Match Review Part 2: El Clásico Madrid 1 – 3 Barcelona: Tactical Analysis

People talk about tactics, but when you look at it, tactics are just players. You change things so that the team can get the most out of the skills they have to offer, but you don’t go any further than that. When it comes to tactics you have to think about what the opposition does and the players who can hurt you.

What I’ve done this season is a response to the game plans our rivals are now adopting against us.  As time goes by, people get to know you better. They pose problems for you and you have to come up with solutions.

Pep Guardiola

We had to try. In life you have to choose to be brave, or very brave.

Pep Guardiola,

on playing the system he chose this match at the Bernabeu


The first part of this review for the Clásico provided an overview of the match and its context.  In this part the focus will be a detailed breakdown of the systems issues and tactical issues that influnced the match.

Match Analysis

As previewed here there were three primary objectives that needed to be balanced in order for Barça to win this match:

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

Midfield has become the most contested space in the tactical battles between Guardiola and Mourinho.  Since the Manita, Mourinho has committed greater and greater defensive resources to this zone.  Conversely, Guardiola has always made it a must to have control of midfield as that’s the foundation of Barça

Given that both managers prioritized control of this zone – who would win this region?  How would Pep try to ensure this would happen?

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

Controlling midfield is a key aspect to controlling possession.  However, it is not the only factor.  Nearly as important is spacing the pitch.  If controlling midfield requires so many players to be stationed there that spacing is lost it may be more difficult to create quality possession.  This has been a problem for Barça this season for example when they’ve used the 3-4-3.

3) Build solidity in defense – specifically transition defense.

Puyol Isolated With Oezil in Transition

Real Madrid are the most dangerous team in the world in attacking at speed.  Transition defense is fundamental to playing against them.  A key to transition defense against a team with the kind of pace Madrid have is to make sure the pitch is spaced.  If it’s not then there will be large spaces for the Madrid attackers to break into.

Once more, this relates to the central problem of control of midfield.  If you devote too many players to that region and lose spacing you will potentially compromise your transition defense.  This too has been a major problem for Barça at times this season, particularly when playing in the 3-4-3.

The Old Man Keeping Pace

Much of the entire debate about whether Barça could take the risk of playing three at the back at the Bernabeu specifically related to risk related to transition defense.  Madrid often break with four players.  Could you defend these breaks at speed with only three defenders?  On the flanks, it was very possible that with three at the back the Barça defenders would get caught 2 vs. 1. This was especially a concern on the right flank where the Barça defense would be facing C.Ronaldo and Marcelo.

In short, what made executing these three objectives so difficult was that improving one could damage another.  The key was developing a balance of these factors in a way that would maximize the whole.  This was the fundamental challenge Guardiola faced.

Oezil Changes Direction Puyol Right With Him

And he did this brilliantly by introducing a new structure for the team to play through, an innovative set up that allowed them to enhance their own strengths while countering those of Madrid.

Player Selection:

To start the match Guardiola selected: Valdes/ Alves / Puyol / Pique/ Abidal/ Busquets/ Xavi/ Fabregas/ Iniesta/ Sanchez/ Messi.   The major news in the player selection was the inclusion of Fabregas and Sanchez rather than Villa and the Puyol and Pique rather than Mascherano at CB.

Holding the Line: New Defensive Techniques Required to Play Oezil in Space

This season, with that selection of players, Guardiola has arranged them in a 4-3-3 with Fabregas as a false 9 and Messi on the right.  The concern with that line up has been transition defense along the right flank.  When Messi pulls in centrally off the right, Alves is left completely alone on the right flank.  Here he would be facing a potential 1 vs. 2 with Marcelo and C.Ronaldo.

Puyol Turned But Quickly Recovers

Guardiola however didn’t utilize that system.  Instead he went with an entirely new formation – one he hasn’t used before at Barça.  Why these selections were made will be discussed in more detail in subsequent sections.

Madrid countered with Casillas/ Coentrao/ Ramos/ Pepe/ Marcelo/ Diarra/ Alonso/ Oezil/ DiMaria/ Benzema/ C.Ronaldo.  The major notes in the Madrid line up were that Oezil would be playing rather than a three man defensive trivote.  The other major issues was Coentrao playing at RB despite usually being a LB.

Danger Over: The Captain Reads the Pass and Disposses Madrid of the Ball

Barcelona Formation(s)

Discussing Barcelona’s formations is often considered as a secondary issue.  Barça is so fluid at baseline with their movement and position switching that no formation really describes what they do.  Rather Barcelona plays an “amoeba” like arrangement.

And this is true in many ways.  Ultimately, Barcelona has evolved a system in which dynamics rather than structure are the focus.  However, all systems require structure otherwise they would become disorganized.  And for Barça this is a key point because so many of their players tend to drift to the middle.  Without an appropriate formation, Barça would wind up overly center focused  Also, because the Barcelona formation is often considered such a secondary issue, Guardiola’s work as a manager is often overlooked.

Average Positions Barcelona (via Opta)

In this Clásico, Guardiola implemented a new system, one that had a major impact on the outcome of the match.  Barcelona played a remarkably fluid game and the formations Barcelona based their play on contributed to this fluidity.   The system is difficult to picture as it moved through phases and was dynamic so rather than try to show it through pictures I’ll describe it now and illustrate it in subsequent sections through still shots.

What made the Barcelona system for this Clásico so interesting was that Guardiola implemented three different roles which have rarely if ever been part of how Barça play during his tenure:  1) lone central striker (played by Alexis Sanchez); 2) a true 10 playing in the hole (played Messi); 3) a “box to box” midfielder (played by Fabregas).  (Please note-in identifying these three aspects of the formation I’m referring to the role – not the skill set needed to play that role.  For example, Keita is well suited to play as a box to box midfielder – however that role has not been part of the Barça system under Guardiola so Keita hasn’t assumed that role).

What makes the utilization of these three roles together in this match particularly interesting is that each is a relatively orthodox role.  They are well described positions used widely by other squads.  However, Barça has not significantly relied on these roles in the recent past.  In fact, much of the innovation that Guardiola has brought to the team has been by moving away from these three roles to push the team to play in a more fluid, possession-based game.

But by moving back towards these three orthodox roles and doing so in the same match, Guardiola created a system that together was surprising.  In a sense, Guardiola innovated by becoming more traditional.  Madrid had considerable difficulty determining how to mark and handle the three players in these roles.  This was a great example of how tactical innovation in football can be created by adopting structures that have been used in other contexts.

The Barcelona system was intended to migrate through phases.  Barça opened up playing with four at the back.

Four Man Backline to Open

In the image above, Barcelona are playing their usual four man backline.  Notice how C.Ronaldo is clearly marking Dani Alves when Barça is playing four at the back.  This will be an important issue later on when Barça change formation.

In the image, note also how Fabregas has dropped deep in his box to box role to support build up of play and how Di Maria is forced to pick him up and mark him.  By having Fabregas play a box to box role he often acted as an “extra man” moving across different midfield zones.  Because he moved so far vertically and there was no box to box midfielder fro Madrid, Fabregas was difficult to pick and mark.  When he dropped to the Barça half, he often gave Barça numerical superiority.  This is why Angle DiMaria – a winger – has to pinch in and function as an extra midfielder himself to mark him.

During the first half Iniesta played as a left winger, though often interchanging positions and coming central.  Xavi played in central midfield – but played deeper than he usually does to facilitate build up of play in face of the Madrid pressure and due to the fact that Busquets was often playing deeper than usual.

In minute 17, however, Dani Alves moved up the pitch to a wingback position leaving three defenders on the backline.  Sergio Busquets soon dropped deeper and played as a libero, dropping to the backline CB when Barça lost possession with Puyol moving out to RB. In a sense, Barça played most of the match with 3 ½ defenders.

Overall, for most of the match the Barça formation could be considered to have migrated from a 4-3-3 to 3-1-2-3-1.

For much of the first half the Barça formation was also asymmetric, with the right side predominating.  What was interesting about the asymmetry of this formation was that it reversed the usual orientation of the Barcelona system.  Usually, Barcelona plays as a center-left squad do to the positioning of the midfield.  In their base 4-3-3, Iniesta plays on the left of center giving Barça an additional player on that side of the pitch – a player who a great deal of play is funneled through.

In this Clásico, however, Barça became a center-right team as Dani Alves became an extra midfielder on the right.  As the prior image showed, Alves was routinely open in space on the right as Madrid had difficulty marking him in that wing back position wide.  As such, more play ran through the right side of the pitch than Barcelona usually engages in.

This change in orientation to the right had important impacts on the match.  The extra attacking thrust on the right pinned back Marcelo significantly and forced the Madrid LW (C.Ronaldo in the first half) deep as well to defend (as noted in the prior image).  The left flanks is the primary focus of the Madrid attack.  Given how much of the Madrid attack is run through that left flank, forcing those two attack oriented players back by stationing Alves higher up and running the ball through that side was critical to both Barça maintaining possession and “defending with the ball” by pushing Madrid back.

These issues are all summarized in the following still shot.

