Barcelona lost El Clásico 2-1 to Real Madrid at Camp Nou on Sunday in another depressing day for Barça fans, but it was far from a walk in the park from Los Blancos as some may have expected. Barça competed hard and deserved more from the game, and for the first time in a while Ronald Koeman did most things right as a coach.
Barça started the game in a 4-3-3 formation with a few personnel tweaks: Eric García started on the right side of the center-back pairing with Gerard Piqué, and Frenkie De Jong went from his usual role on the right side of the midfield three to the left, with Gavi in his place. Memphis Depay started on the left wing and Ansu Fati led the line, and all of those small changes from Koeman had a purpose.
Koeman once again went with man-to-man marking, but he seems to have learned a lesson from the disasters against Bayern Munich and Atlético Madrid when the team played a suicidal individual defense that had no shot against the movement of those teams. Against Madrid, the Dutchman was slightly more cautious.
As you can see above, most of the Real Madrid team is being individually marked, but Ansu Fati is alone against the two Madrid center-backs which meant that both Piqué and García would share the responsibilities in defending Karim Benzema down the other end. That was a smart adjustment because it protected the two center-backs and allowed them to keep a good shape at the back, especially with Benzema’s tendencies to move all around the final third and come short to receive the ball in midfield.
But more important than anything to Koeman was man-marking the Madrid midfield. Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos were the focal point of Barça’s defense, and Sergio Busquets, De Jong and Gavi closely marked those three for the entire first half. Madrid’s midfielders don’t like to make runs into space and confuse an individual marking system: they want to be on the ball at all times to progress it forward, which made it easier to mark them as tightly as Barça’s central players did.
Koeman’s defensive plan worked very well early on, it must be said. The Dutchman wanted to accomplish one thing: force Madrid into playing long balls. He did so by having his midfield deny the spaces to Madrid’s central players and asking Eric to closely follow Benzema when the Frenchman dropped deep to receive a pass.
With that option also not available, Madrid’s center-backs, often David Alaba, had no choice but to go long to one of the wingers, often Vinicius Junior. Because Piqué was the spare man in the system, he had the freedom to go cover the space and help Óscar Mingueza against the dangerous Brazilian.
Up until the 20th minute, Madrid were quite simply stuck in possession and never offered any danger. Barça were comfortable with the long balls in behind their defense even with a dangerous target like Vinicius; that’s the risk Koeman chose to take instead of pressing really high up the pitch and have just one bad read break down the whole system like we’ve seen so many times lately. The gamble worked and Barça were quite easily the better side in the first 25 minutes because of how well they defended as a team.
And it was in the 25th minute that the biggest play of the game happened: Sergiño Dest’s miss doesn’t need a tactical breakdown; it was a bad finish, plain and simple, and a chance that he should have taken. And it’s also the kind of chance that an inferior team that is playing better than their opponents early on absolutely has to take. Barça’s attack is terrible right now, and Madrid’s defense is excellent. That combination of factors meant that they would have one truly golden goalscoring opportunity. They missed it, and it cost them.
But it doesn’t mean that from that point on Madrid woke up and absolutely dominated the game. They continued to struggle with Barça’s defensive system and their goal came quite simply because David Alaba is one of the best all-around players on planet Earth, Mingueza was too slow to tackle Vinicius at the start of the move, and Benzema made a sensational run to play Alaba open.
After that goal, Madrid retreated and settled into the pattern that they followed for the rest of the game: put eight men behind the ball and leave Vinicius and Benzema up front for the counter attack. Barça attacked in the final minutes of the first half with what eventually became a 3-5-2 formation, and Jordi Alba realized that Rodrygo was offering very little threat in behind and went forward a lot.
Barça have had no offensive identity ever since Luis Enrique left the club almost five years ago. They’ve had three different managers since, and all of them have tried a variation of the same thing: pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, someone do something, repeat. On Sunday, that someone was Alba. The left-back was easily Barça’s most threatening player going forward, and it was his run combined with a sweet pass from Busquets in the 43rd minute that created a great chance for Fati but Alaba made a great block.
That was the only chance they had before halftime, however, because the problem with Barça’s offense in the first half was the lack of attacks down the middle. They passed sideways and backwards until the ball reached Alba, and when nothing was there the ball would be recycled. Ansu and Memphis drifted wide too much, and De Jong never attacked the box the way he usually does. Madrid’s midfield was never challenged, and Koeman needed to do something at the half.
And to his credit, again, the coach saw the problem and made a change. Philippe Coutinho came on for Mingueza, Barça changed to a 4-2-3-1 and Dest went to right-back. Gavi was technically the right winger, but was essentially a fourth midfielder.
That was a good move: Coutinho played well in his first 15 minutes on the pitch, Barça established the numbers advantage in the middle for the first time all game, and they finally started putting Madrid’s defense in uncomfortable situations having to cover the middle while also worrying about Ansu and Alba down the left and Dest on the right.
Barça never created a truly great chance but looked more threatening at least, and more players started to make runs into the box with more intent to score. Madrid’s defense looked more and more vulnerable as time went on, and everything became a little more desperate and last-ditch.
Eventually, however, Barça started to get tired and couldn’t maintain the same pressure, and that’s where Ronald Koeman made his only truly bad decision of the game. His midfield substitute was Sergi Roberto, who predictably had zero impact. Riqui Puig would have been the better option because of his courageous, progressive passing which was precisely what caused Madrid problems in the second half, but asking for more minutes for Puig is worthless at this point.
Bringing on Luuk De Jong and Sergio Agüero late is fine, but Madrid killed the game off on the counter with a second goal before the two could make any real impact.
The truth, though, is that this was easily one of the worst Clásicos in a very long time. Neither team looked good, and Madrid were shockingly bad in attack considering how well they’ve played early in the season. As competitive as they were, Barça were still mediocre at best. Perhaps that’s as good as they can be right now, but had Madrid played anywhere near their best, we wouldn’t be just talking about Manchester United being embarrassed at home by their biggest rivals on Sunday.
More surprising than anything, though, is that it’s legitimately difficult to go after Koeman. His gameplan was solid, the halftime substitution was the right one, and Barça were the better team on the balance of play. Another surprise is how well the veterans played: Piqué, Alba and especially Busquets were all very good, something you don’t usually see in big games.
But in rewatching the game I can’t help but wonder if Madrid didn’t play that well because they simply didn’t have to. For large parts of the second half it felt as though Los Blancos knew they were never in real trouble and never needed to get out of second gear. Carlo Ancelotti’s team stayed solid at the back knowing they would eventually score a second, which they did, and once the game ended they didn’t celebrate like they just won a brutal battle at the home of their biggest rivals.
I hope I’m wrong, because that would really show just how bad Barça have it right now. When Real Madrid are not really that excited about beating you, they might not really see you as a threat anymore. And that is very depressing.