Barcelona leaves the fortress of Bernabéu with their heads held high after a hard-fought triumph against their eternal rivals. The picture of the game was the stark opposite of what one could have expected, and rather unusually, the Catalans sealed the victory based on a strong defensive performance, heading into the second leg with a minimal advantage.
Contrarily to the previous editions of El Clásico, the two teams switched roles as Real dominated the ball, while the Blaugrana were on the back foot, defending against Los Blancos’ relentless attacks. However, Xavi’s men stood their ground and put on a solid defensive performance as a collective, minimalizing the chances of the Madridians.
Vinícius Júnior, arguably the most threatening winger in the world, was relatively quiet during the 90 minutes, thanks to Ronald Araújo whose rock-solid defending neutralized the Brazilian’s flouncing movement. Jules Koundé was also magnificent in the heart of the defense with 18 crucial clearances, while Marcos Alonso also produced a tidy performance.
One can argue whether such a pragmatic approach is compatible with Barça’s identity, but its effectiveness cannot be questioned. Indeed, Ancelotti’s men did dominate with the ball, but it was an aimless possession that didn’t bore fruit in real scoring chances. Statistically, Los Blancos stacked up 13 shots, but none of them found the target.
On the other side, the Blaugrana had some dangerous showings on the counter. Although registering just 4 shots in total, they created 2 big chances, and – indeed, it was an unfortunate ricochet from Militão – managed to convert once, exactly what was enough to overcome this suppressing Real Madrid side.
This game also demonstrated perfectly that Xavi is able to learn and develop, and while his team’s performance wasn’t a pleasing sight to watch, recognized that he cannot realize the play he would want to without such key players unavailable, and with clever adaptation, took a step back to a more conservative approach that ultimately worked out, reminding to a kind of ten Hag-esque arc.
However, as he admitted in his post-match press conference, it wasn’t in the plan to be dominated in such a manner. With just 35% possession to the Blaugrana’s name, they had their lowest ball possession percentage since Pep Guardiola’s arrival. On the long term, it probably won’t be the solution, though, as a temporary adaptation, it can serve well the Catalans as well.
Barcelona is usually known for their trademark style of play – the so-called ‘Barcelona way’ – and since being appointed back in November 2021, Xavi has been a loyal, maybe even too stubborn follower of this path. From this perspective, it’s great to see the Puppet Master becoming willing to make a change in approach – even if it’s opposed to the traditional club philosophy – if the situation requires so.
The good news is that Pedri, Dembélé, Christensen, and Lewandowski are likely to return soon to action, which augurs with the promise of a more traditional performance of the ‘Barça way’, based on proactivity and creativity. Thus, the aesthetics-loving fan can retire with the hope that the beautiful game, quite literally, will return soon to Camp Nou, and the roles might change back for the second leg.
All in all, despite that the Blaugrana’s game wasn’t the best sight by any means, Xavi’s team clicked and fought out the victory even in the absence of some crucially important players. Heading into the second leg with a narrow advantage, the Catalans have plenty of positives to be proud of, but they should always be aware of the inherited ‘comeback kings’ nature of Real Madrid.