Article by Yinka Aboaba http://twitter.com/#!/yinkaaboaba90
Though this has been a season of vast improvement for Real Madrid since the appointment of Jose Mourinho at the helm which included a Copa Del Rey win against Barcelona; they have had the formidable task of trying to break Barcelona’s monopoly not just in La Liga but also in the Champions League. This has included three consecutive La Liga titles and two Champions League wins in three years, including the unique ‘treble’ in 2009 since at appointment of Pep Guardiola at the helm in 2008.
Barcelona’s recent success can be linked to the new philosophy that they have adopted since Guardiola’s appointment. Being a Catalan born and bred, he has tinkered with the formation slightly and placed a greater emphasis on their possession one touch passing. During Guardiola’s first season he had Samuel Eto’o as his main forward and the following season he purchased Zlatan Ibrahimovic for a mammoth €50 million plus the former. However, it was clear to see that the Swede didn’t fit into Barcelona’s tactics. He was not a team player which was totally against Pepe Guardiola’s philosophy. This brought a change to Barcelona’s formation. Whilst it still was the 4-3-3 shape, Pepe shifted Lionel Messi, their most gifted player to a withdrawn forward role whilst keeping the two wingers. This tactical change has proved to be a masterstroke since it has allowed Messi to player in between the opposition’s midfield and defence and to link with Xavi and Iniesta who are arguably the next best players in the world after Messi. With all three players being extremely technically gifted and able to keep possession fairly easily it has caused pundits to say that the trio form a formidable ‘triangle’ in which their dominance has been highlighted in which they have been able to combine to devastating effect.
So what has Jose Mourinho done to challenge Barcelona? The appointed initially caused a stir amongst the supporters since they believed that their team would be unable to play attractive winning football with Mourinho at the helm. To ease the pressure from himself, he pointed out that this Real Madrid team is younger and currently inferior to the present Barcelona team. Unlike his previous teams that he managed, Jose decided to adopt an attacking 4-2-3-1 formation which involved a solid back four, two holding midfielders as well as a playmaker behind the lone striker and two wingers which involved giving Cristiano Ronaldo a free role from out wide. With both sides having a strong start to the league season, the first main test for Jose Mourinho was the ‘el clasico’ at the Nou Camp in the end of November. Many pundits argued that Real Madrid would be unable to play their normal expansive 4-2-3-1 formation against Barcelona but the manager was under pressure from both the fans and the board to not play his typical defensive and tactical approach against the big sides. Ignoring this advice and highlighting the massive gulf between the two sides at the time, Barcelona arguably produced one their best performances in recent history to thrash Real Madrid 5-0. In spite of the promising start made by Real Madrid in the league this season, this result put Mourinho under serious pressure.
However, Real Madrid were able to recover from this setback. In finally breaking their awful recent Champions League record to make it past the 2nd round since 2004; to determine their trophy count for the season they faced Barcelona four times in 18 days in the league, cup and champions league. This period would prove to be a good barometer to determine how far they had come since their 5-0 humbling in November. Jose Mourinho decided to adopt a different approach. He sacrificed one of his creative players Ozil or Di Maria and replaced them with an extra defensive midfielder so that they could try and deal with the talented Barcelona trio of Messi, Iniesta and Xavi. This resulted in a vast improvement. A 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu in the league was encouraging whilst a last gasp 1-0 Cup win showed that Real Madrid could certainly mix it with Barcelona; although as expected, they sacrificed their attacking approach to gifting Barcelona a lot of possession. In the league match, during the first half, Barcelona had 76% of the possession and their goalkeeper made more passes than Real Madrid’s playmaker Xabi Alonso during that half! The Spanish Cup win, showed that during a one-off match with a bit of luck, this Barcelona side is beatable. However, the Champions League defeat showed that over two leagues this Barcelona side are one of the most difficult sides to play against.
Despite, the disappointing semi-final defeat to Barcelona, this has been a season of promise to Real Madrid. Beating Barcelona in the final of the Spanish Cup was their first domestic cup trophy in 18 years and their first trophy for three years. This win help appease some of the anxiety amongst their fans that Real Madrid could challenge and were able to beat Barcelona for the first time since Pepe Guardiola’s tenure.
During this season, since his appointment, Jose Mourinho has not been happy with his relationship to the board. He felt that his authority was being constantly undermined and that he did not sufficient power to conduct his work which was highlighted by the influence that the board had on his summer signings and even on some of his team selections. However, at the end of the season something changed which showed that Real Madrid had changed their overall strategy and they had given Mourinho their full backing. The departure of Jorge Valdano, pretty much meant that the manager was put under his full devices in all of his work and that he had their complete trust. This is essential if Real Madrid are going to final topple Barcelona from their perch. About the Barcelona team, it is important to note that it is fairly ageing with a lack of young players who are capable of stepping into the first team (one possible exception is the midfield general Thiago). Their main playmaker Xavi has had a few injury problems this season and Puyol is not getting on. One would expect a few more seasons at the highest level as a maximum for both players at this current rate. They need more depth to cover from potential injuries during the season which they were fairly fortunate not to suffer.
Their limited transfer budget (€40 million for this summer) means that they are struggling to significantly strength their squad allowing Real Madrid to close the gap which currently occupies the two sides. Whilst I believe that this Barcelona side is a full level above Real Madrid, I believe that if they do not strengthen their squad sufficiently then Real Madrid will be able to break their domination. Over the last few seasons they have been fairly fortunate with injuries and I believe that unless they have a squad of 20 quality players who they regularly rotate, then they will be unable to dominate over the next few seasons. Real Madrid have closed the gap each season over the last few years and I can see this trend continuing with this young vibrant Real Madrid team.