Tactical Preview: Part 2 – The Evolution of Madrid’s Defensive System and How Barca Should Attack

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.

Visca Barca!


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  1. Helge
    April 16, 2011

    You expect us to read such a highly tactical post although we are all in a highly hysterical state?

    I hope the other 2 parts won’t be published today, and that I can read this part calmly and focused before the Clasico starts 🙂
    Because this article certainly deserves my fullest attention!

    • Helge
      April 16, 2011

      Have finished it.

      I’ll pay attention to false EE pressing and true Barça pressing. As always, very well elaborated analysis supported by insightful pictures. Lovin’ it!

  2. April 16, 2011

    Thanks for another great post! Learning so much.

    Yay to triangles!! May we have many many triangles in all these four Clasicos and keep EE players in limboland.

    And may Villa and pedro keep the width always.

    Visca Barca!!!

  3. April 16, 2011

    I love these posts 😀

    I woke up this morning, and the first image in my head was Mourinho from the Mou, Res Crackovia song… seriously disturbed 0.o

  4. Whatever
    April 16, 2011

    Great article, again! 🙂

    Since Mascherano is suspended for this game, do you think that playing Keita on DM would be wise? I’d pick Busquets for his ball control which gives us more strength in the midfield (posession), but he’ll most likely play CB.

    • Colby
      April 16, 2011

      I’m leaning towards Keita at DM. I doubt that we will see it, but I think that the combination of Busquets and Pique with Keita in front of them is greater than the combination of Pique and Milito with Busquets in front of them. Keita has the pace and tenacity to break up Madrid counterattacks.

      The argument can certainly be made that Busquets’ positional sense and offensive/possession presence makes him a better option. But I would rather not risk feeding Milito to the lions. And the addition of Keita means that 1 of our 3 most defensive players will have pace.

      In my fantasies I see Pique-Busquets with Keita in front. But when we are in possession, Keita and Busquets switch. This way we have Busquets in midfield, and have improved our pace at the back for the counterattack, when pace is valued over positional sense. When Madrid is in a more “normal” mode of attack, Busquets takes over the CB position and Keita returns to DM. Madrid’s counterattacking prowess turns many situations into a footrace; I would prefer Keita in these “footrace” situations and Busquets in more “normal situations.”

  5. Colby
    April 16, 2011

    HOLY CRAP!!!!! I JUST GOT A PIQUE JERSEY IN THE MAIL!!! I’ve been so busy I forgot it was coming (I ordered it for myself for my birthday a couple weeks ago). Completely forgot. And then today it just showed up in the mail! THIS HAS GOT TO BE A SIGN!!! I suppose this means I’ll be wearing Pique today. Puyol will have to take a rest for the day.

    • Eklavya
      April 16, 2011


      😀 Pique to score tonight then!

  6. Diego
    April 16, 2011

    Double Hectored

    10 Things we can expect from the Classico :

    – Messi getting a yellow, not for fouling, but for a celebration, a handball, or playacting.

    – Xavi getting a yellow for arguing with the referee.

    – Pedro scoring, TB not scoring and then TB asks Pedro “Who are you?”

    – Di Maria diving in the penalty box and acting like he got hit by 3 consecutive trains.

    – TB imitating a teapot in the middle of the pitch while all the 21 other players are busy playing football.

    – Busquets grabbing his ankle.

    – Iker doing the Iker face and Pique crowd surfing.

    – Mourinho laughing at a foul against EE.

    – Pepe and Ramos getting yellows after their 37th foul.

    – Guardiola and Mourinho shaking hands before and after the match.

  7. Roz
    April 16, 2011

    The Yaya with a goal in the Manchester Derby. That man is a beast.

  8. April 16, 2011

    The Yaya just made one hell of a goal off an interception in the ManU-ManCity FA semi. Him and cup competitions… 😛

    • Diego
      April 16, 2011

      It’s only one match, right ? Not 2 legs.

      • April 16, 2011

        All matches are one leg affairs, correct. And there are no replays in the semis or final, since they are all at Wembley if I’m not mistaken.

    • Para
      April 16, 2011

      The question of the afternoon (not night, because that will be related to RM-FCB, I’m sure) is: What words would Ray-ray have used to describe the Yaya today?

