Ever since the 5-0 thrashing in the last El Clásico at Camp Nou, Real Madrid manager José Mourinho has had only revenge on his mind.
In the next three weeks, Real Madrid will face Barcelona three times—given that both advance from the quarterfinals of the Champions League. Mourinho is trying out new defensive formations he hopes will clog the middle of the field and stop Barcelona.
This is a busy time for both clubs. They are both active in three competitions at the moment and there are often games twice a week.
Real Madrid has fared better than Barcelona with injuries, and Mourinho will call upon his entire bench to navigate through these next few weeks.
In the fixture against Bilbao on April 9, Mourinho used an orthodox defensive formation more akin to his earlier days in Portugal and England. He ran essentially a 5-4-1, although it could be called something else.
Pepe was the key component here, playing a little bit ahead of the center backs as defensive stopper. Using many of their second-string players, Real Madrid was able to escape from a solid Bilbao side, 3-0.
It was an important test for Mourinho’s squad, as Granero, Lassana Diarra, Garay and Higuain were able to get crucial starts and a win against a Top Five La Liga side.
Since he moved to Madrid from Inter Milan, Mourinho’s approach to winning has taken a slight turn. Although the Madrid defense was always strong, emphasis was placed on attack this season.
In the last El Clásico, Real Madrid tried to play attacking football toe-to-toe with the fittest team in the world. Barcelona loved the open game and picked Madrid apart.
Mourinho may try attacking football again, but not the next time he plays Barcelona. Instead, he will deploy a five-man defense and two extra defensive midfielders to congest the playpen of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi.
Madrid has three solid fullbacks: Sergio Ramos, Marcelo and Arbeloa.
Madrid also has four solid center backs: Carvalho, Pepe, Garay and Raul Albiol.
And four solid defensive midfielders: Khedira, Alonso, L. Diarra and Granero.
My guess is Mourinho will cycle these players through the defense in shifts to maintain a high defensive work-rate throughout all of the upcoming matches. The goal is to stop Barcelona's movement through the middle, forcing them wide or deep.
Barcelona may have the best starting XI in the world, but their bench is just average compared to Madrid’s groomed substitutes. It will be hard for Barcelona to maintain their tireless play every game this month, and injuries could be a further menace.
April will prove to be a month of true Spanish football.
José Mourinho may revert to a more defensive approach that relies on lethal counter-attacks, something the Madrid attack is more than capable of with the likes of Ronaldo, Özil, Di Maria and Kaká.
All of this shows the managerial approach of Mourinho. His only goal at the end of each day is to win. He will use every player on his team and try every reasonable formation to find the right steps forward.
Although La Liga looks to be already clinched by Barcelona, Madrid can still rescue their season with two big trophies.