As Sergio Ramos left the pitch after his sending off, he made mocking hand gestures toward compatriot and rival Gerard Pique, and fans at the Santiago Bernabeu wanted blood. Their side was down 2-1. Ivan Rakitic, a couple of minutes prior to Ramos’ red, scored a screamer of a goal to put the Catalans up a goal in enemy territory.
Real Madrid’s captain and talisman left a match in which Barcelona demonstrated their superior cohesion, and his jumping, two-footed lunge that just happened to miss Lionel Messi, left his side in an even greater predicament. Los Blancos were going to need a late goal, at the very least, to level the match at two goals apiece. But, that wasn’t in the cards anymore for Ramos. He was out. No late-goal romance. Not tonight.
— Carlo Valladares (@C_V_News) April 26, 2017
Indeed, this match had it not been for the numerous goal saving heroics by Keylor Navas, should have seen the Catalans cruise into the remaining 10 minutes of the match with a massive lead. But, as it happened, the Costa Rican delivered a magical performance (that won’t get enough praise due to his passport) and kept his non-cohesive side in the match.
If it sounds like typical Madrid, it’s because it is. The occasional counter-attacking skirmish presented itself for the home side, but their high-press wasn’t effective. Casemiro didn’t replicate the same effective Messi-man-marking performance as he has in the past, and a Neymar-less Barcelona never let the game slip away despite Casemiro opening the scoring.
In typical Real Madrid fashion, though, they were clinical when it mattered despite being a man down, and late-substitute James Rodriquez would pick up Marcelo’s low cross in Barca’s penalty box and finish it past ter Stegen in the 85th minute. The home fans erupted, and Real Madrid reverted to play the remaining seven or so minutes with tremendous optimism. A few others in all-white kits had attempted to cut Barca’s throat, but, unfortunately for them, none finished their chances. Messi, on the other hand, wasn’t going to blow his chance.
Although Ramos, football’s de facto late-goal getter, was long gone – the late heroics would stay, however, and would be of Argentine nature. At about the 91.30 mark, stoppage time, Barca would build out the back, beat a poor, tired, and down-a-man Madrid high-press, and an excellent Sergi Roberto run would eventually lead its way to Jordi Alba who gifted a low cross to the little genius to finish with sublime accuracy.
What followed is a celebration that will be remembered forever in Spanish folklore: Messi, in celebration, man-marked by Casemiro for much of the match and later nearly taken out by Ramos, silently held up his shirt for the Madrid fans to see. The seriousness in his eyes said it all – he decided this Clasico and he wanted those in attendance at the Santiago Bernabeu to remember it.
— Carlo Valladares (@C_V_News) April 26, 2017
After the match, Luis Enrique said: “The 92nd minute is their thing normally but we like winning that way, too.” For obvious reasons, we at Eat Sleep Drink like it that way as well, we love cinematic endings. However, Messi’s brilliance aside, read on below for the key tactical aspects of the match. We know that’s why you’re here.
Barca’s 4-4-2 high line and Real Madrid’s long balls to get behind
In the first-half, it became apparent that without the ball Barcelona was going to commit to a very high line, with Paco Alcacer, a left-side forward, tucking in to form a four-man midfield with Luis Suarez and Messi leading the mid-press (Messi mostly walking, per usual).
Below, we can see how Pique marshals the back line and they play quite close to the midfield.
Above, while Suarez led their mid-press in a 4-4-2, he tried to force passes away from the central axis and into the spaces that Barca’s midfield was applying anticipated pressure. Sergi Roberto would also man-mark Bale, and if a certain side was a no-go to attack with ground passes, then Madrid would haul long-balls to get behind Barcelona’s high line.
Real Madrid’s high-press proves ineffective
Real Madrid is not known to have a clever high-press or even a consistently effective one. Below, we can see how their poor anticipation and intensity was going to leave them outnumbered on many occasions and their press would be broken.
Messi’s dropping back into midfield caused problems for their press as Casemiro was on man-marking duties which left Marcelo to have to occupy neutral space as he can’t mark Ivan Rakitic or Sergi Roberto at the same time.
If one player has to occupy a neutral space, your press can’t work.
In addition, here’s another example where Barca breaks Real Madrid’s press.
Messi’s first goal is made possible by excellent positional play, an extra man in midfield, and Sergio Busquets
In Messi’s first goal, we see that Casemiro and Toni Kroos are outnumbered again. Rakitic is the issue. At first, Kroos marks him well, and Casemiro marks Messi well. But Busquets is open. Marcelo, ideally, could mark Rakitic but that leaves Roberto open.
If Karim Benzema just tracks back and marks Busquets, though, then the whole play likely doesn’t play out as smoothly to Rakitic who was left open. Watch below.
Messi’s late goal demonstrates poor defensive clock awareness on Real’s part
After James Rodriguez equalized and made it 2-2 in the 85th minute, Real Madrid went on an attacking tear and produced three quality chances. However, none would be finished and Real’s poor high-press would hurt them again.
Below, we see how Zidane’s side, late on, down a man, and tired, were still pressing and were more ineffective than ever. Marcelo should have fouled Roberto’s dangerous run due to the time on the clock, too.
In all honesty, Zidane should have recognized (mostly due to being a man down) that Busquets was running the attacking show from everywhere and that their press, even more so being down to 10 men, was the wrong move. They should have retreated to a compact mid-block if anything.
As a watcher of LaLiga, week in, week out, I can say that despite Los Blancos having a commanding lead in the table for the majority of the season, Barcelona still has the better attacking cohesion.
Real Madrid seems to always finish when it matters, and never look out of it, it’s true. Also, their depth players create more goals than Barca’s depth. But this match showcased some horrible defending all-around, nonetheless, with both sides giving up too many chances.
In the end, Real Madrid’s high-press and lack of an answer to their Messi, Rakitic, and Busquets midfield battle with Kroos and Casemiro cost them the match. Messi, per usual, was decisive, very much so.