  9. Extreme barca fan
    April 16, 2011

    A much needed Wonderful analysis Euler, Thank you very much
    I think our players wont have as much time on the ball as they did in 1st Clasico, Madrid players will apply intense pressure on us, especially in the early stages of the game, we need our passing game today more than ever, one touch and thats it, nothing fancy.
    Both teams will get their chances to score, i just hope for some better luck with our finishing, and that their strikers have an of day.
    And as an optimist i believe we can beat them in all 4 matches, although i really dont care about the copa.
    I expect great things from Iniesta today as he sat out our last match.

  10. jordi™
    April 16, 2011

    heh Balotelli winding up Ferdinand

  11. beeeef
    April 16, 2011

    Images made by Catalan tv inside the dressing-room show the captain’s armband lying on Puyol’s outfit #fcblive #elclasico [via @rut_vilar]

    via @barcastuff

    Whaaaaaaaaaat? Man it would be crazy if Puyol was in the starting XI.

  12. Helge
    April 16, 2011

    Great, one team less that could win the treble this year.

    btw, according to AS, Real plays with a trivote, Pepe as additional DM.

    I fear they’ll try to kick Xaviniesta and Messi to death, so let’s better rest at least one of them!
    If anybody gets deliberately injured today, I might drive to Madrid and take revenge.

  13. blitzen
    April 16, 2011

    OK. I’m ready. Bring it on! 😀

    I have assembled my ingredients, and an hour from now I will attempt to create the never-before-seen four-layer manita!!!

    If it actually works I will post the recipe, but I don’t have high hopes. Nothing ventured, though…

  14. Eklavya
    April 16, 2011

    The Yaya is trending worldwide. This guy is the Chuck Norris of God himself. No he’s much more than that: he’s Yaya motherf*cking Toure!!!

    Sigh, I miss The Yaya jokes…

  15. Helge
    April 16, 2011

    Could it be that Mou will play Inter tactics?

    With Xabi, Khedira and Pepe in MF, I could see a lack of connection between midfield and the attack (CR, Benz and Fallen Ángel Dive María).

  16. Nav
    April 16, 2011

    This is hilarious:

    Mourinho has forbidden the club to cut the grass at the Bernabeu this week. It’s 3 to 4 centimetres higher than usual. @barcastuff

    Really Mou? Really Mou? If that isn’t small club mentality I don’t know what is.

    • April 16, 2011

      I could believe it, but it could also be made up by the press. I don’t know anymore; Mou trolls the press and the press troll our news websites. Gah!

      • Nav
        April 16, 2011

        I really hope it isn’t true. The rivalry between EE and Barca is too grand for either club to stoop to tactics like this.

        • Jnice
          April 16, 2011

          If I’m not mistaken, Mourinho did similar things against us when he was at Chelsea. Their pitch was pathetic when played them.

  17. Nav
    April 16, 2011

    Barcelona line-up (unofficial): Valdes – Alves Pique Puyol Adriano – Xavi Busquets Iniesta – Pedro Messi Villa #fcblive @barcastuff

    Oh wow.

  18. April 16, 2011

    Madrid had significant problems defending between the lines in the first Clasico.

    And as I wrote in the preview I expect them to try to fortify that area of the pitch so the trivote experiment with Pepe in midfield won’t be surprising if they go in that direction as is being reported.

    However, while this may enhance their defense one of the major problems this is going to lead to for Madrid is that it’s going to make it harder for them to retain possession.

    The Barca press will be very effective in dispossessing the ball from a Trivote formation. None of the 3 Madrid midfielders would have strong skills on the ball, especially close control. This makes them very easy to press and disrupt.

    This is a major issue for Madrid – how do they defend between the lines while also retaining possession.

    Much was made out of Mourinho taking Ozil off and playing Diarra in the second half of the first Clasico.

    However, Diarra playing in the midfield actually facilitated Barca’s 4th goal. Barca pressed Diarra and dispossessed him. Xavi then held Diarra off and circulated the ball quickly to messi who led a fast counter in response.

    It will be very interesting to see what happens if Madrid does utilize the Trivote formation. Oezil is such an integral part of how they possess the ball and create scoring chances. Without him they will really be dependent on direct play, pace and counters to score.

