Tactical Preview: Champions League Clasico Away Leg

Barcelona takes on Real Madrid in the third of four Clásico’s and the first of two Champions League semi-final matches.  Coming into this series of matches the primary open question was how Madrid would defend.  The last two Clásico’s have clarified this question.  Barcelona have seen defenses such as the one Madrid is implementing before in the matches played against FC Copenhagen, Arsenal at the Emirates and Athletic Bilbao at San Mames.  In this next Clásico the question shifts to Barcelona’s side – how do the blaugrana execute against that defensive template.


The Problem

The major change Madrid has made is to play defensively as a more unified block in order to control space on the pitch.  This is well demonstrated in the screen shot below from the Copa Del Rey.

Madrid Crowding the Middle Generating Numerical Advantage in Defense

Madrid has six defenders tightly packed in a narrow band across the pitch with four defenders forming a “box” around the midfield circle.  The goal here is to compress space and make the middle – the area Barça likes to play through – as functionally small as possible.  This has been the chief operating principle for Madrid in the past two matches.

However, while Madrid have maintained this unified block shape, they have implemented it in very different ways over the past two matches.  In the second Clásico of the season, Madrid absorbed pressure and focused their three holding players to clot up the space between the lines, which was the space on the pitch that Barça exploited masterfully in the 5-0 match at Camp Nou.  Madrid utilized variable pressing during this game and pressed high up the pitch primarily at the end of the first half and the opening part of the second to try to force a turnover and score at a critical juncture.

In the Copa Del Rey finals, Madrid played a much more aggressive match defensively.  They pressured high up the pitch on a more consistent basis until tiring in the second half.

Between these two matches the role of Pepe changed considerably.  At the Bernabeau, Pepe played in a much more conventional holding role focusing on Messi dropping between the lines.  In the Copa finals, Pep played a very different role – he acted more as a central midfielder with license to get forward rather than as a holding player. However, Pepe’s “runs forward” were largely for defensive purposes as he was the primary source of pressure on the ball.  In the first screen shot above, notice how far up the pitch Pepe is – he his the one pressuring the player with the ball – Mascherano at CB.  Pepe can make these forward runs to pressure because he knows that he has a solid base of defenders behind him in the center.  Sammy Khedira played a similar though more constrained role.  This often left Xabi Alonso as Madrid’s deepest defensive midfielder (This is partly why Iniesta’s unwillingness to drive the attack through him was so damaging to Barça in the Copa finals.  Alonso is not a strong defender and Iniesta was facing him 1 vs. 1 for much of the match).

The net effect of Madrid’s shape and pressure has been to force Xavi to drop deep to pick up the ball in an area where he can find space.  In turn this has caused Messi to drop deep as well in support, driving him away from goal.  This dynamic is summarized well in the screen shot below:

Madrid Clotting the Middle in Defense Up the Pitch: Pepe Pressing Xavi forcing Messi to drop Deep Away from Goal. Iniesta Double Marked and Busquets in the Middle of a Box of Four Defenders

In the second Clásico of the season, Pepe’s chief responsibility was playing Messi between the lines.  In the Copa finals much of Pepe’s defensive duties were to mark Xavi.  Notice again how far up the pitch Pepe is – he is not only the most advanced midfielder for Madrid – he is stationed higher up the pitch than either of Madrid’s wingers.

Xavi drops deep for the ball but with Pepe marking and pressing him he needs support.  Busquet’s is playing positionally in the center of the pitch but he is surrounded by that box of defenders nearly always stationed around the midfield circle. Iniesta is playing his usual advanced midfield role and he is double marked by Alonso and Khedira.

Due to this defensive pressure and overplaying of the center of the pitch Messi is forced to drop extremely deep to try to find the ball and support Xavi.  Now Messi has been doing this all season long – why is it a problem now?  Because Madrid are packing the middle so tightly when Messi drops deep his is not dragging the center backs or holding players out of shape.  Instead Madrid are simply passing him across the lines of their defense.  In the shot above even though Messi drops very deep he is simply picked up by Marcelo.  Marcelo can track Messi’s runs because Angel Di Maria is acting as a defensive winger and tracking Dani Alves and Barça has no wide player on the right wing.

