Real Madrid – Barcelona: Real Madrid Cannot Execute Against Brilliant Barcelona (1-3)

Though this edition of El Clásico had little value and meaning behind it, the attitudes, bragging rights, and momentum provided gave it serious implications for both Real Madrid and Barcelona. The league champions looked lost on account of Barcelona’s defensive structure, and they were thoroughly humiliated by the play of Xavi’s midfielders.

Tactical analysis and match report by Charlie Tuley

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Real Madrid have looked a bit off since the resumption of the domestic campaign, and their win in penalty kicks after 120 minutes of play in the Supercopa semi-finals will not help with their obvious fatigue issues. Carlo Ancelotti has rarely had the ability to rotate throughout the 2022/2023 season due to injuries to key players and a lack of options that he can trust, and the amount of game time that Real Madrid’s key players are beginning to rack up seems to be catching up with them. They came into an intense El Clásico matchup without David Alaba, Aurélien Tchouaméni, and Lucas Vazquez all out with long-term injuries.

Ancelotti once again went with his favored 4-3-3 formation for the Supercopa final, starting Thibaut Courtois in goal with Dani Carvajal, Éder Militão, Antonio Rüdiger, and Ferland Mendy making up the back four. Luka Modrić, Eduardo Camavinga, and Toni Kroos acted as the midfield trio, with Fede Valverde, Karim Benzema, and Vinícius Júnior making up the attack.

Though Xavi’s Barcelona have looked much better in league play across the current season, they also could not beat their Supercopa semi-final opponents without going to penalties. Though Barcelona also stumbled in their first match after returning from the World Cup (a 1-1 draw with city rivals Espanyol), they managed to eke out a 1-0 win against a tough Atlético Madrid side a week later. For what feels like the first time all season Xavi had his full squad at his disposal for the Clásico matchup, giving him all of the freedom he wanted to experiment against Barcelona’s biggest rivals.

Xavi again decided to go with the four midfielders that dominated Atlético Madrid early on in the match. Frenkie De Jong, Sergio Busquets, Pedri, and Gavi all made up the midfield ahead of Ronald Araújo, Jules Koundé, Andreas Christensen, and Alejandro Balde. Ousmane Dembélé joined Robert Lewandowski in attack, with one the midfielders or fullbacks stepping up to form different attacking units throughout the match.

Both sides vie for control early on, but Barcelona grab ahold of the game

Barcelona’s shape in possession was akin to that of a 4-2-3-1 shape, with Ousmane Dembélé, Pedri, and Gavi playing behind Robert Lewandowski. Lewandowski played on either side of Real Madrid’s center-backs, shifting Militão and Rüdiger into positions where Barcelona’s attackers could exploit them with through balls and forward runs. Barcelona had no trouble keeping possession of the ball early on, but they found it somewhat difficult to get the ball into shooting positions. Lewandowski would often drop out of his center-forward role to link up with his teammates (often moving into the half-spaces), which allowed Pedri to make runs into central areas. 

5th minute. Barcelona’s structure in the buildup phase, with Pedri in central areas and Balde providing the width on the left side. 

Defensively Real Madrid’s midfield was quite narrow and Lewandowski’s linkup play, receiving progressive passes from wide areas to move it back wide again, gave them quite a bit of trouble. When Barcelona could not get the ball into shooting positions on the first try they would hold the ball for extended periods in Real Madrid’s defensive third, using quick passes and movement to completely stump the Real Madrid players. 

When Real Madrid won the ball back there was little they could do with it. Barcelona’s closest players would put Real Madrid’s ballwinner under pressure, though Barcelona’s press was not as intense as it has been in recent games under Xavi. The Barcelona players did very well to track back and restructure themselves after the initial press, and they played a high defensive line with a shallow midfield ahead of it. They cut off the passing lanes to Real Madrid’s three forwards, and restricted their ability to drop off and receive the ball due to their midfielders playing tight to the defensive line and giving them little room to operate. 

With Toni Kroos dropping deep to play between or beside the center-backs, this left Eduardo Camavinga and Luka Modrić to shoulder all of the buildup responsibility themselves. The two stood little chance against the disciplined and structurally sound Barcelona midfield, with Barcelona dominating them in and out of possession. The only way Real Madrid could break into Barcelona’s territory was by hitting long passes over the Barcelona defense for Valverde or Vinícius Júnior to run onto, which rarely offered positive results due to the recovery pace of Barcelona’s back line. 

29th minute. Real Madrid’s shape in buildup, with few options deep in central areas.

