Tactical Preview El Clásico Part 3: How Barça Can Thwart Madrid’s Attack

Part 1 and part 2 of this tactical preview detailed how Madrid plays in possession. In this post we’ll take a look at how Barça can defend against those tactics and exploit the trade offs Madrid makes in attack.

When Jose Mourinho was named manager of Real Madrid many quickly speculated that Madrid would center their attack around defending deep and countering. And in fact Madrid is once again one of the world’s best teams on the counter, much as they were last season.

However, what makes them so difficult to play for most teams is that they are much more than a team that depends on the counter. In fact for much of the season Madrid has dominated the ball and retained possession for long stretches. In addition, Madrid have been at their most dangerous when they’ve been able to turn the ball over higher up the pitch and then break at speed. It’s not only building out of the traditional counter attack where they are dangerous. Their pace and technical ability makes them very adept at transitioning from defense to not only attack extremely quickly but to do so in numbers.

As such, the goal in defending Madrid is to take these other dimensions away from them. The goal in a certain sense is to reduce them to a team that can only play on the counter. Given their talent, there is no way to eliminate every threat they pose. The best a defense can do is to make them unidimensional and in turn predictable.

Fortunately, Barça’s defensive strengths are well suited to limiting how Madrid plays and narrowing it. In fact, much of the tactical challenge for Madrid in the Clásico will be how they will adjust to a kind of defense they haven’t yet had to play against with their current squad.

Tactical Context

One of the dominant tactical developments over the past decade in football has been the progressive fortification of the deep midfield zone in defense. Much of this started with development of the Makelele style “destroyer.” This direction was then augmented by the formations like the 4-2-3-1 which placed a second defensive midfielder next to the first.

In response to this trend, offenses have made their own tactical adjustments. The attacking 10 player was shifted to the flanks to move him away from the opposition’s “destroyer” (this is partly why Ronaldhino was so electric – playing him on the wing created a tactical mismatch). Wing players started to play on the opposite side so they could cut in on their strong foot. Ironically, the deep lying playmaker also came back into use because with two holding players sitting deep, significant space was opened up for the offense to exploit higher up the pitch. A key team in furthering this tactical response to the way teams are defending was the German National Team during this past World Cup.

The Real Madrid tactical system build on what teams like Germany have done and introduced talent around the pitch to further those approaches. Madrid acknowledges that teams are going to fortify the center. In turn they have radically shifted the dynamics of their offense to the flanks and deep midfield as a secondary option. They have essentially focused their attack around the areas where teams seek to allocate most of their defensive focus. This allows them to create mismatches around the pitch because their most dangerous attackers play the ball where the defense isn’t fortified.

Fabio Capello’s principle of getting 9 men between the ball and the goal at all times is one of the most adhered to principles in the modern game. But against Madrid it’s not the best way to play. The notion of getting men “behind the ball” isn’t enough.

Barça however defends in a very different fashion than most squads. They play a defensive system that is not the one that Madrid’s attack is tactically designed to exploit. Barça doesn’t try to reinforce the center of the pitch and solidify it. Barça defends by pressing and “hunting” for the ball all over the pitch. The key to beating Madrid’s attack is to defend across the pitch, particularly on the flanks, and to do so with 10 men. Tactically, this is how Barça’s defensive system is structured through their multi-zone press.

Defending to Break Madrid’s Formation

Tactically, Barça’s defensive goal should be to turn Madrid into a “broken team” by splitting them horizontally and vertically. Breaking Madrid’s formation horizontally involves splitting them into a left and right side by defending the flanks while also pressuring Madrid’s central midfielders when they try to act as outlets for the wide attackers. Breaking Madrid’s formation vertically involves pressuring the Madrid build up and transition play so that their four attacking players who stay high up the pitch are starved of service and need to drop deeper and deeper to collect the ball and do so under pressure.

As detailed in part 1 of this preview series, Madrid are at risk for becoming a “broken team.” Barça should look to pressure this crack and expose it as a weakness. Let’s take a look at what a “broken” formation looks like. Below is a play from Madrid’s match against Hercules earlier this season. This particular play is particularly helpful to look at because here Hercules are pressuring the ball higher up the pitch than they did for much of the match when they were dropping deep (see images from part 2 for examples) and as such is closer to the way Barça will defend.

At the top of the picture along the left touch line Alonso (marked by a pink line) has the ball. Next to him are C. Ronaldo (red line) and Marcelo (orange line). The three Hercules defenders have effectively compressed space and pinned them against the left touchline.

Notice the enormous space that has opened up between those three players and the rest of the Madrid attackers who are trying to make runs forward (Özil – yellow line, Higuain – blue line, Di Maria – green-blue line).

This is what a “broken” formation looks like – Madrid has fragmented into two parts – the three advanced attackers and the rest of the team. Özil sees this and is forced to make a long backwards diagonal run to support Alonso. This type of movement fro Özil is precisely what Madrid does not want to do in attack because it slows the speed at which they can move forward and the numbers they can move forward with. Özil is no longer functioning as an advanced attacker. He becomes a link up player.

