Take on Tactics: Champions League Clásicos – Review and Preview

A cagey affair.  That phrase is often used in conjunction with Champion’s League Football, particularly when describing the first leg of the tie. The general thought is that in European competition the football becomes more cautions, more deliberate.
That the game needs to become more planned and controlled in order for a side to attain success.

In the first leg of the Barcelona – Madrid Champion’s League tie tactics were at the forefront.  But not in the way we are accustomed to thinking of them.  Tactical nous is most often associated with defensively oriented football, on issues such maintaining shape, holding lines, and marking.  In fact, the term tactics itself is frequently used as a synonym for defense.  Football based on attack and possession is often considered a function of “style.”

Messi Delivers Magic and There's Nothing to do But Watch

Such distinctions are of course gross over simplifications and rarely hold out on the pitch.  This was sharply illustrated in the last Clásico.  Jose Mourinho is widely considered to be the quintessential tactically oriented manager in the contemporary game.  And prior to this series of four Clásico’s Mourinho’s tactical acumen was considered to be a significant advantage for Madrid by many observers.

However, in the first leg of the Champion’s League tie it was Pep Guardiola who introduced the tactical adjustments and innovations that set the parameters for the match, defining the dynamics for how play unfolded.  How these dynamics come to fruition in the second leg will have significant influence over who will advance to the Champions League finals.


Tactical Parameters

Five overarching factors set the context for the last Clásico from the Barcelona perspective:

1) Barcelona was required to play a makeshift backline without a true left full back.  In addition Carles Puyol would be required to play an integral role at the back despite lack of form and fitness and a recent injury suffered in the Copa Del Rey finals.

2) Barcelona played a very narrow formation in the Copa Del Rey final.  This lack of width made the pitch very small, especially in the middle.  In turn, this made the Madrid press more effective than it otherwise would have been.

3)  Since the first Clásico, Real Madrid had adopted a defensively oriented approach that focused significantly on maintaining shape, clotting the space between the lines and playing on the counter attack.

4)  In the Copa Del Rey final, Messi was forced to drop extremely deep into midfield to support possession and collect the ball.  Because Madrid had stationed so many defenders in the middle of the pitch when Messi dropped deep he was not dragging Madrid out of shape – they simply passed Messi onto other lines of defense in the center.

5) The match was the first leg of the Champions League tie and was being played away at the Bernabéu

Several other factors were in play such as the absence of Andres Iniesta.  However, those five factors were critical tactically.

Restructuring the Backline While Enhancing Width

This season Guardiola has significantly changed the way the full backs function in the Barcelona system.  Rather than acting as traditional full back – even ones that make bombing runs forward – Guardiola has redefined the position in the Barça system into more of a hybrid wing back/full back.  This was done in order to expand Barcelona’s width in the advanced portions of the pitch as teams defended deep.  Lack of width was a significant problem in last season’s Barça team.

The single biggest adjustment in tactics Guardiola made for the first Champion’s League Clásico was to alter how the full backs played.  Rather than stationing themselves high up the pitch as he had been doing all season, Guardiola repositioned the full backs and had them play much deeper often staying close to the midline.

Given how high up the pitch the Barça full backs have been playing all season, this was a radical realignment in formation and was central to how Barça functioned in the last Clásico.  This difference is well illustrated by the average positional diagram below:

Barca Formation - Average Position (Courtesy of UEFA - Note Pedro Rodriguez not Diagramed Above)

In no match this season has the Barça backline played according to this formation.  The two full backs are only slightly advanced of the two center backs and are roughly playing along the same line as Busquet’s, the holding player.  Dani Alves’ positioning in particular is striking given how advanced he has played this entire year.

At first glance it may seem that this restructuring of the backline formation was due to a more conservative defensive orientation.  A way of mitigating risk from the Madrid counter given the makeshift nature of Barça defense and its potential vulnerabilities.

While this was likely part of Guardiola’s thinking, the major reason for  adjusting the formation in this way was to allow Barcelona to regain numerical superiority across the middle zone of the pitch and to reestablish width in the center – the region where Madrid had clustered it’s defense.

