On the 29th November 2010, Pep Guardiola and his unstoppable Barcelona team racked up the club’s fifth consecutive win against arch-rivals Real Madrid in emphatic fashion, ending their twelve-game unbeaten run in the 10/11 season. In doing so, Barcelona overtook Los Blancos and remained in first position for the last twenty-four games of the campaign, going on to win the title that year. The game was also Mourinho’s first El Clasico and he was brought crashing back down to earth by Pep’s men in an embarrassing 5-0 defeat at the Camp Nou.
Madrid prepared to fail
Mourinho set out to defend from the off with a cautious defensive formation and team sheet, though it was certainly not lacking in status. The great Iker Casillas was left helpless in goal, while household names Ramos, Pepe, Carvalho and Marcelo made up the back four. Khedira and Xabi Alonso sat in front of the defence with Ozil in a more advanced position, and a menacing front-three of Di Maria, Benzema and Ronaldo showed moments of promise yet all struggled to impact the game in any significant way. At half-time, Ozil was replaced by the industrious Lassana Diarra but the swap proved to be too little, too late for the travelling side.
Madrid set up in a typical Mourinho style; they kept eleven men behind the ball and looked to counter-attack Barcelona when possible. By focusing their attacks through Ronaldo, who started out up against the impressive Eric Abidal, they looked to stretch Barcelona’s back line and force one-on-one situations in the centre which they could exploit with the physicality of Karim Benzema. Even with Ronaldo on the ball, Madrid struggled to create anything which troubled Valdes and wasted opportunities from dangerous areas with rushed efforts on goal. With their defensive focus, they were content to allow Barcelona to keep possession along their back line and instead pressed Barça in the midfield, particularly in the half-spaces where Xavi and Iniesta like to operate. Their extremely high defensive line lead to a press which seemed much akin to that of Holland’s 1973 side who hunted the ball in packs – Madrid simply pushed forward as a unit, though they blocked passing lanes as opposed to “hunting for the ball” as Holland did.
Barcelona were dynamic in attack
The primary focus of this article however, is the ruthless efficiency of Barcelona’s attack on the night. Due to the threat of Ronaldo, Barça lined up in a 4-3-3; Abidal kept his shape in reference to Pique and Puyol in the centre to prevent a Madrid overload on the counter, though he did look to get forward when possible. With the ball in defence, the ball-near wide forward (Villa on the left, Pedro on the right) and Messi, who gave a masterclass in the False Nine position, dropped deep with the opposite wide forward looking to exploit the space behind the Madrid Centre Back tasked with following Messi into the midfield. Busquets anchored the midfield while Iniesta and Xavi worked as two mobile “pivots” ahead of him, both forming a base for Barcelona’s attacking moves. Dani Alves shone on the right-hand side as both a traditional and inverted wing-back, dependant on Pedro’s movements.
In attack, however, Barça shifted positions into a 3-2-4-1 formation, which overloaded Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira in the centre of the pitch, forcing a defender to step up and thus leaving space in Madrid’s back line. The movements of the wide forwards and Messi were key to their build-up and gave Barcelona an array of passing options heading into the final third. With their possession beginning with either Centre Back, the ball-near Full Back (usually Alves) was given license to push forward into a wide position as part of the midfield. This then prompted the ball-near Central Midfielder to drop alongside Sergio Busquets to create a kind of “M-W” formation, which is characteristic of not only Guardiola’s, but many possession-based schemes which we have seen over the years. With two midfielders in the centre, the opposite Central Midfielder and Messi were free to roam between the lines to create passing lanes for their teammates, who have a full 360-degree view of the field and so are best placed to dictate the attacking move. While they remain close together, they never turn more than 180-degrees from one another – this allows them to offload the ball quickly should their opponents press from their blindside.