Change in System: Three Defender Backline with Busquets as the Libero

In the image above, Barcelona has converted to a three man back line with Puyol moving out to the right center back, Abidal left center back, and Pique sweeping behind them centrally.  Busquets is slightly ahead of Pique in midfield in a libero role.

When in possession Busquets would step up into midfield to facilitate possession and ball circulation.

Dani Alves (red arrow in image) is now extremely high up the pitch.  Notice how Alves is completely unmarked in space.  This would happen again and again in the match after Barça moved to a three man backline.  Alves intelligently positioned himself between Marcelo and C.Ronaldo..  As will be discussed later, Madrid’s defensive system is based on zonal coverage with man marking.

In the image above, Alves has moved into a zone where there isn’t a defender free to mark him.  Sanchez has moved into the right channel occupying Ramos and Marcelo.  Compare this to the prior image when C.Ronaldo was actively marking him.  Alves has gotten behind C.Ronaldo who does not want to drop that deep as it would functionally position him as a LB.  Notice however, that C.Ronaldo tries to keep an eye on Alves and has dropped even deeper than Xabi Alonso to do so.  This is an example of how Barça changing attacking formations actually was a form of defense hindering the Madrid attack by driving players deep to defend.

Sanchez’s role as a striker is visible in the still shot above – he is occupying two defenders.   Messi’s is positioned as a 10, playing behind Sanchez, but free to drop deeper than a traditional 10 might.  Iniesta is playing so wide as a LW that he is not visible in the image.

Compare Fabregas’s position here to the first still shot.  Fabregas is now nearly as high up the pitch as Sanchez, the striker.  His positioning is completely different than it was in the first image where Fabregas was back in the Barça half, deeper than Xavi, and playing close to Busquets, the holding midfielder.  These two images demonstrate Fabregas’s box to box role.

Finally, in the image above, note Madrid’s defensive positioning.  Specifically, notice the large gap in space between Madrid’s lines.  Their five advance defenders are looking to pressure the ball higher up toward the half line.  Their defensive line however has dropped deep.

The only player between the lines is Diarra, but even he is in an odd position because Barça have skewed their formation rightwards.  As such there is a large gap in space between the lines where most of the Bara players are. This is an example of a critical issue in this match – Madrid was not playing as compact as they could have (more on this later in the section on the Madrid defensive system).  By not staying compact, room was open in the interior of their defensive block.

Here is a comparable shot of the backline when Busquets dropped deeper into the backline as a CB and Puyol wide as the RB.

Four at the Back Busquets Dropped Deep to CB

In the image above, notice how Madrid has difficulty marking Busquets when he drops deep.  Usually Busquets was Ozil’s responsibility with Benzema responsible for pressuring the CBs.  Busquets has moved into a zone where there are no available Madrid defenders.  Dropping back this way allowed Busquets to move away from the defensive pressure.  In essence, he became something of a free man at the back.

The requirement to play RB and be lined up against C.Ronaldo were likely major factors in Guardiola selecting Puyol over Mascherano.  This role was fundamental to the entire Barça system – the RB/CB spot was the focal point which allowed Barça to create numerical superiority in midfield while still maintaining width (more on this later].

Guardiola would further change the Barça formation in the second half – a change in tactics which would have a decisive effect on the match.  This will also be discussed on a later section of this piece.

The New Traditional Roles:  Sanchez and Fabregas

While Sanchez, Messi and Fabregas played more orthodox footballing roles, the way they interpreted those roles was critical.

First, while Sanchez was stationed as a lone striker, he played a highly mobile, highly tactical role.  He didn’t simply stay in the center of the pitch up against the two CB as the lone striker traditionally does.  His job was to occupy the defenders (more on this later) but to occupy them through movement and threaten the backline by using his pace and strength to get behind the Madrid backline.  Interestingly, Sanchez played in a band moving from touchline to touchline to facilitate the attack and defense.  Tactically, his function was to add horizontal force to the Barça system.

Sanchez as Lone Striker Tracks Marcelo Deep Right Flank to Defend

In the image above, Sanchez has moved all the way to the far right flank in order to mark Marcelo.  This was the 10th minute of the match – before Alves moved to right wing.  During this time, Marcelo was starting to get forward more effectively Alves was responsible for marking C.Ronaldo.  Without a true right winger at this time, Alves could have been caught 1 vs. 2 aginst C. Ronaldo and Marcelo.  Guardiola instructed Sanchez to move laterally and mark Marcelo to avoid this.  For a stretch of time in the first half, Sanchez often was positioned as a RW.

The other key role Sanchez played as a lone striker in front of Messi was to occupy defenders.  Sanchez was routinely marked by two of Madrid’s backline.  This made it difficult for them to step out and mark Messi – even between the lines.  As such, if Mourinho was planning on using a strategy such as the one he implemented in the Spanish Super Cup where the CB marked Messi, it would have been very difficult to do with Sanchez acting as a striker and Messi as a 10.

In the past, when Madrid has pressured Barça high up the pitch, it has forced Xavi and Messi to drop very deep to build play.  In order to help Messi stay higher up the pitch and maintain his free role while still giving support to Xavi, Guardiola had Fabregas drop deep in midfield.  However, Guardiola also wanted to utilize Fabregas’s goal scoring abilities and his direct runs from deep.  As such, Fabregas played a true “box to box” midfield role.  As was shown in the prior images, he routinely dropped deep when the all was in the Barça half but also regularly made runs forward, often moving to a very advanced position close or even further forward than Messi and Sanchez.

Unfortunately, this box to box role also created some confusion for Barça, particularly given that Fabregas is still integrating into a ball playing midfield role.  Because Barça do not usually play this type of role, Barça players were often unsure of where Fabregas would be positioned at any one time and where his runs were headed.  Additionally, Fabregas himself often seemed somewhat unsure.  As such, his impact on the game went missing for long stretches of time.  Nonetheless, the diverse deep and attacking qualities of box to box play were brilliantly on display during Fabregas’ run and header for the third goal.  Rarely has a Barça midfielder scored that kind of goal over the past 4 seasons.

The Madrid Defensive System:  Foundations

To fully understand Guardiola’s player selection and the system he implemented for the match, it’s important to consider the Madrid defensive system as that conditioned the context for Guardiola’s decision making.

The Madrid defensive system has evolved to focus on pressuring high up the pitch out of a system of zonal coverage with man marking.

While there was some thought that Madrid would sit back and defend deep, this was never likely.  Madrid has been evolving a pressure defensive scheme since last season, a movement which amplified over the second half of last season and came to the fore at in the Spanish Supercup to start off this season.  This is the defensive identity they have been moving towards for over the past year.  And it’s a system that was at least in part targeted to stop Barcelona.

Many teams have now chosen to press Barcelona higher up the pitch.  The purpose of doing so is to prevent Barça from systematically building up play out of the back and to clot midfield with numbers.

Madrid’s pressure defense is a two part system.  First, pressure high up the pitch with the front three players and two to three of the midfielders.  In pressing very high up, Madrid seeks to:  1) force Barcelona’s lesser skilled players on the ball – the keeper and backline – into making a mistake high up the pitch and

2) to prevent the highly skilled midfielders from getting the ball and critically developing a rhythm that will control match tempo.

The defense is structured to allocate defenders directly against the Barça backline and to overplay the midfield directly behind.  The objective is to clot the pitch and prevent Barça from playing through the middle if Barça get the ball through the initial defensive layer.

The Madrid defensive scheme is well illustrated by this image from the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup earlier this season:

Madrid Defensive Pressure System: Spanish Super Cup 2011

Notice how Madrid is pressing high – but doing so through zonal coverage and man marking.  Each Madrid defenders is marking one Barcelona player.  Benzema is applying pressure – but individually, not in a “pack.”  Behind the front three, Madrid is also matched up 3 vs. 3 with the Barça midfield.

Pressure is applied as a defender runs 1 v. 1 on the ball.  When a pass is made the next defender will start to close down the receiver of the ball (sometimes described as “through pressing.”)   The objective is to either force an error in the pass or a miscontrol in rececptin of a pass.

Madrid will seek to cluster defenders together when possible – e.g. towards the touchlines.  But the approach does not depend on this.

In this Clascio, Madrid implemented a similar defensive system, only playing their front five players even higher up the pitch.

Two Madrid Defenders Pressuring Valdes

Above, Madrid is vigorously pressing Valdes trying to force him into a second mistake.  While on the first goal of the game Valdes wasn’t being directly pressed and simply made an errant pass, he was frequently directly pressured – here with two defenders.  Benzema and Dimaria – two very athletic players are closing him down – this is an enormous challenge for any goal keeper.

Madrid not only pressed extremely high in this Clásico.  They pressed very high in numbers – even more than the Copa Del Rey and Spanish Super Cup.  As can be seen from the image above, Madrid played a four man defensive front of C.Ronaldo, Benzema, DiMaria and Ozil.

The goal was to force the Barça defenders or Valdes to turn the ball over.  And this strategy helped contribute to the Madrid goal.  However, by playing Ozil so high, Madrid functionally removed a defender from midfield.  Ozil, who has limited stamina and fatigues relatively quickly, struggled to drop back when the Barça attack got past this initial line of four advanced defenders.