In turn, Higuain and Di Maria are left further broken off from the rest of the team as Özil tracks back. Part 2 of this series discussed how Özil thrusting forward prevents Higuain from being marked by two men. Here you can see how Higuain can now be double marked by the two center backs if he continues his run forward. Özil needing to track back to repair the “break” in Madrid’s formation gives Hercules a 3 vs. 2 advantage in the back vs. Higuain and Di Maria.

Implementation of Defensive Tactics for El Clásico

It’s often said that Xabi Alonso is Madrid’s key player, their “metronome.” This is true is some ways but also not true in many important ways. Marcelo and Ramos – not Alonso – initiate much of Madrid’s play and their goal is to link up play with the Madrid wingers whenever possible rather than playing the ball back to the middle.

Marcelo and Ramos are strong in attack but they are accustomed to having significant time and space on the ball. Pressure from the Barça wingers can disrupt how they play significantly. What’s particularly important is that the Barça wingers should be able to disrupt the Madrid full backs either alone or with support from Messi on the press. This in turn will allow the Barça full backs to track the Madrid wingers and it’s the Madrid wingers who their attack truly flows through, C. Ronaldo in particular.

Alonso is a fine passer but he’s not particularly strong at shielding the ball or dribbling. With Villa and Pedro pressing the full backs, Barça will be able to break Madrid into two horizontal pieces by pressing Alonso and forcing Khedira to build up more of the play. This will require both Xavi and Iniesta to defend vigorously on the press, which they fortunately accustomed to doing.

Barça should at the same time try to break Madrid into two vertical formations by breaking the connection between the deep outfield player and the four primary attacking players. To do this means defending high up the pitch – which of course is also one of Barça’s great strengths.

Madrid will make adjustments but doing so will force them to play in ways that they don’t want to in order to “re-seal” the breaks in their formation (e.g. the advanced attackers will need to drop deep to link up play making them less dangerous on breaks at speed). Madrid can be split into left and right sides that are unconnected because the middle is under-fortified and pressured and second vertically.

Two of the key players for Barça will be Pedro and David Villa. The Barça wide players must press and disrupt the Madrid full backs as they seek to initiate play. Pedro in particular critical for Barça because one of the signfiicant advantages Barça have is Pedro’s work rate compared to C. Ronaldo’s. Pedro will need to not only pressure Marcelo but will then need to track back to support closing down the partnership between Marcelo and C. Ronaldo. Villa will need to do the same but to a lesser extent. At the same time both Pedro and Villa need to be dangerous in possession to pin back the Madrid full backs.

If Barça can do this, the Madrid wingers will be forced to drop deeper and deeper to receive the ball or be starved of possession.

The defensive efforts of the Barça wingers need to be supported by the Alves and Abidal. If the wingers take risks pressing the Madrid full backs high they will need a firm defensive foundation behind them. In this match Alves and Abidal will need to be very judicious when they move forward and how far. Because of the way Madrid exploits each flank this is not a match where having one full back press up aggressively while having the other stays back will necessarily suffice because playing a lopsided 3 in the back can be exploited.

This type of defensive approach will hopefully fragment the Madrid attack and force the attacking players deeper and deeper to receive the ball to thread together the areas in which their formation is broken.

If these defensive tactics work, Barça will be left to primarily concentrate on defending the counter from deep.  This is always a danger, particularly with Madrid’s pace.  It will require both Puyol and Pique to provide outstanding solidity as the foundation with substantial support from Busquets/Mascherano.  Pique will need to recover his form, which so far this season has been inconsistent.  Puyol will need to be careful about how he positions himself given his pace.  The full backs will also need to track wide players as they run out on the counter.  Look for Barça to also use tactical fouling as needed.  It must be comprehensive team approach to defend against Madrid when they break at speed.

Which leads us to the final way Barça must defend – one of their best defenses in this match will be to possess the ball and to do so with as few errors as possible, particularly from their holding mifielder. This will be one of Madrid’s greatest problems in this match. How do they generate attacking opportunities in the way they are accustomed to against a team that possesses the ball for so long and infrequently makes mistakes in possession. They will not have played any team who can put this kind of pressure on them so far this season.

From the angle of defending by keeping the ball, Barça’s holding player will be critical. Madrid will likely look to press Barça’s holding player when they are out of possession. Any turnover Busquet’s or Mascherano should make in possession will greatly facilitate Madrid breaking at speed on the short field behind Barça’s defensive midfielder. For this reason, the Barça holding player will need to be absolutely meticulous in possession. Defending against the counter is not enough from Busquets and/ or Mascherano – preventing the counter by retaining high quality possession should be the priority so that the opportunity to counter high up the pitch is prevented.


  1. Just someone tell me that we’re playing Xavi and Iniesta in midfield and I’ll get a good night’s sleep.

  2. Just someone tell me that we’re playing Xavi and Iniesta in midfield and I’ll get a good night’s sleep.

    I would be very surprised not to see them together in midfield. As I touched on in the post – retaining flawless possession is critical in this game. Madrid attacks at such speed and looks to transition mistakes the opposition makes in midfield into breaks at speed.

    And having Pedro at wing is almost ideal given his defensive skill set and work rate.

