Madrid’s recent success over Barcelona owes a lot to rapid starts

Real Madrid may have won the Supercopa, but the tie should have given Barcelona fans plenty of reason to look forward to their future battles with fresh hope. The first leg confirmed that, for all their investment and recent anointment as Spain’s best team, Madrid still lag streets behind Barcelona in terms of their ability to dominate and paint a canvas over a game in the same way as their fierce rivals. Tiki-taka may have come under fire recently, but Spain’s supreme showing at the Euros and the gulf in quality between Madrid and Barca in that first leg reaffirmed its place as the most important development in football over the last four years. Were it not Angel di Maria pouncing on a moment of hesitation from Victor Valdes with a dogged persistence characteristic of his manager, Madrid would have suffered a 3-1 defeat more reflective of the enduring gap between the sides.

However, for the time being, Jose Mourinho has been able to use illusion and a gift for making people believe in a narrative that doesn’t really exist to upset the odds. Ostensibly, Madrid’s recent ability to best Barcelona in their duels appear to be the sign of a team taking great strides forward in its development under a manager who can seemingly imbue his teams with qualities of invincibility. Upon closer inspection, however, Mourinho’s ideas for tackling the Barca problem remain starkly spartan and have not advanced over the course of the last two seasons. His entire game plan hinges on Madrid shooting out of the blocks as quickly as possible; if they can press, harry and hassle Barca into ceding an advantage in that first half-hour, he then falls back on his tried and tested ‘blanket defence’ approach to protect that lead when their legs start feeling the effects of such a lung-bursting effort initially. This achieves his twin goals of finding a way to score against Barcelona and not opening up to an extent that would allow their unparalleled attacking force to run riot.

Mourinho bills himself as a miracle-worker, so it wouldn’t be surprising if some Madrid fans felt his stellar reputation and astronomical salary should have brought them more than simply a smash-and-grab, underdog approach to toppling Barcelona. For the time being, their grumbles have been stifled by the surprising number of triumphs this approach has yielded. In their last seven meetings, Madrid’s high-octane starts have seen them snatch the crucial early lead that Mourinho needs for his counter-attacking strategy to work on no less than five occasions. There was the Supercopa 2011 first leg (Ozil, 13 mins), La Liga first match (Benzema, 1 min, after he forced Victor Valdes into a mistake that matches his most recent one for silliness), Copa Del Rey first leg (Ronaldo, 11 mins), La Liga second match (Khedira, 17 mins) and now the Supercopa 2012 second leg (Higuain 11 mins, and Ronaldo 19 mins).  It is remarkable, given the series of recent results, that Barcelona have failed to spot how important these first thirty minutes are to his increasing success against them in El Clasicos and how a simple willingness to hold firm under Madrid’s short-lived intensity will see them gain total control of the match and Mourinho run out of ideas. Had they not collapsed so pitiably in the first twenty minutes of the Supercopa it is conceivable that Madrid would have run out of steam whilst still being obliged to look for an equaliser, and Barcelona would have begun finding the spaces on the pitch any team needs to prosper.

It is already noticeable how successful results have blinded much of the media and many football fans from spotting what Mourinho’s percentage strategy continues to say about the gulf in quality between Madrid and Barcelona. Instead of acknowledging how much Mourinho relies on football’s intrinsic favouritism of the underdog (a single goal can undo a team’s hard work, whereas in tennis the gap in quality between opponents is established over hundreds of points; likewise, not many other sports allow opponents to entirely forgo the obligation of competing by adopting Mourinho’s infamous ‘parked aeroplane’ approach and still come away with a reward), a seductive narrative has emerged that Madrid are closing the gap to Barcelona who will continue to find it tough going in the future. The power of positive thinking can be limitless, and Mourinho will no doubt be encouraging such thoughts among his players to entice match-winning performances from them even beyond the first thirty minutes. However, Barcelona should not listen to the chorus of doomsayers building with every negative result and instead take note of what such a defensive strategy continues to admit about their superior ability as a footballing force. If they can start games in a better fashion in the future, there is every chance that Madrid’s huff and puff will peter out and the true gap that still exists between the teams will come to bear again.

2 thoughts on “Madrid’s recent success over Barcelona owes a lot to rapid starts

  1. very good analysis, however, i think the last supercoppa game showed something a little different. madrid were clearly refining their barca-approach. If you noticed during mourinho’s first few classico adventures, they were headless wombats chasing after an ever-elusive ball. so what do they do? start pressing hard – which fine is difficult to sustain over the course of the game, but barca do it right? secondly, WITH the ball, they uncovered a dirty little drain in barca’s tiki taka keep through which the orcs (madrid) may invade. it’s the space left free of barca-presence as a consequence of their 3-man – HIGH up the pitch – pressing approach. It’s hard to exploit that space when you’re blocked off from 3 directions, BUT, they consistently would “chip” the ball over the oncoming pressers, leaving madrid with a ridiculous amount of space to exploit with their counters – which arguably, is what madrid tend to be one of the best in the world at. A little more fitness to sustain their pressing (madrid) game, and these “bypass” counters, and barca could find themselves in a massive pot of mashed potatoes when it comes to classicos.

    • Yes child. In the last Supercopa clash, it worked particularly well on the right-hand side of Barca’s defence in the first half-hour where Adriano frequently went missing to join the pressing triangle along with Pedro and one member of Barca’s midfield. Unfortunately for Barca, that left an ever-dangerous and alert Cristiano Ronaldo free on the left to pick off what remained of their defence.

      This is a problem that will present itself whether or not Madrid are pressing as frantically as they do in that first half-hour. Even if they are parking the bus/aeroplane rather than pressing, the threat remains that they win the ball near their penalty area, and find the free man with a lofted pass that their talented players are more than capable of pulling off consistently.

      As far as being able to press for ninety minutes goes, I think it’s beyond their lungs as – unlike in Barca’s case – they would not have long periods with the ball in which to take a breather. Not even Mourinho’s famed psyching-up of his players would fill them with enough adrenaline to last a mere minute beyond what they managed in that first half-hour against Barca without cramping on the pitch.

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