Tactical Preview – El Clasico: Onset and Evolution

Prior to a match the focus is often on how it will open.  The managers decision making processes.  The initial player selection.  The formations.  But matches evolve dynamically.  They develop their own narrative, tell their own story.

This is particularly true of contests between sides that know each other well.  How the teams initially set up isn’t necessarily what ultimately influences the outcome.  Nor do these changes necessarily depend on substitutions.   Rather its how the players on the pitch alter their mode of play as a match progresses and the structure they operate from that determines the result.

The opening is a point to start from.  The foundation for what’s to come but not the substance of what will take place.

After an intense series of matches last season and contentious Spanish Super Cup to being this won, Barcelona and Madrid are two sides that know each other nearly as well as two team can.  In a sense, this has largely taken the ability to surprise away from both managers.  Each knows how the other wants to direct the shape of the match.

Instead of true surprise, what each manager is left with is wielding uncertainty.  Both sides are so talented and filled with individuals who are so multitalented that both can send out the same set of players and have them play in entirely different ways.

In many ways then, the key tactical battle here isn’t a specific formation or set of match ups.  Its which managers can create an arrangement flexible enough to meet his ongoing needs as they change across the match.

Needing to change the match by making a significant substitution in a sense can become an impediment because the other manager could have the resources on the pitch already to make another adjustment to counter the substitution.

Because of this, in thinking about the match it may be helpful to first take a step back from what players will be sent out or what formation the each will utilize and focus on what objectives need to be accomplished in order to achieve overall success.

For the sake of length, this preview will largely focus on the overarching goals for Barça in the match.


The Three Objectives that Barcelona Need to Balance

There are three primary objectives that Barça will need to achieve in order to win that I’ll focus on:

1)  Establish control of midfield despite RM focusing their defense on this region of play

2)  Create width in order to space the pitch while still establishing control of midfield

3) Build solidity in defense – specifically transition defense.

What makes these objectives so difficult to achieve is that they are linked together.  Attempting to maximize anyone can worsen the other two.

For example, in order to control midfield Barça could flood the center with more players.  But this can cause them to lose width making the pitch smaller.  In turn, despite having more ball players in the middle it could make it harder from them to functionally control possession in midfield as the defense has less space to mark.  At the same time, if the attackers are clustered centrally and possession is lost, the opposition has the opportunity to play the ball into empty space wide to create dangerous counters.  We’ve seen both of these problems affect Barça this season (e.g. Valencia match; AC Milan).

What Pep’s major challenge today is getting the mixture right.  How does he balance these three factors so that the combination is as “optimal” as possible?  To answer this question let’s take a look at each objective in more detail.


Control of Midfield

There are different routes through which a team can control midfield key ones include:  1) physicality; 2) technique; 3) creating numerical advantage by having more players in the region.

Other than Mascherano and Keita, Guardiola has limited options of achieving control in midfield through physicality.  As has been the growing case over the past three seasons – control of midfield for Barça depends on technique and numerical advantage (replacing of Yaya as a starter for Busquets crystalized this transition).

Indeed, one of the most interesting strategic battles that has been going on since Mourinho took over at RM relates to these three factors.  Mourinho understands that he’s unlikely to be able to take control of midfield by surpassing Barça in technique.  This is not to say that RM have unskilled midfield.  Not at all.  It’s rather a point of strategic focus and where advantage can be created.  Mourinho is largely left with physicality and numerical advantage to alter in his battle against Guardiola.

Mourinho’s approach has been to find skilled players in midfield, but to find players who are not only skilled but physical as well.  It’s physicality where he can generate the most competitive advantage over the current Barça midfield.  This is why it wasn’t surprising that he brought a player like Khedira in and did so quickly.  It’s also why Fabio Coentrao makes sense for them in midfield.  Both players marry aspects of physicality and technique.

If Barça generally have an advantage in technique and RM in physicality, that leaves both managers fighting to control the last variable – numerical advantage.  And it is this factor which has been at the heart of how both of these teams have been structured to adapt and play since Barça’s 5-0 victory last season.  This has been a central point of the tactical battle between them.


Barcelona’s Trajectory Under Guardiola – Numerical Advantage in Midfield

Since taking over, Guardiola has been very aware that while technique centerpiece of controlling midfield with the ball there are real limits to what skill alone can achieve.  The competition would adjust to the advantage Barça had in technique by altering tactics and using factors like physicality.

Since taking over, Pep has worked to increase Barcelona’s numerical advantage in midfield.  His first maneuver to do this was the purchase of Dani Alves.  Midfield is not simply the center of the pitch.  It is the middle third band of the pitch from touchline to touchline.  What Alves did was to give Guardiola almost a fourth player in the midfield band – one stationed wide who could be available as an outlet to relieve pressure and generate attacks.

