El Clásico. Or rather the first of four Clásicos. From a tactical standpoint, this series of matches has the potential to be one of the most interesting in the history of the sport. Barça and Real Madrid are arguably the two best squad’s in the world. To play this often in such a short span raises an almost endless array of possibilities for how play will be executed. (For a review of both squads base systems and how they line up against each other see part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4 of the preview from the first Clásico).
Since that first match Real Madrid have learned how to play with each other in a more cohesive, integrated fashion. Barcelona has continued to play brilliant football building up a formidable eight point lead but also suffering significant loses to injury along the back line which creates a clear, new vulnerability that was not present during the first leg.
That said, the primary tactical question headed into this match is the same question that shaped the first Clásico of the season at Camp Nou. How will Real Madrid defend the Barcelona attack? It is this question which has the most uncertainty and variables that may change. And given the overwhelming result of the first match, it is the Madrid defensive system which has greatest need to adjust.
It is very clear that Barcelona has significant issues of it’s own defensively. They are not nearly as solid defensively as they were before. However, the fact remains that Barcelona is likely to dominate possession. And in turn the pressure to defend will remain on Madrid’s side. Given how unaccustomed Madrid is to not having the ball and the scale of Barcelona victory in the first Clásico, it is the Madrid defensive system which is largest open tactical issue at stake now. In turn, that’s why I will focus my review primarily on the Madrid defense and the Barça attack.
In the first part of this review, I’ll take a look at some of the key factors that shaped the first Clásico focusing in on the deficits in the Madrid’s team defense that will need to be addressed for them to be competitive this time around and how Barça attacked those deficits by playing to their own strengths. What Barça did that match still holds many of the key factors to their potential success over the next four matches and also outlines the challenges Madrid faces tactically. In the next review I’ll take a look at how Madrid’s defense has evolved over the season and how Barcelona can exploit the changes in the Madrid system once more.
The Barcelona Conundrum
“Great clubs have had one thing in common throughout history, regardless of era or tactics. They owned the pitch and they owned the ball. That means when you have the ball, you dictate play and when you are defending, you control the space.
Sacchi dictum perfectly describes how Guardiola’s Barça play. And his formulation also outlines the central problem every team that plays Barça faces, even potentially great ones like Real Madrid. Barça almost always “owns the ball” and dictates play with it. In turn that means that most of what the opposition can do is to try to control space. It’s their only viable option in most cases.
However, if you are a squad that is not good at controlling space then you are at risk for becoming lost and played off the pitch. This was the fundamental story of the first Clásico this season. And those factors were why I wrote in my preview of that first match:
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.
Many of those factors still remain primary questions now as Madrid has continued to dominate possession and score quickly against opponents.
Real Madrid’s Defensive System at Camp Nou
The screen shot below summarizes many of the key features for how Madrid defended in the first leg.
Madrid is defending in numbers with a five man back line. This was one key to their approach – numbers at the back. However, how that back line is structured is the key. The four backs are actually playing very narrow in an attempt to clot the middle of the pitch which is a standard tactic against Barça.
Angel DiMaria was charged with marking Dani Alves and tracking his runs forward which is why DiMaria is playing level with the Madrid back four. Alves in turn essentially turned Di Maria into an auxiliary left back by positioning himself so high up the pitch. This is the reason why Mourhino initially did not want to play C.Ronaldo in his preferred left wing position. He didn’t feel C.Ronaldo would track back and didn’t want to leave Alves open as an outlet on the right flank. Nor did he want Marcelo to have to defend Alves because he wanted his back four to stay narrow to combat Xavi, Iniesta and Messi through the middle.
Notice the gap in space between DiMaria and Marcelo. This gap develops because the backs are trying to stay narrow but Alves is insisting on playing very wide. This gap would be one that Barça would exploit over and over that match. This is one area where Barça will look to attack again if Madrid cannot find a solution.
Madrid are also playing a relatively high back line and off side trap at the back. However, their more advanced players are not pressuring the ball. A high back line without pressure on the ball is not a viable defensive strategy. And Barça exploited this all match relentlessly.
Xabi Alonso is tracking Messi’s run. Alonso was charged with marking Messi between the lines when Messi drifted right. This was another major problem for Madrid. Alonso simply does not have the foot speed to defend Messi, especially in the open field.
In the shot above, Messi is in the process of dragging Alonso all over the pitch and out of position. Alonso’s foot speed and defensive ability were weaknesses Messi exploited to set up Barcelona’s third goal. Barça at large and Messi in particular attacked this space between the lines relentlessly all evening. If Real Madrid has a chance to beat Barça in the coming matches they must address this space on the pitch.
