So the conventional wisdom and narrative emerging from Saturday’s match was that Madrid played too conservatively and in some bizarre fashion confessed to their inferiority by doing so. Barca legend Johan Cruyff went so far as to label Madrid’s approach a “eulogy” to the Catalans superiority, further ratcheting up the psychological pressure on Jose Mourinho.
“Before we look at the press reaction to the 1-1 draw in the Bernabow late on Saturday night, it’s worth considering the argument thrown my way on Sunday afternoon by an ex-Spanish football manager in deepest Guernica that it was a disgrace to see Real Madrid playing a crude version of catenaccio, ceding 80% possession to the visiting team and relying on a mixture of counter-attack and dead-ball situations.
Add to that the fact that the visiting team were Barcelona (a real Madridista, the theory goes, never implies or admits that the Catalans are superior – it cost Bernd Schuster his job); Madrid’s most imaginative player, Mesut Ozil, was on the bench; Pepe was playing as a minesweeper in midfield, patrolling Lionel Messi’s movements; Xabi Alonso was pushed up higher than usual, marking Xavi; and Sami Khedira’s main job was to snuff out Andres Iniesta, it seemed that Madrid had not really come to play football. Disgrace!”
I too was shocked that Ozil started the match on the bench. He immediately became a creative force for Madrid when introduced. But as Ball and others note–a 10 man Madrid side nearly won the match on Khedira’s late gambit and were truly the better side for the last quarter of the match, in my opinion. How else can you play Barca with a numerical disadvantage but to defend? I think Mourinho’s tactics were deceptively solid. Whatever you think about the man there is no denying that he’s an excellent manager who knows what it takes to beat this Barca side.
Sid Lowe’s piece in the Guardian echoed this theme:
“Critical questions are growing: Should a club that has spent over €400m in two years be so defensive? Is this Madrid’s way? Does it reinforce Barcelona’s advantage? It may be an entirely logical approach, but some are not happy. Two former coaches agreed: if we had done this, we’d have been sacked; a former Madrid player was privately spitting blood – this, he said, was not worthy of Madrid. And even mad Madridista Tomás Roncero, while talking up the “euphoria”, admitted: “It can be hard to take the medicine when it tastes like castor oil.”
The match report in AS described Mourinho’s approach as “basic, not to say prehistoric”. Marca’s Santi Segurola called it “defensive, ugly and rough”.
‘Let’s not beat about the bush,” added Roberto Palomar, “this clásico was crap: Madrid did not play like Madrid, they played like Inter.'”
I love how Inter (who are still technically the defending European Champions) are used as an epithet to disparage Mourinho, while Madrid hasn’t accomplished what Inter did (at Barca’s expense) last season in years. I mean, I’ve written many times about how much I appreciate the value and importance of aesthetics in European soccer, but these gripes from the Madrid press sound insane. No wonder Mourinho is always on the verge of leaving town. I just don’t think it’s possible to beat this Barcelona team beautifully (aka at their own game). Results will have to be obtained by any means necessary if they are to be obtained at all; catenaccio, “parking the bus,” borderline dirty tackles–you name it. It’s amazingly greedy that the myopic Madrid universe wants results and aesthetics when it seems more and more obvious that they are only in a position to get one at the expense of the other. That said, these press accounts make it sound like Madrid played like a side in the Serie A relegation zone, whereas they actually counterattacked with pace and ferocity. I think Mourinho tried to play wide-open, attacking football against Barca in November and we all know how that turned out. But that doesn’t mean a tactical shift is an admission of a timidity or inferiority or whatever. Mourinho now seems to be trying a different approach, a hybrid between Madrid’s traditional attacking play and Inter’s mid-tempo, lockdown counterattacking style.
I’m not sure exactly what approach Madrid will take today, but I feel that this is the key match of the entire current Clasico mini-series. Madrid really isn’t even concealing their view of its importance anymore, as Iker Casillas labeled victory today “vital.”
As some overrated, mediocre Hulk Hogan biter said a few months back: CAN’T WAIT.