How and Where: Zidane outfoxed Enrique and caged Barca’s magical trio

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Image Courtesy: © Facebook - FC Barcelona

How and Where: Zidane outfoxed Enrique and caged Barca’s magical trio

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Debarshee Mitra

04/03/2016

Zinedine Zidane ended Barcelona’s 39-match unbeaten streak with some basic yet brave tactics, and Enrique had no response. Sitting deep in their own half for most of the game, Zidane’s men countered with pace from both wings to kill off Barcelona in their own backyard on Saturday night.

Zidane takes a page out of Mourinho’s book

On a Saturday night that was reserved for a heartfelt tribute to Johan Cruyff, it was Jose Mourinho, whose presence was made felt by the players on the pitch, and Zidane in particular. Mourinho has been part of some of the nastiest EL Clasicos, but the Portuguese also famously employed a 'surrender possession and counter-punch' strategy when his Inter side eliminated Barcelona from the Champions League in 2010. And Zidane’s set up was uncannily similar. The Frenchman went in with a similar safety-first approach and was successful in putting the free-flowing Barcelona side off their game. With 10 Madrid men behind the ball from the start, Barcelona despite having all the possession could not find enough spaces to work into. Add to the fact that the fullbacks, Marcelo and Carvajal, chose to stay narrow, making the centre of the pitch excessively crowded for any movement to take a place.

(Real Madrid defending with 10 men behind the ball)

An odd hiccup here and there did arrive. Suarez missed when it was easier to score, as Neymar set him up beautifully. But those were few and far, as most Barca attacks were thwarted just as soon as the ball entered the box with 12 of the 15 clearances made by the away side, coming inside the D. What Zidane also picked from Mourinho was the physicality without the ball. Mourinho, in his Real Madrid stint, used Pepe in the middle to break the play with fouls and make tackles to disturb the passing patterns. Zidane had Casemiro, and Ramos, and Pepe to do all the dirty work with Ramos being the biggest casualty with his sending off and Casemiro shining the brightest.

Casemiro’s brawn makes the difference as Messi drifts central

In a man-of-the-match performance, Casemiro made 6 successful tackles, won all his aerial duels, made 3 interceptions and had 3 blocks. The Brazilian was the key piece of the jigsaw his manager wanted to implement on the night, and he did not disappoint. With Messi dropping deep in order to ignite some attacking spark for Barcelona, Casemiro kept tabs on the Argentine for the best part of the match. Even when he was not winning the ball, his sheer presence and physicality choked the fleet-footed Barcelona attackers. What remains a mystery is why Enrique did not use Arda Turan earlier to bring the much-needed width to the side, because Messi no matter where he starts on the pitch has the knack to drift centrally. With Casemiro in specific and Real in general shutting the gate through the middle, more width could have helped the home side’s cause. Which is exactly what Real did...

Bale and the case of the wing

Madrid chose to attack through the wings 71% of the time, and that’s where they succeeded. Barcelona fullbacks, both Dani Alves and Jordi Alba were caught up the pitch most of the time, and that facilitated Real’s wingmen. Gareth Bale, in particular,, had an excellent game, producing the assist for the match-winning goal and having a goal harshly ruled out. But that’s not all, Bale was involved in almost every Real Madrid attack and played farthest up the pitch among Real’s attackers. What also made this ploy successful was that Jordi Alba had a forgettable night. The Spanish left-back never looked at ease with Bale ghosting behind him at will, forcing the defender into a couple of errors.

(Bale and Ronaldo on the wings)

On the other wing, Ronaldo did not have the best of nights, despite scoring the winner. For starters, he and Benzema seemed to be on different pages, right from kick-off, and Ronaldo started to cut a frustrated figure. But with the Portuguese, if there is one thing that is guaranteed, it’s directness. And so despite surrendering possession on multiple occasions, his desire to run with the ball and shoot did not cease to exist. Despite not being very imaginative, his runs alone caused panic in the Barcelona ranks. Also, that happens to be the best thing about pace and direct running - the defence loses its shape. That was made evident by Marcelo’s solo run for the first goal as the Barcelona defence continued to fall back, looking clueless against the Brazilian’s directness. Additionally, Barcelona’s midfield trio of Rakitic-Busquets-Iniesta fall in the slower half of the pace spectrum and were naturally carved out first by Marcelo, before Bale and Ronaldo bypassed them at will. The two combined for the 85th-minute winner, and yet again it was Ronaldo’s relentless running, Bale’s accurate delivery, Barca’s slow midfield and Alves-Alba being high up the pitch that all culminated into the goal.  

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