Oezil played a varying role defensively while he was on. He was often stationed high up the pitch in the center between C. Ronaldo and Benzema so that he could mark Busquets and not given him space on the ball. Other times, as in the still shot above, Oezil dropped back to track Xavi. However, while Oezil is tracking back he did not implement high pressure. This may have been due to his lack of conditioning, a problem which has gotten significantly better over the season. However, Oezil still is not a great defender.
On Barça’s left side of the pitch are perhaps the two primary keys to the entire Clásico.
First, notice how far wide Villa is and how much room there is between Villa and Ramos. In turn, notice again how wide Alves is on the right. Guardiola clearly anticipated that Mourhino would want to play his back line very narrow to clot the middle. In turn he instructed Villa to stay very wide on the left and to make sure that either Pedro or Alves were very wide on the right. Guardiola’s goal was to try to ensure that there were Barça attackers wide of Madrid’s most lateral defenders.
Madrid have five defenders in the middle of the pitch guarding one Barça attacker. This inefficient allocation of defensive resources proved to be a disaster for Madrid.
The second factor to notice in the screen shot above is how Madrid have fallen into a “broken formation” defensively. C. Ronaldo and Benzema are stationed disproportionately high up the pitch waiting to break on the counter as they usually do. The other eight outfield defenders are clustered together. Despite the majority of defenders acting together, Madrid are not compact overall. In fact, a very large diagonal space opens up between Madrid’s top two and their bottom eight. This is what a “broken formation” looks like defensively.
You simply cannot leave this much open space for Barça to operate. In Sacchi’s terms, Madrid have lost control of space while also not possessing the ball. Iniesta is intelligently exploiting this defect by moving into that gap in the broken formation. In addition, Villa is also positioned along that line for a clear diagonal from Pique who has the ball. This is disaster waiting to happen. And shortly it would for Madrid.
Barça exploiting Madrid’s attempt to stay narrow by positioning attackers wide and exploiting the gap in Madrid’s broken formation directly led to Barça’s first two goals.
Here is the run Iniesta made to set up Barça’s first goal. His tactical discipline is spot on. He has continued to exploit the gap in Madrid’s broken formation to find space. And then he has utilized the ball to make the “break” in Madrid’s formation even worse. He has forced Madrid’s LB, CB and two holding players to scramble back. The Madrid defenders however try to form a fence to contain the ball rather than pressure it to stop the run. This opens up a large space between that line of four and Carvalho and Marcelo which Xavi exploits to make his own run to score the first goal.
Here is the set up for goal 2:
Madrid are once again attempting to do what most teams (including Mourhino’s Inter) do against Barça – stay narrow and clot the middle. But movement of Iniesta and Messi have force them to lose all shape at the back. Ramos has been pulled very centrally by Iniesta’s run – likely a direct reaction to the first goal.
Notice also Dani Alves’ intelligent positioning. By staying higher up the pitch he essentially forces his marker Di Maria into limbo. Di Maria does not commit to pressuring the ball nor is he exactly guarding Alves or Pedro. He’s almost trying to do a little of everything which leaves him doing nothing. Oezil also though dropping deep is not pressuring the ball. This exposes Madrids relatively high line.
However, the key aspect to the shot is David Villa’s positioning. Look at how far wide his is from Ramos. He has maintained tactical discipline and width despite the ball and nearly every other player drifting to the right side of the pitch.
Xavi – not pressured by any of the four defenders around him quickly sees Villa and send him a diagonal. Villa then runs onto the ball, skins Ramos who is forced to run back to Villa, and then delivers the cross which Pedro puts into the back of the net for goal two.
The other issue to note in that still shot points out a major problem Madrid have defensively. Look at where C. Ronaldo is playing. It is simply remarkable that C.Ronaldo is defending no one as Villa is completely wide open. He is just standing there at the top of a broken formation watching his team disintegrate defensively.
Barça are outnumbered 6 to 9 in the shot above. But through their intelligent positioning, off the ball movement and rapid ball circulation they are able to overcome that deficit and thwart Madrid’s tactical approach of defending numbers.
By executing it’s template at the highest level, Barcelona attacked nearly every latent tactical deficiency Madrid had in defense during the first Clásico of the season. No team before or since has explored the weaknesses in the Madrid system in that kind of methodical fashion.
Madrid attempted to defend Barça by defending narrowly to clot the middle, defending in numbers at the back, implementing the off side trap, man marking Messi and Alves and having Oezil attempt to defend Barça’s central midfielders (either Busquet’s or Xavi). However, Barça countered by creating tremendous width that they attacked off of, exploiting spaces open within Madrid’s broken formation and open between their lines, off the ball movement and rapid ball circulation.
Barça took the ball away from a Madrid team that is built around having the ball. And then Barça utilized the ball to control space.
Madrid has evolved as team defensively however and in the next part of this review we’ll take a look at how they have changed.