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
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:
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.
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):
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.
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.
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.