Another example of Guardiola trying to achieve numerical advantage in midfield was through Pique making runs forward.  This also gives Barça an extra man in midfield.

Guardiola was willing to take the risks at the back of playing this way with Alves and Pique in order to facilitate control of midfield through numbers (again – this is not to say technique isn’t important – it’s the critical factor that allows Alves and Pique to move forward in ways other defenders can’t).  This became a central tenet to his philosophy.

However, the opposition adjusted.  And this is when Guardiola implemented one the great tactical innovations the contemporary game has seen – moving Lionel Messi to the false 9.

Dropping deep, Messi functionally gives Barcelona a supremely gifted ball control player as a fourth central midfielder.  And through that positioning he’s created sheer havoc.  The likely first time Messi played the false 9 was in the historic 6-2 victory at the Bernabeau.  However, even here, the opposition has adjusted and looked to defend Messi in that false 9 role through different means (more on this later as it’s been a primary focus for Mourinho).

With the competition more and more willing to have a marker follow Messi into midfield, Guardiola this season looked to create his latest attempt to ensure Barça will have numerical advantage in midfield – the 3-4-3.  In this arrangement, Guardiola is stationing another midfielder explicitly into the region that he most wants to control.  This is why this formation has been of such interest to him and why he continues to try to build with it.


Mourinho:  Countering Guardiola’s Numbers in Midfield

After the 5-0 loss at Camp Nou, one of the major changes Mourinho has made is to commit to preventing Guardiola from generating numerical advantage in midfield for Barcelona.

The first major change Mourinho made was to motivate C. Ronaldo do defend more.  This has been a major change in how RM play.  Prior, one of Barça’s biggest advantages over RM was that they would defend with 10 outfield players and Madrid would only defend with 8-9 outfield players.  But Ronaldo has rededicated himself to defending against Madrid equalizing numbers.  This also allows C.Ronaldo to stay on his favored left flank – he’s done a much better job of marking Alves than in the past.

On the opposite wing, Mourinho has utilized Angel DiMaria’s workrate and pace to have the winger pinch in centrally as needed to help defend in midfield.

The change that has gotten the most attention has been Mourinho’s use of the trivote – that is a midfield arrangement of three defensively oriented midfielders.  This functionally gives RM an extra explicit defender in midfield compared to the usual 4-2-3-1.  (Interestingly, Mourinho didn’t use this trivote formation consistely in the Spanish Super Cup.)

However, perhaps the major change that Mourinho has made has been in how he defends Messi.  He’s been increasingly willing to allocate defenders to almost man mark Messi.  At times it has been the DM who has this responsibility (e.g. Pepe as the DM).  But he’s also been willing to have a CB step out and mark Messi.  Carvalho had this responsibility in the Spanish Super Cup.

All of these individual changes have been augmented by an increased commitment by RM to play more disciplined, systems based defensive football.  They are arranged in a solid shape and seek to pressure the ball in midfield dynamically out of that shape.

Mourinho has committed his squad to overplay the middle against Barça as a way of diminishing the blaugrana’s greatest strength.

The net effect of the changes Mourinho has made since Barça’s 5-0 victory is that Barça no longer have a consistent numerical advantage in midfield.  This was a major reason why Barça did not win the Copa Del Rey last season.

And since that Copa Del Rey match – achieving numerical control of midfield has been an even more intensified competition between these two managers.

From the Barcelona perspective, one of Guardiola’s major decisions will be how many players he commits to the midfield zone to ensure he has numerical superiority there given that Mourinho has made it a central priority to prevent this.  It is this decision which is going to influence what formation Guardiola choses.

However, as noted earlier, Guardiola’s decision making process will likely evolve as the match develops.  How Barça commits to achieving numerical superiority will change. In turn how the team plays will alter.

This was the general strategy we saw Barça deploy in the recent match against Rayo.  In the initial stage, Rayo pressured the middle strongly.  Pep moved Dani Alves from RB into the middle, moving from a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3 in order to create numerical advantage in midfield.


Creating Width While Controlling the Middle

In the run up to the match it’s often been said that the advantage of the 3-4-3 is that it facilitates possession as there is an extra midfielder in place of a defender.  While there are advantages to the 3-4-3 (it enhances numerical presence in midfield), it is not necessarily true that it eases possession.  Possession, and perhaps more importantly – the quality of possession – is influenced by much more than the number of players in midfield alone.

How the pitch is spaced is critical to possession as well.  If the additional midfielders deployed wind up clustering in the middle and the team loses width those players will have much less room to operate.  Outlets wide are lost.  It makes the defense’s job easier as the pitch becomes “small” by the operations of the offense itself.

This has happened to Barcelona on several occasions this season.  Often it’s occurred when the team was playing a four man midfield.

