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.
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.
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.
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.