The reaction to (and fallout from) Saturday’s Clasico—where Barcelona took the spoils with a 2-1 win over Real Madrid—has been somewhat predictable.
The Madrid press is concentrating on the penalty shout in the second half, when Cristiano Ronaldo went down under pressure from Javier Mascherano. It surely should have been a penalty, at a time when Real could have made it 1-1.
They were also playing the better football at the time, so it is understandable they are disappointed—but fans and the media should also have a closer look at the team itself and the decisions by head coach Carlo Ancelotti.
Because, in the first half especially, Ancelotti was outdone tactically by Barcelona. He put Sergio Ramos at the base of the midfield, expecting Lionel Messi to be in his usual central role, to essentially try and keep Messi quiet. But Barcelona, and coach Gerardo Martino, had obviously anticipated such a move and instead put Messi on the right hand side.
Even though the Argentine is still not physically 100 per cent yet after his recent thigh injury, he still attracted the attention of defenders and midfielders—which allowed more space to Neymar on the left.
So it was a clever tactical plot by Martino.
That move came alongside Barcelona’s desire to pressure high up the pitch, especially from the three up front—Cesc Fabregas, Neymar and Messi—and Real Madrid just did not know how to play against that.
There were also too many players out of position. We’ve already mentioned Ramos, but Gareth Bale was also playing centre forward at some points during the match, and he is definitely not a player to play with his back to goal.
If the plan is for the three attackers we saw Real start with at the Camp Nou—Bale, Angel Di Maria, and Ronaldo—to play together without a recognised No. 9, or using a different type of “No. 9”, it will take a long time for the players to get the right understanding and it to work effectively.
But I guess the positives from that lineup for Real is that it did allow Bale to get an hour of football under his belt, and it did allow those three to play for an hour together.
However, the corrections that Ancelotti made in the game, bringing in Asier Illarramendi in the middle for Ramos and Karim Benzema up front for Bale, clearly made the team much better in the second half.
There were more combination across the pitch, and there were different dangers in the final third—Jese Rodriguez, Ancelotti’s third substitute, scoring at the end was only fair because in the second half Real grew into the game.
Barcelona stopped defending up high and started sitting deep—too deep—it was clear they still haven’t got the continuity and desire to press up high for 90 minutes. It’s not just a physical thing, it’s an attitude thing.
For you to play up high you have to be concentrating constantly, and the whole team has to do it. If one player drops off, or a couple of them, then it affects the whole process.
Quite clearly the front three did not press as effectively in the second half. The problem of having three players that like the freedom of attacking whichever way they want is that the team is then not organised to get the ball back in those positions.
Many of the post-match headlines were devoted to Neymar. It was a good game by the Brazilian, although not as good as some people have made out. I agree with Martino, who said he has had other good games—like against Real Valladolid—but he was effective, especially in that he stayed out on the left. His positional discipline gave a bit of balance to the side.
Cesc playing as a “false nine” helped as well, while Messi is clearly still not 100 per cent as he could not consistently show us that pace and incision we are used to seeing. He will need more minutes to fully recover that.
Because Barcelona started defending deeper, Real Madrid were encouraged and they never gave up. They kept putting pressure on their opponents and, had that penalty decision gone the other way, a draw would probably have been a much fairer result.
In conclusion, then, in the first half Ancelotti made some very strange selection decisions and that left the team looking disjointed and imbalanced, while in the second half Martino could not get his team to do what they were doing so effectively in the first half and consequently they lost some momentum.
You could tell it was not a decisive Clasico, though, especially given it was only the first one of the season. In a way, both sides left reasonably happy.
With the excuse of the penalty, Real Madrid are happy (or can convince themselves they are happy) because they have gone away feeling they could easily have turned things around.
Barcelona? Well they know they can still work on elements of their performance. But they are happy for now too—because they got the result.