Tactical Preview El Clásico Part 1: Overview of Real Madrid in Attack

The match everyone has been waiting for is once again upon us. In preparation for the Clásico, I’m going to be providing a detailed breakdown of the tactical issues that will likely shape the match. This first part provides a high level overview for how Madrid plays when in possession. I’ll follow up this post up by drilling down into more detailed specifics in subsequent posts as well as providing analysis for how Madrid defends. Finally, in the last post of this series I’ll discuss how Barça can take advantage of Madrid’s weaknesses and can decrease the risks posed by Madrid’s strengths.

A Classic Tactical Moment from El Clásico

Tactical Formation

Real Madrid nominally line up in a 4-2-3-1. While this formation is often associated with fortification of play along the center of the pitch, the 4-2-3-1 is a highly flexible structure that can be implemented in a wide variety of ways. Madrid utilizes a 4-2-3-1 in a non-conventional fashion that serves to augment what is perhaps their greatest overall team strength – pace and direct play in attack.

Functionally the Madrid formation is asymmetric with the left side of the pitch acting as the primary focus. While Madrid has diversified this season, C. Ronaldo remains the player their attack flows through. Though he is stationed on the left wing, C. Ronaldo essentially functions as the team’s 10. C. Ronaldo’s role has been significantly augmented this season by the strong play of Marcelo at left full back who is having an outstanding season on the ball and is providing significant support to on the left flank.

Mesut Özil who is theoretically Madrid’s 10, functions in what is likely the most tactically interesting role in Madrid’s attack. Özil plays a flexible role where moves between an advanced shadow striker role and laterally along a narrow band between the left and right flanks.  Naturally he tends to drift to his stronger left foot side.

Finally Xabi Alonso also tends to play on the left side of central midfield in his deep lying regista role. This leftwards asymmetry is further heightened by the nature of Angel Di Maria’s position on the right flank. Di Maria tends to drop back deeper on the right both to defend and to play the ball than C. Ronaldo does on the left. As such, Madrid’s left and right wingers often do not play on the same line. C. Ronaldo tends to play higher, closer to the line of the most advanced central striker. This adds to the leftwards skew of Madrid’s formation.

Real Madrid: Base Tactical Formation

The other aspect of note to Madrid’s implementation of the 4-2-3-1 is related to how high up the pitch three of Madrid’s attackers play – Özil, C. Ronaldo, and Higuain. Those three players constantly look to stretch the defense either to break at speed or to create space behind them for other players to move into (Özil in particular functions in this kind of positional role).

At the same time, those three players tend not to track back aggressively to defend. As such, Madrid can come close to playing a “broken formation” with their attackers stationed high up the pitch and the remaining outfield players deeper behind them with large gaps in between.

Two factors prevent Madrid from fragmenting into this kind of broken arrangement. First is their overall team pace. Speed allows them to cover significant ground quickly, forming connections between players dynamically even when initially separated by space. This is particular relevant to the way their full back play. The Madrid full backs connect play between the deeper zones of the pitch and the advanced attackers. Their pace is critical in allowing them to get high up the pitch to link with the attackers and to still track back when Madrid loses position.

The second factor that prevents Madrid from assuming a broken formation are the high work rates of Di Maria and Sami Khedira. Both players shuttle between zones on the pitch, tracking back to defend and making runs forward to join in attack.

Tactical Dynamics

The Madrid attack is highly fluid with significant movement at speed, particularly vertically down the pitch with players overlapping in space. There are several  primary tactics shaping Real Madrid when in possession.  Below a few key approaches are highlighted and described in detail.

1. In possession, when Real Madrid enters the opposition’s deep midfield defensive zone, their attackers are positioned outside of the center of the pitch in order to station them away from areas of defensive density and solidity. In terms of positioning, Real Madrid almost “hollows out” the advanced middle of their attacking third and plays the ball through from the edges.

Key members of the Real Madrid attack who under other circumstances would occupy the advanced middle, play in other portions of the pitch. This moves them away from the opposition’s “destroyer” or deep holding midfielders potentially increasing the time and space those attackers have on the ball. It can also create numerical advantages in certain parts of the pitch as those players move and reposition themselves.

