By Jonathan Wilson
For a long time the accusation levelled at Cristiano Ronaldo was that he couldn’t turn it on in big games; goals are far from the only measure of performance, but having scored in each of his last five encounters against Barcelona, that jibe can surely be put away.
What is true is that Ronaldo, against the very best, can be a match-loser as much as a match-winner. He can score a brilliant goal, unlock a stubborn defence, devastate a team on the break, but he also rarely picks up his full-back and that can be critical.
The classic example of that, perhaps, was the Champions League final in 2008 when Ronaldo headed Manchester United into the lead against Chelsea. From around the half hour onwards, though, Michael Essien – playing at right-back – surged past him again and again. It was one of those charges that led to Chelsea’s equaliser and it was Essien’s presence almost as an additional midfielder that led to Chelsea dominating the second half and extra-time.
That’s why the battle between Ronaldo and Dani Alves will be critical in Sunday’s Clasico. If Dani Alves keeps charging past Ronaldo, then the chances are that Barcelona will prevail; if Ronaldo has opportunities to take the Brazilian on one-on-one then it should be Real Madrid’s game. Yet the strange thing is that when the sides last met in the league, the two rarely came head-to-head.
In Real Madrid’s 2-1 win at Camp Nou last April, the match that effectively confirmed Madrid as champions, Barcelona played a 3-4-3 with Dani Alves high up on the right. That was problematic for two reasons. First of all, Dani Alves is a superb attacking full-back but not a great winger: he is at his best when he meets an opponent when he is already moving at pace; he lacks the close technical skill to receive the ball with his back to goal or to beat a top-class defender in a confined area. And secondly, by moving Dani Alves so high up the pitch, Pep Guardiola took him away from Ronaldo.
From one point of view Guardiola achieved his objective: his side dominated possession 72%-28% but the problem was they did very little with it, creating only three chances because they lacked penetration.
Marcelo Bielsa, the Argentine coach who has become the intellectual godfather of the high-pressing, possession-based game favoured by Barcelona, speaks always of “verticalidad”; in other words it’s no use just holding the ball and moving it sideways; there must also be a vertical dimension to penetrate the opposing rearguard. Dani Alves, making his runs from deep, at pace, provides that; Dani Alves starting high up the pitch, does not.
Starting Dani Alves deep against Ronaldo makes sense. He can stay back if he needs to, when Real Madrid dominate the ball. It’s extremely unlikely they will do that for any protracted period: Barca had 67% of the play in the home leg of the Super Cup in August and even playing with 10 men for the last hour of the second leg they had 54% possession. And when Barca have the ball, he can go forward, knowing his pace is such that in the majority of cases, he will be able to get back.
When they were at their best, one of the most extraordinary things about Guardiola’s Barcelona was that opposing coaches kept attacking the space behind Dani Alves, only to discover that it didn’t exist. That is only in part a matter of the Brazilian’s pace and stamina, of course; it’s also down to careful defensive organisation – which is why the full-back is so much more effective for his club side than for Brazil.
Sergio Busquets will drop back between the centre-backs, allowing the right-sided centre-back to shuffle across to cover and at least hold Ronaldo up until Dani Alves gets back. Gerard Pique has proved himself highly adept at that and his loss of form towards the end of last season was one of the reasons for Barca’s slump. Pique is likely to miss out with a sprained foot and Carles Puyol has a dislocated elbow, which will place great pressure on Alex Song to fulfil that role.
Football, of course, is a holistic game; stopping Ronaldo alone is not enough. Part of his effectiveness stems from his relationship with Marcelo, overlapping from full-back, and it will be down to whoever plays on the right side of Barcelona’s attack – probably Alexis Sanchez – to try to occupy him. As Manchester City discovered, giving him licence to get forward merely invites pressure. If Madrid do start to dominate on that flank, Xavi, of course, can move wider to help out but that reduces his effectiveness as a hub of possession.
Tito Vilanova has been noticeably more conservative than Guardiola in terms of formation: Sunday will probably be Barca’s 4-3-3 against the 4-2-3-1 of Real Madrid, and that means another battle between Dani Alves and Ronaldo.