Three months that felt like nothing for Barça, who were competitive and ambitious from minute one in their return to action at Son Moix. A match review of the Mallorca 0–4 Barcelona.
Football had been patient. But Arturo Vidal wasn’t. 98 days were too much for the Chilean, who needed 65 mere seconds to exhibit his productive impetus. A hunter never loses his instinct. Hungry after more than three months without catching a prey, Barcelona pressed, Frenkie de Jong tackled, Jordi Alba crossed and Arturo Vidal scored. Just two minutes gone, but Barça already had the lead against Mallorca.
With plenty of time to search for ways to innovate, Quique Setién wanted to display his new tactical changes early on. To implement them he chose the most aggressive midfielder and forward he had in his squad. Vidal, from midfield, and Martin Braithwaite, on the left wing. They both scored. In the 37th minute, a sharp Lionel Messi assisted Braithwaite for the Dane’s powerful half volley. Striking the net with force, showing that the absence of football had not affected him.
There was some significant asymmetry in the system, but with the objective of compensating all of the players’ movements and natures. If in Setién’s debut match versus Granada he had introduced an unusual back three formation with many footballers in unnatural positions, experience had made Quique reconsider and aim to exploit each one’s best virtues in his preferred position.
This seems to be the new normality for Barcelona, but the old fashion is also back. Beardless and with longer hair, Lionel Messi’s new look is reminiscent of older but golden times. Starting significantly wide on the right wing, in spite of drifting inside often, Leo looked fresh, fit and motivated. Rejuvenated. Happy, after all. Happiness for the number 10 cannot be understood without his best friend, though.
With 35 minutes ahead, Luis Suárez re-appeared for Barça, but for the first time under Setién. Having got injured in January’s Super Cup clash with Atlético de Madrid, in a loss that costed Ernesto Valverde his job, Suárez’s season was supposed to be over. Until tragedy, in the form of pandemic, happened. Determined to look at the bright side of the situation, Luis took advantage of the long break to join the party for the odd end of the campaign.
No circumstance is strange enough for Lionel Messi | Photo by Jaime Reina / AFP via Getty Images
Quique Setién hadn’t wanted to risk Luis Suárez at first, just like he had left Samuel Umtiti and Arthur Melo on the bench with their often problematic fitness. 21-year-old centre-back Ronald Araújo got his first start, and second appearance, for the first team, while Vidal played 45 minutes before being subbed out at half-time for Iván Rakitić. Far from rusty, the blaugranas were liquid. With full-backs very high and long but purposeful spells of possession, everything looked smooth for the visitors at Son Moix.
Always direct and determined, Martin Braithwaite proved once more that succeeding at Barça is more a matter of appropriateness than of quality. Selfless in his off-ball movements and aggressive with space, the former Leganés man knows his strengths and weaknesses, and his role. He executed Setién’s demands to perfection, while Messi had fun too but with an opposed style. Assisting Braithwaite in the first half, the little genius had time to record one more assist and a late goal in the second.
Jordi Alba, assister of Vidal’s goal, found the net himself after Leo’s fabulous pass. Alba and Messi, Messi and Alba, the connection doesn’t seem to fade away. Every pass was synchronised and well-timed, just like the entire block. With the distances well-measured and the required associative plays, Setién surely had little complaints on his team’s response.
❛ The feelings in general are good, you always have to be attentive for things to improve on, but I’m satisfied. We have shown effectiveness and we have been good on the ball ❜
With a break that was longer than the summer holidays, many asked for a mini preseason to take place. But, with the tight title race and with Real Madrid with only two points less, Barcelona took the game as a final rather than a preparatory friendly. With the competitiveness of the biggest duels, the Catalans cared little about the circumstances. Players like Lionel Messi and Martin Braithwaite take no off days.
Three talking points from Real Madrid 2-1 Barcelona
In the final edition of El Clásico in the 2020/21 domestic campaign, Barcelona incurred their fifth defeat of the league campaign. It was end-to-end stuff in the Alfredo Di Stefano stadium, as an exceptional first-half performance from the hosts was followed up by a tantalizing second from Barça.
