Yesterday evening on Monday Night Football Gary Neville achieved the unfortunately rare feat of being able to point out something that the television viewers might have missed on first watching. Unlike the ‘say what you see’ banality evident throughout football punditry on Sky Sports, ESPN, BBC, ITV and Channel 5, Neville actually observed some fascinating features apparent in the early minutes of El Clasico on Saturday night. Universally despised as a player; Neville, while not loved yet, has earned widespread respect in his role as Sky Sports chief football pundit this season.
I will leave the technical aspects of the game to the experts; and Jonathan Wilson, Sid Lowe and Michael Cox have already all made intelligent tactical points in their respective styles. However, I’d like to make a psychological observation about the game based on Neville’s analysis of Real Madrid’s dominant phase of the match on Saturday night.
(As an aside, this was the same period of the match Manchester United could claim to have been ascendant in their European Cup final defeats to Barcelona. Certainly in Rome, and to a lesser extent at Wembley, United controlled the opening exchanges with frenetic pressing and quick, accurate mid-range passing. Barcelona appear somewhat vulnerable in the early stages of crucial matches, but have been consistently able to pass their way past any initial uncertainty.)
Neville showed a variety of clips analysing Madrid’s relentless pressing of the Barcelona defence in the first ten minutes in the Bernabeu. After 22 seconds, Madrid had the lead as Victor Valdes mistake in trying to pass the ball out from the back was capitalised upon by Angel Di Maria, and finally converted by Karim Benzema. For the next fifteen minutes Madrid hassled and harried; hunting in packs to try and force a second error and ultimately a second goal.
However, one clip displayed the supreme, unshakeable confidence that Barcelona have in their footballing ideal. After three minutes Valdes received the ball in his area again and four Madrid players quickly converged on the space. Most other, heck every other goalkeeper in the world would have cleared the ball up the field and settled for the temporary breathing space. Valdes? He measured an attack-splitting pass to Sergio Busquets who in-turn spread the play with an exquisite chip out to the left full-back. Barcelona were back on the offensive and the pressure was relieved while simultaneously commencing a process of wearing out the Madrid attackers.
While that illustration may show Barcelona’s unparalleled technical ability throughout their team, for my mind it was an even greater example of their psychological strength. 1-0 down; Mourinho and the Madridistas scenting blood; pressure well and truly on; Barcelona’s absolute faith in their totalfootballing principle regardless of trial and tribulation was utterly remarkable.
And they continued to play the ball back to Valdes’ feet for the rest of the game despite the howls of derision from the Bernabeu, and from the rather less vociferous Madrid fans at our El Clasico screening. With confidence intact, the Barcelona goalkeeper was untroubled in possession for the remaining 87 minutes, providing an outlet in retreat and clever instigation of moves in attack. (Despite the fundamental similarities, part of the reason that Spain always appear slightly less fluid than Barcelona – aside from the Lionel Messi factor, of course – is that Iker Casillas is conspicuously less comfortable in possession than Valdes)
Wilson pointed out in his Guardian column that Busquets began to drop deeper after the initial Real Madrid whirlwind had been weathered, and thus was able to dictate the game moving forward from defence as an old style libero rather than in his usual incarnation as metronomic tempo-setter at the base of midfield. With Busquets increasing influence on the game; Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas were able to create space and start the eternal carousel of tiki-taka.
Interestingly, Xabi Alonso – while undoubtedly a better player – is burdened with the same ailment against the Barcelona midfield that Michael Carrick has previously suffered from: a fundamental lack of mobility. Alonso is immaculate in possession and probably the best long-range passer in football; but his inability to effectively harass the opposition defensively renders him but a traffic cone to Xavi and Iniesta. It is fascinating indeed that Pepe produced the best performance in central midfield by a Madrid player against Barcelona since Mourinho became the manager. Pepe is an immense athlete but flawed footballer – the antithesis of Alonso – however his destructive ability was the key to Madrid’s Copa Del Rey triumph in April.
Did Barcelona essentially win El Clasico when they remained unmoved by the seemingly irresistible force of Real Madrid in those opening moments? That might be a stretch but their mental toughness in the early stages, imposing their footballing personality on Madrid despite the initial setback, was a magnificent display of psychological fortitude and unbreakable will.