The Madrid Defensive System:  Trade Offs – Interior Space

However, all systems require trade offs.  To press to maximum efficiency a team has to stay as compact as possible.  It can be difficult to man mark and stay compact because the defenders start to move in relationship to the attackers rather than in relationship to each other.  In the images above, notice the amount of space between the Madrid defenders both laterally and vertically.

Even more importantly, to stay compact a team has to play a high line.  This involves significant risk as so much space is left behind the backline.  Mourinho has sought to limit how high his backline plays to decrease this risk.  This is not to say that Madrid play a deep back line.  It’s that compared to how high up the advanced defenders are and how aggressively they pres, the backline player deep in comparison.  The backline does not prioritize squeezing space.  For example, in the Spanish Super Cup Madrid played roughly 50m between its front line and backline.  Barça in comparison had around 40m of space.

This issue is also noticeable when an attack breaks through the first two lines of defenders.  The reaction of the Madrid backline is often to move deeper to cover rather than moving aggressively forward to dispossess the ball.

As such, a major limitation to this system open is interior space.  Because Madrid try to limit how compact they need to be space can open up in the interior of their defense block.  This is particular true behind the more advanced lines that press higher up the pitch.

These issues are illustrated in the sequence below:

Oezil Pressure Abidal High Up the Pitch

Above, Madrid are pressuring out of their based zonal cover, man marking system.  All five defenders are directly marking a Barça player with Oezil running at Abidal to close him down.

Note however that there is one player with no marker – Messi.  As will be discussed later, due to Messi playing as a true 10 rather than as a false 9, Madrid had no direct player available to mark him when he dropped deep because all of the Madrid advanced defenders were already marking Barça players 1 vs. 1.  Over and over Messi was able to drop deep and find open space.  In fact, this match was one in which Messi was able to find more space than most he’s played in this season.  This would prove decisive in this match.

One of the most direct ways to beat this kind of defense is by using the ball.  The Madrid pressure defense is set up to shut down Barça’s short passing game.  If however a player can beat his marker with the dribble, this type of defensive system can collapse.  This is exactly what Abidal does.

Abidal Beats Oezila with Dribble Now Free in Open Space

Rather than passing to an open Busquets, Abidal holds the ball, allows Oezil to overrun the play and beats the defender with the dribble.  Once Abidal is past Oezil notice how much space he has to run into.  This is a good example of Madrid not staying compact and interior space opening up within their block.  Also notice how Iniesta has dropped deep off his LW position and is completely unmarked in this open space.

Abidal Free in Space; Madrid Not Compact

Abidal is still in open space and not closed down.  Alonso is trying to recover and close him down – but Alonso has very limited pace and doesn’t  hinder Abidal.  In the image above you can just see part of Marcelo’s arm.  Again, this demonstrates how much space there was between Madrid’s frontline and backline.

Tellingly, Diarra is signaling Abidal’s run to the backline.  Diarra doesn’t move to close down Abidal.  Instead his tactical role is to defend deep – in front of the back four.  Again, this leaves open interior space because it prevents compactness.  And the focus of the backline is to start to drop deeper – not to close space and press – even though the Barça run is being made by a defender who is not even to the midfield line.

Finally, notice how out of shape the Madrid backline is.  Sanchez has dropped deep and forced Coentrao, the right back, to track him into the middle of the pitch. Coentrao is unclear on whether he should track Sanchez or close down Abidal.  Diarra is signaling for him to mark Sanchez but Coentrao is edging towards Abidal.  Remarkably, Messi is still completely open in space – and intelligently making a vertical run directly into the space Coentrao has vacated.

Exploiting these internal open spaces through off the ball movement, rapid ball circulation and the dribbling were the central reasons why Barcelona was able to control midfield and control this match.  This was fundamental to Barcelona winning.  Again and again Barça was able to create and exploit space within the Madrid block by patiently playing the ball past the initial line of four defenders who were very high up the pitch.

Dribbling was critical to winning this match due to the reasons shown in the images above.  I wanted to show the images from Abidal’s run because they demonstrated how effective this tactics could be.  Abidal is a defender – he is very good on the ball for a backline player but hardly a force.  Despite that, making the front line defense miss ripped open the Madrid defense.

When the Barceona attackers used the ball to find that kind of space the effects where devastating.  Messi’s freedom to find space coupled with his ability to dribble and make defenders miss within that open space repeatedly forced the Madrid defense to break its shape.  In the second half, Iniesta functionally took over the match through his ability on the ball carving open interior space by ghosting past defenders.

One of Guardiola’s fundamental tactical accomplishments in this Clásico was to develop a structure that facilitated Barcelona exploiting these open interior spaces.

The Madrid Defensive System: Trade Offs – Fatigue

The key to Madrid’s press is their athleticism and pace.  This is why they can defend so effectively on the press without staying as compact as other pressing teams need to.  Each defender pressing high is assigned to cover a zone and man mark a defender in that zone.  Pressure doesn’t depend on “hunting in packs.”  Instead it’s primarily created through the work rate and pace of the defenders.  Advanced defender are responsible for marking opposition players 1 vs. 1 across much of the pitch.  Space is suffocated through velocity, allowing the backline and defensive midfielders to play deeper than they otherwise would.

This brings up another major limitation of this system however – fatigue.  Defenders are frequently required to chase the ball 1 vs. 1 over distance to close down space.  In general, it is difficult for teams to press aggressively for 90 minutes – especially when they face a Barça team that will control 60-75% of possession.  To press for 90 minues with the Madrid model is especially difficult.

And as the match wore on and Barça retained possession Madrid visibly fatigued.  This decreased the effectiveness of their pressure significantly in the second half.  This was another major structural advantage.

Battle for Midfield

Over the past series of Clásicos Guardiola and Mourinho have been locked in a battle over control of midfield.  Mourinho understands that this is the life blood of the Barcelona attack.  As such he’s focused defensive resources to this region by increasing defensive shape, including more defensively oriented players in the zone (e.g. trivote), and increasing the sheer number of players in the region (e.g. high pressure).

Guardiola has responded to these tactics by Mourinho by stationing more players in midfield in order to maintain numerical advantage.

For example, in the CL last season Guardiola had his full backs play in line with the holding midfielder to provide outlets in the middle third instead of sending them high up the pitch.  This gave Barça six players in midfield.

One of the key open questions headed into this match was how many players Guardiola would commit to midfield in order to maintain numerical advantage.  In turn, how many could he commit without having so many players in the center that Barça would lose spacing, become too narrow and become easier to defend.  This was particularly important because if Barça lost spacing of the pitch they could be exposed on the counter in their transition defense.

The Battle Over Midfield:  What to do with Messi?

Much of the crux of the midfield battle between Guardiola and Mourinho tactically has revolved around Messi.  As a false 9, Messi theoretically gives Barça an extra man in midfield.  He gives Barça direct numerical advantage if allowed to do so unencumbered.

In order to prevent this, Mourinho has used multiple strategies since the Manita.  He’s had Pepe play as a DM and man mark Messi.  This worked reasonably well –but requires Madrid to play deep and defend and also have surplus CB to utilize.

Mourinho had his center backs step out aggressively to mark Messi. This is partly why Mourinho can’t afford to play his whole backline too high – there’s too much risk doing that while CB are stepping out on Messi.

Madrid has gone so far as to use CB to step out and even man mark Messi across the pitch.  For example, in the Super Copa Clásico’s Carvalho was assigned to man mark Messi across his defensive zone -even following him laterally to the touchlines when needed.

This specific strategy however met with mixed success at best as Messi’s dragged Carvalho out of shape engineering key Barça scores.

Perhaps the match where Madrid handled Messi best was in the Copa Del Rey.  And in that match they defended him indirectly.  That was the first match where they tried to pressure Barça.  Madrid played in a block, pressured higher up, and overplayed the middle.  In order to retain possession under pressure, Messi had to drop extremely deep to search for the ball and support the midfield three.  He dropped so deep however that Barça essentially lost him as a goal threat.  And in addition, no other player to filled in the space he vacated.  So in essence, by pressuring high up, Madrid not only disrupted Barça’s possession – but also nullified Barça’s best threat on goal.  They turned Messi as a false 9 striker into a full time midfielder with no striker in front of him.

Making sure this didn’t happen again – Messi dropping so deep to support possession that Barça completely loses its focal point in attack – was a priority for Guardiola and a key driver for the formation he implemented.

Leo Messi Comes Full Circle at the Bernabeu

The first time Guardiola fielded Messi at the false 9 position was during the historic 2-6 Barcelona victory at the Bernabeu.  In that match, playing Messi centrally and having him drop deep created anarchy in the Madrid defense.  While the false 9 has since garnered significant attention – at the time it was largely a forgotten tactic and Madrid didn’t know how to respond (which happened again to Manchester United in the CL finals).

Since then, of course the competition has responded.  And as touched on prior, Mourinho has developed several defensive approaches geared towards dealing with Messi in the false 9 position.

So on this trip to the Bernabeu, Guardiola shuffled the deck once again – and once more the move had a major impact on the match.

