In Spain a great deal of attention has been paid to who Mourinho may play against Barça to enhance Real Madrid’s defensive capabilities with speculation centering on whether Lass Diarra may be utilized to try to play against Xavi and Iniesta. However, more than who plays in defense for Madrid, the most significant issue is how Madrid will defend. In fact, the most uncertain question headed into the Clásico is what defensive system and tactics Madrid will adopt and how their players will execute those tactics.
Madrid is still a relatively newly assembled team. To date, they haven’t been tested significantly in terms of how they can defend as a unit for two main reasons. First, Madrid has regularly dominated possession and hasn’t been forced to defend for long periods of time. Second, they have scored in bursts, which has allowed them to play with the lead consistently. This has made it much easier for them to defend. As such, Madrid still largely needs to define their defensive identity. Doing so in the Clásico will be a major challenge.
Barça’s attack will pose entirely new problems for this Madrid squad, ones they haven’t faced yet this season and may not again until the second match against Barça. How will Madrid defend given that they are unlikely to have the majority of possession? How will they play tactically against an offense that has as much, if not more talent than their team does and is as explosive as their attack?
In part 1, part 2, and part 3 of this preview we examined Madrid’s attack and how Barça can structure its defense to address Madrid’s strengths and weaknesses. In this final tactical preview let’s take a look at the state of Madrid’s defense and how Barça can take advantage of some of Madrid’s defensive limitations.
How Madrid Defends
Madrid has made several important changes player wise that impact their defense compared to last season. At CB, Carvalho has added a great deal of defensive solidity to the backline. He has had an excellent season to date and been Madrid’s best defensive player by a considerable margin. When Messi roams the advanced center look for Carvalho to try to mark him.
At LB, Marcelo has become the every game starter. Not only has he been in strong form in attack, he’s a much improved defensively. He’s not a defensive stalwart by any means, but he has taken a significant step forward as a defender so far this season.
Sammy Khedira at the holding midfield spot alongside Alonso does a great deal of the dirty work for Madrid. He tracks back aggressively to provide cover for Madrid’s advanced players and provides defensive support to both Alonso (who is not a strong defensive holding player) and the back line as the full backs make forward runs. Angel Di Maria on the RW has a high work rate and for an attacking player is an effective defender.
Despite these changes, to date the most striking aspect to how Madrid has defended this season is numerical. Simply put, Madrid has defended this season with relatively few players. This is related to how their squad attacks. C. Ronaldo, Higuain and Özil all maintain very high positions and do not consistently track back as they look to stretch the field. C. Ronaldo in particular is an indifferent defender and this has major implications for how Madrid can defend on their left flank. C. Ronaldo’s only substantive defensive contribution in most matches is indirect as his scoring threat often pins back the opposition’s RB. In addition, while Di Maria is a willing defender he is also often caught out of position up the pitch.
Functionally, this means that Madrid has been defending with six to seven outfield players. And of those six to seven players, the two full backs are often high up the pitch in attack. This leaves the two CB and two holding players with an inordinate amount of defensive responsibility, particularly given Alonso’s defensive limitations.
To put these numbers in context, in the contemporary game many sides as a rule attempt to have nine players between the ball and the goal when out of possession. This disconnect between defending and attacking in numbers is a major reason why Madrid can decompose into a broken formation.
How Madrid has defended tactically so far this season has left them especially vulnerable at the flanks. Because so much of their attack runs through the full backs and wide players, their play very high up both sides of the pitch which leaves them very exposed in the back, particularly on the left side of the pitch because C. Ronaldo doesn’t track back.
Inconsistent defending by their full backs further exacerbates the wing player positioning. Interestingly, despite Marcelo now taking up much of the load of attacking from the back line to provide width, Sergio Ramos has continued to defend with very variable quality and has been off form so far this season. While Marcelo has improved defensively, he is still far from being a top notch defender and is often caught in 1 vs. 1 or even 1 vs. 2 situations due to lack of support from his winger.
How has Madrid been able to defend with such few numbers? Through their offense. Their attack has been their most effective form of defense. Madrid has generally retained the bulk of possession and scored explosively which has allowed them to play with the lead. Neither of these options will be reliable tactics for them against Barça. This is the single biggest major tactical challenge either team faces in this match.
Madrid may vary personnel and start Diarra to provide additional defensive cover. However, it is more likely that Mourinho will instruct Özil and Di Maria to play deeper and focus on defending more. Özil will defend when instructed. However, when he does so he is forced out of the advanced position he favors and his impact on the attack diminishes significantly. Along with Özil and Di Maria dropping deeper the Madrid full backs will also be more cautious moving forward.
Overall, Madrid will likely vary how they defend. Often they will drop deep in two banks of four with Higuain and C. Ronaldo higher up the pitch looking to play on the counter. However, the problem in this approach is that Madrid doesn’t have the experience as a unit or the defensive skill set as a team to absorb the kind of constant, intense pressure Barça can generate, particular at the Camp Nou. This will be a chancy way to play even if Mourinho is to hoping to play for a tie. As such, Madrid may need to try to mix deep defending with variable pressing when Barça advanced the ball towards midfield. The advantage of this to Madrid is that if they can turn the ball over high up the pitch they can generate very dangerous chances given their pace and ability to break and transition play.