2. Inverting the dynamics of attack. Real Madrid likes to play “outside to in.” Real Madrid’s primary tactic is to initiate and to build its attack down the flanks rather than through the middle. The ball is played laterally out from the back to the flanks. Both full backs will look to play the ball up field aggressively to initiate build up. In this sense Marcelo and Ramos are not only the typical attacking full backs that make “bombing runs” up the flank. They act as key mechanisms through which build up is executed.  In this sense, they function in roles analogous to those that midfielders fill on most other squads. (Marcelo, in particular, has become a key figure for Madrid because he occupies the same side as C. Ronaldo.)

In turn, as the ball advances, the key link ups often do not significantly depend on the Madrid midfielders. The critical link up play is between the full backs and the wingers as it’s the wingers who frequently drop deep to pick up the ball (in this sense the Madrid wingers also play roles analogous to those that central midfielders play when they drop deep to collect the ball from holding players).

Once the ball crosses midfield the Madrid wingers tend to direct subsequent action. C. Ronaldo, the focal point of Madrid’s attack, in particular plays as a modified 10, that is as a 10 positioned on the flanks (Di Maria plays as a non-conventional winger as well but to a lesser extent).

The attack continues to run laterally until either the flank player is closed down or the ball is cut in centrally in the advanced attacking third. If the ball reaches advanced positions down the flanks, Real Madrid tries to open up the center of the pitch through both dynamic movement on the ball (e.g. wingers in possession cutting in on their strong foot) and off of it (e.g. the attacking midfielder moving from the flank to the middle to receive a pass from the winger advancing the ball).

3. If play is closed out along the flanks during initiation or build up, the center of the pitch acts as an outlet for the ball through movement of the two holding players Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira. When this happens play is subsequently built up largely through Xabi Alonso’s directing intermediate to long range passes from his deep regista position. In this situation, Madrid will often look to play the ball back out to the flanks through diagonal balls from Alonso. The two wingers will also look to cut in early to receive direct balls down the middle from Alonso if the defense has over-shifted to the flanks too much.

Özil generally plays in a very advanced position but will also drop back to act as an outlet for Alonso. While Khedira may often seem “invisible” his constant running in the midfield allows him to act as an important outlet for the ball to move to so that Madrid can maintain possession. Because of the defensive attention the Madrid advanced attacking four and full backs receives, both Alonso and Khedira often have significant time and space on the ball. Khedira is frequently the player on Madrid who is left with the most space on the ball, particularly when the attack advances past midfield.

4. Madrid varies its mode of attack depending on whether they are pressed and how that pressure is implemented. If the opposition defends by falling back and playing deep Madrid will build up play and look to dominate possession. If they are pressed they will look to play the ball rapidly either through pure pace and dribbling or through long balls directed into space for attackers to run onto. Alonso’s passing ability and the tremendous pace of their front four attackers are the key aspects of this mode of play.

5. Countering at speed. Madrid’s front four have tremendous pace as do their full backs. Three of their front four continue to occupy positions high up the pitch even when out of possession to enhance their ability to counter by stretching play vertically as much as possible.

During transitions when Madrid dispossesses the opposition, they will look to break at speed either down the middle or down the flanks. This is often when Madrid are at their most dangerous. They are one of the world’s elite teams on the counter.

6. Incorporation of defenders into attack. As described prior both of Madrid’s full backs are central to the manner in which they build up play. Both Marcelo and Ramos initiate play by carrying and passing the ball out from the back to link up play with the wingers or with the two holding players. In addition the full backs make long runs along the flanks to provide width. These attacking runs are important because both C. Ronaldo and Di Maria play as “inverted wingers” and look to cut in centrally onto their strong foot. Without these overlapping runs from the full backs Madrid would lose important width.

The full backs are not the only defenders to participate in the attack however. Another tactic Real Madrid uses is to send Carvalho forward from his center back position not only on set pieces but also as continuations of longer runs. Marking a center back who makes an unexpected advancing run can be a highly effective tactic (as we know very well from Pique.) This has made Carvalho an effective goal scoring threat for Madrid on several occasions this season.

While this season Mourinho is continuing to utilize a 4-2-3-1 as he did with Inter for much of last season, he’s implemented the formation in a very different way. This has created a very different tactical structure that supports very different dynamics of play. With Inter he utilized a 4-2-3-1 in order to defend deeply and to maximize his teams strongest skill set – it’s positional sense and discipline.