The still shot below illustrates this principle well:

A few points to note in the picture above that will be expanded on below.  First, both full backs are staying just deep of the midline and level with the holding player Busquets.  Second, they are playing very wide – both are wide of their markers.  Third (and most important), is geometry.  This arrangement of the full backs allows Barça to form four intricate triangles across the entire breadth of the middle of the pitch.

Note the four triangles in the shot: 1)  Alves-Busquets-Mascherano; 2) Puyol, Busquets and Pique (notice how symmetric these first two triangles are – the efficiency of spacing the pitch is remarkable)  3) Alves-Busquets-Messi; 4) Puyol- Busquets-Xavi.

Normally the Barça full backs would make runs forward in order to build play.  In the still shot above, both are maintaining their positions just deep of the midline.  Rarely has Dani Alves positioned himself level with the Barça holding player.  Here Alves, Busquets and Puyol are roughly playing along the same line.

The Barça formation is highly dynamic and as such difficult to characterize. But for much of this match Barça functionally played a 2-3-3-2/4-3-1-2 formation.

The key to those formations is where the full backs are stationed.  Notice how both Puyol and Alves are spread on the pitch towards each touchline and are wide of their markers.  Guardiola had the full backs remain deep in order to provide width in the region of the pitch where Madrid had focused their defense.  This width is well demonstrated in the overhead still shot below as well:

Barca Formation - Full Backs Are Wide Available As Outlets to Retain Possession Away from Madrid's Defenders Clustered in the Center


In the still shot above Madrid has a 5 vs. 3 numerical advantage in the midfield circle.  However, the key here are the full backs – the Barça midfielders always had an available outlet wide through the full backs.  This nullified the numerical advantage in the circle Madrid had.

In the prior two Clásicos Madrid played in a solid block with three holding players and varied the way they pressed.  Their goal was to clot the middle of the pitch.

In those matches, when the Barça full backs went up field, maintaining possession largely fell to the central midfielders and the two full backs.  That created a major problem however – Barça could not generate numerical superiority in midfield through those four players unless they dropped very deep into their own half.  Madrid simply had too many defenders in that region.  This is why Messi was continuously dropping deep in the Copa final – to provide an additional player in midfield.

At the same time, Madrid could defend those players four to five Barcelona players easily because they were all clustered around the midfield circle.  This facilitated Mardid’s ability to stay compact, defend narrowly and make the pitch small.

By positioning the full backs higher up the Guardiola achieved several key objectives.  The array of triangles gave Barça a way to not only maintain possession but to do so in a composed fashion.

One of Barça’s major problems in the Copa was lack of patience – in face of the Madrid pressure they often one touched the ball in a rushed fashion.  This was largely due to their lack of players wide in that critical region of the pitch.  With the full backs wide and level with the holding player Barça was able to form triangles and make the pitch much larger in the middle.  This allowed for more composed possession.

Keeping the full backs deep also thwarted one of the key tactics Mourinho had implemented.  Both Madrid wingers were playing largely defensive roles.  When the Barça full backs made runs forward the Madrid wingers would track their runs.  This was particularly true of Angle Di Maria who primary function was to mark Alves wherever he was.

The wingers tracking the full back runs in turn created defensive congestion in advanced portions of the pitch.  So when Messi tried to work off the right flank not only was Marcelo and a holding player in that space so was Di Maria.  In the first still shot in this post notice how high up the pitch Di Maria is defending – this opened up space for Villa to operate on the right flank 1 vs. 1 on Marcelo (more on this below).


The Barça Wingers Stay Wide

One of the issues with playing a formations of the 2-3-3-2/4-3-1-2 type is that they can become very narrow in advanced positions on the field.  The only width comes from the full backs.  This is one of the major tactical limitations of the “Christmas Tree” formation.

Guardiola’s next major tactical adjustment was to further augment the width on the pitch by having the two advanced wingers – Villa and Pedro – stay very wide in advanced positions.  The following screen shot shows this well:

Villa Hugs the Touchline Creating a 1 vs 1 With the Defense

There are five Madrid defenders forming a wall around the midfield circle.  The focus here is to stop Xavi and Messi.  In addition to the full backs staying wide around midfield to act as outlets, notice David Villa’s position up the pitch.  Rather than drifting centrally to link up play with Messi as he often does, Villa is hugging the touchline.

