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Football Focus, Barcelona-Madrid: Barça’s midfield dominance; Madrid’s periodic opportunism

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source:  FC Barcelona’s 2-1 win over Real Madrid in the first 2013 installment of El Clásico kept it undefeated and at the top of the La Liga table. Aside from a 15-minute spell of Madrid domination in the second half, the result always looked assured.

Barça dominated the first half, moving the ball at will and allowing Neymar to run at defenders. Lionel Messi played as a tucked-in right winger on the opposite side of an asymmetrical 4-3-3.

Neither team played with a traditional center forward, as Gareth Bale drifted between the right and left sides for Madrid, and Cesc Fàbregas did the same for Barcelona. Both favored attacking through a certain side, as Madrid overloaded Barça left back Adriano, and Barcelona tended to look for Neymar as a first option.

As always in the Spanish league, positions in attack remained fluid and interchangeable, aided by the teams’ use of a false nine. That resulted in a central overload that favored a dominant Barcelona midfield triangle.

Early Barça dominance sets the stage

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(Chalkboards courtesy of FourFourTwo Stats Zone)

The home team set the tone early, out-passing Madrid, 147-73, in the first 20 minutes. The early spell gave the game its first goal and established its rhythm. Hard tackles and the expected intricate passing moves would be the flavor of the day.

With Messi used to playing a central role, Barcelona played wide through the left flank more often. Messi frequently tucked in to give Dani Alves his accustomed space to overlap. The team’s attacking shape was designed to make defenders think twice about their positioning and put numbers in the middle:

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Fábregas ended up on top of the midfield triangle often, creating almost a diamond. Neymar’s width gave him multiple isolation opportunities against Daniel Carvajal. It was one of these instances, created by Andrés Iniesta’s dribble to commit two defenders, that gave Neymar his goal.

The attacking patterns that emerged were either an interchange of short passes in the middle and on the right with Messi, or a longer ball to Neymar on the opposite side.

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(Chalkboards courtesy of FourFourTwo Stats Zone)

Real chances in second half

The best spell for the visitors occurred just after the second half kicked off. Madrid found its way around Barcelona’s stranglehold in midfield, opting for longer, squarer passes to get possession in wider areas.

Real’s attacking shape all game provided chances of sustained possession when the field and players spread farther. Luka Modrić and Sami Khedira pulled farther to their respective sides of the midfield triangle than normal in a 4-3-3, while Bale drifted from side to side (but he preferred the right):

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Madrid’s best area of attack became a triangle higher up the pitch, involving Bale, Khedira and Ángel di María. However, even when those three became involved and maintained the ball, Real could not get behind Barcelona’s back line without assistance from a bad giveaway or poor positioning. Most of its dominance — in the spell in which it found some — was on the border of midfield and the attacking third.

Win the midfield, win the game

The match progression showcased Real and Barça’s individual strengths as teams. Barcelona controlled the middle of the field, while Madrid had to pick its moments and play more opportunistically. Against weaker teams, Real can also control the middle, but its biggest strength is along its front line, while Barcelona’s is in the middle.

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(Chalkboards courtesy of FourFourTwo Stats Zone)

Barça’s Busquets-Xavi-Iniesta midfield triangle completed 175 (91.1 percent) of its 192 attempted passes, led by Busquets’ 50-for-52 performance. In the Barcelona-dominated first half, Busquets completed all 29 of his attempts. Iniesta’s higher rate of incompletion came from his probing forward passes, trying to get behind the Madrid defense.

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(Chalkboards courtesy of FourFourTwo Stats Zone)

By comparison, the Ramos-Khedira-Modrić trio completed 89 (83.2 percent) of 107 attempts — a lower percentage in just over half as many tries. Bale’s poor performance had a greater impact than it normally would have because of Barça’s midfield dominance; he could not find the ball very often, receiving just 10 passes in the attacking third and two in and around the penalty area before being substituted.

Shifting season paradigms

Saturday’s result asks more questions of Madrid’s early season form than Barcelona’s. Real has proven to be a competent team in continental play this season, racking up a plus-10 goal difference in three victories. Even in its 1-0 derby loss to Atlético Madrid in La Liga, Real controlled the middle.