This season at Madrid he’s implemented a non-conventional 4-2-3-1 to take advantage of this team’s pace and the technical skill of the flank players. Mourinho ‘s current approach with Real Madrid’s borrows from models such as Van Gaal’s Bayern Munich and, in particular, the tactical approach Joachim Löw implemented with the German National Team during the 2010 World Cup (Madrid’s purchase of Özil and Khedira was as much tactical as it was related to the individual skill sets of those two players).

In the next set of posts we’ll take a look at some specific examples of these tactical dynamics and the context for why Madrid plays in this fashion.

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  1. K
    November 27, 2010

    In reply to Helge:
    Ich komme aus Indien und wohne in Mumbai. Aber ich will in nächste jahr Ausland fahren und dort leben.

    Also, How come so many posts popped up suddenly?
    Is it a Clasico thing..I particularly enjoyed the Charles Dickens take Isaiah. Major props 😀

    Re: topic,
    1. I think Di Maria is a very key player for them because he’s a Barca type false winger who will cut in and look for one-twos at the edge of the box. It’ll be interesting to see us combat that tactic which is essentially one of our team’s major moves two years ago.

    2. Xabi Alonso is their metronome. He plays well and we’ve got trouble.

    Some more points later when I have some more leisure time.

    • Helge
      November 27, 2010

      Ah, ich verstehe. Danke für die Antwort. Willst du in ein Deutsch-sprachiges Ausland ziehen?

      Hehe, the question is: How many posts will still be popping up until Monday? Euler seems to have some more tactical previews in his mind, which is brilliant! You better check every 4 hours for a new post 🙂

    • K
      November 27, 2010

      Ah,ich weiß nicht. Ich will aber dass.

  2. ooga aga
    November 27, 2010

    thanks for droppin knowledge, mr euler

    • Jnice
      November 27, 2010


  3. Miguel
    November 27, 2010

    good article, yo.

    roberticus (*http://santapelota.blogspot.com/2010/11/tactical-variations-for-clasico.html) seems to think that mourinho might tweak his line up for this match & thinks oezil’ll could play as a false nine, maybe. he sees barca’s high line as a concern, too.

    i’m betting on di maria being dropped for lass & mourinho reverting to a 4-3-3 like shape, but w/oezil playing on the flank switching w/ronaldo given the situation. that way they maintain numbers in the midfield and keep the whole inverted wingers/overlapping fullbacks thing going.

  4. sab
    November 27, 2010

    i understand football.i m convinced when i read this post.the 1st threat he mentioned is the left,fro marcelo.had been telling this 4 some time.
    Their speed @counter attack is lightning.look @their 2nd goal vs bilbao.that is a thing of beauty,though its not our beloved tikitaka.
    Their RHS is impressive defensively with the w rate of maria nd nw less adventurous ramos.
    Man to shut down @classico.
    In shutting down ozil it is vitally important that our dm(i prefer smash)doesnt give him the space.

  5. sab
    November 27, 2010

    btb messi nvr scrd or assited vs mou teams in 7attempts.i remember 3vsIM,1vs Chelsea(saw this 4),knw bout 1 vs Porto.wt r the other 2 ocassions?

    • outerspacedout
      November 27, 2010

      Think the rest were against Chelsea.. Barca met Chelsea in the CL in 2005 and 2006, Chelsea going through in 2005, Barca going through in 2006. Don’t think Messi played all four, if he played three of those four games it makes 7 (along with the Porto game and the three games against Inter last season).

  6. sab
    November 27, 2010

    @barca96,on the previous post.,regarding so many comments bout various cultures,i enjoyed that.this cultural difference with RM along with the hattrick of rivaldo vs los che,that made me a fan of barca@the first place.

    @outerspace,cultural xchange not being a 2way traffic is the sole reason i dnt lyk rossel w r t laporta.

    @soccermom,u enjoyed eid,good to knw.

  7. Diego S.
    November 27, 2010

    Everybody is getting Hectored.

    What Will we do about the GIFs we missed now, Kari ?

    • outerspacedout
      November 27, 2010

      What’s getting Hectored?

      I know that its a reference to an earlier poster called Hector, but for those of us who don’t know Hector, what exactly is ‘getting Hectored’?

