La Liga Tactics: Los Blancos batter Barcelona at the Bernabeu

Around the turn of the year it all began to unravel for the Barcelona boss.

Real Madrid have shaken off some poor early season form to dominate against their rivals at home and are in commanding form.  Contrast to Barcelona, who have started well, but have failed in their two biggest matches so far this season. Nick Chernih takes a look at what went wrong for the Blaugrana.

Team Selections

While Real’s attacking play will take the plaudits, the fingers will be pointed at Luis Enrique for his critical decisions before the players even walked out onto the pitch.

Barcelona is in a season of transition.  Xavi is getting older and the defence has been suspect for years. Rakitic, Matthieu and Vermaelen were meant to remedy this. Barcelona’s play has been much more direct this season, with the energy that Rakitic provides in midfield. Barcelona has always been a team that tries to impose their style of play.

At the Bernabeu on Saturday, Luis Enrique chickened out.

In comes Xavi, out goes Rakitic.

Wanting to control the possession, and in theory, control the game, Luis Enrique turned his back on how Barcelona have been playing this entire season (and had seen them undefeated and unbreached) by starting Rakitic over Xavi.  A Barcelona XI that had been learning to play one way was suddenly asked to switch back to what they had done previously, and newer players that hadn’t played in the system before had to adapt on the day. Barcelona aren’t enjoying the same kind of possession they had under Guardiola. The style is different. They can have similar amounts of possession, but not in the same dangerous areas where one or two quick passes tears you apart.

Compare the passes for the 10 minutes after Barcelona opened the scoring.

Real Madrid's passes in the 10 minutes after the opening goal compared to Barcelona's
Real Madrid’s passes in the 10 minutes after the opening goal (left) compared to Barcelona’s (right).

Hindsight is a beautiful thing, but playing Matthieu at left-back was another mistake. He looked lost as to when to push up, as he isn’t used to the full-back play that Barcelona is used to. Barcelona would have loved to have had Alba in some of the attacking positions that Matthieu was meant to be in.

He also could have played in place of the walking train wreck that is Gerard Pique.

The Pique Problem

Pique was a world class defender. Two years ago.  Recent form suggests anything but that. Putting aside what the reason for the decline is, it has been shown time and time again that before and after Clasicos, he has to be cradled to bed at night by Shakira to shake the image of Cristiano Ronaldo from his mind. The Portuguese winger well and truly has the Spanish defender’s number by now, and can get beyond his man whenever he chooses. Pique made some great blocks, but the best defenders know that having to make a block or sliding challenge means you’re out of position, or one of your fellow defenders is. That’s the same reason why Mascherano is a great defensive midfielder, not so much as a centre-back though he was comfortably Barca’s best defender on the night. Speaking of the defensive midfield, Sergio Busquets has also struggled this season. Couple his poor form with the addition of Xavi into the midfield and surely it’s a no brainer that Mascherano should be starting in the midfield anchor role rather than at centre-back.

Bartra looks good, but isn’t trusted in big matches. The only way to remedy this is to play him more. There isn’t going to be a magical moment he becomes a world class defender overnight, but he is certainly of a decent enough standard to be starting.

Stuck between systems

Iniesta is looking lost in the system, too, and has been in the worst form he has ever seen in his 12-year Barcelona career to date.  He’s struggling in the system, with Messi turning more provider.  The Argentine is taking up more of his positions and space, playing deeper and more of a midfielder than a forward, and Iniesta has looked a shadow of the player he was in the last few seasons. At 30 years of age there’s a lot he can still offer, but Luis Enrique has to make sure he can get the former Balon d’Or candidate into his favoured positions on the pitch and at his most effective.

Barcelona have plenty of midfield talent rising up from the ranks, as can be seen by Denis Suarez relishing first time duties at Sevilla, with Sergi Roberto, Rafinha and Sergi Samper (as well as Alen Halilovic) begging for more first team time.

Four years ago he was comfortably one of the best in the world, but this season it hasn't been happening for Iniesta.
Four years ago he was comfortably one of the best in the world, but this season it hasn’t been happening for Iniesta.

At the end of the day, Barcelona tailored their system to Madrid’s counter-attacking setup by playing Xavi and Matthieu.  Modric and Kroos have been highlighted as the defensive weakness in a team devoid of true tacklers ahead of the back four and this season teams have gotten to the heart of the Madrid defence via quick attacks, before Kroos and Modric get set.  Madrid is a team that can be attacked through the middle at speed which, in theory, suits Enrique’s Barcelona that he’s building: more incisive and direct than previous incarnations.  With Suarez, Neymar, Messi and Rakitic, the Real Madrid back four should be in real danger, very, very quickly, but too often the ball was slowed down to find a safer pass, because the team wasn’t setup for the break. Marcelo has shown he leaves acres of space (look to the World Cup semi-final), but too often possession was retained, and the chance lost. Enrique’s selections were stuck between the old Barca and the new Barca.

Barcelona were playing a Luis Enrique formation with a Pep Guardiola team.

The title race is well and truly alive, and Barcelona have to start drumming up some answers with some good displays against the better sides. They host Celta Vigo this weekend who have impressed so far this season, and then by early December they will have had to face fellow leaders Sevilla and fellow high-fliers Valencia, so there isn’t much time to rectify the faults against teams that will punish you.With Suarez back in the action now, and Vermaelen on the mend, maybe this was the wake-up Luis Enrique needed to go all in. Going half-half had disastrous results once, and it will again if he attempts the same tactics.

Madrid did what Madrid do

For Real, there isn’t much to say.  They coped very well in the absence of Gareth Bale, but did nothing out of the ordinary, certainly nothing that they haven’t done most of this season or last.  They attacked at speed and were decisive with the ball. It’s nothing new, Barcelona just did nothing new to try and stop it, and it’s very, very rarely effective to try and take it on the way they’ve tried in recent history. Isco has been in imperious form recently, and will feel harshly let down when he inevitably gets relegated to the substitutes bench when Gareth Bale returns. Money talks, and the €250-300 million spent on Ronaldo, Bale and James can’t be benched. Isco, you just got Perez-ed.

About Nick Chernih 22 Articles
An avid football fan, Nick fell in love with the European game long ago and never looked back. One of our dedicated Spanish writers, Nick has been a Barcelona and Chelsea supporter since primary school, and can be recognised by the rings under his eyes on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings after the grueling European time zone takes its toll on his sleeping patterns.

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