Barcelona remained compact in their build-up
Another telling characteristic of Guardiola’s approach and one which worked to Barcelona’s strengths was their compactness around the ball in their build-up play. With the ball in either half-space, the opposite Central Midfielder would drop inside to the centre with Messi offering himself for a vertical ball, though he often came deeper for the pass and Xavi/Iniesta pushed forward to create a passing option. With Abidal holding his defensive shape, Busquets was allowed to remain in the centre ahead of his now-back-three in a position to recycle possession and switch the passing move to the opposite wing should Madrid press intensely. With their intricate passing between Madrid’s lines, Barça were able to disrupt Madrid’s defensive structure and exploit their man-marking scheme by working around a central pivot in attack. Usually Xavi or Iniesta, Barcelona used their ”pivot” as a foundation from which to build their attacking moves. Situated in the half-space, the surrounding players worked the ball around with the pivot in the centre to link the passing moves, again, should Madrid press the ball. This sequence was simply an adaptation of the famous “rondo” training exercise, in which players are tasked with moving the ball around a ten-metre circle as fast as possible with any number of defenders in the centre; in-game, Barcelona simply made it easier for themselves by having a player in the centre. This system proved beneficial to the home side in two ways; it allowed them to retain possession under immense pressure, and it allowed Barcelona to pull Madrid out of position and disorganise their defensive structure.
In order to counteract Barcelona’s complex passing sequences, Madrid overloaded the zones with bodies looking to force their opponents backwards. With the positioning of their Central Midfielders, however, Barcelona were quick to recycle the ball and attempt a similar attacking move within the opposite half-space. With constant movement ahead of the ball, every other pass landed between Madrid’s lines, further disrupting their defensive structure. With the numerical advantage around the ball, Barça’s wide players pushed forward and attempted to exploit the space behind the now-out-of-position defensive line. Their second goal on the night came from a similar situation; Madrid tightened up around the ball and a quick diagonal ball saw Villa one-on-one with a backtracking Sergio Ramos – Villa hit the byline and Pedro slotted home from a low cross.
Guardiola played to his team’s strengths
Barcelona were not only impressive with the ball, they excelled without it. Guardiola’s potent system focuses on ball retention – naturally making it a defensive tactic. Their intense off-the-ball pressure forces teams to panic in possession and look for a long pass instead of playing their way out and building an attack from deep. Against Madrid they pressed as a unit; one player would actively press the ball while the two wide forwards would drop inside and cut off any passing lanes towards the central midfielders. This, in turn, freed up Barcelona’s Xavi and Iniesta to receive the ball upon their teammates winning it back and allowed them time to pick out a vertical ball. If they didn’t win the ball back and Madrid opted to go long, the physicality of Pique and Puyol meant that Barcelona were able to win the first ball in defence and begin another wave of attack. If there was an aerial ball inside Madrid’s half, Barça rarely challenged it. Knowing they were at a disadvantage, they instead surrounded the aerial and looked to win the second ball off it. Because Madrid had a player up for the header, they were again at a numerical disadvantage when attempting to win the second ball, forcing them to again, look for a forward clearance or attempt an accurate low-percentage pass to a nearby teammate.
A similar thing occurred for Barcelona with the ball in the wide areas, particularly in prime crossing positions. Instead of crossing the ball into the area, – which they did on occasion – Barcelona directed the ball back inside with Messi dropping into a deeper Central Attacking role which in turn opened the the gap for Villa or Pedro to attack. It was from these wide areas that Messi was able to cause the most damage to a shaky Madrid back line.
Messi’s exquisite horizontal dribbling caused problems because Madrid were so focused on trying to stop him. So much so, that they often left Villa and Pedro unmarked on the edge of the area and ended up conceding from a similar situation. By dribbling the ball across the line, Messi was almost impossible to bring down and often won fouls in dangerous areas. Madrid tried to simply suffocate him in the centre, though his technique allowed him to shrug off tackles and dodge defenders like something from a video game. Again, Barcelona’s runs off the ball only complemented their attacking movements with it and made an experienced Madrid defence look almost non-league.
Barcelona were simply of another class on the night; the game opened the world’s eyes to the incredible system which Guardiola had perfected at the Camp Nou. His tactics were spot on and his side showed a ruthlessness in victory which elevated his Barcelona team into footballing folklore. An incredible Madrid team on paper were simply overwhelmed by their opposition and the game sparked a rivalry between two of the greatest managers of the past twenty years; to have witnessed such a remarkable event must not be taken for granted.