In most matches this season Real Madrid have dominated ball possession and have been able to defend with a lead. However, the Clásico poses a very different challenge for Madrid due to Barcelona’s ability to dominate possession which places additional pressure on their defense to control space.
The first part of this preview examined how the Barca attack and Madrid defensive system functioned in the first match at Camp Nou. This post will examine how the Madrid defensive system has developed and matured since that first match and what Barcelona will need to do to combat those tactics.
This preview is focusing on the large scale tactical issues at play because rather than one Clásico there will be four upcoming. As such, the match to match specifics are difficult to address beforehand as they will change. For those reasons, I have tried to identify the tactical issues that will span across all four matches.
The Evolution of the Madrid Defense
Since the first Clásico, two major factors that have bolstered the Madrid defense have been, 1) the further integration of individual players into a more cohesive unit; 2) the more effective utilization of pressure, particularly high up the pitch.
Enhanced Defensive Integration
One of the challenges Barca posed to Madrid in the first Clásico was the requirement to defend as a unit for extended periods of stretches. Given the new players and system that Madrid was developing this was a significant challenge.
Since that time Madrid had had the opportunity to develop cohesion as a defensive unit. Notably Mesut Oezil and Sammy Khedira have had time to better integrate defensively into the critical central portion of the pitch. During the first Clásico, Oezil in particular was still struggling for fitness and this limited his defensive activities. As the season has progressed, Oezil had become a more willing and able defender.
Barcelona had significant success utilizing space between Madrid’s back line and midfield. Over time Sammy Khedira has had greater understanding how to work alongside of Xabi Alonso and in front of the Madrid center backs. This has improved Madrid’s ability to defend between the lines.
Karim Benzema has had a stormy career at Madrid often coming in for significant criticism for his performance and finding minutes difficult to come by. Since the last Clásico, Benzema’s play has improved significantly with the talented striker exhibiting more of the skills that made him such an effective player at Lyon. While much of the focus on Benzema’s development has been on his goal scoring he has become better integrated at large into the Madrid system. With more minutes and confidence he has also picked up his activity in defense as well.
While it’s unclear which players will be deployed where, Madrid will likely have a more uniform, more cohesive defensive approach in this upcoming series of matches.
Increased Pressure Up the Pitch
In the first Clásico Madrid played a high defensive line but with little integrated pressure higher up the pitch. This lack of pressure in turn severely exposed the Madrid back line. Since then Madrid have become a significantly better pressing unit.
Tactically, Madrid presses in a very unorthodox, interesting fashion. They do not generally press by “hunting in packs” of multiple players as Barca does. Instead, Madrid vary their approach, often utilizing a complex variation of false pressing. In false pressing players higher up the pitch pressure the ball but the defenders behind them do not act in unison to compress space. Instead they occupy much deeper positions on the pitch.
The advantage of the false press is that it does not require the back line to play as high. However, it’s major limitation is that the defense cannot stay compact which opens up space between the lines. Madrid however implements the false press in a very interesting fashion – by utilizing one of their great team strengths – pace.
Madrid press with relatively few players high up the pitch and functionally compress space by utilizing speed rather than requiring all of the players to remain compact as a unit. Below is a sequence exemplifying how Madrid defend through pressure from their recent match with Sporting Gijon.
In the screen shot above Madrid has just been dispossessed up the pitch by Sporting. Sami Khedira immediately pressures the defender with the ball high up the pitch. What’s interesting here is that Khedira is largely pressing in an isolated fashion. The other players around him maintain their positions around him and there are no players moving forward to maintain compactness. It is his responsibility to press at that moment.
The first Sporting player has passed around Khedira. In turn, Adebayor now picks up the ball and applies pressure again largely alone.
Sporting has advanced the ball to midfield. This is the key shot describing Madrid’s press. Notice the positioning of Madrid’s two holding players. Alonso is now pressuring the ball while Diarra is playing more positionally to contain the advancement of the ball. Most importantly, notice how the Madrid back line is reacting. Rather than holding their high line, the Madrid defenders are retreating to deeper positions even while the two holding players are applying pressure and containing the ball.
This exemplifies why Madrid’s press is close to form of false pressing. The team does not press as a block and attempt to stay compact. Instead they apply pressure through waves of involving smaller numbers of players.
Sporting has continued to advance the ball up the pitch. And once again it is a single player applying pressure as Albiol steps up to close down the ball.
The purpose of this variation on false pressing is two fold. First, is the attempt to repossess the ball through individual effort. By doing so Madrid reduces the chances of having multiple players caught high up the pitch. This comes at the cost of decreasing the probability of winning back the ball. However, this speaks to Madrid’s second goal in false pressing.
When in possession Madrid plays a relatively high line to facilitate their own possession. When out of possession though Madrid seeks to defend in numbers deeper on the pitch. False pressing in this fashion slows the opposition’s circulation of the ball up the pitch. It allows the Madrid defense to regain its shape at the back.
How Barcelona Should Adjust
In the first Clásico, Madrid played a high back line but did so with limited pressure on the ball. Madrid likely limited pressure because they prioritized trying to maintain shape. However, the limited pressure often gave Barca far too much time and space on the ball, especially in wide positions.
In addition, Madrid allowed too much space between their lines and Barca exploited that region of the pitch brilliantly.
While tactics will vary over the next four matches I fully expect Madrid to address both their lack of pressure and the space between their line in this series. Teams have found success against Barca this season by implementing pressure on the ball, particularly when coupled with physicality (e.g. FC Copenhagen and Athletico Bilbao in the Copa Del Rey).
Through their isolated pressing Madrid will be able to pressure the ball more effectively while still maintaining shape. The pace of their players can make this tactic more successful than what one would ordinarily expect.
I also expect Madrid to fortify their deep midfield position with additional defensive pressure. This will first likely involve Mesut Oezil dropping deeper on the pitch rather than playing in the higher defensive position he did in the first Clásico. Second, Madrid will likely augment their holding position with a greater defensive presence e.g. playing Diarra if fit or even Pepe in that position.
The key for Barca to respond is incisive off the ball movement and the formation of triangles. This was something they did extraordinarily well in the first Clásico.
In the first leg Di Maria did attempt to apply pressure on the ball (though other defenders on Madrid didn’t support his efforts sufficiently – it’s this coordinated effort which will improve for Madrid). In the shot above Barca has repossessed the ball and Di Maria is attempting to pressure.
Notice however how Barca quickly responds through, short but rapid off the ball movement of Iniesta and Pique to Di Maria’s efforts. They form a triangle between Abidal, Iniesta and Pique in response to his individual effort. Despite his pace, Di Maria cannot pressure a triangle and he functionally winds up in limbo on the pitch due to geometry as the screen shot below demonstrates.
Barca need to do this consistently when facing pressure.
In response to Madrid fortifying the defensive presence between the lines, Barca need to do something they haven’t done consistently since the winter break – utilize width. Messi should position switch out to the wings to draw Madrid’s holding players into difficult positions. Adriano will be a significant addition in this regard as well with his pace and direct play off the flanks.
Perhaps most importantly David Villa and Pedro must regain form from wide positions. Both players were decisive in the first Clásico in providing dangerous width. They will need to do so again if Barca is to find success over the next four matches.
Finally, Sergio Busquets or Mascherano must be willing to be more aggressive in their play at the holding position if they are given space on the ball as Mesut Oezil tries to defend in deeper positions between the lines.