This creates a real challenge for Pep.  If he wants to achieve numerical superiority in the midfield zone how does he do so without the team losing width?  If he gets this balance wrong and too many players are in the middle then it may paradoxically make it easier for Madrid to disrupt possession and enhance their ability to create dangerous counters.


Solidity in Transition Defense

We often discuss the importance of width in relation to the attack.  However, width is also critical to defense – especially transition defense.  This is an essential part of the Clasico for Barcelona because Madrid is the best team in the world in transitioning from defense to attack due to their combined pace and skill on the ball.

If Barcelona narrows their formation and lose possession, Madrid will be able to play the ball rapidly into space on the flanks.  Given how dynamic their wing play is – this is a disaster waiting to happen for Barcelona.

Barcelona must focus on transition defense to nullify the most dangerous dimension to the Madrid attack.  But to do so they must space the pitch.  If they lose track of this – they will become very vulnerable on the counter.


Attacking the Madrid Defense

As has been discussed here before, Madrid defense has evolved in very interesting ways.  Starting towards the second half of last season, Madrid began to experiment with a defense based more and more on pressuring the ball.  We saw this come to fruition in particular in the Copa Del Rey Finals.  They intensified this pressure based approach further in the Spanish Super Cup at the start of this season.

Madrid pressure the ball out of a system of zonal coverage with man marking.  What makes this approach interesting is that it assigns a great deal of responsibility to individual defenders to close down the ball.  Madrid will congregate and “hunt in packs” when possible (particularly towards the touchline) – but often they depend on 1 vs. 1 match ups to pressure.

Part of why the system is structured this way is that it allows them to pressure without playing their backline as high as they otherwise would need to.  In a sense, what they are doing is utilizing velocity from their team pace to decrease the need to compress the pitch.  They are trading time for space.

A major priority of the Madrid press is to prevent Barça from building play out of the back.  One of the things they do for example is to assign a defender to pressure Victor Valdes.  Intelligently, they acknowledge that Valdes is functionally an outfield player and a key part of the passing game because he is so good with the ball at his feet.

However, no system solves all problems.  And because they don’t try to stay as compact as possible Madrid leaves space open in the interior of their defensive block.  This is particularly true between their midfielders and defensive line.

The key to beating this system is off the ball movement with rapid circulation.  You have to move the ball faster than Madrid’s man marking press can close players down.  A key part of this is to be able to beat players off the dribble.

Madrid implement through pressing as part of their pressure system.  That is, they often anticipate where a pass will go and start to close down potential receivers of a pass before the pass is made.  The best way to damage this kind of pressing is to beat the initial defender with the ball.  This causes the other defenders to have to close down the man with the ball rather than focus on potential receivers of the pass.

While Madrid will pressure in this game it is unlikely that they’ll be able to press for 90 minutes.  This is another aspect of the match that will vary dynamically.  This also means that the match will tend to pass through phases of play.  And for these different phases of play different kinds of responses will be required from Barcelona.

Here again Guardiola will need to consider the issues discussed  prior – numerical advantage in midfield, width and transition defense.  Against high pressure, he’ll need to consider how to build play best.  For example, if Iniesta is marked by Xabi Alonso, it may make sense for Iniesta rather than Xavi to initialize some of the build up.  This would drag the Madrid defense out of shape and fore Alonso into a part of the pitch he doesn’t usually defend in.

In a sense, the location of “midfield” in this match is going to change depending on how Madrid defend.  “Midfield” can be considered in reference to the pitch itself.  Then it becomes the middle third of area.  But midfield can also be considered with reference to the distribution of defenders.  If most of the defenders are playing high up the pitch – “midfield” play could be in ones own half.  Guardiola thinking about midfield in this way was a critical feature to Barcelona beating Madrid in the CL last season (more on this later).


The Cesc Fabregas Dilemma:  An Illustration of Underlying Dynamics

Cesc Fabregas has been Barcelona’s second best offensive threat on goal this season.  It is not only the number of goals he has actually scored – but the efficiency with which he’s generated dangerous opportunities and put the ball in the back of the net.  His reading of the defense and finishing have been outstanding.

He’s been at his best however in a free role – especially at the tip of the midfield diamond/rhombus. As a central midfielder he’s been fine – but hasn’t had the impact he’s had in a free role.

The dilemma with Cesc is that using him in his best role has forced Guardiola to make significant trade offs between the three factors identified earlier.  Cesc gives him an extra man in midfield – but that in doing so it has also meant that Barcelona have played with less width.  And in losing width Barcelona’s transition defense has suffered.

Playing Cesc in a free midfield role while keeping width requires Barça to play three at the back.  This however can limit their transition defense.

