There was more than a little bemusement – and criticism – last summer when Josep Guardiola and Barcelona decided against reinforcing a defense that had creaked at times last season, instead spending all the money they could raise on two more forward-thinking signings. There has also been much shaking of heads when Guardiola has experimented with a three-man defense at various times this season.
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Last night’s display – in overcoming an early Karim Benzema goal to roar back and win 3-1 at the Bernabéu in the first La Liga Clasico of the season – reminds us that it is generally folly to question the wisdom of Pep. Cesc Fábregas and Alexis Sanchéz may have been in and out of the Barca team since arriving from Arsenal and Udinese respectively, but in Barca’s biggest game of the season, Guardiola sprung a surprise by starting both. The two new arrivals paid him back by fitting snugly into Barca’s flexible system, scoring key goals.
Alexis – most commonly a winger at Udinese – started in the center of Barcelona’s attacking front three. Cesc had been occasionally used in that ‘false nine’ position since returning to the Camp Nou, but he started the game as an ‘interior’ in midfield – where his energy and physicality were perhaps thought required to combat an expected Madrid ‘trivote’.
However, after 15 minutes, with Madrid a goal up and Barca struggling for rhythm, Guardiola called Xavi Hernández to the touchline for a chat. The changed shape to a 3-4-3. Both Alexis and Cesc were required to move again, but their aptitude as footballers and understanding of the game meant this was not a problem. Both had large parts in Barcelona’s ultimately well-deserved victory.
The Chilean was first on the scoresheet, drawing Barcelona level just before the half hour mark by accelerating onto Lionel Messi’s perfectly weighted through ball before arrowing an excellent low finish across Madrid keeper Iker Casillas from 17 yards out. The in-game tactical tweaking had moved Cesc slightly further forward, where he was perfectly placed to meet Daniel Alves’ cross with a diving header, scoring Barca’s killer third goal mid-way through the second half.
It was no suprise that Fábregas would know what to do, having come through the Barcelona La Masia youth system before his eight-year spell at Arsenal. Alexis was more of a risk perhaps, but his performance shows how quickly he has adapted to the Barca way.
At the post game press conference, Guardiola said that he decided to start with Alexis – and not other options more familiar with Barca’s system, such as David Villa or Pedro Rodríguez – as the Chilean’s intelligent movement distracted defenders and made space for his team-mates.
“Alexis was impeccable,” he said. “He moves into space very well. If you can fix their central defenders, you have superiority in midfield. I was thinking about it during the week. We needed the 3-4-3 to create more space. We came here to win the game, we took risks, but we had to be brave.”
Mourinho’s decision not to go with the ‘trivote’, but to line-up more positively with Mesut Özil as an ‘enganche’ ahead of two deeper midfielders, was less successful. Özil did not play badly, and was involved in Madrid’s opening goal, but Barca’s greater numbers in the middle were ultimately the key factor in the result. Lass got stuck into tackles and plugged gaps as he always does, but Alonso was too busy trying to organize Madrid’s attack to slow down Barcelona.
After the game Mourinho preferred not to discuss tactics in depth, but to say his side had been unlucky in key moments.
“I decided to play Özil because we were at home, and wanted to win,” he said. “In all games, little details and luck play an important role. At 1-0 we had a chance for 2-0, which normally we would get, because Cristiano is a fantastic player and normally scores. Then it is a different story. They had a lucky goal and then we had a chance to get back to 2-2. Then they had psychological superiority and were finally able to play the ball around as they enjoy.”
Luck does play a part in deciding all games, but some smart coaching decisions can have a major role, too.