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El Clásico Tactical Preview: Injury-hit Barcelona could be in for a tough day against Real Madrid

Spain’s biggest rivalry will take centre stage in the football world this weekend as Barcelona take on Real Madrid, with the two sides level on 22 points at the top of the table after eight league games.

The two sides have only dropped points once up to this point in the season, but that figure is set to double for at least one of them on Sunday.

Since the La Liga table is not separating the teams, it might be worth taking a closer look at some statistics to see who may have the upper hand.

Things look good for Barcelona here, as they have scored the most goals in the league this season (20) and have only conceded once.

By contrast, Madrid found the back of the net on one less occasion, but the more significant difference is at the other end, where they kept just one clean sheet.

Funnily enough, the underlying xG numbers give us the opposite reading. The two sides’ xGA is a very similar tally, but it is Barcelona’s attack that is a class above the rest of the league.

Unfortunately for the Catalan club, the stats do not paint the full picture of their current situation. They endured a disappointing draw against Inter Milan in midweek which has left their chances of progressing to the Champions League knockout stage in serious jeopardy, but there is some justification for that.

Their defensive department is ravaged by injuries as Ronald Araújo, Jules Koundé, Andreas Christensen and Héctor Bellerín are all out, leaving them thin in the centre-back and right-back positions.

Madrid also have one major concern as first-choice goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois has a back issue, but they have all of their outfield starters available.

Looking at some stylistic statistics, it is clear that Madrid and Barcelona have played a slow and possession-dominant style of football in the league this season, although that is as much a case of their opposition forcing them to do so as it is their choice.

(Image credit: The Analyst)

Knowing what we do about Carlo Ancelotti’s approach to big games, it would not be surprising if the home side look happy to cede possession and pose their attacking threat in transition in this fixture.

That could be a tactically advantageous approach because Barcelona’s injury-hit defence has looked quite vulnerable in such situations.

Defending against transitions requires the individuals at the back to be solid one-against-one and also quick, but the likes of Eric García, Gerard Piqué and Sergio Busquets do not completely tick those boxes. This was evident in the second goal they conceded in their most recent match against Inter.

The right-back slot will likely be occupied by Sergi Roberto, who is also not the best one-on-one defender out there, so Vinícius Júnior could have an absolute field day against him.

The Brazilian international has the second-highest npxG+xA tally in La Liga this season and has also attempted and completed the most take-ons by some margin, so he will unquestionably be a key player in this game.

His incredible progressive carrying ability could also prove crucial in getting Madrid forward in transition.

Vinícius Júnior’s progressive carries in the 2022/23 La Liga season.

We can confidently say that Los Blancos will line up in a 4-3-3 formation, but predicting Barcelona’s shape is a slightly tougher task. On paper, it will be a 4-3-3 as well, but the real question is what they will look like in possession.

In the first match against Inter, Xavi used a 3-2-4-1 system that resembled something he had used at Al Sadd. The main downside of this system, though, was that the left winger was forced to tuck into the half-space.

This is not inherently bad, but because Barcelona’s first-choice wingers (Ousmane Dembélé and Raphinha) thrive when holding the width, this hindered their performance.

The 42-year-old tactician attempted to find a solution in the reverse fixture by shifting to a 3-1-5-1 system that allowed both wingers to stay wide, but the issue with this, as we previously explored, was that it left Barcelona vulnerable in transition.

The 3-1-5-1 could well end up being a case of playing into the opposition’s hands against Real Madrid, so we should expect to see the 3-2-4-1 again with some personnel changes or something completely new.

Either way, Barcelona’s end goal should simply be to get the ball up to their striker, who can then be relied on to take care of the rest.

He is the outright top scorer in La Liga by some margin with nine goals from a very high xG tally of 7.7, and as this shotmap proves, he is a real fox in the box and gets into great scoring positions before pulling the trigger.

His finishing will quite possibly be crucial in this match, but signs are that there is a greater chance of the match being won or lost at the other end.

Barcelona’s depleted defence will face a tough time against Vinícius and Karim Benzema, who will be sure to punish any slip-ups.

For those reasons, Madrid should be considered the favourites for this Clásico even though the xG suggests otherwise.

It is, as ever, difficult to predict how exactly the match will play out, but an intriguing and dramatic affair should be expected.

Stats courtesy Opta via FotMob and The Analyst, StatsBomb via Fbref and Vizz App.

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