    • Kari
      November 27, 2010

      I’m not really sure. I’ve already been (almost) Hectored twice. I could repost them all, but at the rate these posts are coming…

  8. sab
    November 27, 2010

    @outerspaced,dnt think messi played those 2 games against chelsea in 05.in 06 he didnt play the 2nd leg due 2 injury.
    Yeah,i got that a lot.wts being hectored?

  9. Helge
    November 27, 2010

    Wow, right now I’m more afraid of the Clasico than I was before…

    The tendency to play over the left wing means that Alves will have to be on his very best, defensively, and possibly neglect some of his usual offensive duties.
    Also, Pedro’s defensive work on our right side will be essential. I still don’t like Marcelo (I barely like any Real Madrid player, with just one exception in Angel Di Maria), but he has improved massively under Mourinho; Marcelo, CR and maybe Ozil is way too much to handle for Dani Alves and Puyol/Piqué alone. So for me, Pedro is a must-start on the right attacking wing, more because of his defensive qualities than his offensive contribution.

    The player that I fear individually the most is though Angel Di Maria. Fortunately, he plays on the right wing and will hopefully not be soo much in the focus. Against his pace, we surely need Abidal. I admire him for his skill and pace, but the best is his attitude with which he supports Ramos (who is not particularly good in defense) and steals the ball from opposing players.

    I’m really looking forward to your post about Madrid’s weaknesses and how we can exploit them!
    So far, Madrid seems to have a tactical advantage over our 4-3-3, but that’s just the impression of a noob – though I’ve read some articles about Mourinho actually forming his team since the very befinning of the season with the only intention to create a super-weapon against us 🙂

    • Whatever
      November 27, 2010

      In Pep we trust.

      Remember how he fielded Alves on RW last year (and I think Puyol was RB)… to close down the right flank. We basically had two RB’s. I don’t think Pep will do that this time, but I’m sure he’ll come up with something.

    • stowe
      November 27, 2010

      The thing about Alves being further up-field is he will be able (and does) stop many of those attacks before they had a chance to begin. He got an assist to pedro because of it too.

  10. sab
    November 27, 2010

    what bout putting messi in a RF,so that we dnt have to think abou marcelo in a right skewed 4 4 1 1.him being all over the pitch especially in the left side.in this probably needs pedro more than villa and must have smash just in front of the defence,biscuits further up to overcrowd their MF.BTB our defense line should nt be high lyk other matches.
    WE r barca.we just have to play our game,not bout others(arrogant though it is,its true).,but not in this game.we have 2 think of RM,they r really really strong and as much as i dislike mou he is a gr8 motivator.
    Our stat against mou team
    W 4,L 3,D 4.
    Of his 3 wins,2 was debatable,the bridge win of 4 2 was also debetable.although we should still lost that match by 3 2.1draw vs us in 06 UCL QF 2nd leg was possible due to the baddest PK Call u will ever c.
    Though in this regard i can only say we r alro lucky@SB

    • stowe
      November 27, 2010

      our defensive line has to play high so we can pressure the other team when they’re in possession. If they play deeper it creates more space for the midfield to defend and our whole defense is shot

  11. sab
    November 27, 2010

    sorry especially messi in our r8 side

  12. K
    November 27, 2010

    ahh now that I have read the post properly I have in mind the following apsects of a typical Mou team*:

    1. Score very quickly and sit back OR Stand your ground for the majority and look for a late goal by introducing fast players at the end of the game: One typical facet of Mou’s teams when they play a higher level/superior opponent is that they like to get that early goal so that they can set up defensive shop for the rest of the match. It is not an exciting way of play but it is certainly an effective one. A counter-objective is the ‘Italian’ strategy of not losing before looking to win. So the main times that our defense has to be extra careful should be the first 20 and the last 10 which is when Mou will look to go for the kill.
    How to counter this? The same way that Barca has played for the past 2-3 seasons tells me one simple fact. The entire dynamic of the Barca team specifically Pep’s Barca depends on Scoring early and Not conceeding ie not being behind for any sustained period of time because as lethal we are at 0-0 we are especially vulnerable at 0-1 maybe because this team gets nervous when they are behind.
    So score quickly and ruthlessly. And please FFS do not concede cheap goals.

