If clattering into a late challenge wasn’t the best idea while on a yellow card against Malaga, Neymar’s decision to sarcastically applaud the officials on his way off the pitch - earning him a further two-match league suspension - definitely can’t be seen as advisable behaviour either.
A moment of complete petulance has robbed Barcelona of the chance to head into the most important match of their LaLiga season at full strength. A defeat could perceivably seal the title for Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid. Without the Brazilian talisman, Luis Enrique loses one of the men that makes his team selection a little easier on a weekly basis.
Midfield rotation has been a facet of their season, with a congested month of April asking even more out of a team that relies on the injection of creativity that an ageing Andres Iniesta can add into the mix. The 32-year-old captain has been kept wrapped in cotton wool for games such as El Clasico.
Neymar has often been the go-to outlet ball in tough situations who can drag his team upfield, but his ban has left his coach with difficult questions, rather than the solutions he can usually offer on the pitch.
Barcelona have experimented with a 3-4-3 system this season, as well as their usual 4-3-3. There exists a grudging acceptance that despite their considerable transfer spend last summer, the set-up of the team is the most immediately effective change that their coach has under his control. It is not necessarily the players that support the front three, but rather how their spacing can be manipulated to get the most control out of a team that have flattered to deceive at times.
Without Neymar, what can they do as Real Madrid hover their blade over the executioner’s block?
Jordi Alba used in midfield
At times recently, almost nonsensically, Jeremy Mathieu has found himself as a the left-sided centre-back in a back three that fluctuates to a four when Sergi Roberto drops back into a more orthodox full-back position when Barcelona are in possession. Against Malaga, this saw the Frenchman stretched out to left-back at times.
When the Catalan giants have sought to find more midfield control, Luis Enrique’s preferred back three appears to consist of Gerard Pique, Samuel Umtiti and Javier Mascherano, which hasn’t left any space for the ex-Valencia full-back to feature from the off.
Neymar is the man to offer the width on the left-hand side in the opposition half, meaning that the system has often dictated Jordi Alba’s absence. Recently, the Spain international has impressed while at left-back in a 4-3-3 and got plenty of minutes under his belt. He offers searching, penetrative passes from deeper areas, as well as a desire to hare to the byline on the overlap.
There is no doubt that Jordi Alba should be one of the first names on Barca’s team sheet, but it remains to be seen whether Luis Enrique sees fit to rubber stamp a more open 4-3-3 system at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday. It would match up with Real Madrid, but their opponent’s quality in midfield will be a concern.
As more of a wing-back on the left-hand side, the 28-year-old defender would be able to balance his offensive and defensive duties diligently, as well as offering genuine potency to supply the front three from both deep and more advanced areas of the field.
Paco Alcacer’s resurrection
Easter Sunday has passed, with Barcelona’s expensive summer signing netting a goal on the Saturday. Perhaps there is life in him yet. The noises made by the performances of Paco Alcacer recently have been promising, but he is yet to put in a showing in a Blaugrana shirt which truly announces himself on the scene at Camp Nou.
Against Real Sociedad, the Spaniard was deployed as a striker in a 4-3-1-2 system alongside Luis Suarez. Lionel Messi took up a free role in the hole in behind the duo, and it was the Argentine star who picked out a great through ball to coax Paco Alcacer into some space in behind to slot home a neat finish last weekend.
If there is one thing that the ex-Valencia forward hasn’t lacked since moving to Catalonia in the summer, it has been the willingness to work hard. Paco Alcacer puts in the yards on the field, testament to his desire to prove his worth to the club’s fans, and his ability to intuitively find pockets of space in the penalty area could be vital in an El Clasico of fine margins.
Rather than solely lurking in the penalty area to, more often than not, be the recipient of service, Paco Alcacer can sometimes find himself asked to peel out wide and then look for his teammates with service into the box. This isn’t the best facet of his game, by any stretch, so a more central role to occupy the likes of Sergio Ramos and Nacho could be the best way forward to utilise his intelligent movement.
Trust in Denis
Upon his buy-back clause being activated by Barcelona last summer, Villarreal were using Denis Suarez as a wide man on the left in their 4-4-2 system. He offered bursting runs upfield, as well as the technical quality to link up in the Yellow Submarine’s intricate midfield triangles, looking at home when given the opportunity to cut inside from the flank on the break and threaten directly.
Since returning to his former club, Denis has played the majority of his football on the left-hand side of a central midfield three. Occasionally, he gets some nominal time out on the left, but mainly as a method of giving Neymar a bit of rest at the tail end of games.
After scoring a brace in Barcelona’s 5-2 Copa del Rey win over Real Sociedad back in January, Denis has failed to find the back of the net, playing the full 90 minutes on just one occasion since.
That 90-minute appearance came in a 6-1 league win over Sporting Gijon, with Denis featuring on the left-hand side of midfield in a 3-4-3 behind Neymar. Against Real Madrid, and knowing what the fans demand in such occasions, he might just have to be the man to fill the Brazilian’s considerable boots and step up to the plate.
He took Xavi’s number at the outset of the season, and now is the time for Denis to start affecting big games like the diminutive playmaker used to.