Ahead of El Clasico at the Nou Camp on Saturday, Sky Sports’ Spanish expert Guillem Balague picks his key players to watch. The biggest game in Spanish football is often decided by individuals, but which six players should we be keeping an eye on come Saturday afternoon?
For me, he is the most influential offensive player for Real Madrid. Obviously Cristiano Ronaldo scores the goals, Gareth Bale has also been crucial in important moments this season, but I’ve got a feeling that it’s Marcelo who creates havoc in an organised defence and opens them up.
Among the Real team, Marcelo has had the fourth highest dribble rate in La Liga this season at 1.3 per game, only slightly bettered by Bale (1.4). He has also made the fourth highest number of key passes of regular players – doing so 1.3 times per game – bettered only by Bale, Dani Carvajal and Toni Kroos.
He sometimes acts not so much as a winger but sometimes appears as a No 9, I’ve seen him there and at No 10, No 7 and No 3. Putting aside David Alaba’s transformation under Pep Guardiola, Marcelo is the ultimate modern full-back. A box full of surprises.
He appears when he is least expected with quality, has got the vision to find team-mates, and he can also score. He has got everything rivals fear and it makes him one of the most influential players with Bale and Ronaldo this season. He has improved defensively with the years, and he is maturing now to be one of the best left-backs in the world.
But he is not perfect. The cons are that he is a danger defending sometimes, not so much one-on-one, but certainly he loses his positions if the ball comes from the other side, so a cross from the left-hand side is not always well defended by him, he is not always in the right position.
He is also a risk at times with his passing – short passing from the back especially – but he hardly ever loses the ball on the dribble, even when he dribbles when he shouldn’t. His Brazilian soul has never abandoned him.
Marc-Andre Ter Stegen – Barcelona
He is absolutely essential to the build-up of Barcelona because he is represents one more player to play with the ball, but he has been making a lot of mistakes. Now he doesn’t risk so much, especially after making a mistake against Celta which cost Barcelona. His short passing has improved, playing more accurate short passes than any regular goalkeeper in La Liga, with nearly 20 per game.
The pros are that Barcelona need to have that kind of goalkeeper and the cons of course are that now he has to find balance between the risk, and the necessity to play from the back. He is very aware that he has to absorb pressure, keeping the ball, attracting the rival, because by doing that the forward leaves the space which can be used by others.
Luka Modric – Real Madrid
He has played mostly as an offensive midfielder, but has been having to work hard defensively. He does a wonderful job when Real Madrid are pressing high. He is brave, he steps up that pressure, he recovers balls and possession quite often but also once he does recover, he has so much quality in that first pass.
Comparing his stats with Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta from La Liga last season, Modric almost doubles the number of key passes, making 1.9 per game compared with Iniesta’s 1.1. He also had an average of 1.1 shots per game compared to 0.8 from his fellow midfielder.
The cons would be that he is not a defensive midfielder, so when he has to play deep alongside Mateo Kovacic, he sometimes forgets and goes forward and leaves spaces for others to exploit. He also doesn’t score enough when he plays as an offensive midfielder in a 4-3-3, netting just five times in La Liga in the past four seasons.
Andres Iniesta – Barcelona
He should be back, let’s see if it is from the start or not, but he links up so well. He gets on the ball a lot and his passes are so accurate. He is the piece missing in this Barcelona jigsaw at this precise moment.
Since the 2009/10 season, he has averaged an 89.6 per cent pass accuracy across all competitions for the Catalan club – never dipping below 85 per cent for a completed tournament or league campaign – and had the fourth-highest average of key passes during Barcelona’s title-winning La Liga season last year, making 1.1 per game behind MSN.
This season alone his passing is still above 85 per cent in all competitions, but he is making less key passes (0.75) than his average of 1.1 from the past six seasons.
The problem is that he runs more than ever – the system makes Iniesta run more than he used to – which I think means you don’t get the best out of him. The best Iniesta was the one that used to link up with Xavi and would bring the whole team – almost holding hands – to the edge of the area, and in there he will use the pace he has got in the first 10 metres to make an impact.
The same as he was with Spain, he was an alternative to Lionel Messi in that role. Now, with the team stretching, playing more direct, he has to do a lot of running and I think that affects his body.
He very rarely plays two games in a row these days – starting in consecutive games just once this season – which affects the team and their attacking build ups. But he does add more pause than Ivan Rakitic or Andre Gomes, as well as quality in the passing. The perfect midfielder.
Neymar – Barcelona
I think Barcelona’s game depends more and more on the individual, so Neymar, as well as Messi and Luis Suarez of course, is crucial. He has gone seven games without scoring but he is assisting more than ever.
He has already assisted five La Liga goals for Barcelona this term, scoring four times, and is on his way to bettering his assist tally of 12 from last season. Compare this to his first two seasons at the Nou Camp where he had seven in 2014/15 and eight in 2013/14, and he is certainly looking a more fruitful provider.
He is being played wide and doesn’t come inside as much because that will kill the space for Messi. But he accepts that role. He did do that last season as well and scored more than ever in the league, netting 24 times, so you wonder what is stopping him scoring this season.
Perhaps people know him more, know how to defend him, approaching him strongly when he first gets the ball so he cannot run into space. Barcelona depend a lot on him and he usually delivers, but the cons are that he is not scoring as often and sometimes he disappears from games. He doesn’t grab the game by the scruff of the neck. Having said all that, if there is a player that likes the big games, it is him.
Karim Benzema – Real Madrid
He is somebody who is struggling to recover the form that made him one of the best forwards in the world. There are a lot of things off the pitch that affected him, like the Mathieu Valbuena case, the fact he wasn’t in the Euros, a hip injury first and the fact Zinedine Zidane has told him to rest at the start of the season until he feels fully fit because he wants him to be at his best at the end of the campaign. For all of that, we have not seen his best yet, a consistent form that helps him win games.
Ronaldo prefers him more than any other striker, including Gonzalo Higuain in the past or Alvaro Morata now, because he links up so well, he opens up spaces, he moves around. He’s a strange No 9, sometimes he’s almost like a 10, allowing Ronaldo to be more and more the striker he is destined to become for the rest of his career. Or, better said, that he has become already.
The cons are that he isn’t scoring and he hasn’t got the form needed. He hasn’t played many games for 90 minutes this season – only doing so twice in all competitions – and as a result, he is assisting less than last season, having notched just one in La Liga. He has picked up seven and 10 assists in the last two seasons respectively. Zidane thinks he is the perfect forward in a 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 formation for Real, even though his defensive work has to improve.
This season, his ball recovery rate of 46.8 minutes per recovery is improved on last season (55.4), but still down on the previous four seasons from 2011/12 to 2014/15, where he averaged 38.1 minutes per recovery.