Tactical Preview El Clásico Part 2: How Real Madrid Inverts Their Attack

Part 1 of the tactical preview of the Clásico provided a tactical overview for how Real Madrid play in attack. In Part 2 we’ll take a more detailed look at two of the key tactics underpinning Madrid’s approach when in possession: 1) Inverting the attack by running the offense through the flanks; 2) Shifting attackers out of the center of the defensive midfield zone and “hollowing out the middle” through positioning and dynamic movement.

Tick Tock... Tick Tock

This season Madrid has frequently dominated possession as teams have often tried to defend their pace and ability to break at speed by playing relatively deep. Much of this possession is orchestrated down the flanks. Rather than depending on midfielders, the Madrid attack is directed laterally through link up play between the full backs, who initiate forward thrusts, and the wing players who drop deep to link up with the full backs. Madrid then couples this lateral action down the pitch with movement in the attacking third from their advanced attackers. Combined with this play down the flank, movement in the advanced middle attempts to force the defense to lose it’s shape and to create redundant defenders who are no longer defending the focus on the attack. Below is a schematic detailing a characteristic way Madrid plays:

In the diagram above, Marcelo is carrying the ball out from the back much as a central midfielder might do on many other teams. C. Ronaldo tracks back to link play with Marcelo and receive the pass to continue the attack down the flank. C. Ronaldo’s tracking back forces the defense to lose shape, which opens up space for Mesut Özil to exploit through a diagonal run which takes a nominal “central attacking midfielder” out to the flank leaving the central defenders functionally guarding no one.

Let’s take a look at how Madrid implemented this type of strategy and the effects it produced in their game against Hercules earlier this season.

Here Marcelo (marked by the orange line) has received the ball out from the back from Casillas. As the defense drops deep Marcelo exploits the space and continues to carry the ball out to initiate the attack. Rather than making a run forward into the open space as the full back recedes, C. Ronaldo (red line) drops deep almost like a false 9 might in the center of the pitch to receive the pass. C. Ronaldo’s movement back to the ball and maintaining possession along the flank causes the Hercules right FB to move laterally to defend. This opens up a significant gap in the backline between the right FB and the CB. In this match Hercules primary defensive tactic was trying to stay compact and narrow. Compare how much space has opened up between the right FB and CB and the narrow space between the Hercules other three backline defenders.

The other key part of the image is the role of Mesut Özil (marked yellow). Özil, Madrid’s “advanced central midfielder” is in fact the attacking player furthest up the pitch, more advanced than even Higuain (marked blue). Rather than moving towards the ball to support the flank players Özil is moving away from the ball. Notice how Özil starts to make a diagonal run to the left flank corner even before C. Ronaldo has received the ball to foot from Marcelo.

This movement stretches the pitch and leaves space in the center of the pitch between the Hercules lines, which is exactly the space Hercules is trying to compress by dropping deep. Another point of note is Özil’s positioning at the start of the play. Against 4-2-3-1 formations such as Madrid use, defenses often try to place two men on the lone striker to maintain numerical superiority. Özil however plays a hybrid role and one of the effects his advance position does is to occupy one of the CB leaving Higuain 1 vs. 1 with the remaining CB rather than 1 vs. 2. Madrid uses this tactic over and over with Özil and Higuain and it is part of the way in which they compensate for Higuain not being a classic “target man” who can fight off two defenders. This becomes more apparent as the play continues to develop:

Critically, the gap in space between the Hercules right FB and the remaining three defenders has opened up even more and become very large. At the same time the Hercules defensive midfielders are functionally marking no one as Alonso (pink) and Khedira (pink) stay deep and Marcelo stays wide. All three players are essentially unmarked and are available as outlets.

This is what I was referring to in the Part 1 of the tactical preview as Mardid “hollowing out the middle” leaving the opposition’s defensive midfielders redundant. In the play above, Hercules is caught in is a very inefficient defensive formation as C. Ronaldo and Marcelo are 2 vs. 2 on the flank with the ball – Hercules has extra defenders but by playing the ball along the flanks Madrid achieves numerical equality. In addition, the two Hercules CB are each marking the two Madrid advanced players Higuain and Özil just as they would were Madrid playing a 4-4-2. Higuain is not marked by two men. The same holds for Di Maria(blue green) who is also single marked. The three Hercules midfielders are functionally marking no one as they are attempting to maintain “shape” and defend space which Madrid has little interest in trying to utilize in their flank oriented attack.

