Why Real Madrid will continue struggle against Barcelona

In the time that Jose Mourinho’s been at Real Madrid, he’s won only once versus Barcelona, that being the Copa del Rey final where they won 1-0 off a Cristiano Ronaldo header. That might not seem bad, except that they’ve eight times now. Three times in the Copa Del Rey, three times in La Liga, and the two legs of the Champions League last season. Now that’s a problem if you’re a Real Madrid supporter. But what is to explain for their struggles against Barca?

I think the easiest one to point out is the poor defending. While they arguably have one of the best goalkeepers in the world, every combination of their back four has been poor. You can argue “They have Sergio Ramos, Carvalho, Marcelo, Coentrao and so many other start players that can play defense. How can it be bad?” The problem that their line has is in actual defending and focusing on the various runs from Barca players.

Here’s a video of the highlights on the latest match in the Copa Del Rey match:

Here’s one example where there’s poor marking. Realize that Alexis himself is a fairly short player. Yet, somehow, he manages to be the one to get a head on the ball versus Coentrao and Ramos. Here’s another example:

The problem is that they’re not tracking Iniesta, who makes the run. They came out lucky to not have had a tied game because of that series of passes. Then comes the two goals:

Here are two prime examples of poor defensive play from Real Madrid. What’s interesting is that both of the scores are coming from defenders. The first goal, Puyol gets the goal somehow while Pepe is a complete spectator to the run. In the second, Abidal runs into open space and toe pokes the ball into the goal. More so, the fact that Barcelona had been putting balls over the Madrid back four more often than usual (remember that Barca is a considerably shorter than the average side) should have been a clear warning to mark after runs by various midfielders and defenders. They saw the flaw in the lack of marking from the midfield and defense and exposed it easily.

But then how did Mourinho do it with his squad in Inter, when they won the aggregate against Barca? Simply put, they had a better defense. Walter Samuel, Lucio, Zanetti, and Maicon are better defenders when they need to be. They lack the pace and athleticism that Madrid’s defenders have, but they have a considerable amount more discipline. This itself changes the entire gameplan for Inter, compared to Real Madrid’s.

Because of the weaker defense in Madrid, Mourinho has to compensate for this by readjusting his midfield. If you don’t have confidence in your back four, Barca’s midfield will have a field day with you and beat you with through balls and intricate passing drills to get around your defense. So, to make up for it, you put in more holding or disruptive midfielders to stop their midfield, rather than have productive playmakers to assist and score goals. That is why it’s been so common for Mourinho to start sides of Alonso, Diarra, and Pepe (who’s usually a central defender) in the central midfield to try to interrupt Barca’s passing play.

This leads to something not talked about as often: attacking Barca’s defense. One of the things about Barcelona’s play is that they’re just as susceptible in the back. With Alves running forward, sometimes, he doesn’t track back and that leaves Puyol, Pique and Abidal to defend. But for Real Madrid, they’re typically only attacking with two or three players. Even with Ronaldo on your side, if Barcelona has all four back, it’s still going to be a challenge to get through and score a goal with only one or two other players with you. There’s two clear ways to beat the Barca defense:

  1. Play the aerial game and try to head in a goal.
  2. Send in more attacking players.

Given that Barcelona’s team is shorter, the first option seems very logical. If you have a clear height advantage over them, use it. Pique, Puyol and Busquets are typically their best aerial defenders, with possibly Abidal on that list as well. But beyond that, their midfield is pretty undersized. Madrid needs to take advantage of this more. They did for much of the second half with a few key chances by Benzema, but he failed to capitalize on this.

The other option might be a little tougher for Madrid. Let’s go back to the game in which Inter won 3-1 versus Barcelona in the San Siro (pardon the French commentary):

In each of the goals scored by Inter Milan, there were usually four or five players in attacking positions or making attacking movements, one of which included Maicon, one of their wingbacks. Because of the steady defense that Inter has, it allows them to run with a more attacking midfield. Usually, they’d send in Sneijder or Motta to go forward with Cambiasso holding in front of the back four. As a result, it keeps the Barcelona defense honest.

As you watch games by Real Madrid, keep an eye out on how many players they have coming forward. Usually, it’s not enough to pressure the Barca defense, and as a result, they can remain comfortable and easily get out of the situation and restore the momentum back in their favor. But, if they can find a way to get more players forward, they may have a shot at beating Barcelona. Until then, players like Ronaldo have to remain patient and not get frustrated because all he’ll get in terms of support will be Higuain and Benzema.

So long story short, how do you fix this Real Madrid team to beat Barcelona? Fix the defense. Make it stronger and more disciplined. This will free up your midfield to allow for more attacking players and force Barcelona to have make good defensive stands. Use this knowledge with the ability to win and score goals in the air, and you have the equation to beating Barcelona.

EDIT – One other thing that I failed to mention was the possibility of using one of Barca’s own tactics against them: pressing. Mourinho has used it several times to good effect. But the side effect of it is fatigue on the players. Because Barcelona’s ability to make mistakes in their own third of the field is so uncommon, the players will typically have to chase for long periods of time. And as a result, that will tire them out quickly and will play into Barcelona’s hands. One goal was scored as a result of an error from Valdes, but other than that, they’ve been mistake free in the back. So while it may be effective in disrupting their game, it doesn’t provide as many opportunities to score and one would hope. It’s the question of figuring out the risk and reward for getting a goal off Barcelona’s errors passing in the back versus potential fatigue later in the game.

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