Well, it certainly isn’t business as usual in Spain. Last year, between them Barcelona and Real Madrid amassed a “****ing barbaric” total of points (according to Barca coach Pep Guardiola) – 62 wins from 76 games between them, and their nearest rivals (Valencia) 25 points behind.

This year, with five games played, Barca have already been beaten at home by lowly (but heroic) Hercules, and Madrid have been held to nil-nil draws by Mallorca and the most unlikely of resistors, Levante. Valencia, meanwhile, have streaked ahead with four wins and a draw; Unai Emery’s men have played fast, organised attacking football, scoring goals at will and piercing defences with a combination of tactics and speed. You’d hardly be able to tell that they lost their two’ best’ players in the summer break: David Villa to Barcelona, and David Silva to Man City. Then again, Valencia’s success should not surprise many. With Ever Banega marshalling the midfield (currently injured, though), and the finishing and skill of Juan Mata and Joaquin (who is now finally delivering on the promise he showed at Real Betis all those years ago), not to mention Pablo Hernadez and Aduriz’s  renewed form, Valencia have been firing in all the major areas. The question, of course, is whether they can keep it up for 38 games..

Mourinho, meanwhile, is still settling in at Real Madrid. Tinkering with the system, firing volleys at all and sundry, and just generally being Mourinho, he’s so far failed to get the team to mesh well together. His system against Auxerre (in the Champions League mid-week) was, frankly, bizarre, with both Xabi Alonso and Lassana Diarra on the pitch, but with Diarra pushed up along with Khedira (who looked like he was, to put not too fine a point on it, just a bit lost. As if he’d just nipped out to grab a sandwich, and suddenly found himself on a football pitch in central France). Ozil, though, has been a revelation, slotting into a attacking midfield playmaker role, just behind the strikers, feeding whichever of Higuain, Benzema or Ronaldo happens to be in a free position. Ozil is not quite Xavi; he is more of a young Kaka – controlling the play in the area 20-yards from goal, delivering defence-piercing passes and making himself available. Ronaldo, though, has been shooting as if he’s got spot-bets going on the side. Last year, he, together with Higuain, saved Real from difficult situations by showing pieces of extravagant individual skill. This year, under Mourinho, the Real project is to build a side that works: one that wins by judgment, not luck. Ronaldo and Benzema in particular need to realise this, and find their place.

Barcelona have looked . . . well, like Barcelona, to be honest. Beautiful. Sublime. But now, unlike two years ago, also fallible. No better illustration of this than Hercules’ trip to the Camp Nou, where they came away with a, it must be said, deserved 2-0 win over the champions. Hercules played the Inter (and Chelsea) strategy of defeating the formidable Barca 4-3-3-high pressing-possession-attackingfullbacks-game: narrow the pitch by concentrating defenders and defensive midfielders in the middle of the park, giving Barca the wings and possession, and attacking on the counter when Barca have overcommitted and lose possession through a mistake (also capitalising on diagonal balls into the box . . Barca has, for some reason, never been good at dealing with those).
Against Atletico, who are traditionally a bit of a bogey-team for Barca, though, Guardiola managed to pull of a tactical masterpiece. And it’s all down to Sergio Busquets, who has proved that he is not quite as useless as I had initially thought. Busquets now plays the Yaya Toure role, but instead of the previous system, where the defensive midfielder would only slot back when defending, he now plays as part of almost a 3-CB system, with Puyol going left and Pique going right . . . allowing the full backs (Maxwell and Alves) to work more as wingbacks. This creates almost a 3-4-1-2 system, with Messi and Villa as roaming strikers and Pedro playing off them on the right. For a much better, full description of this set-up, read this excellent post by Zonal Marking. [In related news, I recently tweeted Jonathan Wilson asking why more European teams don’t play this 3-4-1-2 system. To my utter astonishment and joy, he responded: because it doesn’t make sense to have three at the back against single striker formations. Against Atletico, though, Barca’s modified 4-3-3/3-4-3 seemed to work, even when they didn’t have the ball – the key to this is in Busquet’s versatility and in Xavi and Iniesta being able to marshal the midfield on their own, without needing a third ‘pivot’ point. It also allows you to defend in ‘bands’, much like Mexico at this World Cup] Read the rest on Zonal Marking, who has summed up my thoughts far better than I could hope to.

So what happens through the rest of the season? Expect Mourinho to figure out a formula that works for Madrid fairly quickly. Barca need to address their traditional weaknesses, though, of not dealing with cross-balls into the box at head height, and not having much of a plan B. Againt Kazan midweek (in the Champions League), you could seem them settling into familiar passing patterns, but with a packed central defence, sometimes the option of going for the habitual pass to the open wide fullback was the wrong option . . . Barca, after all, now have no tall Ibrahimovic to cross the ball to, when other gaps fail to materialise.

Sergio Busquets, pictured celebrating the fact that The Offside Trap
no longer thinks he is utterly useless.

– el kapitan

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