Because Messi is dropping deep but not dragging the needed defenders out of shape, space is not opening up for Villa or Pedro to make their central runs through.  In effect, Madrid is thwarting the intended impact of Messi as a false 9.

The end result of this sequence is non-productive for Barça.  Despite how deep Xavi and Messi have dropped to play the ball all Xavi is able to do with it is pass it backwards to the defensive line.

The Solution – Movement

While Madrid’s defensive scheme may seem like a difficult problem, the screen shot above also exemplifies the solutions for Barça.  The most puzzling aspect to the last screen shot is why Busquets and Iniesta are not moving off the ball more dynamically off the ball?  They are simply standing in their usual positions on the field – the very positions that Madrid are focusing their defense to overmark.

Lack of off the ball movement was the likely the primary reason why Barça lost the Copa finals and played so poorly in the first half.  It wasn’t only Iniesta and Busquets – it was nearly the entire team.

When a defense elects to focus it’s resources on controlling space in the middle of the pitch the attack has two main options.  Play ball over the top transit through the midfield where the defenders are clustered.  Or move off the ball and circulate the ball fast enough to force the defense to break shape.  Barça should continue to play some balls over the top to add diversity – but that clearly isn’t there strength.  As such they must play at a much higher tempo, move much more dynamically off the ball and circulate the ball much faster.  Again – we’ve seen the team do this match after match this season.  Barça do not need to “change styles.”  They need to execute their own template more dynamically and effectively.

While it was nearly the entire team that lacked off the ball movement, Busquets and Iniesta were particularly problematic in this regard because they are the ones who need to be supporting Xavi so Messi doesn’t have to keep dropping so deeply.  Busquet’s must expand the nature of his game today.  His normal role is to make himself available as an outlet for the ball in midfield.  The way Madrid are defending he cannot limit his play to that narrow role.  He must make himself dangerous in attack by playing dangerous passes forward and making his own runs.  With Iniesta unavailable, whoever replaces him is going to need to support Xavi in a similar fashion.

The Solution – Width and the Left Flank

Given all of the defenders Madrid have in the center there has to be open space in other regions of the pitch.  Barça’s inability to use width effective in the first half of the Copa was particularly damaging in this regard.

Barça should station Villa in the center so that they can free up Messi to attack off the right and utilize Pedro’s (or Afellay’s) speed off the wing.

The key area on the field is the left flank.  Madrid is not only over defending the center they are doing something similar on the right with Angel Di Maria acting as a defensive winger to track Alves’ runs forward.

The screen shot below demonstrates how much space Barça had to work with on the left  flank in the Copa finals:

Barca With Room on the Left Flank

The ball is in the center of the pitch.  Both Pedro and Adriano have very significant space to utilize on the left.  In electing to commit defenders primarily to the center and then secondarily to the right, Madrid are forced to leave space open on the left.

And the key tactical change which altered how Barça played in the second half compared to the first was Pep moving Pedro permanently to the left wing.  The screen shot below is before Pedro executed one of his dangerous moves on goal in the second half:

Pedro With Room to Attack off the Left Flank

Notice how clustered and congested the center of the pitch is around the eighteen yard line.  There is simply no space for any of the Barcelona attackers to operate there.  However, Pedro has significant room to attack off the left.

The left winger must stay wide this match and start his attacks from that flank.  With Carvalho out, it will be Arbeloa playing right full back for Madrid.  Arbeloa simply does not have that much pace and Barcelona’s chief advantage in attack will be to direct the ball through the left wing to exploit the available space open and utilize pace off the edges against Arbeloa.

It is for these reasons that the absence of Adriano will be particularly felt in this match.  Whether Puyol or Mascherano play on the left Barcelona is unlikely to get much width from the left full back.  This means that Barça’s attacking midfielder will be absolutely critical to building up and routing play to the advanced left winger.

The Solution – Patience

One touch football is the heart of how Barça plays.  However, in the Copa finals, the way Barça reacted to Madrid’s pressure was often an over reaction – they tried to play one touch football so quickly that they often resorted to playing negative balls.  Often there were opportunities open on the flanks – but those players were never found because the player with the ball wanted to one touch it away as quickly as possible – faster than was absolutely necessary.

