The second El Clasico of the current La Liga season is upon us as Barcelona travel to the Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday evening. Today we’ll be doing something slightly different from our usual tactical previews as we discuss the key battles that will define the outcome of this much-anticipated clash. This match has immense significance because aside from it being Real Madrid vs Barcelona or Madrid vs Catalonia, this match has huge ramifications on the race for the league title.
Even though Real Madrid have won 4 Champions League titles since 2014, it is Barcelona who have won 8 of the last 11 La Liga crowns and with the return of Zinedine Zidane, it is very clear that Los Blancos are desperate to become Kings of Spain once again. Barcelona are evolving under Quique Setien meanwhile the stability and momentum of Madrid has been rocked in their last three games which has seen them lose 2-1 to Manchester City in the Champions League and drop five points in two league games against Celta Vigo and Leganes.
Both sides were shockingly eliminated from the Copa Del Rey and neither are favorites to win the Champions League, so it is very clear that the league is extremely important to these clubs this season. Both teams are severely hurt by Injuries with Barcelona missing regular starters like Ousmane Dembele, Luis Suarez, Jordi Alba, Sergio Roberto, and Gerard Pique. Meanwhile, the situation is not that good in Madrid either as Eden Hazard – Real’s statement signing of the summer – is injured once again along with Marco Asensio and their young Brazilian winger, Rodrygo is suspended after receiving a red card for Real Madrid Castilla.
*The Key Battles*
Casemiro and Ramos vs Messi
The biggest criticism of Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona was their over-reliance on Messi and how much the team struggled for creativity, goals, and inspiration if the Argentinian was missing or having an off day. The same can be said of Setien’s tenure so far as Messi has been directly involved in 14 of their 18 goals scored under the new coach. Obviously, if you have a genius like Messi in your squad, then it would be foolish not to depend on him but Setien’s evolution is taking some time because of Barcelona’s imbalanced squad.
Sergio Busquets echoed this after the 1-1 draw with Napoli on Tuesday when he said “We have a short squad but those that are in charge know that. The situation is what it is” The midfielder continued “we hope that Pique’s injury (that happened against Napoli) is nothing serious but we will take on the second leg with what we have. We don’t have a deep squad because, unfortunately, that’s how it was planned”.
No doubt that this team depends massively on Messi and if Real Madrid can stop the Barcelona captain from going on his sensational runs, or playing one-twos with teammates or stop his defence splitting passes then they can take a huge step towards the league title.
Messi does not operate like a wide attacker and most of his contribution comes towards the middle. The top Scorer in El Clasico history is also excused from defensive duties so he will not be tracking the Real Madrid left-back, which will mean that Sergio Ramos and especially Casemiro will have to block Messi as he will try to break whenever there is a turnover. We can not emphasize enough on the importance of Messi to this Barcelona side, especially with injuries to Dembele and Suarez. Summer signing Griezmann is being played out of his best position and Ansu Fati is still 17 years old. This is not as simple as ‘stop Messi and you Stop Barcelona’ because they have top players like Frenkie De Jong, Griezmann, Vidal, etc at their disposal. However, it will go a long way in helping Los Blancos to a big win if the Argentinian is kept quite.
The battle for possession and goals
Quique Setien promised to bring back possession football but it is a slightly imperfect situation for Barcelona. They are dominating the ball but their passing has been uninspiring on occasions, such as in the 2-0 loss against Valencia (which could have been worse if it wasn’t for Ter Stegn), in their 1-0 loss in Bilbao which eliminated them from the Copa Del Rey and the recent 1-1 draw against Napoli in the Champions League. Setien is obviously not helped by injuries as two of Barcelona’s most direct players – Luis Suarez and Dembele – are on long term injuries but he should start with the 4-3-3 with two wide forwards instead of using Arturo Vidal upfront. This should be Barcelona’s system at the Bernabeu, to have speed in attack and options for the passers in midfield –
Semedo Lenglet Umtiti Firpo
Vidal De Jong
Messi Griezmann Fati
This side will see players in their best position. Playing Griezmann on the left -ing was a problem under Ernesto Valverde as well and Setien must stop making this mistake. As Albert Einstein once said “Doing something over and over again and expecting different results in stupid”. Barcelona should stop playing Messi upfront because they need him to create passes from deep, his dribbling ability can be useful and it’s not as if they have Xavi Hernandez in midfield that Messi can just stay high and wait for passes. Deploying the Argentinian wide will attract Madrid defenders towards him, which will create spaces for Vidal, Griezmann, and Fati.
Even in the Guardiola era when Barcelona dominated and revolutionized the game, they had forwards with pace and directness (Henry, Eto, Messi and David Villa, Pedro, Messi). Barcelona sticking to their principles is very admirable but they can be a bit lethargic at times. Having possession superiority for the sack of it will not win trophies, Barcelona need to go back to a 4-3-3 for possession with penetration.
Real Madrid are in a very similar situation as they too have struggled for goals this season. You can say that Los Blancos will go top of the league with a win on Sunday but this season is built on a strong defense (17 goals conceded in 25 games) rather than an attack that averages 3 goals per game. Real have been really compact this season but even that is changing now. They conceded 4 against Real Sociedad at home, which eliminated them from the Copa Del Rey and conceded twice in 5 minutes against Manchester City in the Champions League on Wednesday.
Real’s ball movement and lack of penetration were rightly questioned against City and they too need to go with the 4-3-3. Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro bossed the midfield during Real’s run of three consecutive UCL titles while Marcelo and Dani Carvajal created from wide areas but now all these players are getting older. The wise thing would be to bring fresher legs and new ideas to their attack but Zidane has stuck too long with his midfield diamond. Benzema needs service as a striker and playing four Midfielders, who are not good at winning one-on-ones and creating is a problem for Zidane. Real should start with this 4-3-3 against Barcelona.
Carvajal Varane Ramos Mendy
Bale Benzema Vinicius
Possession football can be beautiful and no one is asking either of these sides to change that part of their game but opposition teams have been getting in a compact shape and both of these clubs have been slow with their ball movement. In my opinion, whichever side moves the ball faster on Sunday will not only win the game – but also take a giant step towards the title.
Written by Hammad Pervez
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