However, coming up against a team with Barcelona’s skill set proved to be a tough challenge. Perhaps it says more about Barça’s ability. Maybe assertions of domestic and European dominance from a star-studded lineup — headlined by Bale, who was ineffective on Saturday — were premature.

After its dominance in El Clásico, FC Barcelona now looks like the team to beat.

WATCH: Premier League TV schedule, stream links – Matchday 7

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Week 7 of the 2016-17 Premier League season as we prepare for a two week break following this weekend.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live here ]

It all kicks off on Friday with Everton welcoming Crystal Palace to Goodison Park (3 p.m. ET live on USA and online via NBC Sports.com) as Ronald Koeman and Alan Pardew clash on the sidelines.

On Saturday Swansea host Liverpool (7:30 a.m. ET live on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) at the Liberty Stadium with Francesco Guidolin under pressure and Jurgen Klopp flying. Then Hull City welcome Chelsea (10 a.m. ET live on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) to the KCOM Stadium as Antonio Conte‘s side look to get back to winning ways after two-straight defeats.

On Sunday we have a busy day as Manchester United host Stoke (7 a.m. ET live NBC and online via NBC Sports.com) to get us going. Then it’s the big game of the weekend as Tottenham welcome Man City to White Hart Lane (9:15 a.m. ET live on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) in the battle of the Premier League’s two unbeaten teams.

At the same time Leicester City host Southampton (9:15 a.m. ET live on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) with both teams coming off European action and to round things off Burnley welcome Arsenal (11:30 a.m. ET live on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) to Turf Moor with the Gunners flying after four-straight wins.

You can watch every single second of every single game live online via NBC Sports.com and the NBC Sports App, plus you can also watch Premier League “Goal Rush” at 10 a.m. ET for all the goals as they go in. Goal Rush is available via NBC Sports.com and the NBC Sports App,

If you’re looking for full-event replays of Premier League games, you can find them here. They are available soon after the final whistle, but rights limit us to a certain number each week. Looking for game highlights? Try this. Here’s your full TV schedule for the coming days. Enjoy.

FULL TV SCHEDULE

Friday

3 p.m. ET: Everton vs. Crystal Palace – USA [STREAM]

Saturday

7:30 a.m. ET: Swansea vs. Liverpool – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Hull vs. Chelsea – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Watford vs. Bournemouth – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Sunderland vs. West Brom – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: West Ham vs. Middlesbrough – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]

Sunday

7 a.m. ET: Man United vs. Stoke City – NBCSN [STREAM]
9:15 a.m. ET: Tottenham vs. Man City – NBCSN [STREAM]
9:15 a.m. ET: Leicester City vs. Southampton – CNBC [STREAM]
11:30 a.m. ET: Burnley vs. Arsenal – NBCSN [STREAM

VIDEO: Previews of all 10 Premier League games – Matchday 7

Liverpool's James Milner, left, celebrates scoring his side's second goal of the game during their Premier League match Liverpool versus Hull City at Anfield, Liverpool, England, Saturday Sept. 24, 2016. (Dave Howarth/PA via AP)
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We have a busy weekend of games coming up with matches across Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live here ]

The Premier League will take a two-week break after Matchday 7, so make sure you totally immerse yourself in all the action this weekend.

Below you can find previews on all 10 PL games this weekend. Enjoy.


West Ham vs. Middlesbrough

West Ham’s struggles have been widespread and Slaven Bilić is under continual pressure heading into Matchday 7 against Middlesbrough. Ownership has said things need to turn around, but that may not happen this week.

Watford vs. Bournemouth

Watford and Bournemouth, both promoted last season, have quite the history. Will Bournemouth’s momentum carry into Matchday 7?

 

Burnley vs. Arsenal

Arsene Wenger celebrated 20 years at Arsenal this week and despite Burnley’s ability to frustrate the Gunners, it could be another big win for Arsenal.

Swansea vs. Liverpool

Swansea City enters their Round 7 match against Liverpool under a bit of turmoil, which isn’t a good sign because Jurgen Klopp‘s club is firing on all cylinders.