    • Helge
      April 16, 2011

      The whole formation looks to be typically Mourinho-esque.
      Defend at all costs (aside from Crynaldo) and hit the superior opponent on the counter with sheer pace (very simplified version of a Mourinho-esque tactic^^).

      • April 16, 2011

        At the same time his current team is really not built to sit deep and absorb pressure.

        In addition – they have not played even close to that way at any point this season.

        That was a major reason why the first Clasico was so lopsided. Madrid was forced to defend in a way they had no experience doing as a unit.

        The same would be true now. They are a team that all season has needed the ball.

        But as Mourhino may be acknowledging that Madrid simply can’t have the ball so they will try to control space through shape even though they haven’t done it all season.

        • Helge
          April 16, 2011

          Didn’t they play a similar trivote against Bilbao?

          And they won 3-0, although they’ve had the 2nd worst ball possession of the season (after the match against us, naturally) and the shots on target stats etc. didn’t favour them either.
          Nonetheless it was one of the most easiest and most secure wins for Real… hope it won’t be repeated today.

  19. K_legit
    April 16, 2011

    Puyol to start?
    I have a bad feeling about that!

  20. Alex
    April 16, 2011

    RAC1 just confirmed the grass is taller than normal…..gotta love MOU!!!!

  21. Eklavya
    April 16, 2011

    Puyol is such a beast. He’s not a glass man who’ll get himself injured again, fear not. I trust Capitain Caveman.

  22. K_legit
    April 16, 2011

    Official Real Madrid Line-up : Casillas; Ramos, Carvalho, Albiol, Marcelo; Khedira, Pepe, Xabi Alonso; Di Maria, Benzema, Ronaldo

    Official Barça Line-up : Valdés – Alves, Piqué, Puyol , Adriano , Xavi , Busquets, Iniesta , Pedro, Messi, Villa

  23. Helge
    April 16, 2011

    El Clasico is on GolTV ?!?

    Such a shame that GolTV doesn’t work on TVU for me anymore 🙁 🙁 🙁

  24. Para
    April 16, 2011

    Captain Caveman starting makes me want to run outside and scream things at the sky. Not out of anger or happiness, but just out of….feeling.

    I fear I am becoming more and more incoherent as we get closer to kick off!

    Euler- I thought this post (and the first part) were really insightful. Your use of pictures makes your thought processes so much easier to follow, which is really appreciated!

  25. April 16, 2011

    Huge game today for Barca – even more than expected due to Puyol’s presence.

    If he’s able to play well it will be an enormous lift.

    Mourinho is fielding a completely counter attacking team at the Bernabeau that has very limited midfield creativity.

    If Puyol is indeed OK that counter attack strategy which completely gives the midfield control to Barca could be a difficult strategy to execute for Madrid.

  26. Colby
    April 16, 2011


  27. footballfan
    April 16, 2011

    Okay I’m getting pumped out now. See you guys after the match! 😀

    Visca Barca!

  28. Alex
    April 16, 2011

    And ray ray looks nothing like I pictured him. Weird.

    • Ryan
      April 16, 2011

      I remembering watching a YouTube video where Ray Ray was absolutely slamming on the English team’s performance at the World Cup, so no surprise there.

  29. K_legit
    April 16, 2011

    8 from La Masia in the starting XI tonight…
    maybe the day is not far when we have 11 homegrown players in the starting XI !!

  30. April 16, 2011

    the inclusion of Puyol is just too huge… i mean, its a total morale boost. iam sure i am not the first one to worry about match fitness, but man, what a time to return!

  31. blaunero
    April 16, 2011

    Interesting formation from Mourinho. Pepe in the middle to add some more muscles instead of Oezil’s flair. He’ll most likely change this formation for the second match of the series, which is the real game he wants to win.

  32. Jim
    April 16, 2011

    Long ball football here we come 🙂

    I’ll be feeling at home. Scottish football taught the world how not to bring the ball down and pass.

  33. April 16, 2011

    I believe in this team. I believe that when we hear the referee’s final whistle, 18 days from now, and the horns of el Cant begin to sound out from the Camp Nou PA, that we’ll be in control of La Liga, Copa del Rey champions, and on our way to Wembley. Let’s do this.

  34. parwizkhan100
    April 19, 2011

    i like Barcelona …. they going to good in the laliga and i am unhappy about my hero ronaldino ……

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