The storied El Clasico: the intense match-up of two of the greatest sides in the world. Barcelona faced off against Real Madrid. Now that the dust has settled, and the initial hysteria and drama have subsided, let’s take a look at four things we noticed during El Clasico, which, while not as dramatic as Messi’s last minute winner, may prove to be just as important in the long-run.
Madrid’s Lack of Defensive Depth
Madrid have been struggling with injuries recently, and left with only two fit center-backs, and only 3 fullbacks. Madrid only brought 5 defenders to El Clasico, and they faced the consequences for it, when Ramos was shown a red card, but they had no additional center-backs to bring into the field. Nacho started the game along with Ramos, but Nacho lacks the technical ability or athleticism shown by usual starters such as Pepe or Varane. While Nacho made no major errors, he still appeared to be a potential source of mistakes and failed to instill confidence in the rest of the team. Madrid must look to sign another defender over the summer to prevent untimely injuries from holding the team back when they occur.
Barcelona’s Inability to Stay Organized at the Back
One of the characteristics of the modern Barcelona team is the extent to which the fullbacks overlap and basically function as wingers. This results in creative attacking play, as shown by some key crosses delivered by left-back Jordi Alba from the wings (including the last-gasp assist to Messi) and right-back Sergi Roberto’s ability to cut inside and dictate the pace of the game in the center of the midfield using short passes. Yet this style of play leaves Barcelona depleted at the back, and an easy target for counterattacks while Alba and Roberto struggle to get back on defense. This constant overlapping, then backtracking when Barcelona lose the ball, leaves Alba and Roberto exceptionally tired and mistake-prone. Several times, Pique was forced to drift out wide and defend against wingers because Alba was caught too far up the field, leaving spaces in the middle of the defense. Pique was caught flat-footed when James Rodriguez slipped away from Jordi Alba and seized open space before connecting with Marcelo’s well timed cross. While Alba should have marked James better, the goal was also an organizational failure. Pique, Umtiti, or Busquets should have been the ones defending against front-post runs, not a fullback. Overall, Barcelona must be more defensively cohesive if they want a chance to clinch La Liga this year.
Youngster Asensio was deployed in a wide position in El Clasico, instead of his normal position as a right-sided attacking midfielder, and Asensio really found his stride, moving into the space that Barcelona creates when they allow Alba to join the attack. He consistently forced Alba to sprint back on defense, tiring him out, and often dragged Pique or Umtiti into a wide position, creating space in the middle of the field. He displayed both technical skill and the brains required to be a top footballer. Definitely a young player to pay attention to for the remainder of this season, and into the future.
Messi Thrives Without Neymar
Words don’t do justice to Lionel Messi’s greatness, but I’ll try anyways. He outworked Madrid’s midfield, dominated the area that Casemiro was supposed to control, and decimated Madrid by outpacing several midfielders, then cutting past Carvajal to slot the ball into the net. He always looked dangerous, and cost Madrid dearly when he slowed his run to exploit space, giving himself room to smash the ball into the net at the tail end of the game. He has a brain for football, seeing space that nobody else can see, and making unpredictable runs. He is a playmaker, sharpshooter, and dribbler all in one, and he showed that off against a tough opponent. His 500th goal won El Clasico with a minute left, a fitting testament to his overall performance.