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Real Madrid's BBC and Barcelona's MSN: The Shifting Dynamics of 2 Trios

Tim Collins@@TimDCollinsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 15, 2016

BARCELONA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 14:  (R-L) Luis Suarez of FC Barcelona celebrates with his team mates Lionel Messi and Neymar of FC Barcelona after scoring his team's third goal during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Celta Vigo at Camp Nou on February 14, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
David Ramos/Getty Images

The world had waited a long time but oddly hadn't known it was waiting. On January 17, 550 days after Luis Suarez signed with Barcelona to complete the second of two extraordinary Primera Division trios, they did it. All of them. Together. 

In a fearsome rout of Sporting Gijon at 4 p.m., Real Madrid's trio was relentless to the point of being barbaric. Gareth Bale went first, heading in the opener; Cristiano Ronaldo blasted home the second, set up by Karim Benzema; Benzema got the third, set up by Bale; Ronaldo went next; Benzema again after him. In the space of 41 minutes, Madrid's BBC had handed out a frightening annihilation in one of their most complete showings as a trident.

Enter Barcelona. 

At 8:30 p.m. on the same day against Athletic Bilbao, the Catalans' equivalent embarked on an exercise of one-upmanship. Lionel Messi set the tone, putting away a penalty won by Suarez; Neymar went next, he too set up by Suarez; those two reversed roles to produce a velvety third; Neymar went all ridiculous to set up Ivan Rakitic for a fourth; Suarez was at it again for the fifth and the sixth. 

It had taken the better part of two years, but finally Ronaldo, Benzema, Bale, Messi, Suarez and Neymar had all scored on the same day for the first time. Between them, they'd scored 10 goals. Yes, 10. Across the two games, the aggregate score was 11-1.

This was an eruption to rival that of Eyjafjallajokull, yet perhaps most notable were the internal dynamics witnessed at each site. 

At the Bernabeu, Ronaldo wasn't the undisputed kingpin of the performance; Benzema and Bale were, as both scorers and architects. At the Camp Nou, Messi was overshadowed to an extent by Suarez and Neymar. Such shifts had been quietly evident in the weeks and months prior, but here it was symbolic; on the biggest day, collectively, in the short history of the BBC and MSN rivalry, both trios had shown themselves to be more rounded than ever. More even than ever.

The BBC and MSN had changed.

Change Through Force

MADRID, SPAIN - MARCH 15:  Gareth Bale of Real Madrid celebrates with Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema  after scoring Real's opening goal during the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and Levante UD at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on March 15, 2015 in M
Denis Doyle/Getty Images

It was a Wednesday night in late October 2013, and Real Madrid were entering a clash at the Bernabeu against Sevilla on the back of a 2-1 defeat to Barcelona in the first Clasico of 2013-14. At the Camp Nou the previous Saturday, Madrid looked disjointed and systematically lost. Benzema had sat on the bench. A half-fit Bale had started as a false nine and struggled. Badly. 

"This is not the Bale we've seen on YouTube," lamented a downbeat Marca with a spectacularly modern headline.

But then it happened. Against Sevilla, Bale exploded. Ronaldo did too. Benzema did as well. In a frenetic contest, Madrid thrashed their guests 7-3, the front three netting all seven.

It was the night when the BBC acronym was entrenched.

Soon after, the trio all scored against Almeria. After that, they did so again in a meeting with Real Betis. In February 2014, they compiled the ultimate BBC showing: Ronaldo got two, Benzema got two and Bale got two as Madrid thrashed Schalke 6-1 in the Champions League.

It was an emphatic statement, one that was followed up on as the trident led Real Madrid to Copa del Rey and UEFA Champions League glory by season's end. Six months later, they'd added the UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup too. 

Then 2015 arrived, and it all fell apart. Benzema's form disappeared, and Bale's entire existence was flipped on its head. Above them in every respect, Ronaldo maintained his prolific scoring, but there was no longer the genuine sense of a trio. Instead, it felt like one and two others.

But that dynamic has shifted again.

Real Madrid: Ronaldo, Benzema and Bale in La Liga
Ronaldo2013-142014-152015-16
Goals314821
Goals per Game1.031.370.88
% of Team Goals30%41%30%
Benzema2013-142014-152015-16
Goals171519
Goals per Game0.490.521.00
% of Team Goals16%13%27%
Bale2013-142014-152015-16
Goals151313
Goals per Game0.560.420.87
% of Team Goals14%11%19%
Author Calculation

In the latter stages of last year and in the early weeks of 2016, something has changed within both Benzema and Bale. 

For a long time, the pair—and Bale in particular—had looked almost submissive in the presence of Ronaldo. Whereas once the trio had thrived with clarity in their roles, a seeming reluctance to equally share prominence as their time together extended fractured them in 2015. Tension became evident. Cohesion evaporated. Bale looked ostracised, and Benzema looked flat. 

In the fracture, No. 2 and No. 3 in the trio had lost their conviction. Suddenly, they were stuttering regularly, their instinct gone and their dispositions apprehensive. When approaching the box, both men took on an I-better-look-for-Ronaldo mentality, a clarity of purpose and confidence in their own value nonexistent.

But how that's changed. 

