Film Focus: How Barcelona's Alternative Attack Stunned Real Madrid in El Clasico

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Film Focus: How Barcelona's Alternative Attack Stunned Real Madrid in El Clasico
(Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

The season's first El Clasico was rightly billed as one of the most intriguing domestic matches of the season, and for the most part, it lived up to expectations.

There might not have been the influx of goals that many predicted; there might not have been the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo putting their names down in the goalscorers column. It wasn't the "typical" El Clasico if you like, but rather a new breed of tactics and style that comes from the arrival of new players and coaches.

Much has no doubt been made about Saturday's 2-1 final result in favor of Barca, but how exactly did they get to that point? Let's break down the film and look at the night's biggest talking points.

 

The Sergio Ramos Experiment: Intriguing, but Incorrect

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The biggest tactical experiment of the night—of which there were plenty—went to Carlo Ancelotti as he tried to use Sergio Ramos in a holding midfielder role.

We say trying, because that's all he did. Try. It certainly didn't work.

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It must be pointed out here that it wasn't like Ramos couldn't play the position. He has played there before (albeit most recently in 2005) and plays enough out of the back with Los Blancos to suggest that he would be capable of filling a role on the night against La Blaugrana.

Ramos' role was simply to try and congest the middle of the field.

He was to try and take away the space that the best attacking trio in world football (Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Messi) try to exploit. He was to use his physical tackling style to perhaps force Barcelona deeper on the field, create turnovers and allow Madrid's counterattacking system to thrive.

In theory, anyway, it really wasn't that much of a bad move by Ancelotti, but as the match would show, such a theory didn't work as well in reality.

Ramos didn't really clog up the middle to help his team's defense, nor didn't offer a substantive platform for Madrid to launch their attacks either.

He was simply caught in no man's land for most of the night.

Looking at the first goal scored by Barcelona, we can see just how lost Ramos is in the middle of the field. He isn't deep enough on the field to claim to be trying to pick up Xavi, nor is he square enough to pick up Iniesta.

Both playmakers touch the ball for La Blaugrana, but Ramos—the man whose sole job it was to restrict such instances—just wasn't in position to make a play.

Call it naivety; call it lack of experience; call it brilliant tactics by Barcelona.

Whatever it was, Ramos was caught out. Iniesta skips forward to pressure Pepe and plays a sublime ball behind Marcelo for Neymar to score in his El Classico debut.

Yes, the Los Blancos' defenders could have done more on the play, but if Ramos was in position and picked up either player, it wouldn't have gotten that far. 

It's also interesting to note here (which we'll get to in a minute) how deep Messi is on the field.

At the moment when Iniesta receives the pass from Xavi, the world's best No. 10 is in line with Busquets—the team's defensive midfielder. He's only just ahead of the halfway line, and such movement forced the Madrid midfield three to stretch. Unlike their preassigned role to "shut down the middle," Luka Modric, Sami Khedira and Ramos are stretched across the park, creating the space that Barcelona need.

More on Messi later on.

 

The Cristiano Ronaldo Experiment: Strange, and Sputtered

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Cristiano Ronaldo has always had a free-flowing role at Real Madrid, but his involvement as a true No. 9 against Barcelona was perhaps his most expansive yet.

Sadly, it didn't suit the Portuguese international at all.

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Ancelotti's attacking trio of Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Angel di Maria was thought to be one that would interchange and swap roles a lot. We all knew that was going to be the case, and we weren't mistaken on the night about that fact. Yet what we didn't know was that instead of Madrid looking fluent and multifaceted in their attacking strengths, they would look rudderless and divided.

Instead of providing a dominant option at the top of the attack, Ronaldo struggled to find the ball in space. Only once in the first half was he able to get the ball at his feet and truly run through the middle, and almost instantly, Barcelona's double pivot in midfield shut him down.

The image below shows how Ronaldo's space quickly disappeared.

Only when he moved out left did he show the attacking poise and tenacity that we've come to expect from the winger.

He started to create chances, and it was hardly surprising that his three biggest involvements on the night all came from the left side of the field.

His cross for Khedira, his on-target shot and his assist for Jese Rodriguez.

All came from the left side of the field.

