Fresh from their convincing 3-0 victory against Real Madrid in the second leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final, Barcelona returned to the Santiago Bernabeu and showed why they are the kings of La Liga with a 1-0 win.
Unlike in previous El Clasicos, this game was far from the enthralling high-scoring performances that Barca have been accustomed to over the years. Instead, this edition of El Clasico featured a mesmerizing showing of defensive will and fortitude by Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet.
The duo dominated in all phases of the game from a defensive standpoint as they helped to keep a clean sheet for the second time in four days against Real Madrid. While they had a couple of lapses where defensive errors allowed Karim Benzema and Vinicius Jr. to get in position for promising goal-scoring chances during the Copa del Rey fixture last week, Pique and Lenglet made up for it in this contest by limiting the production of Real’s menacing front three. They each rose to the occasion and delivered in a game where the team needed a defensive masterclass to hold on to the one goal lead.
Throughout the game, Pique and Lenglet kept the same approach that they had in the previous contest against Real Madrid. When Barca maintained possession, the duo played a high line while Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto pushed upfield on the flanks in order to become more active in the attack. Since Real Madrid did not actively press Barca as they did in their last two meetings, Barca’s midfield were able to operate with more space in the attacking third and thus allow for Pique and Lenglet to position themselves higher up the pitch. Playing a high line is evidently a risky tactic — especially against a counter-attacking team like Real Madrid — but it worked for the benefit of Barca’s gameplan.
In contrast when Barca did not have the ball, Pique and Lenglet were conservative and only risked moving out of their defensive line when an opportunity arose to win the ball back. Of the two, Pique was more willing to come off his line and sweep up the ball to prevent a potential through ball in the attacking third. But this was a gamble move that could have very likely resulted in goal-scoring chances for Real Madrid if they were able to capitalize in open space, which they ultimately did not.
As alluded to before, Pique and Lenglet excelled at containing Real Madrid’s attacking trio by limiting the space available for them to exploit.
This sequence exemplifies one way that Pique and Lenglet looked to contain Vinicius, Benzema and Bale. See here the positioning of Barca’s defensive line, which is not as high but rather effective for its purpose. This setup allows for Barca to limit the space on the pitch and puts them in an excellent position to intercept a potential through ball or aerial ball out on the flanks.
Seconds later, Barca’s defensive line works in their benefit as Lenglet is able to intercept a through ball that was intended for Bale. Lenglet is able to recover possession with ease.
On this sequence, Barca form a similar defensive line and due to their positioning, they are able to track back and close down the space for Benzema in the box.
But the main focus of the game was once again on marking and halting Vinicius in the attacking third. In both fixtures of the Copa del Rey semi-final against Barca, he was the main threat on the left wing. With quick dribbles and the ability to burst into open space on the wing, Vinicius caused problems for Barca’s backline. But in this fixture, it was a different story thanks to the marking and overall defending by Pique.
Throughout the game, Pique prioritized preventing Vinicius from having an immense impact on the game. Whether it was moving out of his line or sprinting back into the defensive third, Pique did everything he could to isolate Vinicius from linking up with Benzema or Bale in the attacking third. This was crucial for Barca’s backline as Roberto struggled at times to contain Vinicius and his unparalleled speed.
See here how Pique moves out of the defensive line and aggressively tracks back to challenge Vinicius with a perfectly timed sliding tackle to prevent him from getting a run into the box. Since Vinicius makes the run behind Roberto, Pique’s play halted what could have resulted in a threatening goal-scoring chance for Real Madrid.
Vinicius continued to cause havoc on Real Madrid’s left wing, which was their most active during the Copa del Rey semifinals. But in other instances when Vinicius moved inside, Pique closely marked him and focused on not letting him make a dangerous free run into the box.
See here how Barca are lined up in their conventional 4-4-2 defensive formation and Pique is closely marking Vinicius, who is positioned in the half space rather than out wide on the wing.
As Vinicius moves upfield and receives a pass, he drags Pique off his line. Pique’s excellent positioning allows him to shield the ball away from Vinicius within seconds and ultimately win the ball back. Fortunately for Pique, Reguilon did not find Benzema, who had multitudes of space open for a potential goal-scoring opportunity.
In this sequence, Pique once again intercepted an attempted through ball pass intended for Vinicius as his off-ball run was cut short.
This was the theme throughout the game as Pique and Lenglet composed one of their best defensive performances of the season. The duo were absolute workhorses on the pitch and they essentially shutdown any positive contributions from Real’s attack. Vinicius, Benzema and Bale combined for just two shots on goal in what was a lowly showing from the trio. Neither of them had promising off-ball runs and any attempted through balls directed to either of them was intercepted or cleared away by Pique and Lenglet. Thus, Real’s attack lacked activity in the attacking third.
Pique and Lenglet combined for a remarkable 22 clearances, seven blocked shots, five interceptions and three tackles won. In behind Barca’s 4-4-2 defensive formation, the duo was rock solid in anchoring the defense and also contributing in sweeping up the defensive third. More importantly, they were nearly flawless in clearing away aerial balls from the box, which was a significant concern over the first couple of months of the season.
This defensive performance by Barca continues the recent top form that they have been in since the international break in November. Over the past 13 league games, Barca have allowed just six goals and much of their recent success can be credited to the stellar play from Pique and Lenglet.
As this performance perfectly exemplified, Pique is returning to world class form after a lackluster start to the season and Lenglet is proving to be one of the top rising young defensive talents in Europe.