El Clásico #1
La Liga: 2010
Real Madrid vs Barcelona
In July of 2000, Luis Figo was bought by Real Madrid through a buy-out clause that the player had in his Barcelona contract. Figo accepted, left Barca, and went to Madrid. For that, Barca fans threw a severed pig’s head at him.
That's what El Clasico means to these people. If you switch sides, prepare for biblical wrath.
Barcelona versus Real Madrid is a rivalry with gnarled roots. Madrid, an imperial crown in their logo, their headquarters in the capital, is seen as the team of the national government. The establishment. Barcelona represents the Catalonians, a people who have long been desperate to make their region autonomous from national rule. This game is a clash of identities.
Its subtext is beyond sports.
It's an even clash too. These teams have faced each other 260 times. Madrid have won 91 games. Barcelona 88.
From 2004 to 2010, Barcelona dominated the rivalry. They won La Liga four out of six times, while Madrid had to deal with being second best. An unacceptable position for the club of kings. In those years, Madrid fired 10 coaches. The last one being Manuel Pellegrini, who had good numbers, but he didn’t win the league, he didn’t win any cups. He didn't last a year.
In comes Jose Mourinho. In 2010, he is brought to Madrid because he delivers championships. In Portugal, he won at Porto. In England, it was Chelsea. In Italy, Internazionale.
Look at his winning percentage coming into 2010. In 451 games, Mourinho has won 66% of them. Other top coaches win in the fifty percent range. That’s guys like Roberto Mancini. Arsene Wenger. Even Sir Alex.
Louis Van Gaal is at 61%.
Jose is 66 *.
In 2010, who has a better percentage than Mourinho?
In a slim sample size, only about 200 games, Pep has a winning percentage of 72%. That’s domination. That's a better percetange than Jose had after about 200 games. But keep in mind who Pep's team was. Barcelona. That’s Messi’s, Xavi’s, Iniesta’s. A coach and his players are so entangled in the production of their play that it’s impossible to statistically tear them apart. Can we seprate Tom Brady from Bill Belichick? Michael Jordan from Phil Jackson? Nobody can tell if star players make coaches look like geniuses, or if coaches make stars shine.
More importantly, the Mourinho vs. Pep rivalry, which budded when Mourinho was back at Inter, now had a field to play on several times a season, and it had an amazing context to play out in — Spain's best rivalry. These were games where the world's two greatest — Messi and Ronaldo — faced each other. Where 22 world-class players would line up and go. Where two of the game’s smartest, mouthiest coaches would stand on the sideline, dripping attitude, pulling their squad’s strings.
What makes this story even more special, what makes it different than any other great Barca versus Madrid saga, is that during the Pep/Mourinho era the teams played each other 11 times. That’s 11 times in less than a year and a half. The rivalry could not rely on scarcity to up the amps. The teams had to get the juice up 11 times to make the game fit the bill.
The world was forced to gorge on El Clasico, and gorge on it we happily did.
Only in baseball, where rivalries like Red Sox/Yankees play out 17 times a season, do we see this type of frequency. But the worst you see at a Red Sox/Yankees game is a chant with a mild swear in it. A few brawls are sprinkled throughout the rivalry's history, but it's all pretty Puritanical. Nobody is throwing dead animals onto the field.
The first game of Madrid/Barcelona in the Pep/Mourinho era is on November 29th, 2010. It's a league game. Madrid are unbeaten and top of the table going in. Barcelona are a point behind. Madrid has players who have never played in an El Clasico. How will they respond? The players on both sides know this is the first game of many, so the question is, do you pace yourself? Do you lay low, give up nothing early? Or do you go the opposite route? Come out firing. Come out totally tuned in. Attack immediately. Target the best guy on the other team and give him a whack. Set the tone. If he gets up complaining, be like, what? This is El Clasico. This is how it is.
The 1st minute, 0-0: Cristiano Ronaldo gets bashed across the shins. He goes to the ground like a broken ballerina. The Barcelona players aren’t impressed. While he’s sitting there, they punt the ball at him. Pique did it. He hit him from about twenty yards away.
Ronaldo gives his pouty look. He fixes his clothes, touches his hair. He passes by the Barcelona players, and is looking for the guy who kicked him. They all wear a scowl. In unison, all of Barcelona's eyes flick onto Ronaldo then flick away.
Pep has them wired. Whatever it is they do here in Barcelona, this tiki-taka, this more than a club mantra, it's working on these guys. This team is here to rip this game up. They just played the first minute like they were losing in the last. They’re defending like they've gone crazy on it. They're in this siv-like formation. It’s a triangle, but one that’s a trap. It funnels you in, then collapses, and you’re in it with the ball and guys like Messi come and chase you.
Ronaldo sees all that. He sees the attitude.
He pulls his eyes off the Barca players, turns his walk to a trot.
The 3rd minute, 0-0: This is when we get a clear look at Barcelona’s most successful attacking formation. Let's call it, Hand Closing. Make your left hand into an L-shape, then bring your thumb and your pointer finger together. That's the movement.
Here are the usual players: David Villa is the widest. His heels are on the touchline. Iniesta, who is at an angle back towards the ball, is about 10 yards away from DV. Pedro, Xavi, and Messi round out the group and interchange positions as the situation flows, but at all times, there is somebody playing the link from Iniesta to the heart of the team, there's somebody making a run forward, and there's a guy crossing in front of the man with the ball.
