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 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 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:
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:
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:
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).
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.