This game had everything someone could ask for in a Clásico. There was controversy, passion, goals and for the first time in a few years, a red card was the cherry on the top. These are Barca Universal’s takeaways from the game in the capital.
Real Madrid’s efficiency on show
With four shots on target, 1.58 Expected Goals, and two goals to their name, Real Madrid put to show their sheer efficacy in front of goal, as well as in defence. For the first half at least, Zinédine Zidane’s men were always at the right place, at the right time making all the right movements and to devastating effect.
Los Blancos‘ philosophy is one of winning, and doing so regardless of how the victory is earned. Contrary to the Catalans, who not only need to win, but also do it a certain way, Los Merengues are more than capable of abandoning their usually proactive approach to games in favour of a more reactive one. The fact that they are not bound to a specific ideology makes winning matches one of the simplest of tasks.
They held the ball for only 32% of the game, which goes completely against what a majority would expect them to. At the end of the day, however, possession matters significantly less than what one does with it. With every lapse in concentration from the Garnet and Blue, Madrid had enough men forward, and well enough positioned, to hit them where it hurt.
Despite the relatively low xG, they had enough big chances to even lead 4-0 come the halftime whistle. When it came to defending, their tight-knit defence, in stark contrast to that of their rivals, barely broke a sweat. They imposed an impenetrable low block, and applied a collective press to force as many errors as they could.
In addition to this, Zidane has the luxury of having a starting eleven of devastatingly versatile footballers in his arsenal. Fede Valverde for instance was as much a right-back as he was a central midfielder and a winger. He executed each role to pristine perfection, and so did his peers to ensure all 3 points, and bragging rights stayed in Madrid.
Excellent mentality shift
Following such a harrowing performance in the first half, few, if any, could have expected Barcelona to mount a comeback. Had this been any other team, that would have been possible, but given Real Madrid’s first-half performance, this was all but envisageable.
Indeed, the Catalans did fail to get any points from the Alfredo Di Stefano stadium, however, the sheer mentality they showed in the second half was a sight for sore eyes. Ronald Koeman made the necessary adjustments to the side, reverting to the 4-3-3 and with it, they wrought trouble in the Madrid backline.
Lionel Messi celebrating the goal. pic.twitter.com/ZX1HzWSqAR— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) April 10, 2021
If in the first half Barça seemed caged in endless cycles of worthless possession, then in the second they made thorough use of it. The Blaugrana created eleven chances for themselves in the second period, and while doing this, they in turn limited Los Blancos to just a single shot on goal for the entirety of the half; a complete turnover from their performance in the opening 45 minutes.
It was nail-biting stuff up until the final second of the game, as Ilaix Moriba’s volleyed effort struck the underside of the crossbar. Given the overall performance from both sides, a draw would have been a considerably fairer result, but even in defeat with this version of Barça, the players and fans know that they can keep their heads held high.
A game of fine margins
Games of the magnitude of El Clásico will forever be decided by the most minute of details and the same was the case here.
The first significant one was the frame of the goal. In the first half, following the umpteenth counter attack from Real Madrid, Fede Valverde, who up until then was having yet another phenomenal showing against Barcelona, struck the frame of the post with a shot that crucially bounced underneath Sergio Busquets.
In the second half, Ronald Araújo nearly scored an own goal, but with Ter Stegen rooted to the spot, the ball rolled delicately onto the post and out for a corner. In the final minute of the match, and with Madrid fighting for their lives, Ilaix Moriba struck the underside of the crossbar to end this sensational tie on an emotional high.
Jordi Alba has often been criticized for being just as much a blessing offensively as he is a curse defensively. In the build-up to the hosts’ opener, he had one task to fulfill: mark his opposing fullback. This is one he absolutely failed, as he drifted too far inside, and by the time he had noticed his error, Lucas Vázquez already had Karim Benzema in his sights. Too little, too late.
The final significant detail was in the goal that won Los Blancos the game. After what many consider a poorly given free-kick from the referee’s standpoint, Toni Kroos surely could not believe his eyes when he saw the sheer state of Barça’s wall. Marc André Ter Stegen’s poor leadership of his defenders left him utterly vulnerable, and his German counterpart spared him no blushes, slotting it home to seal the victory for his side.