On this particular play C. Ronaldo was wasteful with the ball and dribbled it into the defender rather than passing the ball. That said, tactically Madrid has won this battle. Hercules primary defensive approach is to stay compact and narrow and fortify the center of the pitch. By utilizing the flanks and playing their central players in unconventional positions Madrid has turned this into an inefficient defensive formation. And later on in the match, Ronaldo would utilize Özil’s diagonal run into space for good tactical effect:

Over the past decade one of the dominant tactics has been the progressive fortification of the deep central portion of the midfield in defense.  First through the development of the “destroyer” and then through the advent of the two holding player formations such as the 4-3-2-1, more and more emphasis defensively has been placed on strengthening the center.

Whether it’s playing on the counter, breaking at speed in transition or when maintaining possession, Madrid’s offensive tactics seek to thwart the defensive focus that so many clubs structure themselves around.  They do this by shunting their attack to the flanks and leaving their holding players deep to act as outlets while giving their attacking midfielder a free role  where he spends little time in the region occupied by defensive midfielders.  The opposition’s defensive midfielders in turn are often out of positions and become redundant. Through position, movement, pace and technical skill Madrid attackers play where the defense often isn’t.

In the next post I’ll take a look how Barça should try to defend Madrid and how Barça can take advantage of the tactical trade offs Madrid has made in trying to orient their offense in the way they have.

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  1. ariston
    November 28, 2010

    Great post euler. I can’t help but wonder at mourinho’s skill in tactic. When he was at Chelsea, he used 4-3-3 (which I think is very rare in EPL at that time) to beat teams still playing 4-4-2. Then he used 4-2-3-1 with Inter to great effect. And now this. I don’t like the guy but I think he’s great.

    Can’t wait for your next post.

    Zonal Marking’s article: /http://www.zonalmarking.net/2010/11/28/barca-v-real-el-clasico-tactical-preview/

  2. K(legit)
    November 28, 2010


    I have never seen tactics explained so crisply..major props Euler..you think of doing this professional mate..I am not being patronising or anything..I just think you’re really good that’s all.

    Hercules are playing with essentially a 4 man defense here but what will happen when Real meet Barca who often (at least during the last season plus now) effectively play a 5 man defense while defending which spreads to a 3 man defense in attack mode?

  3. K(legit)
    November 28, 2010

    Oh and paradigmaguardiola has put up a post explaining Pedro’s importance to the team..his defending from the front and his tireless running..
    Obviously, the language is an issue for me but google translate works mostly very well for his posts
    For those who don’t follow that blog, i recommend that you do..

  4. Whatever
    November 28, 2010

    Amazing post, Euler!

    After the Clasico, it would be good if you could write a post like this and explain how Barca exactly plays. We all know the basics, but things you explain… are not visible to a layman’s eye.

    • outerspacedout
      November 28, 2010

      I was just about to comment on the same thing, how I’d love one like this for Barcelona too.

  5. Diego S.
    November 28, 2010

    Great Post. It really made me realize new things about Football. Can’t wait for the 3rd part. I hope we have posts like that more often.

  6. Kari
    November 28, 2010

    I am in awe. (Amazing post, Euler!)

    It’s Sunday and I am down to my last .gif. (Gasp! Say it isn’t so!)

    Xavi Ownage


    Challenge for the public: think of a fictional dialog for the above .gif. My crappy one is below:

    Scene: Off camera, a player suffering from a condition called “Does Utterly Moronic Baneful Actions Spasmodically Syndrome” aka. D.U.M.B.A.S.S, punches own teammate out of nowhere. Opposition players are confused and surround the victim, who is lying on ground holding his face.

    Opposition Player 1 (to Attacker): Hey, what’s your problem, man?!
    Fellow Teammate 1: *pushing Attacker away* Hey! Get outta here! Go!
    *Ref tries to intervene*
    Ref: *blowing whistle* Hey, hey, hey.
    Fellow Teammate 1: It’s alright, Ref. I’ll handle this. (turns to Attacker) What the f*ck are you doing, dumbass?! Huh?!
    *Attacker runs away, while feigning innocence*
    Attacker: I thought he was a bad man…
    Fellow Teammate 1: What the f*ck?