Messi didn’t play as a false 9 in this match.  He played in the hole behind the striker – close to how one would expect a 10 to play (though dropping much deeper into midfield than the traditional 10).  This is the position in the hole is the one that is most revered in Argentina.  There the position is described as the “enganche” – which literally mean hook.  The notion is that the enganche should be the creative player who connects midfield to the striker.  This match was one in which Messi again came very close to occupying the same position Maradona made his own.

One of the great tactical ironies of this match is that Messi played one of the more orthodox roles he’s ever played at Barcelona – and by playing him in a more orthodox position, Guardiola again created confusion and difficulty for Madrid at the Bernabeu by utilizing a strategy from the “past.”

The image below demonstrates several of these factors:

Messi Finds Open Space Between the Lines

Messi has the ball in the space between the Madrid lines.  He has an frontline attacker in front of him – Sanchez – as a point of reference.  Because of Sanchez’s pace and ability to get behind the defense, it is not simple for the CB to aggressively step out on Messi as they have in the past when he was a false 9.

Xabi Alonso is forced to mark Alves – who is now playing as a winger.  Madrid never made a suitable adjustment to Alves playing higher up the pitch.  C.Ronaldo continues to mark Puyol as Puyol was the player in his zone he was assigned to mark and press.  Once the ball got past that line, C.Ronaldo did not want to track back that deeply as it would have limited his ability to attack on the counter.

This image above also shows how strong an effect Barça’s asymmetric formation had in the match tactically.  The entire defense has shifted to the Barça right flank.  Messi is 1 vs. 1 with Diarra.  Remarkably, both Iniesta and Fabregas are completely unmarked and making runs from deep into space.

The key here is the way Barcelona have spaced the pitch.  Unlike other matches where they’ve used extra midfielders – in this match Barça maintained width which spaced the pitch.

Iniesta in the first half did a wonderful job of staying disciplined and maintaining width.  The drawback to this was that he was often isolated and uninvolved.  But he stretched the pitch wide left.  Because Abidal doesn’t get forward, the Barça LW is often going to be isolated (a problem that Villa runs into over and over).  Nonetheless, stretching the pitch made it very large and hard for Madrid to defend.

On the right side, Alves did a wonderful job of staying wide and tirelessly ran up and down the flank to both attack and support Puyol in defense.

This width and spacing of the pitch, was fundamental to opening up the weaknesses in the Madrid defensive system.  They cracked open that internal space – especially for Messi and also forced the Madrid defense to have to run more and become fatigued.

Spacing the Pitch Pays Off

The plays I’ve focused on until now didn’t turn into scores or even necessarily into real opportunities.  I wanted to show them however to demonstrate the pattern that emerged once Barça stabilized themselves in the game and switched to a three man backline.

There is only so long you can continue to give Barça this much open space – especially to Messi.  And ultimately, this is what led to two of the three goals.

Messi Open in Midfield Receives Pass; Xavi Open in Space Also

In the image above Messi receives a pass in midfield.  Notice how neither Messi nor Xavi are being marked.  The reason for this is that Oezila and Benzema were marking the two CBs Pique and Busquets as they were supposed to be.  C.Ronaldo’s responsibility is the lateral zone so he does not want to collapse into the middle – doing so will break Madrid’s shape.  Diarra is again playing deep rather than compact and also needs to keep an track of Iniesta how has ghosted in behind him (not shown in this image).  Alonso has marked Fabregas who has run into the area in his box to box role.

In a sense – all of the Madrid defenders are doing exactly what they are supposed to do in their defensive system.  But it leads to catastrophe for them.

Messi Accelerates; Oezil Attempts to Tactical Foul

Ozil makes great effort not only to close down Messi – but to tactically foul him.  As Oezil pressures notice the response of the Madrid defense – Diarra, Alonso, and Marcelo’s reaction to Messi’s run is to start to drop deep.  Ramos decides to step up into space.

Messi Breaks Tackle

Messi’s balance and strength allow him to easily ride Oezil’s tackle.  Once he’s broken free of that front line defender with the dribble the Madrid defense collapses shape.  Alonso looks to close down Messi and Lass tries to retreat.  The problem is because Messi had space initially – he’s already accelerated.

Messi Splits Defenders

Messi splits the defenders and blows by Alonso.  Notice Marcelo’s positioning here.  Because Alves is staying so wide Marcelo marks him rather than collapsing into the middle to defend.  This would prove decisive in the goal.

Ramos Steps Up to Stop Run But Messi Releases Pass

In the image above, Ramos has stepped up strongly with Lass closing down from behind and trying to muscle Messi off the ball.

Prior when Messi was playing the false 9 – this type of defending may have been effective.  Messi received the ball so deep and has so many walls of deeper defenders to beat.  But in this game because he’s playing as a 10 rather than as a false 9 Messi has a point of reference in front of him in Sanchez.  And Sanchez is a point of reference striker who has explosive pace and can get behind CBs with relative ease.  As such above Messi only has to ride so many tackles – he releases the ball for the pass as he’s cut down by Diarra.

Pass Released to Sanchez as Messi Tackled to the Ground
Messi Threads Pass; Sanchez Runs Behind Defense with Pace

Sanchez is able to accelerate past Pepe and Coentrao and get behind them.  Then as Pepe tries to tackle him Sanchez still has the strength and balance needed to stay on his feet.

Sanchez With Ball Separates As Pepe Attempts Tackle
Sanchez Gets off Shot While Riding Challenge

The Second Half: Iniesta Leaves His Mark

While the first half ended level and Barça had turned the match – it was still not the usual composed Barcelona.  They had more possession but had to struggle for it and that possession wasn’t as coherent as it ideally should be.

The major reason for this of course as the Madrid pressure defense.

But another reason was the absence of Iniesta in midfield.  Pulling Iniesta out to the wing provided Barcelona with needed tactical width.  But it removed one of the world’s great players with the ball at his feet from the region where he’s most dangerous.

While Fabregas’s role was sound in terms of formations and structure – the way he executed it wasn’t.  Fabregas is still learning how to integrate himself into the Barça possession game.  Right now he still plays “too slowly” often trying to play direct balls that just aren’t available because that’s not the style of the surrounding players.  And in this match he struggled to enter the flow of midfield play.  This was complicated by his new box to box role – one he hadn’t played before this season and one his teammates weren’ t certain how to link up with.

Iniesta playing on the wing was directly related to being able to play Fabregas in the match.  Pep essentially decided that Iniesta is better wide than Fabregas would be.  This made Fabregas’s performance in terms of build up and possession particularly costly as it removed Iniesta’s presence and replaced it with lower level midfield play.  At the same time – Iniesta was isolated on LW and struggled to fully join the dynamics of the match as well.

Guardiola saw this and changed it at half time.  Iniesta pinched in to midfield and Barça played without a designated LW.  Instead, Fabregas would often swith out wide when play needed to be stretched.

Moving Iniesta back to midfield transformed the match as it redefined how Barça was able to control possession.  Iniesta in the second half was the best player on the pitch. He generated opportunity after opportunity.  And against a tiring Madrid defense was able to ghost through those open internal spaces within the Madrid defense over and over.

Iniesta Playing Centrally in Second Half Beats Coentrao

Iniesta receives the ball in the Barça half above from Fabregas.  Iniesta turns quickly at the onrushing Coentrao.  For most of the game Coentrao played very deeply.  But once Iniesta moved centreally Madrid had no one to directly mark him.  Ironically, the one thing Mourinho had tried to avoid since the Manita had happened – Barça had completely overrun the Madrid defensive midfield.  Barça now had a numerical advantage in midfield of up to 5-6 to 3.  At the same time because Alves stayed, Sanchez would pull horizontally between flanks, and Fabregas would move left when Iniesta came very central, Barça still had width.

In this regard, it was very curious that Mourinho didn’t substitute in more central midfielders or pull DiMaria permanently off the flank into midfield.  Instead he continued to have Madrid play their zonal cover man marking pressure system.  The problem was Barça had too much movement and interplay from multi-skilled players for this system of 1 vs. 1 marking to work-especially as the defenders tired.

This is well demonstrated in the image above.  Notice how Messi is once again completely open and unmarked in space.  Messi had as much space in this match as he’s had for quite some time.  It seems like the Madrid plan may have been similar to the Copa Del Rey.  Allow Messi to collect the ball deep to draw him away from goal and then defend him deep with the CBs if he breaks containment.  However, Messi was no longer playing as a false 9.  He was playing as a 10 with Sanchez in front of him and Alves always wide of him in the right.  Even if intentional the Copa Del Rey defensive strategy wasn’t going to work.

Iniesta Beats Second Defender; Coentrao Frustrated; Messi Open in Space

Iniesta beats Coentrao and then Alonso off the dribble in transition and once he does the whole pitch opens up.  Coentrao is so angry at getting beat, he stops and flails his arm in the middle of the pitch.

Again, note how remarkably wide open Messi is in space.  This is again one of those images that when you just see it – you know it is going to end badly for the opposition.  Iniesta with the ball.  Messi open with large space to run into.

Iniesta Plays Ball Wide to Messi

Khedira falls back to close down Messi.  Despite Khedira being so much larger than him, Messi rides out the tackle.