Hull City vs. Chelsea

Chelsea is looking to bounce back after an embarrassing loss to Arsenal, while Hull City attempts to recreate some of their early season magic.

Tottenham vs. Man. City

Manchester City and Tottenham both enter their Round 7 match with unbeaten records. Will one team leave with their first blemish of the season?

Leicester vs. Southampton 

Leicester City has struggled to put together any momentum this season, while Southampton has been on a bit of a roll. Will The Foxes be stunned in Round 7?

Manchester United vs. Stoke City 

With Wayne Rooney and Marouane Fellaini on the bench, Man. United comfortably defeated Leicester City, but will their success continue against Stoke?

Sunderland vs. West Brom

Sunderland is still searching for their first win of the 2016-17 Premier League season, while West Brom is coming off of an exciting 1-1 draw with Stoke City.

Everton vs. Crystal Palace

Crystal Palace is flying high after three straight wins, while Everton is looking to bounce back from a loss to Bournemouth.

Antonio Conte on Chelsea’s struggles: “We haven’t got a magic wand”

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24:  Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea looks on during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium on September 24, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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Antonio Conte knows turning things around at Chelsea will not be easy.

[ MORE: Wenger to coach England?

Especially since, well, waving a magic wand around will do absolutely nothing to solve their defensive frailties.

Chelsea’s Italian manager was seething following their 3-0 drubbing at Arsenal last weekend as his team looked all over the place defensively and they’ve now conceded nine times in their last four games.

For a manager of Conte’s ilk who prides himself on setting up his teams to be tough to beat and stingy at the back, it hurt him. Big time.

Speaking to the press ahead of Chelsea’s game at Hull City on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBC Sports) Conte knows the size of the task facing him.

“It is never good when you lose, but I think also in these two games we saw and learnt a lot of important things. We must work very hard to recover,” Conte said. “We finished 10th last season – when you finish 10th it means you have problems. Now we are trying to solve this situation, but we haven’t got a magic wand.

“We faced two teams who were very strong (Liverpool and Arsenal) and for me, these two teams are now at the top. We have a lot to improve, but this is the hope we must have. I see the present and the opportunity to improve, it’s not easy. But we know this.”

The Italian also revealed that captain John Terry will not return for this game so he may well have to continue with the likes of Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic in defense, despite both of those long-time Chelsea defenders going through a tough time in terms of their form.

It will be intriguing to see if Conte switches to a 3-5-2 formation this week at Hull. The Tigers usually only play with one man up front, Abel Hernandez, so it would seem unlikely Conte will add an extra man in the center of his defense.

That said, such has been the shocking nature of Chelsea’s defending in recent weeks, the Italian will try anything — expect from magic — to turn this slump around and get back on track after three-straight wins to start the PL campaign had many people touting them as title contenders.

What is Arsenal’s best XI from Arsene Wenger’s 20 years in charge?

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Wow. This was tough.

With Arsene Wenger celebrating 20 years in charge at Arsenal on October 1, tomorrow, now seems like a good time to look back at all the players he’s managed and pick the best XI during his two decades at the helm of the Gunners.

[ MORE: Wenger to England? ]

Of course his early teams dominated the Premier League, winning three PL titles in his first eight seasons in charge which included the “Invincibles” and going 49 games unbeaten in the Premier League. Arsenal fans won’t need reminding that they haven’t won a title for 12 years but that doesn’t mean plenty more fine players haven’t played for the Gunners in that time period.

Below is my selection of the best XI to play for Arsenal under Wenger, and I urge you to tell us yours in the comments section below.

Remember: At 12:30 p.m. ET, this Saturday, Oct. 1, NBCSN presents a new Premier League Download: Inside the Mind of Arsene Wenger, hosted by The Men in Blazers’ Roger Bennett to celebrate 20 years at Arsenal. Promo video is above.


JPW’s best Arsenal XI under Arsene Wenger

—– Seaman —–

— Dixon — Adams — Campbell — Cole —

—- Pires — Vieira — Fabregas — Sanchez —-

—– Henry — Bergkamp —–