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LaLiga: Barcelona's long-term philosophy of possession-based football gives them edge over transitional Real Madrid side

Thibaut Courtois stood with his hands on his hips. He rolled his eyes at his own impotence and that of the white-shirted players in front of him. His defenders had failed to track Ivan Rakitic, dragged out of place by a simple Barcelona one-two. Moments earlier, Toni Kroos had spilled possession in midfield. In a flash, Barcelona traversed 60 metres, and in a flash, they beat the lanky goalkeeper.

 LaLiga: Barcelonas long-term philosophy of possession-based football gives them edge over transitional Real Madrid side

FC Barcelona celebrate their third victory of the season over bitter rivals Real Madrid. Reuters

The Belgian had lots to ponder: not just the speed at which Madrid had surrendered, but why had his rearguard been so easily tricked by the Croatian? Why had Madrid no response to Barcelona’s lightening-quick vertiginousness? It is of course what Barcelona have been doing for seasons and decades, ever since the introduction of Cruyffian football. They move the ball to confuse the other team. They pull opponents out of position. At times, it looks childishly simple, the way they dissect defences.

It allowed Rakitic, who had run away from the chasing Sergio Ramos, to almost goad Courtois with his finish, the neatest of dinks, the grace of which seemed to ease Madrid’s suffering. There was a beauty and sweetness to the ball’s curve that even Madridistas would have found hard to dismiss or deny.

Rakitic’s strike was a microcosm of the game, not for its aesthetic merit, but for its metalanguage: Valverde’s team play in the tradition and style of Barcelona, with a 4-3-3 formation, with passing, with interchange, and with flair. Even if this is not a vintage Barcelona, they always seek a perfect balance between possession, positioning and passing.

That brand of football has long been underwritten by Barcelona. Madrid’s blueprint for success is very different: in the modern age it’s based on Florentino Perez’s obsession with stars. That cult, embodied in past seasons by the sculpted and manicured super athlete Cristiano Ronaldo, translates into a loose collection of individualists who rely on their isolated talents to win and decide matches.

That observation is scarcely new, but it becomes an ever-more important one in the context of a transitional season. Barcelona have not been perfect this season and they no longer play with the guile of previous seasons. The Catalan defence has often been suspect as well. Their approach has been more economic, weaving less in the final third, counting on bursts of speed and accelerations in the game. On Saturday, Barcelona were dominant, but not in full control as their midfield failed to pull the strings, leaving a lot of space and allowing Madrid time on the ball.

At Madrid, the personnel remains impressive as ever. In defence, they have arguably improved with Sergio Reguilón, who relegated Marcelo to the bench, and in the final third Vinicius Júnior is a refreshing injection of pace, but there is little to camouflage the effect that the departures of Champions League-conquering coach Zinedine Zidane and top-scoring talisman Ronaldo have had on Los Blancos. For once, Perez didn’t reinforce in the summer and that gamble is backfiring: the current generation is ageing and fading, quickly.

Madrid’s philosophy complicates a transitional season: they have nothing to fall back in — no overarching way of playing, no real club DNA. It goes beyond a failure to finish, which was the simplified analysis of Madrid’s Copa Del Rey elimination on Wednesday. The vacuum at Madrid creates unease and unrest, and disorder on the field. It’s telling that the club has turned to a teenager to stabilise the season.

On Saturday, Vinicius was bustling with energy and pace once more, but the Brazilian teenager’s Jr. tag is still very much justified. Even Neymar can’t seem to shed it, because of his petulance and perceived immaturity. For Vinicius, it’s a case of developing and fine-tuning his game. His final pass, finishing and clairvoyance have often been flawed.

He zoomed forward on the right, but at times Real Madrid coach Santiago Solari dragged the winger to the middle, letting the 18-year old float in between the lines. It didn’t work and resulted in Vinicius’ least convincing 45 minutes in the Madrid shirt to date.

After the interval, the Brazilian had two chances, but lacked precision and a finishing touch. In the stands, the Madrid fans still applauded him. Perhaps, they see in the young, raw winger shades of Ronaldo. Vinicius’ natural gift is not in doubt, but his talent can’t conceal Madrid’s hard truth: trailing league leaders Barcelona by twelve points they may well end up without silverware come May and so it is imperative that Perez turns to what he knows best: spend and renovate the team.

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Updated Date: Mar 03, 2019 15:34:01 IST

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