Messi Rides Khedira's Tackle from Behind; Marcelo Collapses Centrally
Messi Breaks Challenge

In the images above Messi has broke Khedira’s tackle.  This causes the entire defense to collapse on him.  Notice how open Alves is because he has maintained disciplined tactical width. These are the kinds of transition breaks at speed that Madrid themselves have become so known for.  Also notice that Fabregas has come into the image on the run along with Coentrao.

Alves fires in an amazing cross.  It’s a beautiful piece of skill especially given how complicated it is to time that cross when Fabregas is making such a long run.  But the key to Alves being able to make a cross of that quality is Messi.  Because Messi has forced the defense to collapse with his run Alves is completely unmarked and has no defenders even running towards him.  As shown below, Marcelo the LB actually has his back turned to Alves – that’s how open he is.

Alves Open in Space Wide
Alves Receives Pass; Fabregas Makes Run from Deep to Goal
Alves Perfectly Times and Places Cross for Fabregas's Run

Solidity in Transition Defense:  Carles Puyol – The Key to Guardiola’s Tactics

While I’ve discussed the Bardca formation and attack in detail – none of it would be possible without Carles Puyol.  He along with Busquets were the tactical foundations for Guardiola’s thinking.  And it was Puyol who had to absorb the greatest responsibility on the team.

Barça was simultaneously able to gain numerical advantage in midfield while also spacing the pitch through width primarily because they played three at the back with Busquets in support.  This is what Pep meant when he said that the team had the choice to be brave or very brave in the match at the Bernabeu.

The trade off one makes is that with three at the back the lateral center halves are extremely exposed down the flanks.  They are at risk for getting caught  1 vs. 2 against the oppositions winger and FB.  This is what happened to Mascherano again and again in the opening of the Valencia match.

To play three at the back meant trusting that the lateral CB could at minimum handle the Madrid wingers 1 vs. 1 in space.  While Busquets could join as a fourth defender – the problem would really occur in transition defense.  In those situations there would likely not be enough time for Busquets to drop and for the backline to spread wide.  Given that Madrid runs its offense down the flanks and is the best squad in the world at breaking at speed – this tactical approach was enormously risky.  To implement it meant that Guardiola had to have complete faith in his backline – but especially in the lateral center halves.

And the key player in making all of this work was the right center half who would have to double as a right FB.  Madrid’s offense is structure down its left flank.  The combination of Marcelo in support of C.Ronalso along with Ozil and Xabi spraying balls wide into space is the foundation of their offense.  In addition, with Benzema’s resurgence – he too often plays out on the left flank looking to link up with C.Ronaldo and create moves from wider positions.

And in a game where Coentrao, a left footed player, was acting as a make shift RB – the left flank was even more critical for Madrid.

Everything I’ve discussed – none of it would be possible or could work if Guardiola didn’t believe his right center back could carry this immense responsibility.  If he couldn’t – then no Fabregas in a box to box role.  No Alves on the wing.  No Sanchez as a lone striker playing in a horizontal band.  None of it worked unless Guardiola believed that a single player could neutralize C.Ronaldo 1 vs. 1 and stop breaks involving Marcelo and C.Ronaldo linking together.

Guardiola fortunately did have that player.  The Captain was just immense.  He had the most responsibility on the team this match.  He gave Pep the flexibility to balance the three objectives – control of midfield / width along with transition defense.  Abidal also had a terrific match playing well against DiMaria.

But as expected the Madrid attack was significantly weighted to their left flank during the crucial part of the match.  And Puyol completely shut down the Madrid attack time and time again.  Alves was critical because he occupied Marcelo and prevented him from getting forward.  But seeing that Benzema came left frequently to support C.Ronaldo.

So effective was Puyol in neutralizing C.Ronaldo pace based attacks on the left flank, that Mourinho moved C.Ronaldo to the right flank.  Not only is this C.Ronaldo’s weaker side but Coentrao wasn’t getting forward at all so C.Ronaldo as functionally on his own in wide positions.

It’s for these reasons that Puyol was man of the match.

The End

For much of this season Guardiola has been criticized for experimenting too much.  Too many line ups.  Too many formations.  To few defenders and far too many midfielders.

What made this Clásico so special – was that it was the culmination of all that experimentation, risk taking, hard work and complete belief in his players.

Without that prior experimentation – Barcelona could not have won this match the way they did.  In fact, without Guardiola continuing to push tactical boundaries with the Barça system and forcing it to evolve – it’s possible that Barça wouldn’t have won.

Mourinho set his team up to face a Barça team that played a fluid 4-3-3 with Messi dropping deep as the primary source of numerical advantage in midfield.  But that wasn’t’ the system Guardiola played at all.  And that just amplified how many shadows the Madrid team had to chase once Barcelona settled down from that disastrous start.

Ultimately, it was the team’s talent, mental strength, calm and championship experience that saw them through after that disastrous start where they conceded within thirty seconds of the match starting.  But it was the way the system was constructed that allowed the players to translate the inner resources they possessed into execution on the pitch and do so as a brilliant, collective whole.  That’s what tactics are always about.

This was a historic match in so many ways.  Tactically it was one of the most noteworthy in Barcelona’s history given how innovative Guardiola was and the circumstances.  He continues to develop approaches to the game that are breathtaking to watch and analyze.

In my preview to the match I wrote that given how talented these two sides are and how multi-dimensional the players are, the tactical battle would be won by the manager who put into place the structure that maximized the players flexibility and their ability to respond dynamically to the events that transpired within match play.

In this match and in the Rayo Vallecano match Guardiola is exporing the dimensions for how that kind of flexibility can be created.

At the start of this season many thought that incorporating the 3-4-3 into the base system was Guardiola’s next project for the team.  And many wondered if it was too radical a shift to work.

It turned out everyone was wrong.  Guardiola is trying to move in a far more visionary direction.



  1. Wow, Euler! This post was definitely worth the wait. Once again, it was an enjoyable read. I think you’re an excellent writer. If you ever write a book about tactics, I’d happily buy it. 🙂

  2. Euler, you are the star. Thank you for this brilliant review.

    Most Barca followers kept on praising Iniesta after the match, but I was sure about the influence of Messi and Puyol. I have seen the match about 4 times and I am quite convinced about what I felt. Your analysis is perfect. Messi was the worst fear of Madrid, but still they didnt manage to control him because of Pep’s tactical switch. And Messi did the best use of it, especially for the first and third goal. And the first goal was the real break in this game. Our players were more relaxed after that goal, which had Messi mark all over.
    It is funny to see how Messi attracts 3 or even more players to him, each and every time he has the ball. Madrid players are really scared of him.

    Puyol – no words to describe this Tarzan. He plays with his heart. When Marcelo shows his side to Xavi’s shot (during the second goal) we can see how Puyol recieves a strong HIguain shot on his face!!!!

    Another brilliant player was Busquests. I dont have words to describe Busquests. It is a pity that he is not treated among the best 10 players in the world.

    After we were down at 22 sec, Leo, Puyi and Sergi were the three players who didnt really look bloody nervous.

    Once again thank you Euler.

  3. This is brilliant post Euler. One of the best pieces i have ever read on football.

    Scoreline might have luck written on it but fortune favors the brave. And Pep/Barca were brave. In the end, Barca owned the football and was best team in the match by margin.

    Really interesting to see that Pep had tried so many things and learned from them. Masch did the Puyi role in Valencia and defense had terrible time. Pep learned from it.

    What i know is that results might not in control but Pep’s Barca will always be brave. And as a fan, thats what i want.

  4. So I guess all those nail biting moments us fans suffered watching Busquets playing CB really paid off in the end.

    I’m glad Euler included the moment where Abidal turned Ozil, because I remember seeing that moment live on TV, at the time Abidal and Busquets virtually switching positions seemed somewhat very odd, but It was very noticeably effective.

    So does this add another question into the mix of things, Guardiola originally preferred the creater & destroy backline duo, so now in future he may possibly look for defenders that can play central and in wide positions ala Muniesa?

  5. “Just when Jose Mourinho thought he had the answers, Pep Guardiola changed the questions.” -Marti Perarnau-

    this. exactly this.
    and thank you Euler for your hard work and commitment to this blog. I read your full article. Eulertastic review.

    just finished watching Revista La Liga. Graham Hunter told us what Guardiola said to his players before :

    “Look, lads. The SuperCup came at the time when we shouldn’t ready for it. We all knew that was the game we should’ve lost. We didn’t, we beat them, we outplayed them. They gave everything, they were physically far ahead of us in August. And we still won

    Only you guys can drop the ball now. If we don’t win this, it will be your fault, because your are that much better than them.

    Don’t worry about the big Bernabeu, don’t worry about how we’ve arrived here. Play your football and you’ll win

    Pep talk. Wow. How lucky we are to have Pep as a coach.

  6. I’m interested in opinions on Pique’s performance. I think it might possibly be his WORST outing, all season long. He was pathetically weak, at least, that’s the impression I got from watching the game. Puyol seemed angry and frustrated w/ him during the game, casting death looks at him every time the pair were on camera. Your thoughts?

