Ruminating on El Clasico

Analysis on the virtues of Barcelona's 2-1 victory over Real Madrid in their latest La Liga encounter by featured contributor D. George

Generally speaking, I usually do not feel the need to comment much on the larger phenomena of sport.

That being said, I have found myself ruminating almost compulsively on the most recent edition of El Clasico. I am unsure why. Even in comparison to just the past few seasons it was not the best played match, nor the most exciting, the subplots were minimal for a game of this magnitude (Barca and Messi in good form, Real and Ronaldo struggling), and it was absent the explosive flashpoints of the Mourinho era. Beyond that it seems, based upon a quick analysis off the top of my head, both teams fielded relatively few homegrown players and few Spanish players in general. While this is surely open to debate, I would suggest that some of the significance of these derbies, embroidered with long and storied histories, goes missing when they are played out mostly by footballers who did not spend their formative years living in it. 

Still, it was a very entertaining match, captivating at times, and has stuck with me more than any football match of recent memory. Only a few games have hung around my mind with that sort of impact: Brazil v Netherlands, 1998 World Cup Semi Final, Ronaldinho’s Clasico in 2005, and Barcelona v United 2011 (for the performance of Andres Iniesta who was magnificent without breaking a trot or a sweat or even once striking a ball in anger). Clearly, Sunday’s Clasico does not belong in the same sentence, paragraph or book as these matches, yet it haunts me still. So, I guess I will just have to make peace with not knowing why, express my thoughts on the matter, and move on.

I do not feel it would be unfair of me to say that La Liga is perhaps the most openly corrupt major football league in Europe. Good cases can clearly be made for the corruption of other major leagues, namely Serie A, but most would likely agree notably more effort is put into concealing that fact. Real Madrid and Barcelona are anointed by the economic and political powers of the region (the money itself actually seems to come from the German government, but that is another matter altogether) as the talismans and flag bearers of the league and to some extent the country itself. In more recent years, particularly as the Spanish depression deepened, there could be no challengers to this oligarchy. Then there was Atletico Madrid, playing, it seemed, for the soul of Spanish football (metaphorically of course, the soul of the game could never be housed in a professional team or league), the rightful bearer of the crown even before the final ball was kicked, conceded even by the Barcelona faithful. It is more than a little telling, in my opinion at least, the general malaise and resignation with which the Barcelona players went about the final match of that previous season. With the exception of Neymar, who was new in town and perhaps did not fully understand the situation (though the match official, knowing better, offered the Brazilian winger no quarter from the heavy Atletico challenges throughout the game), the rest of the Barcelona side appeared to play with the awareness that the rightful champions of Spain were the blue collar grafters from Madrid, simply by virtue of having already come so close considering the current climate of the Spanish game.

So onto the Camp Nou pitch marched the two bloated government projects of Spanish football. Though more often than not these days I would rather be watching Sunday leaguers slogging it out down at the local park for little more than the joy of the game and competition, I found myself fixated, along with millions of other world citizens, at the unfolding spectacle that is, and has become, El Clasico. Real absorbed some pressure early on, but Barcelona did not appear to be particularly dangerous in possession. A crafty one-two at the top of the box between Iniesta and Suarez and a cute nutmeg from Messi on Toni Kroos being the highlights of the opening exchanges for Barcelona. The best early chance then went to Real with Ronaldo striking the underside of the crossbar after being well picked out by Benzema. Incidentally, while the ball that Benzema eventually found to Ronaldo was sublime, he uncharacteristically missed the initial opportunity to play the Portuguese into what would have been an open goal (at least from the angle of my television it appeared that way).

That match kicked into another gear shortly after when Real conceded a free kick down the right side in a dangerous, but not extremely dangerous, area. To further reduce the apparent danger of the set piece, the ball was delivered with the left foot of Lionel Messi, curling away from goal. However, Sergio Ramos suffered from what has been a career long problem with lapses in concentration (but man can he take a cheeky penalty). Mathieu nodded in the free header and Barcelona were in front. Real then took control of the match for the remainder of the half, with Marcelo the best player on the pitch. They eventually crafted a nice equalizer through Modric and Benzema. It is a well-deserved goal and they were unlucky not to get another before the break. Though they did come close twice through Gareth Bale. His first had the ball in the back of the net but Ronaldo was flagged offside in the buildup. While the Real number 7 was likely a fraction off, Real could also consider themselves a bit unlucky as the call was so close that the goal could have easily been allowed to stand with few real complaints.