    2. Compressing the space/midfield of the opponent: And no this is not analogous to pressure as Barca know. It is rather having a back 6 (4 man defense+ 2 man holding nidfield) crush any attack that comes toward them via midfield ( I am looking at your mazy midfield dribbles Leo). Also, they compress the defense whereby the opposing wingers are generally free to play crosses but which the RM (EE?) defenders are happy to defend against as they have both height and strength in defense.
    How to counter this? Make Messi play up as high as possible initially and have Iniesta play that roving role. Because as deadly Messi is with his dribbling he has that one-dribble-too-much tendency which Iniesta lacks. Another way would be to actually play Iniesta on teh right wing with Messi as the midfield man but that’s the sort of tactic Pep prefers to use when the match is won.

    3. Cut off Xabi Alonso: Crynaldo is their talisman but the bearded Basque is their heartbeat. Stop the heart and constrict their respiration. So, get Villa/Pedro and Busquets to make his life living hell by giving him no space to send one of his trademark diagonals because Alonso’s long range passing is par excellence but his short passes are the ones that can be intercepted. Since he plays slighlt to the left of midfield I assume it will Pedro’s job to suffocate him. Also Pedro’s a yellow card magnet which can always help. This is where I’d actually advocate playing Mascherano who’s a known in-your-face midfielder who knows how to play this role of suffocating the opposition’s playmaker.

    4. Make Crynaldo angtsy: How? cut-off his supply. Win a one on one with him (risky). Get under his skin by continuously goading him (Alves). In general get his panties tied up in a bunch. A frustrated Crynaldo is a “I will take on 11 players and 90k + jeering, booing, baying for blood fans” Crynaldo. Do that and you dent his effectiveness.

    This is how I think we should play this game.

    *These are just my opinions

    • K
      November 27, 2010

      1 and 2 are Mou’s tactics
      3 and 4 are our specific ways of play

  13. outerspacedout
    November 27, 2010

    I have recently had the Bang Bang song from How I Met Your Mother (*http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zf19FYXF9-c) stuck in my head. I have also had the Clasico match stuck in my head. So I ended up merging them. Like this:

    Oh we will bang, bang, bangity bang, bang bang bangity bang (Real Madrid!) bang bang bangity bang, bang bang bangity bang (Real Madrid!), bang(bang!) bang(bang!) bang(bang!) bang(bang!) bang bang bangity bang REAL MADRID!

    To the tune of the original song.

  14. stowe
    November 27, 2010

    thanks for the insight Euler. How come your not listed on the writers page? under where it says “about”?

    for those who are new (and man there are a ton of you guys). “Hectored” means you write a long comment on an old post just as a new one goes up. I know this post isn’t the newest, but I think people are still reading it.

    • outerspacedout
      November 27, 2010

      Okay thanks that makes sense now

  15. Alexinho
    November 27, 2010

    A post from Euler…BWAAAHHT??

    Quality as always-

  16. momo
    November 27, 2010

    Brilliant stuff Euler, can’t wait for the other parts (especially the third as I’m really interested in hearing about your suggestions for subduing their counters).

  17. terence
    November 27, 2010

    Very interesting read. Especially the part about C. Ronaldo functioning as a 10 on the left flank. Much of Madrid’s attack does go through him. And this can be a problem for them sometimes. Although he has improved since the start of the season, his decision-making can be rather poor at times. Something that opposing teams can seek to exploit, as K suggests above.

  18. SoccerMom
    November 28, 2010

    Ah, I’m so much smarter now!
    Thanks Euler!

  19. Q7
    November 28, 2010

    Great Article, but sadly for Barca Los Madrilenos will be far too strong. Barca will not be able to cope with the attacling power of Los Madrilenos.

    Cristiano ‘the Bull el Torrerino’ Ronaldo will Charge and boss the Midfiled to put Messi in his place.

    Mezut ‘the Eagle Owl’ Oezil will swoop down to tear pieces out of Pique and Puyol.

    Ronaldo ‘the Serpent’ Gonzalez will sink his fangs into Victor Valdez.

    Karim ‘the Puma’ Benzema will claw away Xavi and Iniesta.

    Iker ‘the Rock’ Casillas will stand like a Rock.

    Madrid 4 – Barca 1.

    • Clue(less)
      November 28, 2010

      are you listing a Madrid team or a World of Warcraft group of characters

    • Kari
      November 28, 2010

      I like how creative the nicknames are, but I just have one question: who is Ronaldo Gonzalez?

      If you meant Raul, he’s at Schalke now 😀

Comments are closed.