In the aftermath of the 2-1 defeat Real Madrid suffered at the hands of Barcelona, it was the referee Alberto Undiano who grabbed all the headlines. While Madristas claimed that they deserved to have two penalty decisions awarded in their favour which could have turned the fervor of the game, the Catalonians stated that Sergio Ramos should have been sent-off and that Cesc Fabregas wanted a spot-kick after Pepe “took his legs off.”
This certainly has become a trend of some sort in the post-clasico interviews where controversies hog the limelight. However amongst this entire hubbub, what cannot be ignored is Carlo Ancelotti’s tactics.
The Italian had three central defenders in his line-up with Sergio Ramos being picked as a defensive midfielder, a position he hadn’t played in since the 2005-06 season. Ancelotti chose to be defensive in his set-up with no centre-forward in his starting eleven as the front three consisted of Cristiano Ronaldo, Angel Di Maria and Gareth Bale.
It must be remembered that Jose Mourinho, in his first clasico as Madrid boss at Camp Nou, was thrashed 5-0 when he fielded an attacking side. However in the duels that ensued, he was far more pragmatic and chose Pepe in the midfield to track Lionel Messi’s runs in the attacking third – a tactic which was criticized by the Bernabeu faithful as being too defensive and not opting to play a more expansive brand of football.
The ploy did work to some extent and towards the end of his tenure at Madrid, Mourinho had finally managed to shrug off the fear the team had when facing Barcelona and got some good results to back that.
Ancelotti took Madrid back to the days when they would be mindful of what the opposition would do as opposed to backing the abilities of his own players. The Ramos move failed big time as Messi was asked to drift to the right. “We tried to swap [Lionel] Messi and Neymar's positions to find more space away from a saturated area,” said Tata Martino in his post-match address.
Not only did he look out of sorts but was lucky not to get another booking for his foul on Neymar and was regularly seen making late challenges. What this did was affect the passing of Madrid as they weren’t able to create much in the first half.
Pepe looked a tad unsure at the back alongside Raphael Varane as it was the former who played Neymar onside for the first goal. Sergio Busquets played the ball to Andres Iniesta, Ramos didn’t track his run and when he did, he failed to tackle which normally a defensive midfielder would do. Dani Carvaljal went to check Iniesta’s run and it was in that moment that the pass was played to Neymar for the goal.
To add to that, the selection of Gareth Bale was baffling. The Welshman claimed that he was ready for a start at the Camp Nou but his on-field demeanour suggested otherwise. His only real contributions were to skip past a couple of tackles and unleash a shot which went harmlessly over the bar and pick a booking for his studs up challenge on Gerard Pique.
It looked like the pressure to pick the world’s most expensive signing got to Ancelotti as he came up with a starting eleven which hadn’t been tried before and that was evident from the performance and result.
His replacement in Karim Benzema, despite being in the worst form, saw his shot come off the woodwork and Madrid looked purposeful going forward.
Ancelotti has spoken of the need for Madrid to control the ball better on numerous occasions. On his unveiling, he stated, “The objective is clear – the most prestigious club in the world want to win by playing spectacular football. The tradition at this club is one of attacking play and with the quality available it won't be difficult to instill that. We are going to work hard to produce a brand of football that will please the fans."
The Italian coach had put an emphasis on playing at a high tempo and wanted the ball to be moved quickly by his players. He demanded them to constantly play with high intensity and, where possible, to use only one touch passes.
All of this was thrown out of the window against Barcelona. Yes, Madrid enjoyed 45% possession at Camp Nou, a first since 2005 but the brand of football was far from spectacular.
Asier Illarramendi, who came on for Ramos, gave a good account of himself with his strength being in recycling possession and operating in the space between the backline and the more advanced midfielders.
There was no place for Isco, the attacking midfielder who has been one of the key players for the capital club this season with 5 goals and one assist in 10 matches. Isco has been one of the most fouled players in La Liga, second only to Neymar (34) with 28 and could have drawn tackles from Barcelona's rearguard who were playing deeper than usual. Given the number of set-piece takers at their disposal, Madrid could have benefitted from the presence of Isco.
In the final game of the last season, Isco gave a good account of himself against Barcelona where he created a couple of chances for his team-mates and could have had a goal himself.
Surely Javier Mascherano had fouled Cristiano Ronaldo and it was a stonewall penalty. And Ancelotti mentioned it by stating that it was only the referee who didn’t see it.
However when questioned about the controversial red card Giorgio Chiellini got in the midweek in the Champions League tie, Ancelotti responded, “I’m not going to comment about the decisions of the referee. Decisions can always be argued, but they have to be accepted. Juventus were penalised, but you have to accept it.”
It’s time for Madrid and Ancelotti to accept what happened and make an inquest into what went wrong at the Camp Nou. He has to turn the Madrid squad into a unit and most importantly, induct Bale in his plans effectively when fit.
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