El Clásico: Tactical Preview
Photo credit should read CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP via Getty Images
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Barcelona’s director of football Eric Abidal said Ernesto Valverde’s future at their club was pretty much sealed after the 0-0 draw against Real Madrid. Barcelona have moved on from Valverde’s pragmatic approach to Quique Setien’s model which is based on the philosophy of none other than Johan Cruyff. Barcelona saw a huge tactical shift after his appointment as they are now back to their days of dominating possession. Since the last Clasico, Real Madrid briefly climbed to the top of the table with a three point lead and then lost five points to find themselves two points behind Barcelona. They have a chance to get their lead back on Sunday as El Clasico returns to the Bernabeu where Real Madrid have lost all the La Liga matches against Barcelona since 2014. They have only scored two goals during this time and both of them were scored in the same game in 2017.

We cannot wait to hear what Zidane has to say about dropping Luka Jović from the matchday squad altogether. It will be an interesting answer regardless of the result of this huge fixture between the eternal rivals. So let’s get down to the business and take a look at what Zidane can do with the men he has listed in the matchday squad. The biggest surprise is, of course, the inclusion of Mariano. We are still skeptical about his involvement in the game.

Real Madrid are not expected to go beyond the 4-4-2 diamond and 4-3-3 formation against Barcelona. The key here is Isco, who gives Zidane the chance of converting one formation into another. Typically, Real Madrid could line up in the following scheme:

As many as eight players look to be locked in the starting line-up. They are Courtois, Carvajal, Varane, Ramos, Mendy, Casemiro, Kroos, and Benzema. Bale, Isco, and Valverde have alternatives who can be called upon. Mendy’s starting position looks solid for now as he was rested against Levante for the suspension scare. So, Marcelo starting over Mendy would be a huge surprise. We hope Zidane won’t surprise us by dropping Kroos again as that could mean suicide for Madrid’s midfield against a Barcelona side which is very close to its peak level in La Liga. The 4-4-2 formation can morph into a classic 4-3-3 as well.

Barcelona will press hard and high, hence, Isco and Kroos would have a big job on their hands to use their press resistance to the best of their ability. This could allow someone like Valverde to exploit empty spaces with his speed and strength. But the preferred man in place of Bale should be Vinicius Jr, who put in a tremendous shift against City.

Luka Modric and Lucas Vázquez might have a task on their hands as well. If Madrid needs more life and advantage of experience in the midfield, Modric can come on as a sub. Lucas could be deployed on the right if the team needs to stretch the pitch even wider than what Mendy and Carvajal would have done already. Here’s how Madrid could operate in transition defense:

Barcelona will press high and wide. Messi will obviously have a free role. Casemiro and Valverde will have similar roles in transitional defense. Especially, Valverde could do a Kovacic-esque job like the time when the Croatian kept Messi and Barca at bay in a fabulous display over 45 minutes at the Bernabéu. Unfortunately, Madrid’s dominos were shattered by Barcelona in the second half. Vidal’s position can be occupied by the new edition Braithwaite as the forward had a great debut against Eibar. But the approach would the same. Pass, pass, pass and then pass again until they break down every line of the opponent’s defense to go clear at the goal. Do not forget the dangers of Messi’s diagonal passes to the left-back which can often dissolve a well constructed defensive line within seconds. Madrid have to be patient in this game.

The absence of Luis Suarez, Barcelona’s saviour with crucial goals, wasn’t going to be an easy thing to deal with, for any coach. But Setien has actually done pretty well despite both Suarez and Dembele facing lengthy spells on the sidelines.

The asymmetry will either do wonders for Madrid in offense or they will implode with it. There is no middle-ground to stand on here. Madrid’s reliance on the left flank is not unknown but their entire scheme of stretching the pitch wide and hardly focusing on vertical play does not compliment the fact that Real Madrid do not get enough men into the box. It’s either overcrowding the left or right flank until they surrender the ball to an easy clearance from a center-back inside the area. An overnight solution to suddenly excelling in vertical gameplay is unlikely.

Isco could turn out to be crucial to absorb Barca’s relentless press and releasing the ball in tight spaces to Mendy or Vinicius Jr. Remember, this is based on the assumption that Madrid will play with almost the same line-up that started against City with the exception of Kroos replacing Modric. In attack, the 4-3-3 formation wouldn’t change things drastically for Real Madrid but their flanks would be more symmetrical in that case.

Matchday Squads

Real Madrid

Zidane had one big surprise and perhaps mystery in his matchday squad that ommited Jovic and included Mariano, who was in complete exile before this game. Here’s Madrid’s full squad:

Alphonse Areola, Thibaut Courtois, Toni Fuidias, Dani Carvajal, Éder Militão, Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane, Ferland Mendy, Marcelo, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Casemiro, Fede Valverde, Isco, Karim Benzema, Mariano Diaz, Gareth Bale, Lucas Vázquez, Vinicius Jr.

Probable XI: Courtois; Carvajal, Varane, Ramos, Mendy; Casemiro, Kroos, Valverde, Isco; Vinicius Jr, Benzema. 

Barcelona

Setien has some key names missing in Suarez, Dembele and Roberto. He was also sweating on the fitness of Pique and Jordi Alba but both were declared fit to make the trip to Madrid. Here’s the full list:

Ter Stegen, N. Semedo, Piqué, I. Rakitic, Sergio, Arthur, Messi, Neto, Lenglet, Griezmann, Jordi Alba, Braithwaite, F. De Jong, Vidal, Umtiti, Junior, Collado and Ansu Fati.

Probable XI: Ter Stegen; Semedo, Piqué, Umtiti, Firpo; Rakitic, Busquets, De Jong; Vidal, Messi, Griezmann. 

Kick-off

21:00 CET, Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, Matchday 26, La Liga.

Referee

Mateu Lahoz (on-field), Gonzalez Gonzalez (VAR).

Key Quotes

“When we drop points there’s talk that we’re weaker, but I don’t feel that’s the case. We have to look forward and change the situation, so that’s what we’re going to do. We’re in a delicate spell, but that’s all. This is a great chance to change the dynamic. I’m not thinking about what happens if we lose. I’m positive and I want my players to go for the win.” – Zinedine Zidane.

“We will be a daring team, we will try to have the ball and defend when they have it. As before with Real Betis and Las Palmas, we will be a daring team, pressing and wanting the ball. Madrid must be respected. It will be competitive, there will be phases that we control and others that we will not.” – Quique Setien.

Stat Attack

Quique Setien is unbeaten at the Bernabéu in his last three games (Real Madrid 3-3 Las Palmas, Real Madrid 0-1 Betis, Real Madrid 0-2 Betis) and Zidane was in the Madrid dugout for all of these three games.

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