MatchDay Memory–The Big Two Part 2 (Memories and Tactics)

As for my personal involvement in the rivalry, the first El Clasico I can remember is the game after Figo switched sides in the summer of 2000.  I had loved him at FCB and was sad to see him go over to the Evil Empire.  I definitely didn’t have the hatred that the Nou Camp supporters showed when he returned to the Nou Camp, and I vaguely remember the famous Pig’s Head game that followed.  Tom Adams looked back at those days for Soccernet.

I have to admit that Clasico viewings between those games and the Pep Era were hit and miss.  Once I heard that Ronaldinho was actually cheered by the Real Madrid fans, I had to find highlights, during which I saw an amazing performance by Ronny, in a season that ended with the League and European Cup double.  Then in March 2007, I read the match report about the 3-3 draw and found snippets of the game, including a sick hat trick from Messi, but it wasn’t enough to keep Beckham and Real Madrid from winning the title that season.

I haven’t missed a League Clasico since Pep took over.  Some of the matches have been duds (December 2008 and November 2009) in which Real Madrid used an overly physical approach to nullify a Barcelona team in the ascendancy, while others have been Blaugrana Epics (May 2009 and the manita of November 2010).  Of course there was the Clasico Apocalypse of 2011, which saw the rivals play four times in 20 days.  I watched both legs of the Champions League semi and the league encounter but missed most of the Copa del Rey final (stupid work), although I did see CR7’s winning goal.  The Spanish Super Cups have been hard to schedule as they come during a ginormous work function, but in all in all, the games recently have been amazing on every level—drama, tactics, and technical ability.

Speaking of tactics, there have been several developments for both clubs during the recent years.  With Pep’s hire, the Blaugrana maintained the 4-3-3, which is part of the club’s DNA, but the former Barca captain added a level of pressing and increased fitness.  Possession became a means to defend, as opponents rarely saw the ball and were under constant pressure, eventually breaking under constant bombardment.  Width from outside backs allowed attackers to come inside and combine in intricately, leading to amazing goals of skill and precision.  Now that almost every opponent parks the bus, the team is confronted with their next progression.

Messi was slowly moved from his right hand berth to a more central role, starting as false 9, which caused backlines all sorts of problems.  Do you follow Messi into midfield?  Do you focus on him and allow Pedro and Villa to drive at you from the wings?  These days Messi has moved to almost a false 10 position with Fabregas stretching the play and Messi able to pull the strings and occasionally dribble at defenses.  Kxevin at the Barcelona Football Blog commented on this recent phenomenon.

Another player that evolved is Sergio Busquets.  Pep arrived and made the youth player the fulcrum of the team.  Yaya Toure and Seydou Keita have moved on as Busi has become vital to the success of the team. Andreas Vou looked at the evolution of Sergio Busquets for Inside Spanish Football.  Busquets has moved from the pivot to the third center back to the sweeper and back again, which has allowed the Blaugrana to constantly tweak the formation and approach.  Jonathan Wilson called him the 3 and a half after the first league Clasico of 11/12.

From a Real Madrid perspective, Los Blancos have progressed from an entertaining side that was open and scored lots of goals (but gave up plenty as well) to a pragmatic side that is a lethal counterattacking unit.  In the 2000’s the club made the mistake of selling Geremi and Makelele, players who snuffed out attacks, gave the ball to the creative players and shielded an aging backline.  The team was exposed time and time again and tried to outscore the opposition, which was effective to varying degrees.  After Capello squeezed a couple of titles out of a decent squad, the club floundered until Perez reinstituted the Galacticos policy, bringing CR7, Pepe, Ozil, Alonso, Benzema and a host of others.

These players were overmatched by the FCB machine and it took the arrival of Mourinho and a couple seasons of his discipline to pay dividends.  Now the squad defends as a unit, wins the ball and launches lighting swift counters with CR7, Di Maria, Ozil and Higuain or Benzema.  Angel Di Maria was signed to give balance to the attack and switched from right midfield, his position at Benfica, to left mid.  Occasionally he and CR7 switch but Di Maria’s cutting inside encourages interplay between the lone striker (Higuain or Benzema) and attacking midfielder (Ozil) and also allows Marcelo to overlap.  As for Ozil his transfer provided a more dynamic option to Kaka.  The German, who basically plays the same position for Germany, drifts side to side and pulls the strings. His teammates react by alternating positions, and opposing defenses are forced to make decisions against an attack full of dynamism and energy.

In the back Sergio Ramos has moved from right back to center back.  Carvalho was a Mourinho signing to help him build his power base but injuries and lack of form saw him slip out of the team.  Arbeloa has been serviceable on the right hand side, which has allowed for the emergence of a Pepe/Ramos pairing, full of speed and aggressiveness.  Frustration at FCB’s dominance led to several cards but both have been under control lately.  It is breathtaking to watch and their current shape took them to a league championship and within a whisker of the Champions League Final.

We now enter a period when the two teams are considered the best in the world and will lock horns home and abroad in the search for glory.  Plus several subplots give texture to the battle between the clubs.  How long for Mourinho?  He has never led a team beyond three seasons.  Along with that, can Mou lead Los Blancos to La Decima?  Can Tito keep this cycle going or will he be at the wheel as the Blaugrana fade once more before rebuilding?  Will we see a Real Madrid/FC Barcelona Champions League Final, setting up the greatest confrontation between two biggest sports clubs/franchises/teams in the world?  I can’t wait to see what this season and the near future holds.

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