Barcelona produced a truly legendary performance to go top of the table.
Pep Guardiola deviated little from his favoured XI so far this season – the closest thing to a surprise was at left-back, where Eric Abidal played ahead of Maxwell. Lionel Messi started in the centre, with David Villa on the left.
Jose Mourinho did not change his 4-2-3-1, playing Mesut Ozil despite reports the German would be sacrificed for another ball-winner in midfield. Gonzalo Higuain was not fit enough to start, so Karim Benzema played alone upfront.
First things first – this wasn’t an inherently ‘tactical’ victory. Barcelona won primarily because of the cohesion and quality of the interplay in midfield. Their passing patterns in the centre of the pitch are the result of years of experience playing together, something Real couldn’t hope to match.
Nevertheless, there were various interesting tactical points from the game that may not have decided the outcome, but certainly contributed to Barcelona’s rout.
Mourinho started the game with his wingers on the opposite flanks to usual – Ronaldo out on the right and Angel di Maria on the left, presumably to work around the problem of Real defending against Dani Alves, as Di Maria is the better defensive player.
Whilst Mourinho is generally a reactionary manager anyway, in a sense Guardiola had won the first battle of the match without a ball being kicked, since Mourinho felt the need to play his most dangerous player somewhere other than the position where he had been turning in incredible performances so far this campaign.
Ronaldo is not alien to the right wing, of course – it is the position where he established himself at Manchester United. However, Mourinho is clearly a fan of stability – he’s changed his starting XI as little as possible so far this season, and considering how well Ozil (who plays left-of-centre) links up with Ronaldo, breaking up that combination was a surprise, and was (a small) part of the reason why Ozil wasn’t very effective in this game. There’s also an argument that Ronaldo playing high up the pitch on the right indirectly opened up space on the flank for Iniesta, who often moved to Barca’s left.
The second point of note here is how often Barcelona’s centre-backs switched. Generally, Gerard Pique plays on the right of the pairing and Carles Puyol plays on the left. However, the two frequently swapped sides during the game, seemingly according to which side of the pitch Ronaldo was on.
Puyol always appeared to be on the side closest to Ronaldo, ready to double up against him – as if Guardiola didn’t completely trust Pique, who has a tendency to dive into tackles.
Eventually Ronaldo moved back over the left-hand side, but this was after Barcelona had already gone 1-0 up.
Barcelona also occasionally used a tactic they had showcased most obviously against Sevilla, where Daniel Alves moved high up the pitch and overloaded that side, whilst left-back Eric Abidal remained more conservative and formed a back three with Pique moving out to the right. This kept 3 v 2 against Benzema and Ronaldo.
The first goal was slightly unfortunate from Real’s point of view, but the concession of an early goal was a disaster for Mourinho’s gameplan, which involved Real’s defensive line sitting relatively deep on the edge of the penalty box. Even then, they were vulnerable to balls being threaded through the defence for midfield runners, because they were getting outplayed in the centre of midfield and one of Barcelona’s midfielders generally had time on the ball to slide it through.
The goal – or, you could argue, the second goal, which arrived on 18 minutes – meant Real could no longer afford to simply defend. They had to come out and play (or at least try to) which meant they were always going to be more susceptible to the pace of Barcelona’s attackers as the space behind the defence increased.
Ozil’s defensive task was to pick up Xavi, but Xavi simply moved higher up the pitch where Ozil wasn’t comfortable tracking him – that movement was part of the reason why Xavi found himself in an uncharacteristic centre-forward position for the first goal. Xavi was able to leave the centre midfield area to Busquets, who kept things simple and distributed the ball forward excellently.
His World Cup-winning midfield partner Xabi Alonso looked much less assured, and Messi’s drifts towards him presented Alonso with a dilemma about whether to drop goalside and give Barca free run in midfield, or to let him go free and force one of the centre-backs out. It was generally the latter and Ricardo Carvalho put in possibly the worst performance of his career, stepping out of the defence and further exposing Real’s defence.
The pattern was so simple – ball forward to Messi in a deep position, he would then jink past the first challenge and knock the ball through the defence for Villa – or leave that part of the job to Xavi or Iniesta. Villa was constantly flagged offside in the first half, but eventually timed his runs much better and scored two goals in the second half. Real’s offside trap was astonishingly bad to start with and got worse as the game went on, though an equal portion of blame should be attached to the midfield for the lack of pressure upon the Barcelona player playing the pass.
Sometimes you simply cannot stop Messi. How could Real have done it? Well, they could have used another holding player, and the introduction of Lassana Diarra for Ozil at half-time was nothing more or less than the obvious – an admission Mourinho got his starting line-up wrong. Against truly top-class opposition, especially a team playing a player ‘in the hole’ (as Messi often was, despite nominally playing as a forward), Alonso as the deepest midfield doesn’t work – he is neither particularly mobile nor a good tackler, and needs an enforcer alongside him. The Champions League final of 2005 showed that particularly well.
Diarra’s introduction did little to hold back the tide, of course, as Real moved to a 4-3-3 system. (Even that seemed slightly strange – the three forwards played very high up the pitch, maybe with the intention to use their pace in behind Barcelona’s high backline, but Real found it impossible to get the ball to them.
Ronaldo was a threat in the first half, and invisible in the second.) But this was when Real were forced to play higher up the pitch, and after Barca had got themselves into a commanding position. Playing Diarra as a scrapper may have had more of an effect from the start of the game when Real could defend deeper.
Finally, Barca pressed very well. In the first half it was, by their standards, subdued on the pressing front – they seemed reasonably happy for Real’s centre-backs to have time on the ball, and instead worked on making it difficult for them to play the ball forward into the midfield. The literal point on the pitch from where Barca started to press may not have changed as the game went on, but as Real’s defence played higher, this naturally meant their centre-backs were suddenly getting shut down as soon as they got the ball – another (convoluted) reason why playing with a deep defence against Barcelona is preferable.
It’s doubtful any set of tactics would have resulted in Barcelona not winning this game, but Mourinho clearly made a mistake in his team selection. On the other hand, Barcelona adapted their shape slightly to suit the game (Abidal playing was the right call, the way the centre-backs swapped positions made them more defensively secure against Ronaldo) but didn’t compromise their attacking ability.
Still, if Mourinho does one thing well, it is learning lessons from defeats. He has never been on the end of a defeat like this, but one year and five days ago, his Inter side were completely outplayed by Barcelona at the Nou Camp, losing 2-0 and getting passed off the pitch in a manner similar to tonight. By the time the two sides contested the semi-final in late April, however, Mourinho had worked out how to beat Barcelona, and Inter won the tie.