Can Real Madrid solve the Barcelona riddle?
Real Madrid and Barcelona has always been one of the most anticipated encounters in world football. Millions of fans worldwide eagerly await two iconic teams as they continue their rivalry and battle for supremacy as the undisputed kings of Spain.
Both teams have seen moments of turbulence throughout the season but particularly Real Madrid who have been battling to keep themselves in the race for the league title. Santiago Solari replaced Julien Lopetegui earlier in the season and has by all accounts steadied the ship and made some decisive calls in the process. Personnel changes and tactical changes aside, Solari has changed the dour mood at the Santiago Bernabéu but there are gaping holes that need addressing.
Barcelona have had their own issues under Ernesto Valverde, but the Blaugrana coach has been able to guide his team to the top of the La Liga table whilst navigating his side towards another Champions League quarter-final, assuming they beat Olympique Lyonnais in two weeks. Barcelona lead Real Madrid by nine points in La Liga with Atletico Madrid sandwiched in between with 47 points. The race looks all but over. However, Real Madrid able to cut the gap to six points if they manage to snatch a victory at the Santiago Bernabeu this weekend in La Liga.
In this preview, we will analyse the key tactical points that can affect the outcome of this tie with both Valverde and Solari having to make a few big calls to guide their teams to victory. Real Madrid will have one eye on their midweek Champions League Round of 16 second leg against Ajax.
The Argentine Santiago Solari has persisted with Madrid’s tried and tested 4-3-3 formation with the majority of the starting XI remaining the same. He has stamped his own authority though after being handed a two-year contract as a full-time manager. Los Blancos have improved massively under Solari and that showed in the 1-1 draw against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey first leg a short two weeks ago.
Their visit to the Camp Nou in October saw them mauled by the Catalan club in a 5-1 thrashing which resulted in Julien Lopetegui’s sacking. Santiago Solari has since brought back the swagger with goals flying in and improved overall performance.
The back four has seen the most significant change with Sergio Reguilón usurping Marcelo the most surprising. The Spanish left-back has become the undisputed starter for Madrid having started over the Brazilian in the Champions League match against Ajax. Solari surprised everyone with the integration of Reguilón to the starting lineup but it was inevitable after a series of lacklustre performances from Marcelo.
Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane have continued to impress in central defence with the pair showing their dominance and influence over the years for Real Madrid. Daniel Carajval continues to keep his place at right-back.
Further forward Toni Kroos, Casemiro, and Luka Modric continue to run Madrid’s midfield with their combined passing, industry and creativity keeping Madrid ticking over. The Ballon d’Or winner has returned to his impressive form since Solari’s revival, and has been described as a “warrior” by his coach having pushed Los Blancos through these testing times.
The front three positions have been far less straightforward and are another position where Solari has refreshed. Under Lopetegui, Vinícius Júnior had no minutes but the Brazilian teenage sensation has reignited Madrid’s season with some explosive performances of the left.
Karim Benzema has impressed with his 18 goals from 36 games so far this season giving Madrid a focal point since Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure to Juventus in the summer. Gareth Bale and Lucas Vasquez have shared the right wing berth this season as Bale continues to prove his critics wrong since his big-money move from London in 2013.
Barcelona has performed reasonably well under Ernesto Valverde, although their performances have raised a few concerns amongst the club’s faithful. Unorthodox signings such as Arturo Vidal and Kevin Prince-Boateng have led to concerns about Barcelona’s philosophy and whether Valverde is steering away from the tried and tested ‘tiki-taka’ football they are accustomed to.
However, the results have continued to come and Valverde is getting the best out of Ousmane Dembélé and Arthur. Meanwhile, big money signing Philippe Coutinho continues to struggle for game time and consistency. Arthur Melo has been a revelation for Barcelona this season coming to the fore and the first real player to be considered Xavi’s replacement.
Arthur’s ability to pull strings in midfield has been a key ploy for Barcelona and Valverde and his participation will have an effect on the overall tie. His ability to pass under pressure and retain possession has been a key feature of his game this season with a stand-out performance against Tottenham in the Champions League group stage, his first real debut in the competition.
We can expect Barcelona to revert to a 4-4-2 formation with Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi the default two strikers in this system. The midfield battle will be where the match will be won and lost. With Arthur injured, Valverde will look to pair Ivan Rakitić with Arturo Vidal to add steel, creativity, and dynamism to try and stop Madrid’s midfield trio if Arthur is deemed unfit to start.
They should be flanked by Sergi Roberto on the right and Ousmane Dembélé on the left. The two wingers are in the team for different reasons, as Roberto provides added protection to Nelson Semedo and Messi on the right flank as well as acting as a third central midfielder when Barcelona are on the front foot. His intense work-rate will allow Barcelona to press and pressure Real Madrid in midfield and counter-press if they lose possession.
The back four should consist of Jordi Alba, Gerard Pique, Nelson Semedo and the return of Samuel Umtiti after his return to action against Sevilla. Clement Lenglet has deputised well in the Frenchmen’s absence – usurping the January signing of Jeison Murillo – and will be unlucky to miss out. Umtiti’s physical presence and pace will negate the threat Benzema, Vinícius Júnior and Vasquez will provide.
Marcelo vs Sergio Reguilón
One of the biggest selection surprises this season has been the choice of Sergio Reguilón over Marcelo. After a decade of being the first choice of left-back with no real competition over the years, Solari made the bold decision of starting Reguilón over the Brazilian after a series of uninspiring performances. Marcelo was even left out of the recent Champions League tie against Ajax that further emphasised the issue.
The selection of the left-back position will go a long way in showing Madrid’s intent for the match. Pick Marcelo and they will focus on attacking their potent left side, but if Reguilón is selected then it signals Madrid’s intent to shore up their defense that has conceded 29 goals; the most of the top three.