    1. Don’t think Pique was weak at all. When playing 3.5 defenders against an opponent that has scored goals than us this season, you can’t expect every defender to be lord and master. Who do you think he is, Puyol? M*drid will ALWAYS create chances against any team they come up against. They are just really really dangerous.

      If anything I think Xavi lost the ball a LOT, especially during the first half. Cesc was weak also, some of the possible reasons why are very well analyzed above, but he made up for it with a golazo 🙂

    2. I think you watched a different game than I did. It certainly wasn’t Pique’s best performance, and he was beaten for pace far too much, but weak? Pathetic? Not at all. And I definitely didn’t see any “death looks” from Puyol that weren’t directed towards RM players.

  7. Thanks Euler!

    I still think it is amazing that Marcelo and Crynaldo did not take more advantage of Dani Alves’ high employment. Because just like Dani Alves moving forward pinned back Marcelo, Marcelo moving forward would have pinned back Dani Alves, left us without any outlet on the right wing, and subsequently crowding the middle due to our limited presence on the left side of the pitch.

    The thing that amazes me most is that one usually would have a winger threaten the left back into submission, have Dani Alves as a right back and Puyol in the center covering for Dani Alves’ forward runs if necessary.

    Had all four of Puyol, Piqué, Busquets and Abidal not played near perfect game Pep’s gameplan would have been suicidal – as it is Crynaldo should still have buried us in the first half hour during which the only Barça scoring opportunity occurred because Ramos confused himself with the King’s Cup.

    What eventually won the game was our players’ mental and technical quality more than anything.

    1. Had all four of Puyol, Piqué, Busquets and Abidal not played near perfect game Pep’s gameplan would have been suicidal –

      That’s right. That’s why I emphasized transition defense as one of the key pillars and the one to make it work.

      Out of transitions Busquets can drop back, team can defend as a unit. But when play transitions with 3 at the back its very dangerous and requires all 3 backs and Busquets to work together flawlessly.

      It’s a circle – one allows the other to shine: technical quality-mentality-tactics.

  8. New from Run of Play, and makes the point that many of us have been making, which is that it’s the system. It isn’t the simple matter of essaying to retain possession. It’s the fact that there is a system in place to maximize possession, being played by players who know exactly what to do with that possession.

    Anyhow ….

  9. You are a heck of a man (or underwear model) doing a heck of a job. Fantastic analysis! I’ll be honest I was desperately trying to notice the quick tactical changes and evolving structure by Pep during the game so I could read this very entry later and try to better understand your disection. I missed tons of course, but mind you I was at a very loud bar. Brilliant article.

    If you were part of the coaching staff, Moan-rinho would surely poke your eyes. Take it as a compliment 🙂

    And a bit on El Mister himself: The fact that he is able to change the structure at a whim during the course of the match is remarkable. It all seems so seamless, so fluid, that 90% of viewers, with all their PVR rewinding even, are unable to see the evolution. Our master tactician completely out-witted Moan-rinho. May he continue for years to come (until one day it’s Xavi’s turn ;)).

  10. And in a very separate post, I have read a lot on this match, a lot on tactics, and just a lot in general. This piece is one of the best. I am personally going to Euler’s home to bathe his smoldering hands in fragrant balm and oil, to ensure that he will be fine for the next big match.


  11. EE has really taken a mental hit. Their confidence must surely be at another low. They just didn’t seem the same monstrous side in the CDR last night as they have been all season long. Playing TB for 90 minutes was surely a way to bring his confidence back up, especially with Sevilla looming.

    Speaking from EE’s point of view, perhaps it’s best Moan-rinho is claiming luck doomed them. If his players believe as such, it would help them when they play us again. If they all truly believed that Barcelona were just far superior, then we would have an even greater psychological advantage in the next game. With that said, Moan-rinho himself should be well aware that his team/tactics were not up to par and work on improving them.

  12. Thanks, it was a great read!
    This post is going to be pretty duplicative, but in the interest of process not substance.

    Some of Pep’s comments about tactics especially the one about them just being about players makes me wonder about the thought process that arrived at these tactics. I imagine Pep sits down with a few points he thinks he needs to accomplish based on his players and system every time he starts analyze the opposition and looks for the best ways to accomplish them given the other team’s tendencies.
    1. Maintain possession.
    1A. Gain midfield superiority to maintain possession.
    2. Get Messi into space.
    3. Give the defense the ability to build from the back and account for their attack with a minimum number of defenders.

    The first one is a function of his and barca’s preference for tiki taka. As a lot of people have spelled out in the last few years, it is a preference and not a moral imperative or necessary component to success. It does, however, shape and limit tactical choices available. Further, Pep has made it clear that he views gaining midfield superiority as the primary component to maintaining possession. This again moves your tactics in certain directions given the opponent. As an aside, it also does interesting things in your relationship to width and wide players just as villa.

    In this match this meant at times xavi and busquets looking like a double pivot in possession. Iniesta being sacrificed in the first half in the name of tactical width aka space in middle. Dani being allowed to be offensive dani rather than defensive dani. There was a comment above about how marcelo could have had a similar effect, in reverse, as dani did. Which way the “pinning back” happens is a function of possession, correct me if i am wrong. But with barca in possession marcelo has to track dani, and the reverse is true. With the bulk of the possession dani is more often getting forward and marcelo pushed back. Over the course of the game this has an additive effect and “trains” marcelo to stay back.

    This is also the reason for Cesc playing in midfield as opposed to part of a front three. Finally, this could explain, along with 2, of why messi played more 10-like.

    The second is simple. Get the best player in the world enough space to work. This is facilitated by the fact that he can provide in addition to score. Looking at this game, and the effect of past clasicos as euler described wonderfully, pep decided there was going to be space between the madrid lines so that would be the best place for messi. However, from the past games he knew that if messi was the furthest forward player in the center this would allow madrid to collapse on him or force him to beat 4-5 players consistently to get to a dangerous place with the ball. So, in addition to playing messi deep you have to post up a guy in front of him who is willing to run his ass off pulling people out of position. The result in this game is messi only has to beat a couple guys before he gets into or can play the ball into a dangerous position. Luckily, asking messi to beat a couple guys consistently is doable.

    You can also see this requirement specifically in each of the shifts pep/messi have made with his positioning, obviously. However, the constant evolution and changes are about how to get it done this time not what is his best position. Messi has proven that given a little space to receive the ball is all the position he needs. It also begs the question about what happens to messi’s positioning with different finishers around him. This game was an example that he can be just as effective in facilitating scoring from deeper with finishers around and in front of him. I expect we will see more of villa and sanchez playing as more typical strikers to create and maintain that space between lines for messi. It also makes you wonder if messi could play a more important role in “replacing” xavi as either cesc or thiago.

    And 3, everybody knows how important it has been for barca to play out of the back, play it back to create space, etc. This part is the most obvious nod to the opponent having an effect on barca’s formation. Basic rule of thumb have one more guy back than the opponent has forward. This gives you cover defending, but for barca building out of the back this is also necessary to allow building from the back. In this game it looked like that meant 4 guys to anyone who treats players as integers. Pep says playing 3 would be very dangerous against madrid. So everybody thinks he has to play 4. But because he isn’t quite right or because he is being very brave, Pep either only counts ozil as a half or figures he only has to have half a guy extra back rather than a whole one. So he goes with 3 1/2 making busquets do whatever name you want to give to what it is he does.

    There is one point on the courage of valdes to continue playing the ball out after his gaff that i haven’t seen made explicitly. The coverage usually goes puyol pumped him back up and he continued to do exactly what they always do the barca way. One thing about what valdes does that allows busquets to do what he does, is that he becomes the extra man in possession. Normally people only count the outfield players when discussing matching up, hence the 4 in defense 3 in possession and the half a busquets 3 1/2. However, i would bet in pep math he counts valdes in possession, giving them 4 at the back in and out of possession. The point that i have spent too much time getting to is what happens if valdes allows himself to get spooked? Not the over reaction he is going to boot it long constantly and the midgets will never win the ball, but what if his passing had just become more conservative and he no longer counts as an extra guy in possession. Does that require an extra half a guy? Is that busquets or dani? How does that decision shift the control of the midfield?

    sorry this thing got a bit out of control.

    1. Excellent comment. I really liked your thought about Pep looking at Valdes as an extra man in posession. ie, even when Barca has only 3 at the back, Valdes acts as the 4th, a sweeper. Never thought like that.
      I also hope Sabella have watched this match. Messi as a real number 10, with strikers like Higuain and/or Aguero ahead of him should be excellent tactic for Argentina.

    2. Well said! Agree on your points.

      You got across well how the components have to fit together to produce the system as a whole.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

    1. Funny, I was thinking the same about the ZonalMarking thing.

      Incredible analysis with such clarity and insight. Made even better with still shots to illustrate your point! Hats off!

  13. uh, teacher, teacher…

    Did you mean to say “… a 4-3-3 to 3-1-2-3-1. In a sense, Barça played most of the match with 3 ½ ATTACKERS. (or forwards)?

    …or did you mean to repeat yourself?

    I’m hanging on every word, so I want to make sure I get it.