The second half began the way the first half ended. Real were firmly in control of proceedings, fashioning chances, and Barcelona offering little going forward with Messi, Neymar and Suarez cutting peripheral figures. Some of Real’s combining through the midfield and offensive thirds was attractive, though not worthy of the Guardiolan Barcelona comparisons some pundits elected to employ. Benzema was denied from about 6 yards out after one such move by a reaction save from Bravo. Marcelo was unlucky to see the rebound parry just wide of the position he had taken up else he could have turned it into an empty net. As Real’s chances piled up or, rather, as Real’s missed changes piled up, I was more of the feeling not that the Barcelona net was eventually going to give way to statistical probability, but rather that one of Barcelona’s world class forwards only needed a single moment to undo Real’s dominance. Around the hour mark, Suarez produced this moment. He was the most likely candidate, his performance being less affected by his team’s struggles. I would say that the goal was two thirds Suarez brilliance, one third Casillas mispositioning. Suarez was moving away from goal, with a poor angle, and falling over as he struck the ball. He was never going to be able to produce much power with the finish. There was no need for the keeper to guess and go to ground early. That being said, more often than not, even at the highest level, that shot will be dragged wide.

The Suarez goal forced Real to make a difficult tactical decision. With half an hour left to play, there was just enough time left for Real to feel they could possibly get two and run out with all three points. However, to go after two goals would require a much more proactive approach from the visitors, particularly defensively. Up to that point, Real had taken up an almost 4-5-1, maybe more of a 4-1-4-1, when defending and holding a low line at the bottom of the center circle. This offered little space to a Barcelona side that is but a shadow of the one who could tiki-taka their way out of the tightest of situations. I think Ancelotti got this one right. After the Suarez goal Real appeared to decide they wanted to take the risks to try to win the match. The other option would have been to continue playing the same game. This would have allowed Barcelona more possession, which they would have used to kill time knocking it around the back four and Mascherano. However, it would also have continued to negate any real offensive threat from the hosts. Real would then place their faith in the quality of their attacking players to fashion a few more good opportunities for an equalizer in the final half hour. This would have looked like Real playing for the draw because that is what it would have been.

Instead, Real decided they had to try to win it. It is unclear where this decision came from. Based upon Ancelotti’s pre-match comments, it seems like a decision from the manager. Judging from his post-match comments, you almost get the impression that the players may have made the decision themselves. Two important tactical changes were implemented. Real became more cavalier going forward, committing more players into the attack and further up the pitch. This allowed for more Barcelona opportunities to counter, which has become their preferred method of attack this season. Perhaps more importantly, Real began to defend with a higher line in an attempt to recover the ball quicker. This allowed the Barcelona midfield and attack, stifled by a compact Real for the first hour, more space in which to play. Ultimately, this tactical change was more beneficial to Barcelona than Real, with the former finally gaining a foothold in the match along with the lion’s share of the chances in the final quarter of an hour.

It is difficult to criticize Real’s decision to go for it, to push on with the urgency of a side that needs two goals in the final 30 minutes rather than just one. It is possible that they saw this match as containing a delicate redemptive and resurrective element that would have been snuffed out just as easily by a draw as a loss. It is also possible that Real were jilted after dominating the match only to find themselves down a goal with an hour gone and pushed on with the frustrated recklessness such circumstances can produce. Still, when one considers the difficulty of Barcelona’s remaining fixtures and the effectiveness of Real’s game plan for the first hour of the match, the more astute move may have been to stay compact, play for the draw and rely on the Catalans to drop points in their remaining games.

For Barcelona, their most telling contribution to the match came last summer. The decision to purchase the second or third best attacking player in the world was prescient. The tactical decision to put the best, the second/third best, and probably the fourth/fifth best attacking players on the planet on the field together and tell them to go win games was a masterstroke. Now that Enrique has figured out that he needs to be doing a lot less managing and a lot more hanging loose, Barcelona look on track for the treble.

But what the hell do I know? A lot of the football I watch anymore is played by half-drunk, out of shape, middle-aged guys who spend 50 hours a week at a desk. But I enjoyed the match, and it stuck with me, which is more than I can say for most of what these grossly overpaid clowns churn out these days.

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5 Responses to Ruminating on El Clasico

  1. Kip April 13, 2015 at 3:58 pm

    Very thorough analysis of the game. While I enjoy watching El Clasico, the author raises a good point about revenue disparity in La Liga. I see how Spain’s government has contributed to the “big two”, but unsure of how Germany’s government fits in. Still, Real and Barca continue to retain the lion’s share of La Liga TV revenue. Consider these data: for 2013 -2014 TV earnings, Real and Barca received 103.74 million pounds while the next closest club was Valencia with 35.57 million.

  2. Xavier April 15, 2015 at 2:59 pm

    Agree with comment above, excellent game summary. I have read some great stuff on this website, but did not expect to find something like this here. Hope to find more.

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