Guardiola's tactical switch swings clįsico in favor of Barcelona
Pep Guardiola came up with a formation that Jose Mourinho could not answer
Dani Alves moved up to attack along with Lionel Messi and Alexis Sanchez
Sergio Busquets dropped into the back four, initiating moves away from Mesut Ozil
There are still those, remarkably, who ask whether tactics really matter, still those who persist with the Luddite insistence that the best players will win out come what may. No matter that Lionel Messi never produces his Barcelona form for Argentina or that Dani Alves regularly flounders for Brazil, Barcelona, these flat-earthers keep saying, win because they have the best players.
What happened in the Bernabeu on Saturday, surely, will disabuse them. Good players are important, of course, but this was a game turned on a tactical shift, a game Barcelona won because Pep Guardiola came up with a formation to which Jose Mourinho could not find an answer.
For the first quarter of the game, Barca was rattled. Real Madrid, slightly surprisingly starting not with a 4-3-3 but with a 4-2-3-1, pressed hard and fast, often an effective line of five bearing down on the man in possession, with just Lassana Diarra (used as a midfield anchor and not, as many had expected, as a right back, where Fabio Coentrao fought an increasingly vain battle to stop Andres Iniesta) left to support the back four.
It was the speed of that pressing, allied to an ill-conceived and ill-executed pass from Victor Valdes and some doziness from Gerard Pique, that led to Real Madrid's opener, and it also prevented Barca developing anything like its usual fluency or rhythm early on. Barca's system was a little odd, resembling less the familiar 4-3-3 with a false nine than a 4-4-1-1 or perhaps a 4-3-2-1. Alexis Sanchez, beginning to the left, worked across the forward line, with Lionel Messi less a false nine than an orthodox 10, tucked behind him. Cesc Fabregas had what was presumably intended as a free role, but he often seemed too advanced, denying Xavi and Iniesta the simple short passing options on which they thrive.
In those opening stages, Real looked dominant and, frankly, it seemed the title was already won, that it was time to invoke the Three-Year Rule of the great Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann and point out how rarely even the very best sides, and particularly those based on intense pressing, sustain their success into a fourth season.
But midway through the half, Guardiola made the tactical switch that turned the game and, perhaps, the season. Dani Alves was pushed forward into an attacking right-sided midfield role, with Carles Puyol moving over to right back, a more naturally defensive presence to stifle Cristiano Ronaldo, who was further neutered by the way Alves was able to prevent Marcelo getting forward to support him. Ronaldo's contribution, while not overly significant early on, dwindled to zero after that, one badly misplaced header and a couple of unsuccessful free-kicks his only notably involvement in the second half. By the end, Mourinho had shifted him to the right, away from the attentions of Puyol, but by then the game was lost.
That meant Sergio Busquets dropping into the back four, although he continued to step out into midfield. In turn, Xavi and Fabregas fell deeper, with Iniesta going wider to the left, Messi floating in a trequartista position, and Sanchez becoming the central forward. It was the triangular interchange of Alves, so much better as an attacking wide man who makes the odd tackle than as an orthodox fullback, Sanchez and Messi that proved key in an attacking sense.
That was seen most obviously with the third goal, a superb break begun when Pique won possession and fed Iniesta, who darted through two challenges before giving the ball to Messi. He laid it on for Alves, whose cross was perfect for Fabregas, arriving late, to score with a diving header.
The equalizer came from Messi dropping deep away from any markers, picking up possession and surging forward to tee up Sanchez. In the Super Cup, Mourinho had used Ricardo Carvalho to track the Argentine, but the fact he was not a false nine here and had Sanchez ahead of him meant the two center backs had to stay in place. Perhaps if Mourinho had used three holding midfielders, one of them could have tracked Messi, but he opted for the extra creator in Mesut Ozil who could facilitate the high press -- and for 20 minutes or so, he seemed to have got it right.
Just as important as the Messi-Alves-Sanchez triangle was the battle between Ozil and Busquets. Dropping in to the back four gave Busquets more time and space and allowed him to initiate moves in the way he usually does, away from the intentions of Ozil. Leaving the opposing playmaker free is a gamble, of course, but it worked here, not least because Ozil is not a particularly quick distributor, almost an old-fashioned No. 10 who takes a second or two to weigh up his options. Often that ability to create calm -- what Argentines revere as "la pausa" -- in the hurly-burly of a game is an asset; here it gave Barca breathing space, and Busquets was able to step out and close Ozil down.
This, perhaps, is the ultimate result of Guardiola's use of a back three this season: on Saturday, he played with a back three-and-a-half, with Busquets operating partly as a center back and partly as a holding midfielder, to an extent doing what fullbacks have been doing for years, and using the space afforded defenders in an attacking sense. That development was logical and could be foreseen.
What is startling, though, is the juxtaposition of Busquets' role with the events of Thursday evening, when two sides -- Universidad de Chile in winning the first leg of its Copa Sudamericana final away to Liga de Quito and Rwanda in its Cecafa Cup semifinal win over Sudan -- used a 3-1-4-2. There is, it might be added, a common source in that Guardiola and Universidad de Chile's coach Jorge Sampaoli, are both devotees of Marcelo Bielsa.
Perhaps that is the future, revealed on three continents in the space of 48 hours. More prosaically, Saturday was about Barca reasserting itself, about showing it has not gone stale. Guttmann always insisted that after three years at a club either the manager or the players had to be got rid of to prevent staleness and complacency. Guardiola has tinkered with personnel, but more crucially, his side is still evolving tactically, and that gives him options like the one he invoked on Saturday.