    • blitzen
      November 28, 2010

      This was absolutely epic! I love how Xavi is all, “It’s OK, ref, I got this!” And the ref is just, “Oh, OK then.”

      Angry!Xavi rules my world. 😀

  7. Kari
    November 28, 2010

    Iker face… times six



  8. terence
    November 28, 2010

    Great analysis. But what happens once the ball is centered? Wouldn’t the redundant defensive midfielders be free to collapse into the box, toward the Madrid player or players seeking to receive the ball, since they would not be occupied by a central midfield attacking presence?

  9. OSBAG
    November 28, 2010

    You do this as though u were a manager. U might want to try ur hands at ig though

  10. ooga aga
    November 28, 2010

    do we have to watch an advertisement in each new thread now? am i the only one experiencing this? thanks

    • Jim
      November 28, 2010

      I’ve got a Mac and had to resort to a Flashblocker for Safari. It was driving me demented. You can get it here. I’d rather the mods disabled it though.


  11. momo
    November 28, 2010

    Brilliant stuff Euler, looking forward to the third part.

  12. Nik
    November 28, 2010

    Great job Euler. Your write-ups on team tactics are really well written and enjoyable to read.

  13. barca96
    November 28, 2010

    Whoa. What a way to start a day for me. Read such a great post.
    Thanks Euler.
    When are you going to pick up the UEFA(for USA) coaching badge? You should.

  14. Soy Culé
    November 28, 2010

    Excellent, excellent post, Euler. You’re tactical knowledge is outstanding, and it borders on the verge of tactical philosophy. Very good breakdown of the tactical aspect of el derbi.

    Speaking of el clásico, have any of you seen what MD is doing? They’ve set up an app on FaceBook where you can create your own ‘pancarta’ and I believe the one that is most-liked will be unfolded at Camp Nou tomorrow, as well as the creator of it will be given 2 tickets to the game (if I read the rules correctly). There have been some really creative ones made. Like, for one, someone wrote “Con Iniesta, Xavi, y Villa…al Madrid haremos papilla”. There are really clever ones.

  15. momo
    November 28, 2010

    IMO Pep will play a double pivot for this one due to the roaming nature of our fullbacks.

    The idea is to congest madrid’s left side where ronaldo, marcelo, and ozil attack. Masch will be necessary to provide pace in closing down and to assist the recently struggling pique while busquets will be used to attempt to perform the same marking role on Ozil as he famously did in the world cup. This formation essentially allows possession, width (due to the protection of the fullbacks which will allow them to roam), and significantly decrease the risk of counters.

    Still I’m not so sure about abidal at left back for an already secure double pivot, the more attacking maxwell can be used here.


    • Euler
      November 28, 2010

      It’s an interesting thought and we well might see it. The upside to playing a “double pivot” are clear. However, a key tactic to defend will be to retain error free possession and for this I’d want Xavi and Iniesta in the middle. In addition, Pedro’s defense, work rate and scoring threat on the right side against Marcelo will be critical.

  16. Helge
    November 28, 2010

    Simply brilliant, brilliantly simple. Your tactical knowledge of the game is amazing, but it’s your ability to convey it to casual football followers that makes these posts so special.
    I take my hat off to you, if we play on the same level as you analyze the teams, we will all experience a great day tomorrow. Can’t wait anymore, but a third tactical preview will ease my anxiety !!!

    November 28, 2010

    Guys it was a fantastic night!I was in stadium and the atmosphere was great!I apologise for the stupid greek fan,lot of pana fanatic fans use drugs.Pedro was amazing,the man of the match for me.He was everywhere.I am too optimist for the game,i predict a 3-1 or 3-0 win!

    • Kari
      November 28, 2010

      Ha! That fan made me LOL. He was probably a C.Ronaldo fan 😉

  18. stowe
    November 28, 2010

    nice job, but i thought the second post was supposed to be about their defense.

    November 28, 2010

    Euler posts are great!But i have the feeling that the heart and the soul of our boys will speak.Watching live the team make me feel unbeatable.I am not fear anything except the refs.

  20. Euler
    November 28, 2010

    New post. Part 3 of the tactical preview is up.

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