There’s a bit in the film Heat where a truck driver, whilst being robbed, calls out “2-11! 2-11! We’re being held up!”
2-11 is the American police code for robbery. It’s also the aggregate score for the last four Clásicos at the Santiago Bernabeu in La Liga. For the first time in the history of the derby, one side – Barcelona – has won four consecutive away games.
In the last week Los Blancos were twice humiliated in their own back yard by a Barça side that never had to get above second gear across 180 minutes. The Blaugrana moved like thieves in the night, coming in strong through the front door of the Bernabeu and then walking back out that same door with two big wins. So sharp. Neil McCauley would approve.
What’s really bad for Real Madrid is that this is not a new problem. Since losing 3-1 in Madrid during Luis Suárez’s first-ever game for Barcelona, the Blaugrana have won an incredible five of six Clásicos in the Bernabeu by an unbelievable aggregate score of 14-4. Even more astounding is that four of those six games saw Claudio Bravo and Marc-André Ter Stegen pick up clean sheets.
And even more absurdly, the dominance doesn’t stop there. Since Pep Guardiola arrived in Barcelona way back at the start of 2008/09, there have been a massive 38 Clásicos. Two of those have one-off Copa del Rey finals at Valencia’s Mestalla, leaving 38 to be split between the Camp Nou and the Santiago Bernabeu, with each stadium hosting 18 games.
So, in those 18 games in Spain’s capital – of which chief Madrid antagoniser Gerard Piqué has played a quite remarkable 1,560 of a possible 1,620 minutes – Barcelona have won an utterly absurd 11 times. Madrid have held on for a draw 3 times and won on 4 occasions, but have been beaten on 61% of the time. They’ve scored 22 times but have conceded a whopping 40 goals. Forty. In their own back yard.
(For reference: Barcelona have won 8, drawn 6 and lost 4 at the Camp Nou; scoring 36 goals and conceding 26 for a goal difference of +10. And Real Madrid have won both of the Copa finals; first 0-1 after extra-time, then 1-2).
More than double the wins, almost double the goals. All in their away games. This is complete and utter dominance. Just how have Barcelona managed to dominate Real Madrid so completely?
✅ 2015-16 (0-4)
✅ 2016-17 (2-3)
✅ 2017-18 (0-3)
✅ 2018-19 (0-1)
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) March 3, 2019
The easy answer is that since Guardiola transformed the entire club, they are and have been a much better team. Real Madrid have so many world superstars but they have mostly built themselves to be a collection of fantastic individuals that can win games through the spectacular nature of their own unique talents. They just have too many match-winners to cope with.
Barcelona meanwhile, are a system team. They play a collectivist type of football. Guardiola brought back the idea put in place by Johan Cruyff and applied his own spin on it (just as Louis van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard had done before him). But Guardiola had two advantages: standing on the shoulder of the three Dutch masters and, of course, Leo Messi coming of age.
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Messi is obviously an individual but his style of play is so overwhelmingly collective that he brilliance benefits the team as much as it does his own personal achievements. It’s not just about assists either, Messi’s entire existence is to be the hub of all Barcelona attacks. He’s simultaneously their no. 8, no. 10 and no. 9. His control and authority is awesome and he is the record goalscorer in Clásico history having bagged an incredible 26 against Los Blancos.
So with Messi pulling the strings and scoring too, Barcelona had the best of both worlds: the finest player on the planet and a truly cohesive system that plays to expose Real Madrid’s greatest weaknesses: the poor positional defending of Sergio Ramos and Marcelo and the complete non-existence of a truly elite defensive midfielder besides Xabi Alonso in that decade of Blaugrana dominance at the Bernabeu.
Sami Khedira, Lass Diarra, Casemiro and even Pepe. These are just some of the options tried by various coaches at the base of the Madrid midfield and whilst they are all immense in the tackle, none of them can defend space. Xabi Alonso can, as can Luka Modric, but one man is not enough particularly when surrounded by tackle-merchants like Casemiro and dilettantes like Toni Kroos.
And the worst thing is: that space is where Barcelona do their best work. Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Ivan Rakitic, Messi as well. Playing behind the defence with their cohesive system, Madrid’s centre-backs are often overworked in Clásicos. And whilst the likes of Ramos (and Marcelo) excel at 1v1 duels, tackles, headers, etc. – they leave spaces around them to be attacked and given how easily Barça can get at them due to Madrid’s poor midfield, it’s no surprise that results often go for the away side.
Cohesive play really is the way forward. In fact when Barcelona were most enamoured with individual quality, the three years of the M-S-N forward line, they only ever won one Clásico with all three of their star forwards starting (it was at the Camp Nou). They won two out of three at the Bernabeu but in each of those wins, one of the trio was missing from the starting XI.
First Messi in the 0-4, then Neymar in the 2-3. The one time they all started together was the last time Los Blancos won a liga Clásico at home, slapping their rivals 3-1 that could have easily been 5-1. That missing forward forced coach Luis Enrique to adopt a more collective approach, which again played to the strengths of his side and the weaknesses of Real Madrid. When he tried to match Madrid with individualism, it didn’t go well for Barcelona.
✅ FC Barcelona: 96 wins
✅ Real Madrid: 95 wins
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) March 3, 2019
But when he stuck to his system, and when Guardiola stuck to his system, and when Ernesto Valverde sticks to a system – things don’t go well for Real Madrid. Obviously individual ability is important, and the likes of Messi, Busquets, Luis Suárez and Gerard Piqué have all played enormously in the 11 Clásico wins; but the major thing is that the Blaugrana insist upon collective football.
That is the key difference between them and Real Madrid, and it seems like it will always be the key difference (just look at how Los Blancos tried to counter Barcelona by thrusting all their hopes onto an 18-year-old wonderkid and how their summer signings are all immense individualists). Which means that Barcelona’s decade of dominance at the Santiago Bernabeu looks like continuing for the forseeable future at the very least.