The problem with this was that Ronaldo never quite got the same number of touches as he did in the middle. His involvements were better, but they were fewer.

And there's a key reason behind that fact.

 

Luka Modric Isn't Real Madrid's Quasi No. 10 

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Given all the big-name players that lined up for both teams in this one, it wasn't at all surprising that some of the players who left the clubs weren't mentioned here. There was no David Villa in the pregame comments nor was their any real discussion about Mesut Ozil.

However, by the end of it, the latter was clearly in the mind of all involved.

Earlier in the week, Ancelotti was forced to defend his decision to sell Ozil given the German's blistering start to life in the English Premier League. He was quoted via Eurosport as saying that he didn't need Ozil because he had di Maria to utilize in his attacking midfield.

I decided the departure of Ozil. I prefer Di Maria for the balance of the team.

It's true, that maybe Di Maria has less quality than Ozil but on a profile of dynamism, character and help to the team I preferred Di Maria.

With the arrival of [Gareth] Bale it was better to have Di Maria than Ozil.

Ancelotti could not have been proven more wrong on the night.

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Far too often on the night Ronaldo was isolated in attack. Neither Bale nor di Maria arrived to give him the attacking support required; the single time that both di Maria and Ronaldo combined together, they were perhaps unlucky not to win a penalty. But apart from that, their involvements together were few and far between, and that led to much of Ronaldo's ineffectiveness in this one.

When Ronaldo drifted out to the left (where he was having more effective possessions than when centrally), what he needed was someone to push up in behind.

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Given how much Ancelotti had tried to pack the middle, the most likely man to do that was Luka Modric, but that's not the skills of the former Tottenham Hotspur man. He isn't a "quasi No. 10" that can push up behind Ronaldo and act as a playmaker behind the attacking three. He is a central midfielder who is much better served with the vast majority of players ahead of him on the field.

That much was clear when Karim Benzema was introduced in the second half. Suddenly, with a striker in the team, Ronaldo wasn't the front man and Modric wasn't needed as much as a No. 10. He could drop back and play as a more central figure, and the chances started to flow for Madrid.

Many will see the influx of chances in the second half as all down to Benzema, and it was in many ways a great substitution from Ancelotti, but not as you'd think.

Benzema's biggest assistance was allowing Modric to play his natural role.

 

Final Thought: Was This a Quiet Night for Messi?

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As mentioned above, Ancelotti came prepared for a knife fight in the middle with Xavi, Iniesta and Messi. He intended to fill the space and restrict their success.

Again, it's not a bad tactic—if Messi was in the middle.

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Gerardo Martino's decision to play Messi not as a No. 10 was nothing short of genius on the night. It was risky—and it certainly would have led to a lot of pressure on him had it not worked—but given that it did, credit must be given to the manager for a well-planned tactical move.

Messi wasn't played centrally, but rather on the right wing.

On paper, this meant that it appeared he had a quiet night. He wasn't as involved in the attack and, as the image below mentioned, dropped a long way down the pitch at times.

His Individual Heat Map (provided by Squawka) showed just how varied the Argentine was in his movement, but importantly, how flexible he was in allowing Barcelona's attack to come from other outlets.

Messi knew he was going to be heavily marked, so he, in essence, was taken out of the game by both Martino and himself. In doing so, he stretch Madrid's "compact" midfield plan and showed Ramos to be vulnerable when isolated.  

That, in turn, gave Barcelona both of their goals on the night.

It also had an important impact at the other end of the field.

With Messi playing as a winger, he was able to shut down the movement of Marcelo at left-back. The defender is actually an integral part of Los Blancos' attack and particularly with the movement of Ronaldo; the winger relies on his overlapping defender to create hesitance in defenders, which allows the Portuguese international to begin his runs toward goal.

There was none of that happening, though, with Messi on Marcelo. He marked the defender out of the game and created much of Ronaldo's isolation in attack.

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It's unlikely we'll see the little magician that wide on the field again any time soon, with his skills and strengths obviously lying in the central No. 10 position.

However, given the circumstances, it was a wonderful move by Martino.

Not only that, it was wonderfully executed also by the Argentine.

He provided the unwritten difference in midfield for Barcelona's attack and, almost unknowingly, killed Madrid's also at the other end of the field.

 

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