As the referee blew the whistle for full-time at the Boris Paichadze Stadium, Alvaro Morata clenched his fists and let out a shout of pure adrenaline. The kind of shout you’ll hear when someone climbs over the edge and scrambles to safety after a lot of clawing away and holding on. The fact that a player who has won the Champions League and La Liga twice was elated to this extent tells you everything you need to know about what kind of a match it was.
Spain’s 1-1 draw against Greece wasn’t an ideal way to start their qualifying campaign for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Luis Enrique’s side has the hopes of one of the great footballing nations on their shoulders. The 2010 World Cup winners traveled to Tbilisi to face ex-Bayern Munich defender Willy Sagnol’s Georgia team yesterday.
The lineup was a relatively inexperienced one for Spain. Three Barcelona players — Pedri, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba — took on the pitch. In Spain’s 4-3-3, or 4-1-4-1 at times, it was Jordi Alba who played as the left-back, Pedri as the interior on the left and Busquets as the pivot.
After Spain’s draw against Greece, Luis Enrique was asked whether the team’s style will change now. He was adamant on the fact that it would remain unchanged, and that was visible today. Spain looked to maintain possession, play attacking football, and patiently pass their way through the opposition. To enable this, they looked to build-up from the back. Ex-La Masia defender Eric Garcia was partnered alongside Diego Llorente initially. As the former was not as reliable as necessary, Inigo Martinez was subbed on for him at halftime and Garcia was shifted to the right side of the defence.
The full-backs initially remained open as passing options for the centre-backs but would move up the field as play progressed. As they tried to progress either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2, Sagnol’s team had two players cutting off passing lanes to the midfield. However, stopping Busquets from finding space isn’t an option. The most they could do was to delay the time it took him to find space to receive in.
Though there were a few uncharacteristic passes misplaced by the 32-year-old midfielder towards the start of the match, the performance as a whole was of the highest quality, as Lucho acclaimed later. Georgia would launch the ball forward often. Through his anticipation rather than physicality, Busquets won 7 aerials out of an attempted 8.
All three Barcelona players were crucial to Spain in possession. Jordi Alba had 10% of the team’s possession, Pedri had 7.7% and Busquets, 6.5%. One of Busquets strongest attributes is to break down the opposition’s attacks as soon as they start. Out of four tackles attempted, two were in the middle of the opposition’s half. The same was the case of the aerial duels.
The Barça veteran’s positioning remains one of his most underrated attributes. The interceptions, tackles, and duels he completed are all a product of positioning and anticipation. However, this positioning is very useful in the attack as well. When Spain had possession in the middle and final thirds of the pitch, it was up to the pivot to be available at all times regardless of where the ball was.
The Spaniard is a master of this, and has shown the best of it with a resurgence in form. As we can see from the image of Busquets’ touches below, he was omnipresent and received the ball many times deep into the opposition’s half.
Jordi Alba has resurected to his best form this year. The attacking full-back now has three assists and two goals in his last eight matches and had a major role on both ends of the pitch for La Roja. Georgia would look to counter fast and efficiently. To do this, the player on the ball would need to have as many passing options as possible.
As a result, we often saw the forwards making runs as soon as the ball was in midfield. Sergio Busquets lacks the pace to track back as fast as necessary, and that was clear yesterday. Jordi Alba, hence, had to make tracking runs through the central areas as well to cover for his teammate. Full of hunger and determination when defending, Alba had a 100% tackle success rate, won three aerials and made three interceptions.
The same can be said of Pedri. Making his full-debut, he was full of hunger and did well defensively. It was in attack, though, where these two shone the brightest. Alba essentially played as a winger at times. This was a result of both his attacking-minded nature and the fact that Georgia were allowing Spain time on the ball in midfield.
As the left-sided central midfielder, Pedri was always hungry for the ball. The youngster positined himself just behind the lines to receive and turn to beat his marker. When the team struggled with getting the ball forward, he would drop back and pick the ball up alongside Busquets. This evened out the numerical situation and also present a chance for Pedri to show his dynamism in carrying the ball forwards.
Pedri and Jordi Alba showed great chemistry throughout the 90 minutes. Alba’s runs behind the defence were regularly picked out by Pedri and the left-back covered for the teenager when he drove forward with the ball.
The former Las Palmas wonderkid showed great maturity in choosing his passing options. He would evaluate not only the pass, but also the player receiving the ball. If there was a chance the player could be caught out when receiving, Pedri chose not to play the ball to him. Though this is obvious, these basics are what differentiate good players from great ones.
For Ronald Koeman, the Spain match must’ve been a joy to watch. The youngster he trusted in almost got an assist and was one of the best players on the pitch. At the same time, Alba got two assists and was a reference for all the players and the pivot who many people declared to be declining put in a major shift in midfield.
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.