Barcelona put Madrid away

After thirty-three minutes had passed in the game, Barcelona finally found the goal that put them ahead. Real Madrid were building out of the back after a foul, with Rüdiger on the ball deep in his own territory. He tried a risky pass to Camavinga, who had a defender tight on his back. The ball was won off of the Frenchman, and Pedri loosed a Barcelona attack. Lewandowski quickly received the ball outside of the Real Madrid penalty area, and he played Gavi into space on the far side of the box. Gavi took a touch to settle himself before slotting the ball across Courtois’ body into the back of the net.

The period after the first goal until half-time was Real Madrid’s best spell of the match. Barcelona’s defensive line drifted a bit deeper, affording Real Madrid more space to build up. Real Madrid began to move the ball as they have been known to do, and they began to possess in Barcelona’s territory. However they failed to create any chances during their brief period of positivity as they seemed to be lacking a creative spark who could open up the Barcelona defense. 

Just before half-time Barcelona doubled their lead. Barcelona had the ball near midfield, and Kroos made an ambitious choice to step out of his deeper midfield position to press Barcelona’s ball carrier. The ball was moved past him, and into a position where Frenkie De Jong and Dani Carvajal were forced into a fifty-fifty duel. De Jong won the ball and poked it past the outstepped Carvajal, putting Gavi in behind on goal. Rüdiger was left to defend Gavi and Lewandowski, with the German standing little chance against the two in-form Barcelona players. Gavi played an easy square pass across Real Madrid’s penalty area to set Lewandowski up for an easy tap-in, knocking Real Madrid down another peg just before the break. 

Ancelotti’s side falls apart

Real Madrid came out from the break looking worse than they had in the first half. The players seemed to be confused with each other as they were misplacing passes and mistiming runs again and again. The players seemed to be lacking ideas on how to break down their opponents, and it felt like each player was trying to do it individually. Real Madrid were bailed out multiple times by Thibaut Courtois after giving the ball away in their own territory, and it looked all but sure that Barcelona were clear to win the Clásico. 

Barcelona only kept going, and they entered a phase of purely humiliating their opponents. They played keepaway with the ball in midfield, with Pedri and Gavi acting as the linking players, moving across all corners of the pitch to keep the ball out of Real Madrid’s hands. The Madrid players were clearly frustrated, lashing out and fouling their opponents often. 

Barcelona put the game to bed with their third goal in the sixty-ninth minute. Substitute Dani Ceballos played a crossfield pass near midfield which was intercepted by Lewandowski. The Poland international carried the ball for a ways before dishing it to Gavi near the corner of Real Madrid’s penalty area. Gavi took the ball to the endline before playing a low cross to a wide open Pedri near the backside of Real Madrid’s goal, and Barcelona’s two youngsters combined to cap off a wonderful display from each of them. 

Down three goals, Real Madrid gave up. Ancelotti substituted most of his key players, and the league champions resided to ball chasing for the remainder of the match. The Barcelona players were clearly happy with this outcome, relishing the chance to rub in their success over their rivals who had seen much more success than them recently. 

Unexpectedly, Real Madrid got a goal back in the final minute of stoppage time. Marco Asensio crossed the ball from the endline and Karim Benzema’s first effort was stopped by ter Stegen. Benzema was able to volley home the rebound to give Real Madrid a consolation goal and take away Barcelona’s clean sheet.


This performance will not shock anyone who has watched Real Madrid often this season. The team has quietly struggled across the entirety of the campaign, relying on the individual brilliance of players like Fede Valverde and Vinícius Júnior to slip past their tough LaLiga opponents. They have struggled with their defensive structure (especially pressing), as well as their ability to break down presses under Ancelotti this season, and it is difficult to see them sorting out their issues in the short-term. With a very difficult Copa del Rey tie against Villarreal coming up this week and the Champions League round of sixteen not far away, Ancelotti needs to get his side on the same page if he does not want Real Madrid’s season to be over by February. 

Speaking of wrapping up seasons by February, Barcelona could have LaLiga done and dusted quite soon if both them and Real Madrid continue playing as they have recently. Xavi finally has his team playing his brand of football, and they look nearly unstoppable in this form. His midfield structure is brilliant and the spacing of his players in possession makes transition periods unbelievably difficult for Barcelona’s opponents. If Xavi can keep his team’s momentum going (as well as keep his players healthy and fit), LaLiga will be Barcelona’s for the taking.

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Charlie Tuley is a junior studying sport management at the University of Michigan. He currently works as a data analyst for the San Jose Earthquakes, and does freelance football analytics on Twitter under the name @analyticslaliga. [ View all posts ]


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