Both FC Barcelona & Real Madrid have started the season with inconsistent results, and there are definitely questions to be asked of both teams in terms of their tactical shapes as well as personnel choices ahead of this season’s first El Clásico.
Games leading up to El Clásico:
Neither team has had a stable start to the 2020/21 season, owing to difficult schedules and a very short preparation window after the extraordinary conditions teams were put under to end the 2019/20 season. FC Barcelona comfortably beat Villarreal 4-0 at home, and followed it up with a 3-0 win at Balaídos against Celta Vigo, the club’s first win there in over 5 years. Barça then welcomed Sevilla at the Camp Nou for the final game before the international break, with the balanced game culminating in a deserved 1-1 draw. Real Madrid played one game more than Barça before the break, as they drew away 0-0 with Real Sociedad before narrowly beating Real Betis 3-2 at the Benito Villamarín. They followed these results up with two convincing wins against Valladolid at home (1-0) & Osasuna away (2-0). After the international break, both teams suffered 1-0 defeats in the league, as Real lost at home to newly promoted Cádiz and Barça failed to come back after Jaime Mata’s penalty away at the Coliseum Alfonso Pérez. However, each club has had a starkly contrasting start in the Champions League. While Barcelona cruised to a 5-1 victory at home against Hungarian champions Ferencváros, Real Madrid fell victim to yet another defeat at home, this time at the hands of Shakhtar Donetsk.
FC Barcelona go into the game without Marc-André ter Stegen and Samuel Umtiti. It remains to be seen whether Jordi Alba will make it back on the pitch in time. Real Madrid’s injury situation is worse, as they will travel to the Camp Nou without Dani Carvajal, Álvaro Odriozola, Martin Ødegaard, Mariano Diaz, and Eden Hazard.
Ronald Koeman has decided to move away from FC Barcelona’s historic 4-3-3 formation, playing his team in a 4-2-3-1. This is a system that accommodates Frenkie de Jong and Coutinho in their preferred roles on the pitch, while placing Messi in a free role at the helm of the attack, thus providing Barcelona with a more stable defensive structure and more efficient counter-pressing and ball retrieval, all crucial elements of Barça’s identity that were missing towards the end of last season. Busquets and Griezmann might be set to return to the starting XI, replacing Pjanic and Trincão. As for the left-back position, if Jordi Alba receives the medical clearance in time, it would be an immense boost for Koeman’s offensive options. In any case, it is unlikely that Sergiño Dest, Trincão, or Pedri start against Real Madrid, despite having respectable performances in their first games for the club. Here is how Barça will probably line up:
Neto; Roberto, Pique, Lenglet, Alba*; Busquets, de Jong; Griezmann, Coutinho, Fati; Messi.
Zinedine Zidane has cultivated a reputation as a manager who likes to experiment with his tactics, and this season has proved no different. Although the Frenchman has tried a 4-4-2 diamond system on a few occasions so far this season, with Jovic and Benzema up top, it seems increasingly probable that he will stick to a 4-3-3 in the Camp Nou. This comes down to Jovic’s below-par performances in the games he played, the injury of Ødegaard, and Isco’s lack of match fitness. For the right-back position, with both his starter and substitute injured, Zidane seems set to turn to the ambipedal Ferland Mendy, leaving the left-back spot for the experienced Marcelo. Another option is playing the versatile Nacho Fernandez as a right-back, with Ferland Mendy the left-back, although Zidane will be looking to contain Ansu Fati’s danger in behind and Barça’s danger down the left flank with the strength and speed of Mendy. Ramos’ return means he will replace Militao as Varane’s partner. Here is how Real Madrid will probably line up:
Courtois; Mendy, Varane, Ramos*, Marcelo; Valverde, Casemiro, Kroos; Asensio, Benzema, Vinicius.
Prediction & Closing Thoughts:
Both teams have clear flaws that will be targeted come Saturday. For Barça, these flaws are Roberto’s & Busquets’ lack of pace at right-back and holding midfielder respectively, and a distinct weakness in the offensive phase on the right flank. As for Real, the lack of a consistent goal threat and the inevitable defensive exposure of either the right or left flank, depending on Zidane’s choices at full-back, will be their main sources of headaches. Coincidentally, each team’s flaws correspond to the opponent’s strengths, which will make for brilliant viewing for neutrals, and an undoubtedly stressful experience for the supporters of both teams. With that in mind, the most sensible prediction would be a draw or either team narrowly grabbing a win. However, if El Clásicos have ever taught fans of football anything, it is that all logic will be thrown out the window the second the referee’s whistle blows at 4:00 PM (CEST) on Saturday.