Cesc can be played as a false 9 – but this mean Messi has to play wide right.  While Messi may start in this position – he will invariably pull in centrally.  This again provides Barcelona with extra men in midfield.  But it costs them width.  It leaves Alves alone on the right flank.  Normally he is able to handle this responsibility.  But against Madrid this could leave him 1 vs. 2 against C. Ronaldo and Marcelo.

Whether and how Pep uses Cesc Fabregas is probably the single most interesting decision either manager has to make.  And it’s interesting not only because of the issues of player selection – but because the decision itself encompasses so many of the objectives and trades that have to be balanced.  It will signal how Pep is thinking about the three central dynamics of numerical advantage in midfield, width and transition defense.  It will give a sense of how he wants to weight and orient those three factors.


History as a Model

While the challenges facing Barça are significant today – they do have a model to draw on, a model from their own recent history:  the first leg of the Champions League at the Bernabeau last season.

In the Copa Del Rey finals last season, RM pressured the ball very effectively. By tracking Messi back while having their wide players tuck in when needed they prevented Barça from having numerical superiority in midfield.

What Guardiola did is illustrated well in the still shots below:

Barca Achieving Numerical Superioroty in Midfield Whle Creating Width
Barcelona Reinforcing Midfield Band But Keeping Full Backs Wide and In Line With Holding Midfielder
Barcelona Committing Six Players to Midfield Band While Staying Wide


What Madrid did in the way they defended in the Copa Del Rey was to move “midfield” higher up the pitch.  Their main goal in pressuring was to prevent build up of play.  The problem for Barça was that many of their players were too high up the pitch.  This meant that Messi had to drop very deep to maintain possession against the pressure.

In the CL, what Pep did was to have both full backs play deeper – closer to the midfield line.  Alves in particular played deep – in the same line as Busquets.  This meant that Busquets had two outlet options in the middle third of the pitch in wide regions.  He didn’t only have to play the ball forward to Xavi or Iniesta.

This functionally gave Barcelona six players in the midfield zone.  The three formal midfielders along with the two full backs and Messi as he dropped deep.  Their formation almost turned into a 2-3-3-2 – or a modification of the W-M formation.

I’m not suggesting that Barcelona should play in this same formation or this same exact way.  I point this out as a model because what this tactical approach did was to provide Barcelona a way of regaining numbers in midfield while still creating width.  In turn this solidified their transition defense.  Guardiola’s challenge in this match will be to do something similar.  It may take a very different formation or series of formations – but the objectives are similar.

Now the limit of this match as a model is that RM in that contest played conservatively and deeper than they did in the Copa Del Rey.  Nonetheless, in that match Guardiola set up his team in ways which maximized their ability to achieve the objectives required for them to win – he has to do the same today.


The End

This match will move through multiple different phases.  Creating a flexible structure that will allow adequate responses will be critical to victory.  Barcelona has done this in the past.  Hopefully they’ll do it once more.


  1. [Hello, you have reached Kari. Unfortunately, it seems I am currently unavailable. Please leave message after the OHMIGODCLASICODEADSOMEBODYHELPMEXAVIMESSIBLARGH]

  2. FCB LINEUP: Valdés, Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Abidal, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Cesc, Messi and Alexis.

    RM LINEUP: Iker, Lass, Ramos, Pepe, Marcelo. Xabi, Khedira, Ozil, Di Maria, Benzema & TB

    Lass at RB!

  3. This really hammers home the point that every approach has its tradeoffs. Hopefully we take the right risks for the best rewards!

  4. Would you put Alexis against Marcelo or Lass?

    Adriano is not even in the bench.

    Madrid: Iker, Coentrao, Ramos, Pepe, Marcelo, xavi, ozil, di maria, ronaldo, benzema, … one more I did not get.

    no khedira, no lass.

  5. An hour before kick off, sorry man Euler way to nervous to read and comment sensibly. Will do at halftime doh.

  6. Brave for Mourinho to play Ozil giving them 2 midfielders instead of 3.
    I could see this lining up 3-5-2 even though it’s reported 4-3-3

  7. I’m so nervous right now I can’t even type properly.

    Line-up looks ok..no heartattack really just surprised not to see Villa starting. Oh well, Alexis and Cesc deserve to start to be honest. They’ve been on form.

    I won’t be able to be a part of the liveblog today cause I’m about to head out to a friend’s house to watch the game on bigscreen with some Madridistas and a “neutral” haha

    Hope for a positive result tonight and VISCA EL BARCA!

    1. Khedira is not playing

      Iker, Coentrao, Pepe, Ramos, Marcelo, Lass, Alonso, Ozil, Di Maria, Ronaldo, Benzema.

  8. Madrid will pressure high.

    Formation 4-2-3-1.

    I am excited about the passes from Cesc to Alexis with the Ninyo Maravilla with space to run.

    Is Mourinho being too ambitious putting a more offensive team?

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