Welcome to Wednesday’s edition of the Golazo Starting XI newsletter
No midweek Champions League action, but still lots to keep track of. I’m Mike Goodman, and Wednesday’s Golazo Starting XI will key in on one of the biggest rivalries in the world. We’ve got an El Clasico on our hands as Real Madrid and Barcelona face off on Thursday, plus, Arsenal continue their title chase on Wednesday against Everton and some early NWSL Power Rankings to digest. Let’s get to it.
📺 Top picks
All times U.S./Eastern.
🏴 Premier League: Arsenal vs. Everton, 2:45 p.m.
🏴 FA Cup: Man United vs. West Ham, 2:45 p.m.
🇪🇸 Copa del Rey: Real Madrid vs. Barcelona, 3 p.m.
⚽ The Forward Line
🔵🔴 Barca’s revamped style paying off
You won’t find a bigger rivalry than Real Madrid and Barcelona, and the two mega clubs will write another El Clasico chapter this Thursday when they meet in the first leg of the semifinals of the Copa del Rey. Between now and April 5, these two historic rivals will meet three times. This used to be viewed as a clash between styles for a good part of a generation. The Galacticos of Real Madrid, a cadre of international stars, against the homegrown talent of Barcelona from La Masia. The intricate stylings of a Barcelona side built on Pep Guardiola’s tika-taka passing style against the thundering up and down of Real Madrid. Those days are long gone.
A look at these two squads now will show that they are, in fact, incredibly similar. To some degree, this was inevitable. Golden generations such as the Barcelona of years past wouldn’t be viewed as “golden” if they came around all the time. The fact that one of them is still manning midfield for them in Sergio Busquets, and another is now managing for them in Xavi is not enough to stem the tides of time. And really, after a summer spending spree which landed Robert Lewandowski, Raphinha, Jules Kounde, Franck Kessie, Marcos Alonso and Andreas Christiansen, it’s hard not to wonder what the Catalan word for “Galactico” is.
And this change in approach is reflected on the field. Barcelona have a seven-point lead in La Liga, but really both teams have pretty similar top-line stats. Barcelona have scored 45 goals to Madrid’s 47, and conceded eight to Madrid’s 18, with their underlying expected goal (xG) stats even closer: 46.4 vs. 48.6 in attack and 18.8 vs. 20.4 in defense. It’s when you look under the hood that things get interesting.
Remarkably, these two teams across 23 matches have played an almost identical number of passes: 12,490 for Barcelona and 12,440 for Madrid. But how they’ve gone about their business is very very different. In a remarkable turnaround from the heyday of this rivalry, it is Xavi’s side that has opted to play more directly. They’ve completed significantly more long passes than Madrid, 819 to 642, and moved the ball into the box more frequently, 747 times compared to 638. But it is Madrid who hold the advantage in passes completed in the final third at 3,685 to 3,236.
It all paints a very clear picture. Barcelona want to play direct, get the ball up the field and into the box and score goals. Real Madrid are happier to keep the ball once they’re in the attacking third until they choose an opportune moment to strike. Both methods work similarly well to create goals, but it’s clear from the numbers that it’s no longer Barcelona keeping the ball and Real Madrid seeking to push the pace. Rather, both teams want to play a relatively up-and-down game, but when push comes to shove, it’s Madrid who are somewhat more willing to recirculate the ball while Barcelona want to find a shot quickly once they’re in attacking zones rather than look for better opportunities.
Despite Barcelona coming off back-to-back losses and Real Madrid off a really bad draw, these are two really good teams, and it’s sure to be an entertaining affair when they take the field. But this simply isn’t an old-school Clasico at our hands. Intricate midfield passing is out, direct wing play is in, and it’s Barcelona at the forefront of that charge.