Cristiano Ronaldo, left, and Lionel Messi went head-to-head in Sunday's epic Clásico. (Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images)
El Clásico showed again on Sunday why it is one of the most anticipated fixtures on the world soccer schedule every year. The intensity and drama combined to make it one of the best games of the year, not to mention the seven-goal score line.
In the end, Barcelona defeated Real Madrid, 4-3. Karim Benzema seemed to be on his way to a hat trick for Madrid, but Lionel Messi ended up bagging three goals instead — two on penalty kicks, including the winner in the 84th minute.
Neymar lined up on the right wing of Barcelona’s 4-3-3. He usually plays on the left, which allows him to cut inside on his right foot, but Tata Martino put Andrés Iniesta on the left in a withdrawn role instead.
Real lined up in a 4-1-4-1, with Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo cutting in from each wing and fullbacks Marcelo and Daniel Carvajal overlapping to create wide overloads. In the middle, Ángel di María was Madrid’s man of the match, terrorizing Barcelona with a combination of individual action and incisive passes into dangerous areas.
The game showcased both teams’ philosophies, with Barcelona favoring a central overload and Madrid looking for isolation points on the break. The resulting contrast dictated the progression of the game as each team gained and then relinquished control of the play.
Control the ball, control the game
Barça’s passing game allowed it to control the first 20 minutes, resulting in Iniesta’s opening goal. In total, the team completed 91 percent of its passes (581 in 640 attempts), which is just above its season average of 90 percent. Xavi completed 99 of 103, and Sergio Busquets was a nearly perfect 74 of 75.
The majority of Barça’s possession was in the middle, looking to create numerical superiority and open spaces in Real’s back line.
(Screenshot: beIN Sports, heat map: Squawka.com)
In this example, Iniesta is withdrawn, and Neymar and Messi have temporarily switched their starting positions. Cesc Fàbregas, Busquets, Neymar and Iniesta create a four-on-two situation against Bale and Luka Modrić. That draws Pepe out of position in Madrid’s defensive line, and Messi runs behind into the vacated space and nearly scores the second goal of the game.
This kind of numerical superiority is known as a rondo, and it forms the basis of Barcelona’s possession philosophy. Many of its training exercises are based on the principle of overloading a space and keeping the ball with short, quick passes.
Iniesta’s goal is an example of the kind of movement this emphasis creates:
(Screenshot: beIN Sports)
• When Gerard Piqué advances with the ball, Real’s back four is in good shape, and most of his options seem to be behind a defender. Bale is back to cover as Jordi Alba (out of the picture originally) advances to join Iniesta.
• Piqué plays a short pass to Xavi. Two Real players are in the same space, leaving a large gap between Madrid’s defensive and midfield lines. Neymar checks off the back line into the space — playing “between lines,” another important Barça principle in attack — to find the ball.
• A player checking between lines is one of the most difficult movements to defend. The center backs and defensive midfielder have to decide who will track the runner. If it’s a midfielder, that leaves space to play backward and possibly change the point of attack. If it’s a center back (Sergio Ramos in this case), that means the other defenders have to slide over to compensate for the new gap in the back line.
• Fàbregas sees the space open up, and he plays a short pass to Messi. If Carvajal doesn’t slide over to cover Pepe, the world’s best dribbler is one-on-one to goal in the middle of the field. Iniesta has already started his run toward the space Carvajal vacates, and Bale doesn’t bother to track back.
• Messi reads Carvajal, and he plays a perfect pass to a streaking Iniesta, who finishes well to make it 1-0 inside the first 10 minutes. From the start of the graphic to his finish, Barça plays five quick passes that draw Madrid’s defenders out of position and allow Iniesta to get behind with little pressure.
Isolate wide, win individual battles
Real’s pattern of play was wider and more direct than Barcelona’s. Madrid attempted less than half as many passes, completing 226 of 282 and largely staying out of Zone 14 (the space on top of the penalty area where most goals are created). However, with the 1-on-1 specialists in Carlo Ancelotti’s squad, Real was just as dangerous in attack.
Both of Madrid’s early goals came after long, diagonal switches created 1-on-1 or 2-on-2 isolations in a wide space.
(Screenshot: beIN Sports, heat map: Squawka.com)
Here, Bale takes down a long ball on the right wing, notices that Barcelona has numerical superiority in defense and looks for another option. After dribbling square across the field, he finds Di María isolated against Dani Alves, with Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo occupying one center back each.
Benzema ends up beating Javier Mascherano 1-on-1 in the air to score. A couple minutes later, a similar situation gives Real the lead:
(Screenshot: beIN Sports)
• Barça’s back line starts off in good shape, but Neymar isn’t in the right spot to cut off an overlapping Marcelo on the wing. Modrić sees the possible isolation point and dribbles toward it, looking to commit a defender before slipping the ball beyond him.
• He exchanges quick passes with Di María, which draws Dani Alves out to mark Marcelo. A retreating Xavi reads the play a split second too late, and Di María is beyond him and headed for the gap created when Dani Alves slides over. (Notice the 2-on-2 isolation.) Mascherano has to stay central and concede the wide area, as Benzema, Ronaldo and Bale are all headed toward the penalty area.
• When Di María crosses, Barça’s defensive triangle of Piqué, Mascherano and Busquets are all retreating, but none of them are really marking anybody. Benzema works his way into the middle of the pack and has time to bring the ball down before slamming it past Victor Valdés. Fast recognition of a wide opportunity and a pinpoint cross from Di María give Madrid a 2-1 lead.
The knockout blow: Sergio Ramos’ red card
Until Ramos was sent off in the 63rd minute, the game suited Real Madrid. The second half was wide open, and the speed of play was very fast. Real’s individual specialists could run at defenders, and Barcelona’s midfielders couldn’t get on the ball to slow the pace down.
Both teams were playing the way they were built to play, exemplified by their linking players in midfield: Modrić tried to change the point of attack, and Di María wanted to get forward quickly. Xavi and Fàbregas were more comfortable holding the ball and playing short passes to slow the tempo down to a manageable pace.
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Once Ramos saw red, momentum shifted one final time. Barça took control of the ball and the game. It was reminiscent of its recent Champions League game against Manchester City, when Martín Demichelis received a red card. Barcelona moved the ball at will and exploited the open spaces.
With three players in the back at all times — the center backs plus Busquets — Dani Alves became a fullback-forward hybrid, eager to create a winning goal. Madrid’s major threat, isolation on the counterattack, was gone because of its lack of numbers. Real played without a No. 9 for the last half-hour.
It was just a matter of time before Barça scored the winner. Iniesta got in behind in the 83rd minute, and he went down to earn another penalty kick. Messi placed it in the top corner calmly and kissed the badge on his shirt in celebration.
Barcelona won playing its way, taking on Madrid in a head-to-head battle of contrasting styles of play. It wasn’t just an important win for the first team that keeps it in La Liga's title chase — it was a win for the club and the Barcelona way.