The biggest match in club football has finished and Barcelona came out victorious against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu with a scoreline of 3-0 which puts them 14 points ahead of Real Madrid and 9 points ahead of second place Atletico Madrid. So what happened on the day and how did the teams fare tactically? Let’s take a look.
Lineups and formation: Barcelona set up in a flat and loose 4-4-2 on paper which has been subject to much criticism from fans and media alike due to shifting from the famed Dutch 4-3-3/3-4-3. But in modern times formations are just a set of numbers since players are assigned multiple roles within main roles and off the ball movement is so important. Hence Barca looked like in a 4-3-1-2/4-3-2-1, due to the free role of Messi and the constant runs of Paulinho.
Real Madrid lined up in 4-1-3-2 or 4-4-2 diamond though Kovacic was given the role to be the glue on Messi which shifted the tip of the diamond flatter. Also, higher positioning of the fullbacks meant wider positioning of the two CMs and more central positioning of Ronaldo means it was more of a 4-1-4-1.
Tactics and actual play: Madrid opted for high press right from the word go. Kovacic was shadowing Messi, Casemiro was marking Busquets, both the Madrid fullbacks were high up the pitch to put pressure on Roberto and Alba. Madrid’s pressing was pressuring the Barca player with the ball while cutting out all the passing angles, and not zonal pressing. Ernesto Valverde clearly instructed his full-backs to stay back and all the four defenders stayed in a straight line, a very Italian way, a direct antithesis of the Dutch school which Barca is famed for. Madrid started very positively with a flurry of attacking moves. Both Ronaldo and Benzema cut out Ter Stegen’s passing options to the center-backs and both Marcelo and Carvajal pressed Roberto and Alba, thus disrupting Barca’s play out from the back. As a result, Barca didn’t have much of the ball. Barca’s policy was clearly to sit organized with minimum space between the lines, wait out Madrid pressure and then start poking into Madrid backline exploiting the space left during positional transitions. Madrid scored a goal via Ronaldo which was correctly ruled out due to offside. Then they created some good opportunities which they could not finish. Benzema had a header which hit the bar. Barcelona on the other hand also conjured up two good attacks, both from Messi to Paulinho. Messi moved to the extreme right-hand side and took Kovacic with him, then played a wonderful lobbed pass cutting through the Madrid defense, which Paulinho latched into, but Navas made a sensational save. Then Messi dribbles from the left and made a cross which Paulinho connected, but Navas was again there. Thus ended the first half at 0-0, where Madrid was the better side.
The second half started, and the game turned on its head. Madrid had perhaps tired out from the continuous press. The higher positioning of the fullbacks forced Kroos and Modric to shift wide to cover the flanks which were threatened due to the constant movement of Messi and Paulinho. Messi was absolutely cerebral, as seen in the first half, both the best Barca attacks were initiated by him from the right and left flank and vertical runs of Paulinho. Hence, Kroos and Modric were occasionally moving wide. Lack of lateral movement from Marcelo/Carvajal and Kovacic being glued on Messi meant, gaps started opening up between the lines of midfield and defense. This became evident a few minutes later. After the retirement of Xavi, Busquets is arguably the best press resistant player in the world. Kroos tried to hound Busquets, but he shook him off and laid the ball off to Rakitic. Rakitic started running with the ball, Modric did not keep up with him, Kovacic stayed glued to Messi who was cleverly moving deeper to make the route and space for Rakitic. Marcelo was keeping up with Roberto, but as he saw Messi move deep towards the right, he shifted towards him and left Roberto free, and Carvajal made no attempt to mark Suarez. As a result, Varane moved forward towards Rakitic who laid the ball to Roberto who made the square pass to an unmarked Suarez who finished calmly. Carvajal had a very torrid game and Casemiro was also bad. Casemiro was dispossessed, Carvajal was out of position, Pique passed on to Messi, who using his wonderful vision and pass, set up Suarez one on one with Navas. Navas again made a wonderful save, but the ensuing scramble in the box ended up with Carvajal blocking Paulinho’s goalbound header with his right hand. Red card and a penalty which Messi scored and the scoreline became 2-0. The contest ended there, though both teams had few chances later too. Ter stegen made some good saves, Navas again pulled up another wonder one-on-one save from Semedo which was destined to the goal. In the dying minutes of the game, Messi made Marcelo taste the dust and assisted Alex Vidal for the third and final goal. Thus ended the match, a sensational Barcelona victory, and a fascinating tactical tale.