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.
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.