How Should Barça Structure Its Attack to Take Advantage of Madrid’s Defensive Limitations?
The key for Barça in attack will be off the ball movement. Off the ball movement is a fundamental aspect to the Barça system but will be particularly important in this match because Madrid isn’t used to defending for long stretches of time or as a coordinated block. They will be unlikely to be able to control space by maintaining structured shape if Barça’s total team movement is frequent, dynamic and perhaps most importantly – incisive.
Barça needs to move off the ball with direction and purpose. And that purpose cannot simply be to continue to retain possession. The first purpose needs to be to fragment Madrid out of shape by forcing defenders to come out of position and second to exploit the space that opens up from mistakes in position to make directed movements towards the goal.
Alongside off the ball movement, position switching will be a critical tool as well as it will confuse Madrid’s ability to mark attackers. The key players here are Iniesta and Messi. Iniesta generally plays towards the left but he needs to look to play on the Barça right as well to exploit C. Ronaldo’s lack of defensive presence. The same goes for Messi moving out to the right if he’s initially positioned as the central striker.
Barça’s holding midfielder may be the key to the attack because he is likely to be the player with the most time and space on the ball. Because they do not defend in numbers, Madrid is going to need to make difficult decisions on how to guard Messi as a false 9 and Busquets as the deep holding player. Unless Madrid drops both Özil and Higuain back to defend centrally pinches in Di Maria to the middle (which leaves the flank open for Abidal) Barça is going to have numerical superiority in midfield. For a moment let’s assume that Khedira and Alonso match up against Xavi and Iniesta 2 vs. 2. That leaves Busquets. As long as Özil drops deep Busquets can be marked. But the problem for Madrid then becomes Messi’s presence in midfield as the false 9.
Messi functionally gives Barça an extra player in midfield that Madrid cannot account for. This of course is the purpose for the false 9 and it’s particularly effective against a team like Madrid because they utilize players who do not participate in defense vigorously. Theoretically, one of the CB could come out to mark Messi, but this would open up a gaping hole in the heart of the Madrid defense, which they will be unlikely to risk.
As such, Madrid will need to essentially make a choice between marking Messi when he drops deep or Busquets. They cannot mark both unless Higuain also drops deep to defend or Di Maria leaves the wing. In all likelihood, Madrid will choose to try to mark Messi and this will likely leave Busquets (or Mascherano if he plays) with significant time and space on the ball. Busquets must take advantage of this by not only retaining possession but through his own creative play. He needs to play balls that create risk for Madrid rather than only play simple passes forward to Xavi and Iniesta.
A strong avenue for connection may be between Busquets and Messi. Madrid can commit a midfield defender to mark Messi but it is not simple to consistently mark a false 9. If you commit a defender but Messi doesn’t drop deep you’ve created a redundant defender in midfield, which would be disastrous against Barça. If you don’t commit a midfielder and he does drop deep then you are caught short.
What heightens this problem even more is that two of Madrid’s midfielders – Alonso and Özil – are not good defenders. Busquets will likely have the most space of any player in the match and he needs to utilize it to play incisive balls forward to Messi. He needs to take advantage of the opportunity.
The key zone for Barça to exploit will perhaps be the flanks, especially spaces behind the Madrid full backs. Villa and Pedro need to try to get behind or to run at at Ramos and Marcelo to force Madrid to lose its shape. Running at the Madrid full backs will be one of the best ways to disrupt Madrid when they are trying to play in two blocks of four.
If Barça can force the full backs out of position the central defenders will need to adjust and this will open up space in the middle for Messi to attack. Barça should be able to inflict damage against Madrid off the flanks but the actions of Villa and Pedro need to be directed towards the goal. Retaining possession out in space on the wing is insufficient. Repeated crosses into the box will not be productive.
Barça’s wide players need to force the issue and make Madrid defenders commit to repositioning themselves. This can only be done if those defenders feel that Barça’s wide players are making threatening runs to the goal. This is not a match where Villa and Pedro stand at the edge of the box rather than crashing towards it aggressively.
It’s likely that Madrid will prioritize marking Xavi in midfield with Khedira or Özil to try to pressure Xavi’s ability to dominate the dynamics of the match. This would likely leave Iniesta to be accounted for by Alonso.
Iniesta is an extremely generous player, but if he is faced with Alonso he needs to be selfish. If Iniesta is aggressive and looks to make himself a threat, particularly through direct play and dribbling, Alonso will not be able to handle him effectively. This will force the Madrid back line to compensate and lose shape. This will then create the space that Messi and Villa need to make inwards runs towards goals.
Madrid faces significant challenges in trying to defend against Barça, particularly if they want to try to maintain the style of attack they have, which has prioritized keeping attacking high up the pitch to break at speed. This leaves them numerically short in the back. Even if they drop players back Messi’s role as a false 9 and the multidimensional flexibility of Iniesta, Villa and Pedro and Busquets’ comfort on the ball will create problems. This is particularly true given Madrid’s lack of experience defending as a cohesive unit.
As long as Barça is incisive in this match and does not settle for possession for possession’s sake, they should be able to inflict damage on Madrid.