Vinícius surely will come off the bench.
Modrić or Isco could take a #10 role, with three men behind them to cover gaps in a 4-3-1-2. However, given the threat of Messi, I suspect Zidane might pick Modrić because he gives you more defensive work, and even may opt to play a full-on double pivot. In fact, even if it’s not a double pivot, the #10 may be asked to fall back often into a midfield bank of four to try to contain Messi when Madrid do not have the ball.
Ousmane Dembélé is missing through injury for Barcelona, while Arthur is expected to be out for the rest of the year as well. Ernesto Valverde has recently recovered Jordi Alba and Nélson Semedo from injuries, too.
We know Marc-André Ter Stegen, Gerard Piqué, Clément Lenglet, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Frenkie de Jong, Antoine Griezmann, Lionel Messi, and Luis Suárez will start. The only question is whether Sergi Roberto or Semedo will play right-back, and then whether Ernesto Valverde will persist with Ivan Rakitić in midfield or opt for Arturo Vidal or even Roberto or Carles Aleñá there.
I suspect Rakitić will keep his place and probably Roberto will get the nod at right-back. Roberto tends to perform his best against Real Madrid for whatever reason, and his ability to dribble out of tight spots from the right-back position is very valuable against teams that press high.
Barça have simply conceded too many goals, and their frailties could be exposed by the league’s second-best attack (apart from Barcelona itself, that is.)
Madrid have tended to concentrate attacks on their left side (where Benzema prefers to drift towards), which could be a vulnerability for Barcelona as Messi plays on that flank and is told not to drop back to defend. What this means is Rakitić will play a conservative game and perhaps Busquets might have to play a lot towards his right, hoping De Jong can shift over towards the center more and Griezmann can cover the left a bit.
On the other hand the absence of Hazard and Marcelo might mean less attacks from the left than usual.
If Modrić backs off to double cover Messi, Barcelona would have a free midfielder at points, Busquets if each team’s remaining midfielders cancel each other out. However, Rodrygo could drop in and press him to try to kill Barça’s buildup. One problem for Madrid is that they’ll want to press Barcelona high and not allow them to come out easily from defense, but this will be harder if a midfielder is retreating to cover Messi. Then again, if this retreat does not happen, Messi can be found in more space if Barcelona play through the pressure. In my opinion this is a risk worth taking; Barça are good at playing out from the back of course, but they can make mistakes too, or panic and hit it long where they likely won’t win it.
In games where Barça have struggled in the Valverde era, this has been a recurring problem. When they feel their backs are against the wall, they hit it long and don’t recover it, but they also make mistakes when they try to keep it short. What needs to happen is they need to hit it long more intelligently, as part of a deliberate strategy and not as a panicked last resort. The presence of Rakitić might help in this regard, Vidal too, if he’s used, to give a few targets in midfield to hit it too. And De Jong is a good header of the ball, an underrated ability for him.
Speaking of heading, Zidane’s team still favors crossing the ball in frequently to score. They have good crossers and load the box to get on the end of balls flying in. Barcelona’s team is relatively small but the taller midfielders as compared to the Xavi - Andrés Iniesta days might help. Still, it’s probably going to take a lot out of Piqué in particular to keep Ter Stegen’s area clear. The German is one of the world’s best but coming for crosses isn’t his biggest strength. If he can catch a few crosses though, and then re-start play with a long kick or throw, Barça have shown they can score on the counter. Ter Stegen already has two assists this season, incredibly, and with Madrid players rushing the box to try to score, there will be gaps after quick re-starts of play.
Real Madrid also love to pepper shots from outside the box and have various specialists who can do it. Ter Stegen will have to be at his best to avoid goals, and sometimes may even need to be alert to redirections from players after the shot is taken.
Barça and Madrid are the league’s top two teams in terms of possession, although Barcelona tend to have more when the two meet and you’d expect this to continue. Barcelona will try scoring through neat combinations near the center or through working the ball up from the flanks and using ground crosses. Madrid will try to counter, but the roles can easily be reversed depending on the game situation.
One last note is Barcelona have scored an uncharacteristic number of goals through set plays, so that’s something else to think about, despite the fact that Madrid have better headers of the ball. One reason for this, though, is Messi’s incredible free-kick record. Short of avoiding fouls, it can be hard to gameplan against that.
That brings us back to Messi, who is the main feature of the game. Zidane may adapt his tactics quite a bit to try to slow him down, which could in itself be a problem. Even if you successfully keep him quiet, you are doing so at the cost of your normal system. And sometimes you can keep him quiet, and he can still hurt you in a given moment.
However, let’s not discount the rest of either team. Both have very strong squads and stars such as Suárez, Benzema, Valverde, Kroos, Alba, or De Jong are sure to leave their mark.