    Again – the key to Madrid is the flanks not the middle. The “double pivot” with Masch and Busquets or even midfield with Keita is playing to the idea that Madrid’s attack flows through the middle. It doesn’t. It’s through the wings. And for that Pedro is a much better choice at RW than Iniesta as Pedro is a better defender and more dangerous goal scoring threat to pin back Marcelo.

    There’s a reason why Alves was at RW for one last season – it was to play against Ronaldo. Pedro is an ideal choice to play at RW.

    1. If Pep doesn’t play Pedro!, I dare say he will have gone mad.

      – Having a look at the starting XI we used in April vs EE

      Puyol – Pique – Milito – Abidal
      Xavi – Busi – Keita
      Alves – Messi – Pedro!

      If we were to play this lineup again (hypothetically of course, seeing as Milito is now injured) against this EE team, what do you think would happen? Keep in mind that we have an Iniesta coming back from injury on the bench. And Bojan.

  3. I’d just like to very briefly interrupt this avalanche of brilliance from Euler to say ….


    Thank you for listening.

    1. We actually had an offense today! Amazing, 8-3.

      On to more important things. I’m so nervous. I don’t care about what anyone says. However, after reading this write-up I’m a little more calm.

      But still, I can’t even guess the score of this game. Lets be honest, we could win 4-0, we could lose 4-0. There’s no way to tell. There’s so many factors to change the game.

      It truly is going to be a great clasico. And hopefully Mou stays, and we can have a consistently great set of matches. Btw, in 9 of their last 10 Clasicos at the Camp Nou, Madrid have had a different coach (including tomorrow).

      Visca Barca!

  4. I leave tomorrow morning for the wilds of Saskatchewan with limited internet access. Won’t be able to share watching El Clasico with you all. *sob*

    Have fun, play nice!

    I’ll be checking in whenever I can get my lazy arse down to the library and get on the net. Cheers, all.

  5. I think Euler posted it in a thread the other day, but I watched that youth video of mostly Pique and it was adorable seeing all of them as little babes. With Pique in his same role, and Cesc scoring, and Victor Vasquez being the star. Its sad that his skills didn’t quite pan out like the others.

  6. Lose 0-4?At home?Are you serious?In last 27 clasicos at home we have 2 lost.O-1,1-2.18wins and 7draws.I can.t see this possibility in this game.I am no nervous just excited to watch us kill them.

  7. I don’t think pep will do anything too crazy in the line-up, unless he puts messi back on one of the wings so that Villa isn’t required to defend as much. I think we’ll see Bojan in this for his energy and tracking skills, but probably see him as a sub. wish I could watch with you guys. I look forward to highlights and kevin’s match review.

  8. Excellent analysis overall. Great insights particularly the first two but have to disagree with how Barca can defend Madrid. This part of the post presents Madrid as inflexible team which would not improvise.

    Ex. In the first picture what happens when Ronaldo decides to take on the defender and the whole space behind the three defenders opens up.

    Another reason Di Maria starts deep when Madrid attacks is to nullify the pressure on Madrid’s full backs and confuse the opposing full backs into moving up the bitch in an effort to close him down. If they don’t do it and opponnents’s DM moves in it leaves Madrid’s centeral midfield open for pass which defeats the pressure. He can also put the ball behind Barca’s high line defence either for Ronaldo or Higuain as this video shows: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxTdj-mpW0k

    Overal it would be disaster for Barca to play high line defense against speedy Madrid attacks with so much vision and dribbling.

    The only problems for Madrid as you pointed out is the possession game of Barca but even this Madrid has been as impressive as Barca in winning the ball back.(this season at least in their half)

    Should be great game.

  9. So….Can we expect a game similar to what we saw in the WC Semis? Germany(Madrid)and Spain(Barcelona), if so, hope I get to see another Puyol goal.

  10. Am not worried at all we hv the quality to defeat Madrid i hope pep won’t start up wit macherano bcos dis is a serious match a must win,BARCA 4 LIFE

  11. For a week now i had believe we should use sMasch and Busi. But if things go as euler suggests here, it wont work. But thats a big if.

  12. Euler gotta hand it to you. For all I care this game could have ended 1-0 or 2-0 but your were on the mark in anticipating the defensive work of Barca of turning Madrid into “broken team”:

    “by splitting them horizontally and vertically. Breaking Madrid’s formation horizontally involves splitting them into a left and right side by defending the flanks while also pressuring Madrid’s central midfielders when they try to act as outlets for the wide attackers. Breaking Madrid’s formation vertically involves pressuring the Madrid build up and transition play so that their four attacking players who stay high up the pitch are starved of service and need to drop deeper and deeper to collect the ball and do so under pressure.”

    My question

    I expected Madrid to be flexibale enough to see put up a different challenge, why hasn’t this happened? Is Mou blameless in just having so much faith in flank attacks and nor having plan B: Madrid developing their own possession based passing game before the Clasico.

    In Germany you have Borrisia Dortmund leading Bayern Munich 14 points in Bundesliga which is mainly due to possession based passing game much like Barca.

    Looking forward to your review of the game.

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