  14. Wow! Quite a lot to take in for one sitting, i just wanna talk about two things today.
    You keep saying that because of the front 5 pressing there arose an enormous space between lines. Inside their own defensive block. But why didnt the defense stay compact as a unit. surely mourinho knows that. In effect it also helps employ the off side trap which they definitely want to do given how dangerous barcelona’s own attack is.
    why wasnt the madrid defense told to stay compact? defend as a unit and attack in a stretched manner. or is it that the players became too reactive because of nerves? we will never know.
    and this is my problem with these sort of elaborate tactical reviews. there are a lot of teams that have defended well against us by staying compact and letting us have the ball in not so dangerous positions. In fact that is the key to containing this crazy barca team. they can run around all they want and run into each others positions all the while interchanging like some bees at work, but that does not hurt you. what hurts you is what happens around the box. and therein lies the key doesnt it? if you are not willing to win the ball back these guys have just soo much posession. and that is not expected in the Bernabeu.

    but what u could throw light on is
    why wasnt madrid compact? isnt that one of the main characteristics of a mourinho team? does that mean staying compact in defense automatically equals having low possession?

    just like pep said before the match and its true that he didnt tell the players anything new. just the same ol find spaces, be proactive, maintain numerical superiority, use width, stuff. he must have outlined some positional details he wanted his players to maintain. but all this 3-3-1-3 and 3-4-2-1 and 3-2-2-2-1 is simply a reflection of what happened on the field because of following the above principles. It ultimately makes for boring reading i must say with the most respect to you. being the brilliant football analyst and writer as i know you are, i would love to read an article about a modern trainer’s qualities. how much of it is tactics and what does it take to make the players put all that theory and concepts into practise on the field with parameters like physical conditions, nerves etc?

    The second thing i just want to put out there is my absolute bewilderment at the very common perception floating these days that madrid is the second best team in the world. i mean, how did they earn such a place. its not like they have played the likes of man u, chelsea, now man city and napoli consistently in the recent past. We can never know that EE are a more effective team. so how exactly dis this happen? is it only because of mourinho, or tb or is it a wonderful marketing result. its quite sad most battles against madrid (with other teams too), the battle is already half won before the match..just sad. or is it because they are BARCA’S main rivals? i just feel they have done nothing to earn the no.2 spot in the world and quite pissed at how that is almost accepted as the truth even here at bfb.

    really sorry to bore everybody with this long ramble.
    but i guess, what better writer’s article to post such a long comment on than Mr. Euler’s eh?

    1. Nobody has “earned” the no 2. spot really. EE are the no.2 by default because they are the only team that has managed to scare culés.

      Man U – the turkey at Barça’s Christmas party after EE gave us 4 very, very tough games. Besides, they didn’t even make it out of their CL group (always a tough thing to do when you are facing the mighty Basel)

      Man City – they are just starting to become a big team. Didn’t make it out of their group either.

      Chelsea – trailing Man U and Man City in the league. Nuff said.

      Napoli – my favorite team in Italy (read: the only team I don’t dislike), but uhmm….really???

      Milan / Inter / Juve – haven’t really made much noise outside of a weak Serie A the last couple of seasons. Inter was done for after Mourinho anyway.

      The case could be made for Bayern. Interesting to see how they would match up against EE, but I still think EE is stronger.

      Cronaldo, Benzema, Di Maria. Ozil, Xavi Alonso. Pepe, Ramos, Marcelo. Evil Mou on the bench. Kaka and Higuain coming off of it. Threatening to take the league of off the world’s best team. Beat the world’s best team in the final of the Copa de Rey last year.

      I think Euler pointed out why EE didn’t stay compact. Something about having the attacking players pressing like crazy. The defenders sit deep as to not risk getting killed when we break the press.

      You could translate it as fear.

      Other teams can press like you say against Barça and have success but that is also because they have nothing to lose. It might work or we might slap them with our little hand. And nobody will say a thing when the latter happens, other than Barça is a great team. Coaches won’t get sacked, teams won’t get murdered in the news.

      Mou does not want the little hand. Neither does anybody else in M*drid 😉

    2. But why didnt the defense stay compact as a unit. surely mourinho knows that.

      I covered that in the piece. He didn’t want his backline to play as high as it would have been required to stay compact given where his front line defeders were.

      I’m sure he knew. He just didn’t want to take on that particular risk with his defensive line. Given how far up the front line defenders were they would have had to play a fantastically high line to stay compact.

      That would have put them at risk for getting beat behind the defensive line – especially if Messi could find a way to get some acceleration.

      Extremely risky strategy to play the backline that high.

      The other reasons was their system of man marking with zonal cover. The defenders have to position themselves with respect to the attackers within their zones. They can’t readily prioritize positioning themselves with respect to each other.

      The whole point of tactics is that all managers have to make trade offs. No one can have everything. There is no perfect system.

      So the main job is given your players, their talent, fitness and mentality, how do you put them in the best position so that your team’s weaknesses are minimized and strengths maximized.

  15. ” There was a comment above about how marcelo could have had a similar effect, in reverse, as dani did. Which way the “pinning back” happens is a function of possession, correct me if i am wrong. But with barca in possession marcelo has to track dani, and the reverse is true. With the bulk of the possession dani is more often getting forward and marcelo pushed back. Over the course of the game this has an additive effect and “trains” marcelo to stay back.”

    That was my comment. I had not thought of that.

    Still though, I remember clasico’s in which we had a winger AND four defenders instead of Dani Alves and three defenders + busi in which Marcelo caused us enough problems coming up. Keep in mind also that another risk of this strategy was that both our central defender and our Busi defender aren’t the quickest of all.

    Also we are “lucky” that Ronaldo is merely Ronaldito whenever he plays us (would use the Portugues diminitive but that would be blasphemy 😉

    Anwyay you are making a good point though, and the match would prove you right! 🙂

    1. Lev, think you might have to get more intense in the analysis of the who and where RM’s possession occurred in this game versus others to be explicit in answering the marcelo question. The other aspect in this game was sanchez drifting laterally. That may have effected the amount of freedom Marcelo was given or felt he had in this game. I think possession and dani’s freedom are important to consider. Dani was more free to mark marcelo and/or the space marcelo would move into because puyol was marking ronaldo behind him. Unrelated, I liked how this allowed dani to come centrally. His recovery defense is great and since he wasn’t just chasing straight back down the line he demonstrate this.

      For example, we have said busi was 1/2 a defender and the average position supports that. But comparing the first half to the second half it looks much more like 3 at the back in the second half. His position was more forward due to increased possession in the second half, even though it was 15 minutes or so before he pep moved to 3 + busi at the back. If RM had kept more possession in the second half we might have been saying that busi was playing CB and puyol RB rather than RCB.

      as far as CR is concerned he definitely wasn’t at his best/most efficient, but as Kxevin and others have said…against top competition things are going to be tougher. And i know he missed a couple that people expect him to score. I would argue a couple things about that. First, they don’t go in unless you put them on goal AND they get past the keeper. You can’t count muffed shots as should have been goals unless they are open nets. It is weird to me that it is easier to say that shots that weren’t put on goal, a la CR, are counted as points taken off the board more often than great shots that were barely stopped, a la messi and casillas. Further, I would argue that CR while not his best, wasn’t that far off. A quick look at his shooting stats on soccernet have 30-40% of his shots on goal depending on the competition, closer to 30 in the CL and 40 in La Liga this season. They have him as 2 for 7 in the clasico or 29%. So really not different from what you could expect from him in a CL game. Yes, the ones he missed may have looked easier/more open than normal, but they were that aberrational. I think it is part of the abnormal expectation people have for him, which run of play and others have talked about. People expect him to pull off the exceptional stuff that he does with an irrational and unsupported frequency. For example, i don’t think he has scored from a free kick yet this year and the number of pk’s he scores skews his scoring efficiency, and the perception of it, from the run of play.

    2. I wasn’t answering the Marcelo question, I am asking it, lol 😉 But like I said, the game (which I have not analyzed either having only seen it once) would have proved you right because Marcelo was pinned back. What I am saying though is that just as we played bravely with our chosen strategy, Mou could have asked Marcelo to come up more as well. As it is I don’t remember him being involved in any(!) attack, an extreme which points more towards choice / assignment than opportunity.

      As for Ronaldo, I think the stat that counts percentage of shots on goal are irrelevant. A shot can be on goal but weak or from a hopeless position. A shot could have just missed the post (or hit it, actually I think they don’t count as “on goal” either) and make me wipe the sweat off of my forehead. What I am saying is that he had two excellent scoring opportunities which he absolutely fluffed and could have generally created more danger for us.

      I think that 49(or whatever?) goals last year do not do not make expectations of playing a lot better against one’s archrival irrational and unsupported. If he is the best player of a very strong team (which he is), then a lot should be expected of him. Luckily for us he usually underperforms when we face him, but that still doesn’t make him less of a threat when drawing up the tactics.

  16. If you want to see how differently our RB operates than our LB, go to the Liga BBVA player comparer and put Alves up against Abidal. Some of the stats made me laugh out loud. Even taking into account that Abidal spent some of his minutes at CB rather than LB, the difference is amazing.

