For as world-stoppingly important as it feels every time Real Madrid and Barcelona take the pitch against one another, we've actually become a bit inured to them over the years. If it seems like there are about eight El Clásicos every season nowadays, it's because there pretty much are: in the past four years, the two Spanish clubs have duked it out on average 4.5 times annually between La Liga, the Copa del Rey, the Spanish Supercopa, and the Champions League. It's maybe devalued soccer's premier rivalry match a little. But today is different. Today, we finally get to see Luis Suárez: Barcelona player.
That Suárez—newly reinstated after a four-month suspension on a count of cannibalism—is the headline story going into today's match at the Santiago Bernabéu might strike you as a little odd. After all, if this hasn't been the best season so far for both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, it's at least been their most transformative. As Ronaldo has drifted closer and closer to the goal, now playing pretty regularly as an out-and-out striker, Messi has moved outward, focusing more on creating goals from deeper and wider rather than on scoring them himself.
But then you remember, oh yeah, Luis Suárez is a one-man bulldozer whose vicious dribbles mangle opposing defenses before he knocks down the goal posts with a ball he kicks so hard you wonder how all the bones in his right foot haven't snapped into little pieces. I mean, the guy can do this!
So not only will that be taking guy be taking the field for the first time in forever, he'll be joining a squad that, bar one bad performance against a PSG team that for once decided to play the way they're capable, has looked like the best team in the world, save maybe Bayern Munich. And to add destruction to indomitability, Suárez will line up next to Messi and Neymar, two more agents of chaos and annihilation unto themselves. What was already an incredibly impressive team might just have gotten its second best player.
Of course, the boys in Madrid have no shortage of firepower of their own. Adding Toni Kroos, James Rodríguez, and Javier Hernández while losing Ángel Di María and Xabi Alonso was destined to result in both boatloads of goals and a tough transition period. As we've noted earlier this season, a central midfield of James, Kroos, and Luka Modrić had obvious defensive shortcomings that the players and manager would have to address. They've done so, and after losing two of their first three matches while conceding six times, Real have won every game since while only giving up two goals in all competitions.
Part of Real's improved defensive performances is undoubtedly attributable the aforementioned three central players—each of them natural attacking mids—getting more comfortable with the idea that the penetrative forward runs of their earlier days need to be spelled with more cautious positioning and awareness of where his fellow players are. But it's also down to the fundamental restructuring of how Real Madrid play.
Last season, first-year manager Carlo Ancelotti more or less kept the quick countering style his predecessor, José Mourinho, built the team for. Out was playmaker Mesut Özil, and in was Gareth Bale, which gave them unparalleled speed and dribbling ability. The defenders defended, Alonso sat deep to halt attacking moves and start counters with his sniper-like passing, Di María provided the runs through the heart of the defense to drag the opposition out of shape, while Ronaldo and Bale feasted on back-shoulder runs between the full backs and center backs en route to goal. If the counter didn't come off, the Merengues could slow things down and use Modrić's passing and close-quarters dribbling to pry open a packed defense more deliberately. (Side note: It's interesting how Madrid don't really seem to face the same parked buses as Barcelona. Y'all know that works against counterattacking teams, too, right? Just look at Atlético Madrid.)
But without Di María's charging runs or Alonso's defensive ability, Real were no longer equipped to dominate on the counter. Instead, they've transitioned to a more possession-based 4-3-3 system to capitalize on the match-control of Modrić and especially Kroos. Plus, it better facilitates James's style of attacking. The Colombian is most comfortable needling his way between and through the midfield and defensive lines where he can pick a pass for a forward to finish or take a shot himself. Sprinting at defenders in space and twisting past them—the primary skill set of Di María—is not James's specialty. This year, Real average the second most possession and pass accuracy in the league behind Barça, both stats increases from the Mourinho days.
The other tactical switch, and one that will be especially important on Saturday, is playing Ronaldo more centrally. The process of turning the super-winger into a super-striker started last season. The team would nominally line up in a 4-3-3 when out of possession to clog the midfield. Then, when they won the ball back, Di María tended to run from his center-left position to a place wider left, often to find space to dribble and cross. Corresponding with these runs would be Ronaldo drifting from the left wing to the penalty box, making it easier to do what he does best—score. This 4-3-3-turned-4-4-2 was extremely effective, though it demanded much from that left-sided midfielder, and Di María might be the only player in the world able to make it work.
Trading the Argentine attacker for the Colombian wasn't a straight swap. Instead, a full-strength Real responded by allowing James to drift wide and a little further up the pitch than his fellow midfielders, while Ronaldo started from the left-center channel instead of the left wing. This way there is still width on that side of the pitch by either James or Ronaldo coming further toward the touchline, but it doesn't rely on Di María's diagonal running from inside to out.