This move starts with the formation of the three-man arm, which reaches, at a 45 degree angle, from the center of the midfield to the touchline (they make up your pointer finger). It brings the ball foward at an angle toward the goal. The other two players (your thumb), make the runs ahead of the ball. Everyone is converging on one spot, right atop the box. This squeezes the space in which the game is played — just for a moment — around, say, a fifteen by fifteen (yard) rectangle, and about eight players.
Now it's three versus five, three versus four, and the game has shrunk into a small pinch of the field. That's Hand Closed. At soccer's top level, three versus five in an area this size is very win-able.
These guys attack that fast.
They are that skilled.
That's how Barcelona score their first goal:
Barca show that sport is art, but in its more brutish form.
On the other side, Madrid are not playing well. The players look caught up in the wonder of El Clasico. The crowd is more pissed than normal. The screaming drunks have less teeth. The Barca players zip around the field. Madrid can't link any passes. They'll get a few, but then squirt the ball away; out of bounds or a Barca player clips it.
Madrid are on the brink of going under.
Mourinho calls all his men back.
Everyone gets behind the ball. All 11 players.
They are under siege and will have to defend.
1-0 after 10 minutes they can survive, but more than that?
At Camp Nou?
The 18th minute, 1-0 Barcelona: Barca's attack is unrelenting. It comes in waves of these five-men hunting groups, the Hand Closing movement, and these players involved are all guys who throw blades, guys who can rip and penetrate. Already, Messi has breached the whole defense. He got to the endline with the ball, turned it towards the goal, even beat a few players down there.
Look at how Mardid defends this. They have Karim Benzema, their striker, first on the ball. Watch him chase Xavi. It's cute. One time, he gets turned around in a whirling circle that spins him out. Xavi looks like a dad running away from his son.
Then the inevitable happens.
Pedro scores a tap in goal and Barca have their second.
Madrid is sunk.
They might as well be cones.
This version of El Clasico is not breathtaking for its suspense or tension. It's beautiful for Barcelona's complete decimation of a team that is pretty damn good.
Down 2-0, out-thought, out-willed, out-skilled. Mourinho stands on the edge of the sideline, quiet and thinking.
His team has never looked up for this. It’s like there’s something eerie about playing in a game this big and they weren't ready for it. They're still taking it in.
The Barca players celebrate their second goal by piling ontop of each other, beside Madrid's net.
Are they enjoying themselves a little too much?
Are they celebrating excessively for the 18th minute?
Some from the capital might see it that way.
The game restarts.
Madrid are just as lethargic, just as off.
They need a spark.
Then this happens:
Even Pep is screwing with them.
He gets bush-league cute with Ronaldo, and Ronaldo, rightly, gives him a shove for it.
Look how Pep covers his face with his hand after.
Is he embarrassed?
Is he cowering?
Is he laughing?
Great men still do human things.
Iniesta saw Ronaldo push Pep and that gets him going. Soon all the Barcelona players run to their coach’s defense. Madrid runs to the defense of Ronaldo, their star. The game’s first dust-up starts.
How will Madrid react once play starts again?
Here's a spark. Here's a chance for them to get mad, to energize, to put some passes together, to enter this fight.
And they can't do it.
They don't do it.
They just get whooped.
Game 1 of Barca/Madrid in the Pep/Mourinho era is a complete whooping.
Any energy given to Madrid by The Fight That Pep Started is converted into the accumulation of fouls. Madrid finishes the game with eight yellow cards and one red. The game had more fights than Madrid shots on goal.
And keep in mind, this is a game between players who, most of which, just a few months back were together on the same team winning Spain the 2010 World Cup. That achievement carries little weight on this night.
For the rest of the game, Barcelona plays some of the prettiest soccer you can see. Go watch this game if you want to see the tiki-taka system aggressively attack, not just possess, but watch it go rack up goals.
The 91st minute, 4-0 Barcelona: Bojan to Jefferen and it's 5-0. Even the substitutes are drawing the king's blood. After this final goal, Barcelona celebrates as an entire team. The 11 on the field jump onto the bench players, onto the coaching staff. It's a big group of guys slapping each other, jumping around, and laughing. Pique is holding up all five fingers, looking around like he’s so happy, so innocently amazed that his team could score five goals, could be doing so well.
They’re rubbing it in.
Sergio Ramos, Madrid defender, El Clasico veteran, watches.
He stands amongst his battered men.
The 93rd minute, 5-0 Barcelona: Messi hasn’t quit. He’s getting the ball and still running at guys. He hasn’t scored yet. He's only set up two. And five isn't enough. He wants six.
How about a whack? He want that?
Sergio Ramos gives him one on the ankle. It would have cut wood.
Both benches clear.
I guarantee everyone on that field knows Ramos did that on purpose, and, I bet he doesn't care. Barcelona was trying to make Madrid look bad.
That gets you whacked.
And Ramos' teammates needed something to see. They needed to see someone stand up to this Barca side. Someone from the monarch needed to come over and give these people, these citizens, a slap across the head.
Barca got Ronaldo in the first minute.
Madrid gets Messi in the last.
The referee, a pudgy man who has looked bothered and nervous the entire game, stands in the middle of the players, as they bicker, jaw, and point. The referee is holding his red card up, wielding it at anybody who advances.
Messi stays on the ground the whole time. Sitting there, watching the melee.
He doesn’t look surprised.
It’s not his first El Clasico.
* Mourinho’s percentage is higher, but there is a correlation between the amount of games a player coaches and the percent he wins. Sir Alex coached 2,131 games. Wenger is near 1,500. Louis Van Gaal and Mourinho are well below that. See The Law of Averages.