Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the two most compared players in the world, are fairly incomparable. Ronaldo is more of apure goal-scorer than Messi, and there's no doubt he has the Barca man beat for physical ability. Messi, of the two, is more of a playmaker. He's a forward-midfielder hybrid who's much better at dropping deep, bringing his teammates into play and circulating possession, than Ronaldo.
In El Clásico on Sunday, each was put into a role where they were asked to do what separates them from the other. Ronaldo's biggest task was using his pace and finishing instincts to score, while Messi's was helping his midfield keep the ball. Neither player's deployment made a lot of sense, and it was the biggest reason why Sunday's 2-1 win for Barca is being branded as the worst-played Clásico of the Messi-Ronaldo era.
That this game could be classified as poorly played by any standard is a reminder of just how good these teams are. Even Mourinho's worst Clásicos, the 5-0 defeat and the anti-football-laden contests that followed, featured one or both teams executing their game plans in a way that no other team in the world was capable of. This game didn't have that, and featured strange tactical decisions by both managers, most notably with Ronaldo and Messi. They were each the player that the other team needed most, especially in the minutes after Barca's winning goal.
Ronaldo's extremely useful as a poacher, and that's what Carlo Ancelotti tried to get out of him on Sunday. Instead of starting Ronaldo on the left wing, he took away all his defensive responsibilities and played him as the more advanced of two forwards. In a way, it worked -- Ronaldo finished off a great team goal -- but Madrid needed a player a lot more like Messi once their midfielders started to get tired.
Messi has played as a 'false nine', dropping deep from a center forward position, for the majority of his career now. But that role was taken to an extreme by Luis Enrique in El Clásico, particularly in the second half. If one felt the need to assign a formation to Barca, they were closer to a 4-1-3-2 with Messi as a midfielder that had license to go forward, than they were their classic 4-3-3.
These weren't good decisions given the strengths and weaknesses of each team. Barcelona probably could have controlled the midfield without Messi doing so much work to keep possession, and Real Madrid needed someone to help them win the midfield battle against Barcelona much more than they needed a goal-poacher.
Watching Ancelotti more or less duplicate his strategy from the first Clásico was odd because, surely, he had to know that he didn't have the same midfield this time around. Going into the last Barca match, Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić were two of the most in-form midfielders in the world. This time around, Kroos was coming off a string of average performances and Modrić, while fit enough to start, was clearly not 100 percent. They needed help. Karim Benzema was great at dropping off Ronaldo to create attacks, but he doesn't do anything defensively, by way of ball-winning or ball-retention. Ronaldo didn't get marked out of the game, but his teammates got run out of the game so badly at the end that he might as well have been.
And on the other end, Barca could have killed off the game a lot more quickly if Messi wasn't so concerned with keeping the ball and regularly stayed high up the pitch. He created some dangerous attacks in the final half-hour, but they all came from him picking the ball up extremely deep and making long runs forward. He has the quality to go on slalom runs through multiple defenders, but Real Madrid are pretty good, and that extra second or two they had to get themselves into position and prepare for a Messi run at goal made all the difference in holding the Blaugrana to two goals.
If Barca needed anyone to start from a deeper position, it was Luis Suarez -- they could have used someone to do a bit more defensive work on Marcelo, who was Madrid's best creative player, in lieu of a wide poacher in the last 30 minutes.
The decision each manager made to put their best player in the role that allowed them to use their biggest strength was understandable at first, but it didn't help their teams, and both bosses failed to adjust in reaction to how the game panned out. Real Madrid lacked someone to help their midfielders keep the ball and create. Barcelona needed a pure finisher to take advantage of the chances their opponent gave them. They needed different kinds of players so much that they would have been extremely well-served by swapping superstars in the second half.
Ronaldo is the perfect embodiment of what a Real Madrid superstar should be and Messi is the same for Barcelona, but that doesn't change the fact that, on this one occasion, each team would have been better off with the other player. In this six-year run of the greatest football matches ever played, this twist might be the most unexpected yet.