At present, Benzema and Bale are both enjoying their finest seasons in the Spanish capital. At the heart of the attack, the Frenchman has 19 league goals in as many appearances; the Welshman has 13 in 15. Both men are rivalling Ronaldo in their rate of scoring, but the shift is about more than goal tallies; it's about sensations. 

In recent months, both men have done more leading and less deferring. No longer playing second and third fiddle, the pair are commanding the ball and taking opponents on. They're shooting at will. They're looking out for themselves in a way they need to, both of them at times putting the blinkers on and essentially saying "get out of my way" (you can see the significant changes in their statistics here and here on WhoScored.com). 

Of course, Ronaldo's post-30 evolution, which has seen the Portuguese become less dominant, has played into this; perhaps Benzema and Bale have recognised an opportunity in this respect. Yet maybe it goes beyond that. Maybe their struggles in the first half of 2015 (for Bale, the struggles went on even longer than that) saw them peer into a future they didn't like the look of, giving them something to rebel against.

It certainly seems that way. No longer do they look like sidekicks—if you'd never seen Madrid play before and then watched them in January, you wouldn't have known Ronaldo is the alpha dog—both of them suddenly assertive and carrying a certain strength of will.

Through their own force, Benzema and Bale have leaped to greater prominence. And through that force, the dynamic of the BBC has shifted. 

Change Through Harmony

Barcelona's Argentinian forward Lionel Messi (C) celebrates a goal with teammates Barcelona's Brazilian forward Neymar (L) and Barcelona's Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez (R) during the Spanish league football match FC Barcelona vs Granada CF at the Camp No
LLUIS GENE/Getty Images

Barcelona were cruising. Three-nil up on Real Sociedad at the Camp Nou in November, the Catalans were at it again. Though the Basques had started well, they'd been overwhelmed anyway, the points already decided 10 minutes into the second half.

Barcelona were triumphing in familiar fashion. Well, kind of. 

The game marked Messi's second start after returning from two months out through injury and was his first in the league. Normal order was meant to resume. But it hadn't. Neymar and Suarez dominated the opening hour on their own, sharing Barcelona's three goals between them as Messi waited to reopen his account in the league. So for the remaining half an hour, Suarez and Neymar did everything they could to ensure he did.

Again and again, the Uruguayan and Brazilian passed up chances in their pursuit of a goal for Messi. The pursuit took time; Messi went just wide with one attempt and hit the bar with another. Eventually, though, he got it—a tap-in in the 91st minute, courtesy of Neymar.

This was an obvious example of a certain bond between the three, but it also felt as though Neymar and Suarez were trying to get a message across: Messi's still king.

That they felt the need to said as much about them as it did about him. 

Barcelona: Messi, Neymar and Suarez in La Liga
Messi2014-152015-16
Goals4313
Goals per Game1.130.72
% of Team Goals39%21%
Neymar2014-152015-16
Goals2217
Goals per Game0.670.85
% of Team Goals20%27%
Suarez2014-152015-16
Goals1623
Goals per Game0.591.05
% of Team Goals15%37%
Author Calculation

In the Argentinian's absence, the remaining two-thirds of Barcelona's MSN had been extraordinary. At a time when Luis Enrique's men were supposed to be weighed down by a relentless and difficult fixture list, hampered by a small squad hit by injuries and limited by a transfer ban, Neymar and Suarez had moved onto new planes of existence.

In the league, the pair scored every single Barcelona goal between Messi's injury in September and his cameo return in November's Clasico. In all competitions, they scored 20 of Barcelona's 23 goals in that period, leading the team to eight wins in nine and the top of the league table. 

In Messi's absence, the team had become theirs, and everyone knew it. Neymar was boss; Suarez was a close second. Everyone else fell into line after them. In a way few had predicted, the absence of their king had empowered them, heightening the sense of their influence and worth as Messi closed in on a return.

When he eventually did, the MSN was different.

Somehow, the absence of the trio's No. 1 had been a positive. It allowed Neymar and Suarez to enjoy a period of organic growth as both players and leaders. Yet Messi's apparent willingness to maintain harmony among them upon returning has been key.

Again.

When Barcelona's remarkable trident first came together, it didn't function as it does now. On the right, Suarez was an awkward fit—out of position, out of the box and out of his comfort zone. Messi was key in changing that.

"When we started off, I did not feel comfortable on the right and Leo didn't feel as comfortable," said Suarez in a recent interview with Jamie Carragher for the Daily Mail. "So there was a game against Ajax in the Champions League, where we said we would try to change it to see how it worked. We felt comfortable and we decided to stay that way."

That positional shift propelled Barcelona to a treble. But it also demanded that Messi relinquish the position he'd made his own for half a decade. Harmony was prioritised over self, and that trait has been evident since, Messi after injury fitting seamlessly back into a trio in which No. 2 and No. 3 are much closer to No. 1 than they were previously. 

Prior to Sunday, you sensed Messi had embraced that shift. On Sunday, he convinced you he had when, eyeing the chance to score his 300th Primera Division goal, he audaciously played his penalty kick sideways to Suarez for his hat-trick. 

Through that harmony, Suarez has grown. Neymar has too. And through that harmony, the dynamic of the MSN has shifted. 

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