“Our game, our idea to play is simple, said Pep Guardiola after Barcelona’s 3-1 win in the Bernabéu on Saturday night. “I have the ball, I pass the ball; I have the ball, I pass the ball; I have the ball, I pass the ball.”
At 23 seconds past 10pm local time on Saturday, that idea seemed like suicide. Straight from the kick-off Barcelona were forced back to their keeper Victor Valdes, who presented the ball to Angel Di Maria. A couple of deflections later and the ball broke perfectly for Karim Benzema to fire into the net.
It was the fastest ever goal in the Clásico, in a match that had Madrid won would have almost sealed the title.
Yet, that goal arguably defines Guardiola’s Barcelona as much as any of the beautiful flowing team moves that Barcelona have profited from.
“This is the image of this team’s fortitude. I’d rather lose a goal playing the ball from behind and maintain the playing style of building up from the back than kick it long,” he added.
Barca continued to pass their way from the back, crucially dissecting Madrid’s intense pressing of their backline, and eventually started to control the game.
This was the risk that Jose Mourinho took. Before the game he had two contrasting options. Press high up the field in a hope of starving Barca’s cerebral hub, Xavi, of possession, or sit deep, allowing the visitors plenty of the ball in their own two thirds of the field but forcing them to pass through seven or eight white shirts.
The benefits of pressing were clearly displayed in the opening goal, but against such a technically gifted team as Barca, who, despite losing a goal, continue in the same manner, the downside is once that first line is pierced there is far more space in midfield for their creative forces to go to work.
The biggest consequence of that was the space it allowed Leo Messi. Playing even deeper than usual as Alexis Sanchez played as the furthest forward Barca player, Messi was able to dictate the flow of the game and was crucial to Barca’s equaliser.
He used the space in front of him to accelerate past the Madrid challenges in a similar manner to his wonder goal at the Bernabéu in the first-leg of last season’s Champions League semi-final before playing in Sanchez who finished magnificently.
The signing of the Chilean and Barca’s third goalscorer on Saturday, Cesc Fabregas, puzzled many in the summer. How, it was perceived, can they build on the perfection of the side that swept Manchester United aside in the Champions League final?
With David Villa and Pedro flanking Messi and the understanding between Xavi and Andres Iniesta one of the all-time great midfield partnerships, where would they even play?
This is one of Guardiola’s overlooked obsessions. The Barca boss is determined to evolve every year, a tactic that doesn’t always work. It forced him to go and get Zlatan Ibrahimovic after Barca’s Champions League semi-finals with Chelsea in 2009, to get Villa and Javier Mascherano after the disappointment of defeat to Mourinho’s Inter in 2010. This year he wanted to balance Barca’s undoubted dominance of the ball with more “punteria” (directness).
Sanchez’s movement managed to occupy three Madrid defenders as he constantly ran from left to right taking Fabio Coentrao, Pepe and Sergio Ramos with him. His goal was the embodiment of that movement as he shuttled across the Madrid backline, perfectly timing his run to meet Messi’s pass and fire in his fourth goal in three games.
After the 2-2 draw with Valencia earlier in the campaign Guardiola praised how Fabregas had brought anarchy to Barca’s play. The influence of the English game on his play made his movement more unpredictable and harder to defend against. His 10th goal of the season was also his fourth header, another new string to the European champions’ abundant bow.
Guardiola also demonstrated a side to his management which he often isn’t given credit for on Saturday. He outcoached Mourinho not before, but during the game. The Barca boss is at times casually demeaned by the Football Manager generation of thinking, “well if I had those players I could win everything too.”
But Guardiola saw where his side were struggling 20 minutes in and, with a few subtle changes, made a massive impact on the game. In a cross between the 3-4-3 and 4-3-3 systems he has used this season, Guardiola moved Dani Alves further forward on the right to play directly against Marcelo and Carles Puyol to the Brazilian’s usual role of right-back to dampen the threat of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Sergio Busquets moved back to centre-back alongside Gerard Pique so that both Barca central defenders were comfortable ball players against the Madrid pressing.
However things still weren’t quite right. Iniesta was deploying a position on the left and whilst Xavi and Fabregas were keeping the ball in midfield, it appeared as if Iniesta’s effectiveness was being sacrificed to have the former Arsenal captain in the heart of the action.
At half-time, Pep switched their positions, bringing Iniesta infield and Fabregas further forward. Needless to say Iniesta was the game’s outstanding performer in the second period, dancing past Madrid challenges and constantly touching base with Xavi. Meanwhile, Fabregas’ goal came from a lung-bursting run to the back post.
With Barca in charge the old Madrid demons returned. Ramos and Pepe could have seen red for wild challenges and the self-belief that before the game had coursed through the veins of the Real side and fan base drained away.
Afterwards Mourinho blamed luck and small details for the defeat and he did have some justification. Barca’s crucial second goal had come from a wicked deflection, but the details he referred to have produced a media furore in Madrid.
The reaction to the defeat has been slightly exaggerated by the final 20 minutes in which Barca passed the ball around and through Real with ease, but that is not the root of concern. Playing against Barcelona from behind is almost an impossible job, however in Madrid they believe it should never have got to that position.
At 1-0 Ronaldo had a glorious opportunity to arguably put the game and the title to bed. His scuffed right-foot shot sailed miles past Valdes’ post with unmarked Di Maria begging to be played in. Five minutes later it was 1-1.
In the second-half the sequence repeated itself. Trailing 2-1 a Madrid corner came to Xabi Alonso, his cross couldn’t have been more accurately curled onto the Portuguese star’s head, but he somehow headed wide and within a minute Fabregas had moved Barca two goals ahead.
El Pais (arguably Spain’s most balanced and mature newspaper) ran a piece headlined “Ronaldo, smaller against the big clubs”, dissecting his career back to his Manchester United days.
Marca, the opposite in terms of hype and bias, simply went for “Madrid fans fail Ronaldo”, highlighting his player rating as well below that of the average in Real’s side.
The problem for Mourinho is how to lift his players mentally. Real should still go into the Christmas break with a lead in the table, but with no wins and six defeats in their last seven league encounters with Barca it is impossible to think that Real will not already be slightly beaten as they walk out at the Nou Camp with the league potentially on the line in April.
Moreover, Ronaldo’s big problem in big games has been his desire, anxiety almost, to prove his ability. That has often manifested itself in selfish and wasteful play.
With the backlash of the most severe criticism he has received since arriving in the Spanish capital, it is hard to believe that problem will dissipate any time in the near future.