Real Madrid: Why Ancelotti's Clueless Tactics Gave Barcelona The Game

Despite Leo Messi not firing on all cylinders, Barcelona were deserved winners of an El Clasico defined by Ancelotti's shocking Real Madrid team selection.
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In an era in which meetings between Barcelona and Real Madrid have become routine to the point of tedium, it was odd to find that the latest instalment, the first of a new era and in many ways a step down from the level that we are used to watching, was particularly enjoyable despite the relative lack of quality and fluency on show.

It was far from perfect: most of the star players were disappointing and Carlo Ancelotti made such a hash of his first Clásico line-up that the first forty-five minutes were barely a contest at all. Nonetheless, there was enough tactical intrigue in the second half, as well as obvious evolution happening in front of our eyes throughout, for the match to stand out as notable.

Additionally, on the most basic level, it was nice to see a Clásico that stayed focused on sport for the duration of the game. When the elevens were announced it seemed as though Pepe would be revising his midfield destroyer role – and never has the word ‘destroyer’ been more apt when describing a player’s interpretation of his instructions – and it seemed that we would be watching yet another histrionics-marred running battle instead of a football match.

Thankfully, the game passed without a single mass brawl or controversial red card. Sergio Busquets and Sami Khedira raised the temperature on a couple of occasions, but the contest remained one that was keenly fought in a sportsmanlike manner.

As far as the game itself went, Barcelona were comfortably the better side and deserved the victory. Real Madrid will feel that the penalty they were denied at 1-0 could have tipped the balance in their favour and changed the result, but while los Galácticos probably had the upper hand at that stage, at least in a territorial sense, it would have been unjust if they had left Camp Nou with a result after a genuinely dismal first-half showing.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly which of Ancelotti’s mistakes was his biggest. Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale’s interchanging act, switching between the left wing and centre-forward positions, pretty much nullified both players by giving them too much to think about tactically and not enough freedom simply to do what they are good at.

Attempting to play Sergio Ramos in the Busquets role made sense in a very abstract sort of way but was, unsurprisingly, a decisive failure. In addition to wasting one of Madrid’s best defenders in an unfamiliar position, Ramos’ presence also led to poor first-half showings from Khedira and Luka Modrić, who never seemed quite at ease in the roles they were being forced to play or familiar with Ramos’ intentions ten yards behind them.

Madrid’s first-half problems were summed up by two key plays. First, the opening goal, which came when Sergio Busquets fed Andrés Iniesta some forty yards from goal, with Madrid’s midfield still in the attacking phase positionally. Iniesta was allowed to carry the ball into the box and release Neymar to attack Daniel Carvajal one-on-one. Inevitably, the young Spaniard was turned inside and out and Neymar fired home.

The important moment was the original turnover in midfield, when Madrid should have regrouped and formed two deep banks of four as they had until that point. As initial mistakes so often do, it led to other errors: Ramos’ positioning meant that he could not catch Iniesta and commit the tactical foul that a natural defensive midfielder would have made without hesitation; the unprotected back four became too square and was slow to react once Neymar received the ball.

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The second instance of obvious positional failure came toward the end of the first-half when Sami Khedira received the ball close to the corner flag on his side’s right flank. Ángel Di María, Madrid’s best crosser of the ball by a considerable distance and the man Khedira would have wanted to pass to in that position, was nowhere to be seen.

As if taken by surprise by the situation, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale had taken up poor positions in the box. Khedira crossed straight to a Barça head and Madrid’s attack was over. These farces occasionally manifest themselves at all levels of football but a squad as talented as Madrid’s should never be reduced to having a second-function central midfielder crossing aimlessly to two wingers while the team’s best winger stands in a central position.

With Madrid so far off the pace, Barcelona did not need to hit spectacular heights to see them off. Lionel Messi, for one, was obviously not his usual self, failing to hit the target even once and conceding possession with alarming regularity by his standards. That said, his defensive work on the right flank was remarkable. He ended the Clásico with five successful tackles to his name, more than any other player on the pitch.

It could be that, having surpassed the likes of Diego Maradona, Gerd Müller and Michel Platini, Messi is going to spend the next few years becoming the best ever version of Park Ji-Sung, simply because he can and because he knows it would annoy Cristiano Ronaldo to know that his main rival was so bored of being consistently better than him that he had decided to become the most boring footballer in the world instead.

Speaking more generally, Barcelona continued to evolve their style of play towards the versatile, multi-faceted ideal that Tata Martino has in mind. Although the familiar three man midfield of Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta started, tiki-taka was conspicuous by its absence, its place taken by long diagonal passes, direct counter-attacks and inventive wing-play.

While this system is still being learned by the players, it allowed for a more flexible attacking strategy to that we have come to expect from the Barcelona of Guardiola and Vilanova. It is a less beautiful side in an aesthetic sense but one that is more likely to maximise its potential when faced with an opponent like Bayern Munich. Martino’s decisive tactical switch served as proof of the changes taking place at Camp Nou.

When Ancelotti introduced Illarramendi and Benzema for Ramos and Bale, Martino reacted pretty much as orthodox tactical thought would have suggested: by conceding territory and replacing the languid Cesc Fàbregas with a roadrunner in Alexis Sánchez, giving his side a potent outlet on the counter. His reward was a match-settling goal of great class from the Chilean.

Barça’s stylistic evolution may be a step backwards in an ideological sense – having a Plan B and using it goes against everything this group of players has stood for over the last few years – but it decided this game in their favour. It helped that Madrid did not qualify as worthy adversaries for fifty per cent of the game but this was Tata Martino’s most significant triumph at the club so far.