Unfortunately, Madrid will not be at full strength this weekend. Bale has missed the last couple matches with injury and it doesn't look like he'll be in the squad.
Instead, Isco will take his spot in the starting lineup. When Isco plays with James, Ancelotti favors setting up in a 4-4-2 with Isco and James on the wings, Ronaldo and Benzema through the middle. This spreads the defensive burden to all four Madrid midfielders as opposed to putting most of it on Kroos. It also gives Ronaldo a target man to run off of in search of through balls he can boot into the net.
And booting balls into the net is exactly what he's been doing this season. Ronaldo has scored a mind-bending 15 goals in his seven league appearances. 15! In seven matches! That's more than two a game! The move centrally means his trademark 50 (okay, usually around 7) shots per game now come from more dangerous positions closer to the goal than the outside-the-box bombs he'd often unleash after dribbling in from the wing.
Now, let's not get too carried away with Ronaldo's scoring record here. Of those 15 goals, four are penalties, and penalties aren't a reflection of how good a player is at converting open play chances into goals, which is what a great goalscorer does. A number like 11 goals in seven games is still really impressive, but Ronaldo isn't doing anything that hasn't been done before.
In fact, Neymar actually has the more impressive scoring record of the two forwards. The Brazilian has eight goals in seven appearances, two of them as a sub, none of them penalties. That makes puts his non-penalties goals per 90 minutes (a stat heralded by the people at Stats Bomb) at 1.69 and Ronaldo's at 1.57. But just because Ronaldo isn't on some record-breaking pace doesn't take away that he's the most dangerous forward in front of goal in the sport today.
As mentioned above, Messi has similarly undergone an evolution of play so far this season. While Barcelona have always relied on his killer little chips and flicks to teammates that almost no other player could even foresee, let alone execute, this season he's become even more of a provider. Normally, Messi is the club's primary goal threat. He might not shoot as much as Ronaldo (not that many in the history of the sport could match Cristiano's sheer numbers of punts towards the net), but he still cracked more attempts on goal than the vast majority of strikers.
This year, however, Leo has focused more on his passing than his shooting. Messi is tied for the most assists in all of Europe's big leagues at seven in eight league games. His 3.5 chances created per game is good for second in the big five leagues. And on top of the goal's he's teed up for teammates, he's scored seven times himself. He creates more shots than practically anybody and scores more often than practically anybody, a skill set that protects his status as the most dangerous attacker in the sport.
Interestingly, Messi's more collaborative style of play this season seems like a concerted effort to better incorporate Suárez, even though the striker has yet to feature in any competitive match. Leo has always looked to drop into deeper midfield positions to pick up the ball and either dance his way through to goal or take apart a defense at the seams with his passing. This year, his desire to move where the open space is has been even more evident. Instead of his regular false 9 position, or even last season's more traditional striker role, Messi has favored playing in both the No. 10 position behind two more advanced forwards or back on the right wing where he started his career. Check out this heatmap, via Stats Bomb, of where he's picked up the ball for the past few seasons:
That deeper and more rightward positioning reflects Messi's desire to provide more passes for his now more central forward partners than has been the case in the recent past. This has come despite the man to his right usually being either Pedro, a traditional touchline winger, or one of Barcelona's young boys Munir El Haddadi or Sandro Ramírez, two very promising though still young (they're both teenagers) strikers. Neymar has already proven his goal scoring credentials, but Messi has yet to play with that third sharpshooter the team has been waiting to throw out there. Suárez may not have suited up in a match to date, but the team has already prepared for his addition on the pitch stylistically.
In summation, both Real Madrid and Barcelona are stupidly good going forward. When healthy—it really sucks that Real are missing Bale—both sides can make legitimate claims to having the best forward line of all time. Their main attacking protagonists apparently are only getting better, and are seamlessly adjusting to shifts in how their respective teams are built around them. Neymar is exactly what we all thought and hoped he'd become, James is starting to justify his humongous price tag, and both midfields feature some of the most deadly passers you'll see.
Defensively, Real have shown some cracks but look to have achieved more balance since their shaky start. Barcelona have yet to allow a single league goal, though the PSG beatdown indicates that maybe they aren't as locked up back there as their record would have you believe. Either way, there's no chance this ends a scoreless draw. Messi lives to play in that area just in front of the defense that Kroos and Modrić sometimes forget to protect, which has to result in at least one goal. And Ronaldo cannot be kept away from the scoresheet even if you tried to chain him to his own goal post. There will be goals.
So who has the advantage? Neither team is a clear-cut favorite. Barcelona have looked the better side so far this season, but Real have played a lot better of late. Predictions are pretty pointless in a matchup this closely contested, and that's not the point anyway. Regardless of who we think will win, we're certain to see a top-class spectacle befitting of the world's best players in the world's best rivalry. No matter what happens, it will be a blast to watch.
Photo via Getty