‘It’s Mariano Diaz! The substitute has scored! Surely the game is over now.’
It was over.
Last night, Barca were downed 2-0 by a clinical Madrid side. A very hard one to take. It was an interesting game to watch, nonetheless, with several distinct phases. There were some curious tactical decisions (on either side), some of which paid off and some did not. Quique Setien started with a similar lineup to the one that drew 1-1 at the San Paolo, persisting with Arturo Vidal as a makeshift winger and Samuel Umtiti as the left centre-back. However, instead of a 4-3-3, Setien fielded a 4-4-2, with Arthur and Sergio Busquets through the middle and, curiously, Frenkie de Jong on the left. It was a strange, if not entirely unexpected, lineup. At Napoli, Barça had been insipid in possession (not out of it) and had struggled to create from out wide. Starting four central midfielders doesn’t exactly spell confidence or, more importantly, offer a solution to the problem of width. Starting either Ansu Fati or Martin Braithwaite would have helped, yes, but it is easy to see why they were dropped. Ansu has barely played in the last couple of weeks and Braithwaite has only made one substitute appearance. Still, starting one of them would’ve been a risk worth taking.
Speaking of risk, it is Setien’s apparent aversion to it that may have cost us this game. In what can only be assumed to be a deliberate attempt to emulate Pep Guardiola’s approach (in the 1-2 win), Setien asked his men to start slow. For the majority of the first half, the team was practicing slow-ball circulation, prioritising control over penetration. Nonetheless, it was Zidane’s man who started out on the front foot, pinning Barça back in their own half in the first fifteen. They were looking fluid in attack, with Isco drifting infield from the right to pick up the ball between the lines, alongside Karim Benzema. Vinicius was staying wide on the left with Fede Valverde pushing up high on the opposite side, when Isco moved out of position. It was working. They were making constant inroads, especially down the wings, attacking Jordi Alba on the left, hoping for an error.
Barça began to grow into the game, however, with attempts to break away on the counter. This is where the team sorely missed a Fati or a Braithwaite. There was an instance where Arthur ran towards the Madrid goal all on his own and found himself in a 1v1. He was forced to shoot, however, as there were no runners alongside. Their biggest opportunity came in the 21st minute. A very high and wide Alba squared the ball for Antoine Griezmann who skied a shot over the bar. While the finishing was very poor, it was clear that Barça’s main threat was off the left. With a hapless Vidal and an out of sorts Messi, Alba was the only real attacking outlet. The first half ended with Barça on the ascendancy, even though the Madrid side had had the better start. Barcelona had grown into the game and had edged the xG battle (with 0.96 to Madrid’s 0.25).
After a bright start to the second half, however, Barça fizzled out. Madrid were piling on the pressure with Vinicius and Benzema causing problems. The 4-4-2/4-3-1-2 was certainly not helping. Due to a narrow midfield and attack, Semedo and Alba were being forced to push up really high. They were the main attacking outlets on the wings. Due to this, Barça were often being exposed on the counter; often being left with two at the back, three if Busquets slotted in between the two centre-halves. Throughout the second half, the defense was often caught out.
Individual brilliance from Marc-Andre Ter Stegen and Gerard Pique was what kept the game alive. Additionally, with Messi dropping even deeper than usual, what was meant to be a 4-4-2 often looked like a convoluted 4-5-1, which meant that Griezmann offered nothing in build-up. Whenever Messi was drawing to the center, however, Casemiro was onto him in a flash. The Brazilian was replicating what Demme had done midweek: staying anchored to the defense and caging Messi, not allowing him to cut inwards. It worked. As the half went on, Messi was forced to move deeper and deeper. He was often looking like a right-back with Nelson Semedo ahead of him.
With no-shows from Messi and Griezmann, Braithwaite looked like Barça’s best attacker from the moment he came on. The Dane was moving with speed, making darting runs at the defense. Then Madrid scored. Funnily enough, it was a defensive lapse from both Braithwaite and Semedo (two of Barça’s bright spots on the night) that caused it. However, it was long overdue. Madrid had been knocking on the door for a while, creating chance after chance. The game was pretty much over at the point. Barça never looked like scoring after that (Pique’s antics on the left-wing aside). The Mariano goal was more insult to injury, with Umtiti’s incompetence summarising a torrid half of play.
However, as usual, there were positives for the Blaugrana. Pique and Busquets were immense, in every sense of the word. Busquets completed six tackles+ interceptions, one key pass and two dribbles while Pique completed three tackles, two interceptions and six clearances. Semedo was brilliant as well. The Portugal international completed eight tackles and one interception and also managed two dribbles, a key pass and one through ball. Moreover, the first half display was encouraging. Barça created some wonderful chances.
So where did it go wrong?
Well, there were individual errors and tactical errors. Setien just got his lineups wrong this time. Vidal offered nothing on the right and neither did Frenkie, on the left. The 4-4-2 was far too narrow, and as mentioned earlier, left Barça vulnerable to wide counters. Moreover, the Cantabrian waited too long to make a change when things were going astray, especially in the second half. Barça should have looked to the take the game to Madrid immediately after the second half kick-off. Waiting 25 minutes to get Braithwaite on was a poor tactical choice. It allowed Madrid time to get back in the driving seat. His counterpart, on the other hand, got everything right. The decision to start Marcelo proved a masterstroke, as did the deployment of Valverde as a wide midfielder. Zidane also got his substitutions right. However, it would be foolish to simply blame Setien for everything. There were just so many poor individual displays as well. Messi was dreadful. So was Griezmann. Umtiti looked totally out of sorts in defense, as did Alba. After a good first half, many of the players just didn’t turn up for the second.
On another day, the game could’ve finished 3-2. With Luis Suarez on the field, it probably would have. It was just one of those days. This is without taking anything away from Madrid, of course. They were just better on the night and are deserved league leaders.