Barça must be more composed on the ball.  And they need to mix up how they attack by not simply one touching it to an open man but by making runs with the ball and looking to play more dangerous balls to the flanks.

The Concern – Fatigue

Going into this Champions League draw the questions that arise then are why was Barça’s off the ball movement and use of width so poor.  Why was it so different from how they played against teams that implemented similar tactics to the ones Madrid have done? The lack of movement in particular is a concern given that not only was Barça’s movement in attack poor – so was their closing down of players on the press.  Fatigue unfortunately was likely a driving factor. Below is a summary of how many minutes Barça and Madrid’s attackers have played over the past 10 games (out of a possible 930 total minutes).

Comparision of Minutes Played Over the Past 10 Matches (Out of a total 930 Possible Minutes)

Overall Barça’s top 11 have played on average 300 more minutes this season than Madrid’s top 11 have.


What’s required for Barça to win this match is very clear.  The team has executed their template against the kind of defensive tactics Madrid are currently employing on several times over this season.  The question now is whether they can overcome their fatigue to engage in the kind of dynamic movement driven football that’s needed to break Madrid’s shape.


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  1. April 27, 2011

    I gonna lose it. I gonna lose it. I gonna los–

    Oh, who am I kidding? I never had it in the first place.

  2. April 27, 2011

    EE are gonna try to get their hits in early, when the ref is the most lenient.

    The aggressive approach can only go so far, and is dependent on how the ref calls the match, while all we need to do is move off the ball more.

    Obviously, it’s not that simple, but like Iniesta said, the second half of the Copa final is the example to follow. And we have Valdes and Puyi now.

  3. footballfan
    April 27, 2011

    I’m actually feeling really good about this match. 🙂

    • April 27, 2011

      When was the last time we came into a Clasico as the underdog?

      We can definitely use this as an advantage.

  4. vicsoc
    April 27, 2011

    All I have to say is a scoring draw would be a phenomenal result. 2-2 would be phenomenal.

  5. Whatever
    April 27, 2011

    Euler, could it be that Iniesta isn’t really injured and Guardiola is just giving him a rest? His lack of movement was really damaging for us in the Copa game, so perhaps Guardiola thought he’d give him a rest and play Keita instead. Madrid will go out and attack (probably; so did Inter when we played them in Milan), so Keita will be crucial in stopping that. On the other hand, we need Iniesta on Camp Nou.

  6. April 27, 2011

    If he plays, we can definately exploit Arbeloa IMO. The last clasicos, his primary role has been to thug up the place. Pedro! should take advantage of his lack of everything. 😉 😀 #1hour27minutesleft

  7. vicsoc
    April 27, 2011

    This may sound dirty, but bear with me. A crucial factor on this tie is going to be suspensions. For this reason Barcelona should seek to put the Madrid players who are in danger of missing the next game due to yellow cards under heavy pressure. I don’t condone diving, but taking dribbles at players in danger of missing the next game and forcing them to make dangerous challenges could be crucial for the tie.

  8. Blow-Grenade
    April 27, 2011

    I predict a 2 0 thumping of Madrid with a lineup of

    Alves Puyol Pique sMash
    Xavi Busi Keita
    Messi Affelay Villa

    Pedro in for Super sub.

    Yes, and brace for Affelay, one assist by Villa, and the other one by Messi.

  9. Vj
    April 27, 2011

    I must have done something right. I’m getting todays match live! on TV!!

  10. Eklavya
    April 27, 2011

    Barça 11; Valdés, Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Puyol, Busquets, Xavi, Keita, Pedro, Messi and Villa

  11. Whatever
    April 27, 2011

    Barcelona line-up (official): Valdes – Alves Mascherano Pique Puyol – Xavi Busquets Keita – Pedro Messi Villa

    • Whatever
      April 27, 2011

      Barcelona bench: Pinto, Milito, Fontas, Sergio Roberto, Thiago, Afellay and Jeffren

      Damn, our bench looks so weak!