    For one thing, Abi don’t dribble. Even though he did in the example in Euler’s post, the stats on the site show him attempting 1 dribble (and completing none) to Dani’s 21/11. He fouls and is fouled a lot less often than Dani, and both passes and loses the ball a lot less. Dani loses the ball so much more because he plays so far forward. Abidal is a monster at recovering the ball, along with Mascherano (although Puyol & Pique will both improve that stat with more minutes played).

    Anyway, I just found it interesting.

    1. Someone pretty critical of Alves would argue if his 5 assists are worth his 80 lost balls this season. I would say yes, we need that assymetrical fulback/wingback on our backline.

    2. 80? I’m seeing 123 lost balls when I look at it.

      Anyway, you know who the king of lost balls is? Messi. He has lost over 200 balls so far and only recovered 15. Not worth it, right? 😉

    3. Yes, I forgot to mention that 80 was the difference between Abi and DaniAlves. Still if someone attacks more it’s usual he lost more balls. And I would say again; yes, it is worth it.

    4. That’s remarkable. Totally different forces.

      But part of the reason why this works in the system is that Iniesta plays center-left.

      In a sense, Dani’s job is to compensate for Iniesta playing on the other side of the pitch. Because Iniests is in front of him Abi doesn’t get as forward.

      This is also why I wanted to pick that moment from the match. It’s true – Abi rarely ever dribbles. But that just showed how structured Mourinho’s defense is around short passing. If you can beat the first defender it opens up enormous space. Even if you are only Abi!

    5. Well, Abidal always does his “fakes” (he looks like he’s going pass a long diagonal ball but he actually turns and continues down his flank a bit more) to which tend to own the opposition player 95% of the time. Are those not counted as dribbles?

  17. Thank you Euler, this was a great read. Finally I understood this game tactically, it seems that Pep owned Mou in so many ways, that it must be frustrating.
    The article you told us in the last post about Cesc is out, I don’t know it would be good for us if he adapts to well and starts passing the ball time and time again, I like his directness.
    Well I leave it here, someone already post it on the last thread, but just in case:

  18. I still think it is amazing that Marcelo and Crynaldo did not take more advantage of Dani Alves’ high employment. Because just like Dani Alves moving forward pinned back Marcelo, Marcelo moving forward would have pinned back Dani Alves, left us without any outlet on the right wing, and subsequently crowding the middle due to our limited presence on the left side of the pitch.


    It’s a key point you’re touching on.

    This is basically the risk you take in playing Dani that high up against an attacking LB.

    Which way will the match up go in terms of its dynamics?

    If it fails and Dani gets pinned back – Barca are in big trouble because then their right flank is compromised and their left flank as you point out. That means no width. Which makes it easier to press.

    So the first reason why Dani was successful – is that he’s Dani. He just knows how to do it and has the skills and positional intelligence to do it.

    In the past he’s driven CR and Di Maria back into their own halves.

    The big issues though is possession. Its why Pep is so focused on it and why the notion of Barca engaging in “useless” passing misses the point.

    As long as you can keep possession – then you can force the attacking LB into doing what he’s not as good at – defending.

    This is why Barca damages Marcelo over and over. He just has to spend much more time defending then he usually does. The flaws are magnified.

    And then a snowball or domino effect starts. Barca have the ball. RM depends on Marcelo to help them maintain possession and get CR the ball. Marcelo is pinned back – which means its harder for them to retain possession or build play to CR, etc.

    Its a viscious cycle that takes on a life of its own.

    The other reasons were Barca’s movement. Sanchez and Messi especially went wide right. This means Marcelo has to keep an eye on two attackers. Which is going to make him more conservative.

  19. WOOOOW!!! I have a question for you euler (and am inclined to believe the answer is yes)
    Your piece is like a storybook version of a movie only the movie came before the novel.
    I have been checking back here all week for it and must say the wait was worth it. The reviews help us understand what planning goes into each match and appreciate our WOWVELOUS team better.
    I was nervous going into the game but was strangely calmed down by their early goal cos i knew that would only serve to ignite our guys. Big thumbs up to the team and fans alike. The league strugglo has just started

  20. Marca according to its usual objectivity has taken two long articles, one describing how our strikers don’t have the same performance in their NT’s. And of course being Villa the only one that can’t be named on that article (for his amazing contribution to Spain’s NT), Marca has said that Barça intent to sell him this winter.
    Someone in Japan ask Pep about this make-up sell of Villa, and he was pretty clear in his response:
    “Marca Lies”.
    He also said that most players will be on the team for next season, including Villa. This could be taken as his intent of staying with team for one more year! I hope so.

  21. Time for some gifs to complement this post. [credit: barcaforums – Gnegneri + iNfRaSoNiC]

    El Capita


    Abi’s dribble

    oh yes




    Pique breaking some ankles


    Pep after the third goal


    Kay, that’s it. I’m done.



    had to do it

    1. I know! I don’t hate the guy or anything, but the more upset he gets, the better I feel! 😛

      How’s your lip-reading? What’s he saying?

    2. Apparently, he doesn’t care if children watch.
      Naa just kidding. He seems a good guy, must be hard for a player like him, to see how his greatest rival is better at the game time and time again. And him being the only canterano on the field, it seems that he’s the only one there that really feels what madridismo was like before. The values and whatnot. I really think that we being better than them for now, is a question of philosophy, of a style of playing, they have a great cantera, once Mou goes or Mendes goes, and they realize that presenting opportunities to canteranos pays up, we may see things change.

    3. Good stuff! GIFs are really amazing things. Does anyone know how they are made? I have no clue. (I guess I should just Google than then,duh lol)

  22. OT – This was briefly talked about on Twitter but I don’t think anyone mentioned it here:

    barcastuff: The new contracts B defenders Bartra and Montoya state that both will be part of the first team next season. A loan is not possible [md]


    Thoughts? It’s not an official statement,though, but I guess it’s pretty clear that Maxwell will leave. Dunno what it means for Fontas :-/

  23. So I guess the next question is, who will Pep play tomorrow? It is tomorrow, right? I suspect Puyol will sit this one out, especially if he was suffering some discomfort in the Clasico. Villa must start, and probably Pedro will too. I think we have a good chance of seeing this lineup:

    Alves Mascherano Abidal Adriano
    Xavi Busquets Thiago
    Pedro Messi Villa

    But I am probably completely wrong as usual.

    1. *shakes fist at Japan for having an ungodly timezone.

      Sigh. Looks like I’ll be up a couple of hours before work to watch this. Atleast they’re showing it on theScore here in TO.

      The final is also at 5:30am (on Sunday). There go my hopes of catching up on sleep this fin de semana.

  24. Thank you Euler for replying to all the posts! (not to mention the article which was great).

    Regarding Marcelo…I would venture to say that Messi and Alexis’ movement destabilized him more than our possession.

    2 reasons:
    – we did not have more possession than usual yet like I mentioned before I do not recall even one moment where Marcelo came up to support the attack (not saying he didn’t but his impact was nil). This to me is very extreme taking into account that during every previous game we have at least 1 player attacking his flank and often Dani Alves coming up to threaten even more.

    – I don’t know the stats but I think we had about 60% possession, right?

    Even with 60% of possession that still leaves 40% of possession to M*drid, it is not as if they tried to defend whenever they had the ball.

    Take into account that our largest spells of possession came after breaking M*drid’s will in the 2nd half and our problems in maintaining possession for the first 25 minutes and you can see what I’m getting at.

    I don’t want to bore people harping on about the same thing! I am just really trying to get to the bottom of why he stayed back so much – whether it was all down to Barça or whether he was instructed to.

  25. Favorite part:

    But it was the way the system was constructed that allowed the players to translate the inner resources they possessed into execution on the pitch and do so as a brilliant, collective whole. That’s what tactics are always about.

    OT: Oh, and since I don’t has the Twitter anymore, someone send this to @runofplay for his “Creatures of La Masia” series:

    1. Gah! Miguel, that’s possibly the most horrifyingly cute baby animal I’ve ever seen. Is that a vulture chick?

  26. What made this Clásico so special – was that it was the culmination of all that experimentation, risk taking, hard work and complete belief in his players.

    ^^This is what many have been trying to say all season. I am no football historian, but I suspect that what causes so many cycles of great teams to come to an end is the belief that their system, implemented by world class players, will never be caught. Pep is attempting, it seems, to create a system so fluid and dynamic that it cannot be pinned down and caught. The only way to achieve this is to take risks and make mistakes. Playing the 4-3-3 this year would have put Barcelona in position to contend for another year, but the twin devils of aging players and players becoming complacent within the system would have eventually caught up to the team.

    An evolving Barcelona team, one that seems to be at the very beginning of another cycle instead of at the end of the last one, must be a disconcerting thought to the rest of the world.

    OT–Newborns have a way of disrupting the pattern of life and I do not have the time nor energy to keep up as I once did, but I just wanted to say that I miss regular participation in the community. Hope everyone is well and the team can manage to overcome this amazing challenge for the league title. Cheers to all.

  27. Brilliant, Euler!
    Such an eloquent review of a breathtaking match!

    Pep surely justified all the trivial and the non-trivial experiments he has made this season.

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