FC Barcelona is on the verge of winning the treble, while Real Madrid will end the year without a major trophy. Last year, Real Madrid was the champion of Europe while Barça was trophy-less.
What the hell happened? Why is it that two teams that seemingly play the same exact formation can have such wildly different outcomes?
In Spain, there has been a lot of debate about whether Real Madrid’s 4-3-3 formation is feasible. Proponents say something like “Look at Barça! It plays the same way and also has three superstars up front, and it makes it work!”
Well, yeah, on paper, the formations are the same. On paper, both Real Madrid and Barcelona have world-class players at every position. But Barça dominates talented teams like Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain with insulting ease while Real Madrid can barely hang on whenever it faces tough opposition like Atlético de Madrid and Juventus.
This season in La Liga, Barça has seven wins, one draw, and one loss against the league’s top six teams. Against the same teams, Real Madrid has only four wins, two draws, and four losses against the top six. Barça’s only loss came at the Santiago Bernabéu, in a game in which Real Madrid actually abandoned the 4-3-3 in favor of a more stable 4-4-2.
The difference lies in the nature and characteristics of the two different 4-3-3’s.
Real Madrid’s style of play is largely conditioned by two players: Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. Ronaldo and Bale are two of the world’s most explosive players. They are strong, fast, and have great ability when it comes to attacking teams in the open field, with space to run and stretch their legs. They’re two players whose instincts tell them to run forward whenever possible, their minds is set one thing: scoring goals. And they’re both actually really good at that, especially Ronaldo.
What they are not good at is drifting backwards to help teammates in the link up play as the team tries to bring the ball out of the back. Gareth Bale is especially bad at this, while Ronaldo is average at best. This puts huge pressure on the midfielders to cover an enormous amount of space in transition.
If Madrid wanted to maximize Ronaldo and Bale’s qualities, the team should play much deeper, with defensive specialists in midfield who could make up for the fact that neither of them help disrupt the opposing team’s build up on the flanks, nor do they help against overlapping fullbacks. Last year, Real Madrid had a defensive master in Xabi Alonso, one of the best deep-lying midfielders of his generation, and Ángel Di María, who while not a defensive specialist per se, is a player with an enormous motor who can cover more ground than almost anyone in the world. Luka Modrić was the third midfielder, and his ability to beat players off the dribble rather than with combination play was key to Madrid’s success, because he simply didn’t have many options given that his two wingers rarely offered themselves for support.
Last season, Real Madrid just about made it work, but the team still struggled mightily against tough opposition. And its two biggest wins of the season came when one of Ronaldo or Bale were out (Ronaldo was injured for the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona, and Bale was out for the first leg of the Champions League semifinal against Bayern).
This year, Real Madrid sold Di Maria and Alonso, while Modrić has been injured for the majority of the second half of the season. They have been replaced by Toni Kroos, Isco, and James Rodríguez, all magnificent players. Kroos in particular is almost a “perfect” player, who seemingly does everything right, James is an assist and scoring monster, while Isco is pure magic. The problem is none of them are defensive specialists, and none of them cover a lot of ground.
This presents a serious problem. Carlo Ancelotti’s only hope for a solution has been to take advantage of his athletic defenders and play a very high line in order to reduce the space that the midfielders have to cover. This allows the three midfielders to press in the opposition half rather than have to go back and forth. It typically works for about a half or so, as it did against Juventus at the Bernabéu, or against Barça at the Camp Nou, where Real Madrid dominated.
Eventually the midfielders just run out of gas. Kroos (right) especially tends to collapse late in games. That’s when the whole system falls apart, the team gets pinned back, and Bale and Ronaldo sit up top, wondering why they aren’t getting any quality balls. Kroos in particular suffers when he is forced to protect the space behind him. This is something that Xabi Alonso did masterfully. Real Madrid has conceded a lot of goals this season when a forward has attacked the space between the center backs and Toni Kroos. Like this goal here. Or the goal that killed the team’s Champions League hopes.
The high line also has the adverse effect of cramping Bale and Ronaldo’s game. They simply don’t operate as well when there is less space to run. Ronaldo has adapted by focusing more on getting into positions in the box and becoming a true poacher. Bale has not, and his scoring numbers have gone down as a result. Last year he scored 22 goals in 44 matches. This year he has scored 17 in 47. None of those goals have come against “top” opposition.
Barça, meanwhile, doesn’t have Bale and Ronaldo but Neymar and Messi. Neymar and Messi are just as good at scoring goals, but they are also infinitely more creative. They are just as comfortable crashing the box as they are dropping deep and linking with midfielders and fullbacks. The player who Messi most likes to link up with is actually Dani Alves.
This allows Barça to create situations of numerical superiority in the midfield. This has been a key aspect to its successful run since the loss at Anoeta against La Real Sociedad, which really was a turning point in the season. Since then, Messi’s influence in the team has grown. Barça has been much better at controlling games as a result.
And unlike Real Madrid, Barcelona has midfielders who, you know, have played central midfield their whole lives. Sergio Busquets is probably the best deep-lying midfielder in the world, with his ability to read the game and play the ball out of the back with ease. He has all the defensive instincts and awareness that Kroos naturally lacks. Iniesta and Rakitić are being asked to do more than they are used to, and it has affected their scoring stats, but they are roles they’re comfortable doing. Barça also has good depth with Rafinha, Javier Mascherano (if needed), and of course the master himself, Xavi.
In the beginning of the season Barcelona was far too long, and it allowed teams to go at them with relative ease. As the front three of Luis Suárez, Neymar and Messi has settled in, however, the team has become much more compact. The three forwards are constantly rotating back, filling space and helping their midfielders. It’s not like they’re doing a whole lot of actual defending, but the help in link up is key in allowing the team to control matches, and to giving their midfielders a breather while they hold the ball. Once Luis Enrique finally settled on the resurgent Gerard Piqué alongside Mascherano in the center of defense, the team really took off.
It will be interesting to see if Real Madrid do anything to remedy the situation this summer. The only possible solutions are to get rid of one of Ronaldo or Bale, or completely revamp the midfield. I’m not holding my breath.