      • Alex
        April 27, 2011

        Wow, 4 canteranos straight from the B-team……one internation dutch player, one argentine defender past his prime, and a goalie… jesus that is a weak bench

    • Whatever
      April 27, 2011

      And look at their bench: Adan, Kaka, Benzema, Granero, Garay, Higuaín i Adebayor

      We should definitely have a larger should for next season. 🙂

  12. Eklavya
    April 27, 2011

    Barcelona bench: Pinto, Milito, Fontas, Sergio Roberto, Thiago, Afellay and Jeffren

    • blitzen
      April 27, 2011

      Surprised that Sergi Roberto made the bench. Thought he would be left out in favour of Montoya.

      • Eklavya
        April 27, 2011

        Well, it turned out the other way. Basically:

        Defenders: Fontas
        Mid: Thiago & Afellay

        That’s our bench.

      • vicsoc
        April 27, 2011

        I think Sergio Roberto has a better chance of making it in the first team than Montoya. It was six and a half one way half a dozen the other – whichever player made the bench, we weren’t going to have a sub for the other position.

  13. footballfan
    April 27, 2011

    Expected line-up from Pep. If any one of our starting 11 is injured, we are screwed.

  14. footballfan
    April 27, 2011

    According to soccernet, RM’s madrid will be Alonso-Diarra-Pepe in mid and Ronaldo-diMaria-Ozil.

    Expected line-up from Mourinho too.

  15. soccermomof4
    April 27, 2011

    My swagger from yesterday after Pep’s Pep talk has just been served a reality check by seeing our bench. 4 from the cantera! 4!
    May God have mercy on us.

    Cule limbo = the place where “let’s do this thing!” and “we’re all gonna die” meet.

    • footballfan
      April 27, 2011

      nah, we’ll be fine 😀 *fingers crossed no more injuries*

    • Barcaleya
      April 27, 2011

      I think the canteranos will surprise us by performing like Pedro!!!

      They’re our secret weapons…

      **on my knees praying**

  16. April 27, 2011

    The weather outside the day of the Copa final went from beautiful sunshine to pouring rain. Today, the opposite.

    I have my own personal pathetic fallacy mirroring my mood. This must be a sign! 😀

  17. Humphrey Bogart
    April 27, 2011

    You know what, I do not giva a f***** sh*** that we have only canteros on the bench compared to their mulit-million-dollar squad, quite the contrary I am proud of it. We may be loose tonight but I know one thing for sure, that our guys will fight with everything they still have inside of them, because they really love our club like we do, Puyi, Pique, Xavi, and Messi and all our other canteros. What pride do they have in just buying superstars, who do not understand what it means to wear the shirts, our canteros know for sure.

    • soccermomof4
      April 27, 2011

      You’re right- I should consider it a source of pride- I feel better now except for this awful tummy ache- thanks HB

      • Humphrey Bogart
        April 27, 2011

        It is no success to do well when you have unlimited ressources at your disposal like the EE has. That we will likely win the league and are in this still with a chance shows how well our guys are doing and how classless the EE plays by resorting to tactics the Stokes of this world would be proud of.

  18. April 27, 2011

    Brilliant preview, Euler. Thanks so much. The discrepancy in minutes, while not surprising, did surprise me at its extent. I think that we’re seeing that now in injuries and, as you pointed out, general lethargy. It just gets really hard. When Messi lost the ball on the play that led directly to their goal is a perfect example. Two months ago, he chases the player down from behind and makes a challenge. Today, he just takes a few steps, and stops. The difference is immense.

  19. Whatever
    April 27, 2011

    The official CL schemes show Puyol at LB, Busquets at CB and Mascherano at DM. Guardiola, what are you doing? 😀

    • footballfan
      April 27, 2011

      keeping RM’s player guessing where Masch will show up and OWN THEM! 😀

  20. Whatever
    April 27, 2011

    And I forgot to say, amazing analysis, Euler, as usual. It’s amazing how you explain such a complex issue in such a simple manner that everyone can understand.

  21. Minha
    April 27, 2011

    Historic rivalry on the European stage! Clásicos don’t get much more classic than this! 😀
    no matter what happens today!

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