By Liviu Bird
March 23, 2015

Barcelona defeated Real Madrid in a back-and-forth Clásico on Sunday, 2-1, after riding a final wave of momentum to the final whistle. The teams’ intriguing battle for control over the match resulted in a flurry of bookings as players struggled to channel their passions beyond opponents’ antics.

Both teams lined up as expected, with Luka Modrić making his second start in Real Madrid’s midfield since an injury in November. On the other side, Sergio Busquets only played a quarter-hour off the bench as he recovers from his own injury.

Javier Mascherano played as Barça’s single pivot, holding his own in a mammoth two-on-one effort against Modrić and Toni Kroos for Madrid. Mascherano’s tendencies toward a more hard-nosed style than Busquets helped, as he attempted five tackles in the match.

In attack, he fulfilled the pivot’s distribution obligation, completing 96 percent of his passes, spraying the ball from one side to the other. Defensively, Mascherano’s comfort dropping into the back line supported center backs Gerard Piqué and Jérémy Mathieu.

While Andrés Iniesta and Ivan Rakitić patrolled ahead of Mascherano, Madrid played with two holding midfielders. Neither Kroos nor Modrić is a traditional No. 6 on his own, but together, they form an intelligent duo that effectively clogs space and maintains forward pressure.

Position map via

They rarely strayed far on Sunday, maintaining average positions close to the center circle, only leaving to attack the half-spaces on their respective sides. Their presence in the central channel allowed the wide men to play closer to Karim Benzema as both fullbacks to overlapped aggressively, with Marcelo in particular causing Barcelona problems on the left.

When either central player advanced, he frequently looked over his shoulder to ensure his partner covered the space in front of center backs Pepe and Sergio Ramos. Kroos and Modrić served as facilitators, completing 93 percent of their passes as a pair and allowing the creative players freedom in higher areas.

In Real’s best spell, between hitting the post in the 12th minute and halftime, Barcelona’s midfielders could not turn with the ball at their feet in their own half. Kroos and Modrić organized an immediate press that caused a series of early giveaways and kept the ball near Claudio Bravo’s goal.

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Nonetheless, Barcelona scored first as Mathieu freed himself from Ramos before heading home Lionel Messi’s free kick swung right onto his forehead. Real equalized with an incisive combination through the middle, with Benzema opening a gap in Barça’s back line with a run toward the corner flag before backheeling into Cristiano Ronaldo’s path for the finish.

Madrid looked likeliest to score again, but the offside flag went up on a narrowly correct decision against Ronaldo to deny Real a second in the 40th minute. The team’s advantage disappeared after the break.

After opening at lightning pace, the match slowed to a more methodical clip, which suited Barcelona. Madrid’s physical superiority waned as Barça circulated possession in its scholarly manner, looking for an opening.

The team able to control the delicate balance in tempo often finds the most success. When two clubs clash in their composition as much as Barcelona (built on endless passing) and Madrid (based on its Galácticos’ individual quality) in an intense rivalry, it makes for an unstable match as they fight for control.

Madrid threatened as the tempo increased. As it decreased, Barça grew comfortable through its enigmatic understanding of la pausa -- the calm that comes with controlling posession. Players found time to pick their heads up and select passes more discerningly.

The winning goal showcased that ability, as five passes swung around the back line before Dani Alves’ killer ball to Luis Suárez. It was an out-of-character direct goal, created by the underpinnings of Barça’s possession philosophy on one of the few times Modrić and Kroos’ shape broke down.

Screenshot via Football 1 (Ukraine)

As Suárez occupied both center backs, Modrić and Kroos stretched wide of each side of the center circle — Modrić marking Iniesta in an innocuous space and Kroos trying to cut off a central passing lane.

Ramos pulled wide to follow a run from Rakitić, leaving space for Dani Alves to drive a pinpoint ball to Suárez. The forward deftly controlled before hitting a highly difficult finish back across his body and inside the far post.

Particularly after this second goal, momentum swung back toward Barça. Real manager Carlo Ancelotti asserted afterward that his team played well for the first half-hour and lost the match in the final hour.

via Infostrada Sports

Infostrada Sports’ “Wave” model of statistical analysis supports that hypothesis. This model illustrates a match’s ebb and flow better than most, crunching data to produce a visualization of a typical momentum metaphor: a wave.

Of course, goals against the run of play skew momentum and provide obvious turning points in confidence, as both first-half strikes did Sunday. Barça clung on desperately after conceding, and the break canceled out the precious energy Real built for the previous 15 minutes.

Luis Enrique’s team endeavored to control the pace of the game more closely in the second half, committing six fouls after just three in the first and keeping the ball out of play for longer periods. Despite referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz handing out one more yellow card in the second half than the first, the match became calmer from a Barça perspective.

To the untrained eye, the players’ embellishment of fouls and attempts to diffuse the match may have seemed consequential only to viewers’ enjoyment of the game. In fact, every small altercation offered a chance to frustrate Real and maintain a stranglehold on the way the match finished.

Toward the final whistle, Madrid became desperate, chasing without proper organization. That opened gaps for Barça to create eight goalscoring chances in the 34 minutes after its winning goal, compared to six in the preceding 56 minutes.

After a panicked opening half, Barcelona found a way to earn what could be a vital win in the race for the La Liga title. In going four points clear at the top with 10 matches left, Barça solidified its grip on the destiny of the season’s final stretch.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)