FC Barcelona won at the Santiago Bernabéu for the second time in just a few days, this time by the score of 1-0. Despite the lower scoreline, this was perhaps a stronger performance from the Catalans than the Copa del Rey match they won 3-0.
The anti-Vinícius plan
There was a lot of hype surrounding the fact that Sergi Roberto started alongside Nélson Semedo in that Copa match, supposedly with the plan of stopping Vinícius. But really, Ernesto Valverde just likes Roberto that much. With Arthur out, Valverde had figured he’d rather have Roberto in midfield and allow Semedo time than to play with another midfielder and Roberto at fullback.
When Arthur came back from injury, Valverde persisted with Roberto rather than Semedo for the latest clásico of the season.
A lot of fans were anxious to see Roberto, a slower player than Semedo, starting at right-back against Vinícius, one of the fastest players around. But individual qualities are one thing, how you use them in the context of a system is quite another.
Ivan Rakitić was moved from the left midfield spot to the right side, with Arthur now occupying the left. Valverde surely took notice of how Vinícius caused so much trouble, and you can be sure that he was keen on finding a way to keep him quiet.
The way it worked had to do with how Roberto defended Vinícius, but it was really about how the team in general played. Roberto was instructed to press Vinícius as soon as he got the ball, trying to keep him from receiving the ball, turning, and running at full speed. Roberto will be beaten for pace, but if he can stop Vinícius from turning when he receives the ball facing backwards, he can prevent the situation altogether.
Another thing Roberto did was show him inside. That means that when Vinícius had the ball, he would be less likely to cut to the outside, his preferred move, and instead, he would cut inside, where another teammate would be helping cover. Gerard Piqué or Rakitić were the ones tasked with giving the team double coverage in those situations. Sometimes, Sergio Busquets helped out too.
I say Roberto, but in general, all Barcelona players followed this script. The idea was to prevent him from using his strongest tool in his toolbox - cutting to the outside and using his pace to beat players. It worked fairly well, and Vinícius was much more quiet.
The young star, though, still had a busy match. Madrid keep going to him as their primary playmaker, which is quite a responsibility at his age. Vinícius once again led all players with the most shots and the most chances created, but he beat players on the dribble much less.
Busquets beats the press
Real Madrid quickly were onto Busquets whenever he had the ball, hoping to cut Barcelona’s attacks at their very root. But Busi was up to the task. He had an early hiccup, giving the ball away and having to get a yellow card for a tactical foul. But after that, he was near his best. He didn’t miss a single pass in the first half, and overall, he had the most successful passes of any player, for either team. That allowed Barcelona to control the match in general terms, winning the possession battle and setting the tempo, especially in the first half.
Busquets also had the most successful tackles of any player, tied with Arturo Vidal. Actually, that last bit bears repeating - Vidal had 5 tackles, more than anyone except Busquets, despite coming on in the 70th minute. Surely the perfect sub when defending a one goal lead?
Roberto, despite having to cope playing against Vinícius, took forays forward as normal. The goal comes from a transition after a Busquets tackle. Roberto ran upfield to involve himself in the attack, while Vinícius hung back hoping, perhaps, to be in position to exploit the space left by the right-back. Instead, Roberto received the ball in the right wing, and slipped in a pass for Rakitić to run into, which he cooly dispatched to make it 1-0.
Barcelona’s defensive display
Sensing a need to get something out of this match, Santiago Solari changed his midfield to a more attacking setup. First, Federico Valverde came on for Toni Kroos, and then Isco for Casemiro. The introduction of Vidal for Arthur created, on the other hand, a slightly more defensive setup for Barcelona to hang onto the lead.
The game took a chaotic feel. Madrid would push up, but they were imprecise in their final ball. Barcelona wanted to put the game on ice with a second goal through counterattacks, but they, too, were imprecise. And then Madrid would counter themselves, desperate to score. Barcelona’s three strikers (and Phillippe Coutinho off the bench) had an off-day in front of goal. Los blancos for their part, showed fight and passion but needed a more structured approach. Solari’s subs didn’t seem to help, but then again, he was probably in a position where he was happy to gamble.
Whether by design or not, Barcelona relied on its defenders to close out the match with the one-goal lead. Piqué and Clément Lenglet had great matches and made a series of last-second blocks and tackles that prevented Madrid from scoring. Piqué in particular, was perhaps the man of the match, not just keeping Vinícius quiet when needed but making tackles and winning almost everything in the airl.
On the other hand, the team was a bit sloppy and made a lot of errors near their own box which resulted in an unnecessary amount of chances for the opponents. They usually put out their own fires, but it’s something to work on.
Overall, it was not a stellar match, but Valverde should be given credit for tweaking his players’ approach against Vinícius and helping his team adapt the right strategy to stop him from doing what he does best.
The big question for the manager now is he how handles the rotation policy. Lionel Messi had a good match, but he was far from his best, and he seemed to be nursing a slight groin pull. Will the team be ready to take on Lyon in the return leg of the UEFA Champions League, having drawn the first leg 0-0?