Their pass maps show their average positions and passing types. Reguilón looks to play much shorter, safer passes, whereas the much more adventurous Marcelo attempts longer passes and plays much further forward.
The two young starlets of Madrid combine on this occasion interchanging passes amongst each other with Reguilón finding acres of space in the opposition penalty area. His invisible run into the box went unnoticed and some clever play from Vinícius Júnior gives Reguillon the space to run into and cross the ball for Karim Benzema for an easy tap in. Reguilón is no slouch when it comes to the attacking side of the game but the clear winner is Marcelo in this regard.
Based on their statistics, it is evident that Reguilón is far more competent defensively with Marcelo the much more attack-minded player. Based off Barcelona’s team selection and Messi’s preference to sit on the right-hand side, we can expect to see Reguilón get the nod ahead of Marcelo. But if Solari wants to take advantage of his explosive left flank with Vinícius Júnior, then he would wise to pick Marcelo for his attacking contributions.
The most important battle of the tie will be in midfield as the two teams will look to dominate the ball and supply their star-studded forward lines. The combination of Kroos, Modric and Casemiro will be crucial for Madrid in stopping Arturo Vidal and Ivan Rakitić
from asserting their influence. Toni Kroos acts as the link between midfield and defence, supplying the simple pass and keeping the side ticking over. Casemiro will need to be on top of his game as he will shoulder the burden of trying to stifle the flow and rhythm of Barcelona’s midfield.
Since his emergence under Zinedine Zidane, Casemiro has become one of the most important players in Madrid’s team acting as the team’s destroyer. However, this season has seen Marcos Llorente emerge as a serious contender for the defensive midfield spot. Since Solari’s appointment, Llorente has been given the confidence and the minutes necessary to showcase his true talent. It will be an all-out duel between himself and the Brazilian for the sole defensive midfield spot for the remainder of the season.
Real Madrid will need to be wary of the counter-attacking threat that Barcelona pose. They are incredibly adept at exploiting small spaces in midfield with Ivan Rakitić incredibly potent at disguising his runs before making ghosting runs into the opposition box. Lionel Messi, Ousmane Dembélé and Luis Suarez have incredible pace and chemistry to cause Madrid issues in the final third too.
Girona used the counter-attack effectively to try and nullify the high-line and possession-based football used by Real Madrid. As they deal with another Madrid attack above, Girona uses their full-backs to try and play through the channels and move more centrally as they progress.
You can see a large gap in central midfield with left-back Marcelo the closest player to Girona’s central midfielder. This leaves the left-back spot unoccupied too. Casemiro is dragged out wide and caught out of position, whilst the defensive line is unorganised. Players of Barcelona’s quality should be able to capitalise on the situation better.
You would expect Casemiro to more disciplined in his role with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos pressing more intelligently. Real Madrid will expect to see less of the ball against Barcelona, which could play into their hands.
Here we can see Barcelona’s counter-attacking ability in abundance. The Clásico played out a few weeks ago gave us a glimpse of the threat possessed by Barcelona against the very same opponents. Their lightning-quick transition allowed them to bypass Real’s midfield trio from back to front. Intricate passing from Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitić allows Barcelona to put Messi into a one-on-one situation and gives time for the likes of Malcolm and Coutinho to use their incredible speed to beat the retreating defenders.
Madrid’s front three
Real Madrid’s front three has found a new form of potency this season with Vinícius Júnior emerging as a revelation for Los Blancos. The Brazilian teenager has forced Gareth Bale to be relegated to the bench after a series of impressive, high impact performances. The teenager has been in blistering form and has shown enough link up play and individual quality to be picked ahead of the Welshman.
Madrid’s front three aid the midfield in pressing from the front. The Madrid attack of old wouldn’t usually track back but Solari has instilled an ethos that has made his front men work harder. Another reason for the inclusion of Lucas Vasquez and Vinícius Júnior is for their work rate. Their pace can cause issues for Barcelona.
As Sergio Busquets receives the ball here, we can see Real Madrid start to press the Spanish playmaker. He is eventually surrounded and it is the pressure from the Brazilian teenage starlet that has caused him to lose the ball and put Madrid in a counter-attacking position. We can see Madrid in 3v2 situations.
Vinícius Júnior has been a revelation for Santiago Solari. With Gareth Bale spending a portion of the season on the sidelines, the opportunity fell to Vinícius Júnior who has grabbed at his chance with open arms. The Brazilian has terrorised defences in La Liga and the Champions League all season and was a major factor in the match against Ajax a few weeks ago.
His direct running and tricky dribbling style make it difficult for defenders to stop. His vision and accuracy have been another highlight prompting him to be hailed as one of the world’s leading strikers. The teenager can follow French sensation Kylian Mbappé as the world-class talisman Real Madrid have craved since the arrival of Gareth Bale, who has failed to deliver, and most recently the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Here you can see Vinicius Junior dribbling through a host of players against Sevilla in a recent La Liga fixture. The Brazilian forward’s diminutive frame and low centre of gravity allow him to slalom through a crowd of Seville defenders.
El Clásico may not always live up to the expectations but the hype behind the world’s most anticipated matchup will never cease to decline. The two behemoths go head to head for the third time in three weeks and after seeing each other in close quarters it’s anyone’s game.
The congested schedule will take its toll on the squads and the team who can conjure up the extra bit of energy in the final 30 minutes will come out on top. Real Madrid cannot afford any more slip-ups, while Barcelona will want to extend their lead at the top of La Liga. I think this game will end up in a 1-1 draw even though the midweek clash ended up in a 3-0 loss for Real Madrid.
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