Barcelona vs Real Madrid was the most awaited fixture, especially because this was the real test of Koeman after taking over Barcelona as manager. Real Madrid were disappointed in UCL by Shakhtar Donetsk after losing 3-2 and Barcelona had shown their quality with 5-1 win against Ferencvaros before heading into El Clasico.
Everyone was anticipating Barcelona to overpower Madrid, even more, because it was happening at Camp nou, but, it ended up in rather a disappointment for Barcelona. Let’s dig deep into this particular game; El Clasico 2020 featuring Koeman.
BARCELONA VS REAL MADRID STARTING LINEUP:
Ronald Koeman started bravely for one of the biggest matches of his managerial career, playing Pedri on the right while moving Ansu Fati central. He also started Sergino Dest as right-back instead of Roberto while Jordi Alba returned to the starting line-up.
For the Blancos, Ramos returned at the heart of defence while Nacho played on the right, consequently moving Mendy to the left in place of Marcelo.
While this fixture has deteriorated in deranged fandom and frantic brawls, the fans were rightly startled by the lack of timidity with both teams playing an open game. This played directly into the hands of the box-box nature of the Real Madrid midfielders like Fede Valverde while making it very difficult for the ageing core of the home team both in attack and defence to cover spaces.
The game started with a whirlwind 10 minutes which gave rise to two goals, both of which were combinations that most fans have seen innumerable times.
The away side scored the first goal, which involved the three most important players of the team.
In the above game state, Ramos notices that Coutinho has tucked inwards to press Varane while Nacho is free out wide. Once the ball is played to the intended target, Alba goes out wide to press his opposite number while Asensio moves out wide to support which provides a 2v1 on the far side. Then, Benzema does what he does best. Drops to drag the centre-back while a runner (in this case Fede Valverde) makes the most of the disruption caused to receive in behind.
Similarly on the other side of the pitch, just minutes later, Messi provides the killer pass over the infield to Jordi Alba.
Ansu Fati scored from the cut-back that was a result of this passage of play scoring with amazing accuracy of 13 goals from 20 shots on target.
Unsurprisingly, the rest of the half was pretty even for both the teams with about five shots each.
The home side preferred sitting back in a mid-block and attacking without much affinity for controlling the ball. High-up the pitch, they chose not to press much instead tried to cut off passing lanes.
While this was well-matched man-man pressing on paper, the most significant deficiency was Messi responsible for a large central area (he doesn’t have good enough defensive work-rate for that) which was further compounded by the lack of connection between the defensive six and attacking four.
Kroos was allowed to drop deeper to create a 3v2 in the first phase, which allowed two good ball-playing footballers lots of space and time on the ball.
When pinned much deeper in their own half, Barcelona defended in a flat 4-4-2 system. Probably a 4-5-1 system might have helped Barcelona as it covers all the zones in defence while reducing the amount of workload that Messi has to perform. As in a defensive 4-4-2 block, both strikers have to prevent the switch with good pressing actions as the interior midfielders protect the ball-near half-spaces. With the 4-5-1, a sweeper is present between the lines to pick up the dropping forward (with Busquets playing a more favourable single pivot) while the wide midfielders can easily double down on the wing while keeping their shape.
Benzema caused most of the problem with his movement deep to receive the ball mostly dragging Pique out of position, who was man-marking him throughout the pitch trying to win the first ball. This was difficult to maintain with the high back-line due to the lack of pace of the CBs.
To take advantage of the situation, the left-back Mendy played higher up in the half-space and tried to enable Vinicius with a 1v1 against the full-back or space in behind to receive. This was greatly nullified by Sergino Dest who had a magnificent game defensively, effectively shutting the threat down the left side.
On the other hand, Barcelona used a basic 4-2-3-1 build-up structure.
When on the left, Frenkie de Jong joined the back-line to help progress the ball allowing Alba much higher-up the pitch while the ball-far full-back Sergino Dest was playing significantly deeper. The lack of a true wide player on the left forced Coutinho to play wider during the build-up to keep width on the left while Frenkie would move higher-up (more than usual and sometimes even wide) to compensate for the five-man back-line when Asensio would drop deeper.
Surprisingly, Messi playing in a central role also meant that he would drop very deep even into his own half to create danger. This was mostly the case as the away side didn’t press them continually while preferring to drop in a well structured defensive block.
In a pre-season friendly game, Pedri played in a similar right-sided role often exchanging with Messi, but that wasn’t to be seen in this game as his sole duty was to receive in space and circulate the ball. Even though he was dragging Ramos deeper along with him to create disruptions to the back-line, he wasn’t given many opportunities to help in the attack.
While the idea of playing Ansu Fati central was intriguing, the previous approach of playing him on the left with Messi and Coutinho central might have been a better idea. As Pep Guardiola’s man city had shown in the champions league game, drawing out the CBs and using two inverted wingers especially considering the difficulty the away side FBs faced at times might have been finger-licking good. But none the less, Barcelona attacking in a 4-2-4 doesn’t seem to provide enough spark against the big teams especially when they defend as Madrid (or Getafe or Sevilla) did.
For a brief portion of the second half, Ansu Fati was noticed drifting towards the right side in the space between Ramos and Mendy (the assumption being that Mendy moves higher up during build-up with Ramos being dragged out by Pedri or Messi)which created many chances for the Blaugrana.
On the other hand for Real Madrid, Vasquez played as the make-shift right-back (after Nacho got injured) moving much higher up the pitch.
Barcelona allowed the game to go according to their directive (sitting off and attacking on the break with as many as three clear cut opportunities) until the Blancos scored the second goal on the night, after which the away side grew in confidence.
While the problems lasted for a long time for Barcelona after the second goal, Koeman made three quick substitutions throwing in all the attacking arsenal while discounting stability.
The astonishing substitutions prevented Barcelona from gaining any sort of control in the middle while also providing the away side with an advantage in attacking transition, which led to the third and final goal that sealed the game.
Although both sides weren’t at their best, Real Madrid showed their mental resolve to come on top, especially away from home despite their poor recent form. While many Barcelona fans (including the team members like Dest and Ronald Koeman) will point at the controversial penalty, they must look inwards at the abundance of problems in all four phases of the game and in-game management to have any chance of having a decent season.