FC Barcelona – Real Madrid: the downfall of gambler Julen Lopetegui (5-1)

Julen Lopetegui has given his own board an eye-opener. In a bad way, that is. The manager of Real Madrid failed in El Clásico on the tactical level, right when he needed to succeed the most. Barcelona benefited, despite a bold and effective countermove from Lopetegui during half-time. The former Spanish national team manager needs a miracle to save his job. Or the cellphone number of Cristiano Ronaldo. That could work too.

‘Never have I ever’ is such a nice game. It’s fun, can go on for hours, involves alcohol and is the ideal way to learn something new about people you think you know better than they know themselves. If you ever get the opportunity to play this game with Julen Lopetegui, this should be your question: ‘Never have I ever found a way to be dominant against teams who tend to have the ball more than my own team.’ You better set aside some shots for the poor man.

It was written in the stars that this Clásico would be one to remember. Not only was it the first one without Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo since 2007, it was also the one opportunity Lopetegui had left to prove himself as manager of Real Madrid.

With only Daniel Carvajal injured, Lopetegui lined-up almost the same eleven that beat Viktoria Plzen in the Champions League last Tuesday. Raphaël Varane came back in the traditional 4-3-3 formation of Lopetegui, moving up Nacho to the right back position.

Ernesto Valverde picked Clément Lenglet as the replacement of the injured Samuel Umtiti, while Rafinha had the unenviable task of replacing Lionel Messi. Barcelona started with the same eleven that did so well against Inter in the Champions League. Why shouldn’t it work against Real Madrid, as well?

Bad defensive position of Bale
Especially because this Real Madrid chickened out during the first half. Lopetegui betrayed his own football philosophy. In and out of possession. When Barcelona had the ball, Real Madrid chose not to press. They laid back and formed a rather static 4-5-1-formation with Isco and Gareth Bale positioned more in the center of the pitch to cover the passing lines of Barcelona towards the offensively-positioned backs.

When the ball was won, a long deep pass to Karim Benzema was often played, rather than trying to build up in the passing-style football Lopetegui tried to install at Madrid. It was an uninspirational and ineffective approach.

One that gave Barcelona the upper hand. The home team frequently found Philippe Coutinho and Rafinha, who dropped from the flanks into the half spaces, while Ivan Rakitic and Arthur Melo – what a great addition to Barcelona, he is – caused mayhem between midfield and defense of Real. The attacking fullbacks, Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba, gave the visitors some problems too. Especially the latter was a constant threat for Real Madrid.

Not surprisingly, it was Alba who provided the assist for the first Barcelona-goal, after he benefited from the space behind Bale and the defensively dreadful first half Nacho played. A penalty doubled the lead for Barcelona. Real – who clearly struggled with the high press of the home team – only answered with long balls to Benzema. As said: it was uninspirational and ineffective. Lopetegui’s head was on the chopping block, just waiting for the blade to drop.

Barcelona's 4-3-3 formation against Real Madrid's 4-1-4-1 / 4-3-3 shape in defenseBarcelona build-up versus Real’s inefficient defensive structure during the first half.

The only way to turn things around for the visitors was a radical and bold tactical move during half time. Lopetegui brought in Lucas Vazquez who became the right wingback in an experimental 3-4-1-2-system with Casemiro as a central defender, which Lopetegui also tried in the second half against Sevilla.

This time, however, the change of plans had success. In possession, Real Madrid actually did something with the ball. Isco became a wandering number ten, while Vazquez and especially Marcelo went all out in attack on the wings. Bale regularly slipped into the center, with Benzema floating to the left side to support the flank or make space for other players in the middle of the pitch.

Real Madrid's pressing 3-4-1-2 formation against Barcelona's 4-3-3 shape in defenseReal’s positioning in the second half whenever Ter Stegen had the ball.

Hallelujah, it worked. While creating high quality chances has been a severe problem for Real this season, the start of that second half showed otherwise. Real won possession on Barcelona’s half several times, which almost every time led to danger.

Marcelo – from inside the box (!) – scored after a nice run from Vázquez on the right wing, Modric hit the post and Benzema should have headed home a cross from the right into a goal. Real should have made the equalizer, but once again this season showed that it’s difficult to score goals if not all your players have the same deadly Torinstinkt as Cristiano Ronaldo.

Real didn’t reap the benefits from the twenty minutes after half time where they were the better team. And that turned out to be deadly. When Valverde brought in Ousmane Dembélé, and Barcelona remembered that they are the team best-equipped to eliminate a high pressing opponent the best in the entire world, the show was over for Lopetegui and his players.

Barcelona played out from under the pressing at the back and created a plethora of three-versus-three or even four-versus-three chances against a tottering Madrid defense. It led to three more goals, two from Suárez, who completed his hattrick.

Lopetegui gambled at half time, seemed on his way to victory at a certain point, but lost heavily in the end. With a 5-1-defeat and a seven point-difference after the visit at Camp Nou, Lopetegui’s future at the club is more questionable than ever.

Expected goals plots for Barcelona - Real Madrid 5-1

Lopetegui betrayed his own football philosophy in the first half by using long balls to worry Barcelona, while not pressing when dispossessed. The positioning of Bale and Isco gave the attacking wingbacks of the home team too much space, which eventually led to the 1-0.

Lopetegui switched during half time to a system with three at the back and a team that started to press very high and intense, which gave Real the upper hand for a significant period of time. Converting the chances, however, seemed, by absence of Ronaldo, too difficult.

Barcelona benefited from the defensive shakiness that came with the all-out attack-formula of Real, and sent Lopetegui and his players home with a pounding 5-1. The title already seems lost for Real. The faith in Lopetegui is nearly gone.

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