Goal.com’s Cyrus C. Malek analyses El Clasico through a lens not typically highlighted: sifting through the superstars’ limelight to instead credit the players who do the dirty work that rarely gets the recognition it deserves.
In all the exciting buildup to El Clasico, the press does more than their part in focusing on the attacking superstars: Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Benzema, Higuaín, Messi, Ibrahimovic, Xavi, Iniesta, et al.
But in a match that inevitably teems with excitement are players who do the dirty work, players who put a wrench in the opposing team’s attack and come away with the crucial tackles that end up winning the day.
It is with these unsung heroes in mind that we analyse Sunday’s Clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid.
The Lass Line of Defence
While Madrid’s backline has improved significantly over last season with the summer additions of Raul Albiol, Ezequiel Garay and Alvaro Arbeloa along with the concurrent departures of the horrible Heinze, substandard Salgado, and modest Miguel Torres, the Madrid defence actually begins a few metres up the pitch with an unrelenting force that doggedly pursues the opposing offence.
After defensive midfielder Mahamadou Diarra was lost to a season-ending knee injury last term, Madrid’s soft defence was in desperate need of a physical presence in the centre of the pitch. Not far removed from the Premier League (having served as Tottenham Hotspur’s manager), then-coach Juande Ramos made one of Los Blancos’ best signings in recent memory by prising the relatively unknown Lassana Diarra away from Portsmouth in the January transfer window.
The Secretary of Defence arrives at the 'White House'
With the physical presence of a tank, the dexterous touch of the ball that rivals a skillful player (i.e. a winger), the anticipation of a clairvoyant, the tackling of a central defender, and the distribution of an attacking midfielder, the Frenchman affectionately referred to as ‘Lass’ has recalled the days of Claude Makelele and has become something of a fan favourite in the Spanish capital.
But what has truly won the heart of the Bernabeu is Lass’ motor. Like a bulldog, the midfielder runs down opposing players, fighting for the ball with unwavering determination and despite his short stature, uncannily manages to come away with secure possession.
The persistence and committed effort he exhibits whenever he is on the pitch (he even runs off the field of play when he is being substituted) is truly remarkable and the Madrid faithful certainly appreciate it, frequently applauding the Frenchman’s tireless work ethic, which has earned him the pseudonym 'la hormiga atomica' (Atom Ant) for his superhuman tenacity. The nickname, ofcourse, is derived from a cartoon ant and superhero, created by Hanna-Barbera in 1965, whose strength exceeds 250 times his own weight).
When Lass is out of the Madrid line-up, there is a marked shortcoming in the Blancos’ defensive presence, link-up play, ability to switch the ball from sideline to sideline, and attacking movement as players like Fernando Gago do not possess the strength, passing accuracy, control and pace to amply serve as both stopper and provider.
Rarely does the Frenchman err in defence (he wins nearly every challenge he makes, sometimes coming from across the pitch) or in his passing. Tthe only glaring mistake that comes to memory is a loss of possession in the defensive third of the pitch in last year’s Clasico at the Bernabeu, a mistake that Messi exploited with merciless efficacy in scoring Barca’s third goal.
Lass is a special kind of player, a jack of all trades who can tackle the ball, beat opposing players in one-on-one situations, speed up or slow down the rhythm of the match, deliver the back-breaking through ball or cross field switch of play, and shoot the ball with blistering power and accuracy when required.
It is this sort of versatility that has inspired Madrid’s La Sexta television commentators to refer to him as a 'todocampista': a player of all positions on the pitch (he doesn’t do too badly at right-back either) and it is this unique quality that makes Lass one of Madrid’s most important players on Sunday.
Coming into El Clasico, Cristiano, Kaka, Karim and the other attacking players may receive most of the headlines. But if Madrid are to reclaim the throne of Spanish football and establish their supremacy over the Blaugrana, Lass will have just as much to do with it as the glitzy superstars.
Who's the man?!
While players like Yaya Toure, Seydou Keita, Gerard Pique, and Carles Puyol are frequently considered the rocks of the Barcelona defence, the truth is that the unsung hero of the Catalan defence is - or more appropriately, are - Barcelona.
Employing a 4-3-3 system, Pep Guardiola’s method of defence is characterised by relentless pressure when the opposition is in possession of the ball. The whole team pushes forward as a single organism, chasing every ball not as individuals but, like a pack of wolves, in well-coordinated groups.
Even the opposing team’s defenders and goalkeeper find comfortable touches on the ball few and far between. The pressure of Barcelona’s defence begins with the forwards and the team is built from the front, so much so that last season Thierry Henry, Lionel Messi and Samuel Eto'o committed more fouls than centre-backs Rafa Marquez, Puyol, and Pique.
Upon taking up the coaching position at Barca, Guardiola spent hours drilling this underappreciated pursuit of the ball into his players even telling Messi, “You are already the best player in the world with the ball; now you have to become the best player in the world without it”.
The likes of Yaya, Keita and Sergio Busquets aren't particular the kind of midfield destroyers in the same vain as Lass or a Marcos Senna. They often contribute or help out more in attack than they do lingering infront of their backline, as evidenced by Seydou's hat-trick against Real Zaragoza a month ago, or seeing Yaya constantly lurking just outside the opposing penalty area, ready to pounce.
But collectively, with the help of Xavi and a back-tracking Messi, the three-man midfield would easily strip their opponents of possession and begin a new wave of attack themselves.
Say you, say me... Seydou for Barca
With such a style of play, no one player stands out in his defensive duties, but rather the entire team shares equally in its commitment to snuffing out the rival onslaught.
When Barca are not swarming to the ball, they are playing with it, sometimes looking as if they are toying with their opponents as one-touch football leaves the defenders seeing stars.
Just like over at Madrid, Messi, Ibra and Iniesta may be responsible for leaving audiences gobsmacked, but in a game where the attacking superstars could be kicked into lumps and prodded like a dead snail, it's players like Busquets, Yaya and Keita who could emerge as unlikely heroes.
While Barca's brilliant passing and razzle-dazzle football is well and truly appreciated, the effort that goes into recovering possession on the part of the entire team is not always duly recognised. It is about time someone sings their praises.
Cyrus C. Malek, Goal.com