Coming into the latest edition of El Clasico, many assumed that because of his vast coaching experience, Carlo Ancelotti and Real Madrid had a major advantage over Gerardo Martino and FC Barcelona in regards to the tactical aspect of this game. This turned out to be a fallacy on a number of levels, as Barcelona would end up winning 2-1.
While there will be much talk about the skillful goals scored by Neymar and Alexis Sanchez, along with the non-foul call by the referee which would have given Real Madrid a chance to equalize at 1-1, this game was won because Martino won the tactical battle over Ancelotti from the beginning.
As he has done over his tenure, Martino stuck to the the same 4-3-3 formation with the only change to the starting 11 being Cesc Fabregas starting in the right wing over Alexis Sanchez and Pedro. As for Real Madrid, Ancelotti decided to take a very defensive mindset as he also went with a 4-3-3, which saw Daniel Carvajal get the start at right fullback over Alvaro Arbeloa.
Sergio Ramos was pushed up into the midfield to serve as a third defensive/holding midfielder while Raphael Varane started alongside Pepe in the central defense.
This tactical game plan by Ancelotti was a clear sign to his team that the objective was to try and keep Barcelona narrow in attack, but it also was the wrong tactical decision. It allowed Barcelona to fully seize the initiative and as a result, left Real Madrid having to chase the game as a result of going down 1-0 in the 19th minute thanks to Neymar’s goal.
Add this to the fact that Gareth Bale had a bad game in an advanced attacking position, and Real Madrid was left having to make the first moves when it came to second-half substitutions while Martino could sit back and allow the game to dictate what substitutions he needed to make to ensure a Barcelona win.
In the second half, Real Madrid first tried to remedy their initial error by bringing on a natural holding midfielder in Asier Illarramendi for Ramos and then Karim Benzema, a natural striker in for Bale. These substitutions got Real Madrid close to an equalizer, and as they had seized control of the game, Martino responded with two timely substitutions to take control right back in Barcelona’s favor.
The inclusion of Alexis Snachez for Cesc Fabregas gave Barcelona some fresh legs in attack, while at the same time forcing Real Madrid to have to begin to think about all-out attacks on the part of their fullbacks.
Not long after, Martino decided to bring in Alex Song for Andres Iniesta in order to start to regain the control of the midfield battle, while giving him someone who was better at helping Sergio Busquets break up any potential Real Madrid attack before it got going. Even with a late goal by Real Madrid, these substitutions allowed Barcelona to regain control won them all three points in the first Clasico of the season.
When Jose Mourinho was the coach of Real Madrid, he was often criticized for being too defensive with his formations and tactical decisions in El Clasico games. For the latest version of the rivalry, Ancelotti unwisely chose to take the same stance, ceding the control to Barcelona and Gerardo Martino, who did not over-think his tactical decisions despite being the less experienced of the two.