Normally, Villa positioning himself in that space would be problematic because he has no support on the flank.  This is the trade off Guardiola had to make to keep the full backs closer to the midfielders.

However, because Di Maria is assigned to mark Alves and the holding players are all prioritizing the middle of the pitch Villa is left 1 vs. 1 against Marcelo. Villa was able to make himself dangerous coming off the edges when he could get the ball in these situations.

Additionally, staying wide while the Madrid defenders stayed central allowed the Barça wingers to act as outlets up the pitch – once again facilitating possession. Finally what this width did was to provide Messi with more space to operate.

Ultimately it was this use of width that led to Barça’s first goal.  While a great deal has been made out of Pepe’s sending off – and it undoubtedly had a significant impact on the match – the fact remains that both Barça goals were scored in regions of the pitch where Madrid had significant numerical advantage.  Afellay stayed wide on that goal while Alves stayed deep.  The holding players as they had all game stayed centrally.  This left Afellay 1 vs. 1 against Marcelo off the edge and once Afellay got a step on Marcello the goal unfolded.


Madrid Look to Play on the Counter while Playing at Home

In the prior two Clásico’s Madrid prioritized maintaining defensive shape and clotting the middle through the trivote formation.  The trade off they had to make was to reduce the dimensions of their own attack.  In particular, with Pepe and Diarra in midfield, Madrid couldn’t retain possession or build creative play.

Additionally, it was relatively easy for the Barça press to regain the ball as none of the three Madrid midfielders were particularly adept at maintaining possession through close control or by quickly circulating the ball (even Alonso needs time and space on the ball to deliver his long passes).  As such Madrid’s offensive thrust has largely focused on the counter and set plays.

In the Champion’s League, it is incumbent on the team that plays the first leg at home to obtain a desired result.  This is particularly true when both teams have significant advantage in their own stadiums.

Ultimately, the tactical changes that Guardiola implemented were designed to support one primary end – thwart Madrid’s ability to score on the counter.  By keeping his full backs deeper and his wingers wide Guardiola made the pitch very large.  This greatly diminished Madrid’s ability to pressure the ball.  In turn, Barça could not only maintain possession, but maintain composed possession, dictate tempo and reduce the risk of making costly turnovers or conceding set pieces.

At the same time through this controlled possession, Barça was able to probe the Madrid defense and look to see where openings might lay.  If none could be found they could be confident of retaining possession and restarting the attack from a different direction.

In a sense, the prior Clásico was a stark example of the principle that the best way to defend is to keep the ball.  Barça’s method of retaining the ball patiently across the middle created a kind of attack that was extreme in it’s control and cautious probing for vulnerabilities.  So much so that it left Madrid with nothing viable to counter.   Madrid’s passing chart from the game shows how much they were reduced to trying to play balls longs and doing so with poor rates of success (blue represents completed passes, red incomplete):

Madrid Passing Chart (From the TotalFootball App)

Barça’s use of the ball to defend, probe the defense and attack in a controlled fashion is demonstrated by it’s passing chart

Barcelona Passing Chart (From the TotalFootball App)

Outside of the sheer number of passes Barça has accurately completed, what is most remarkable about the diagram above is the density of passes completed around the midfield circle and from there out to wide positions.

This type of pass oriented play was dismissed by many as simply “knocking the ball around the back.”  But this approach to the game is exactly the kind of  pragmatic, tactical nous that attack oriented managers are frequently criticized for not demonstrating.  It’s not that Barça is not attacking – it’s that Guardiola has them attacking in a different manner and doing so by using the ball differently to control the game.

The fact is, Barça were vulnerable this game, especially at the back line given that they were not playing at home.  And what Guardiola did brilliantly was to minimize all of those vulnerabilities through use of the ball.

Commenter’s who argue that Barça just “kicked the ball around” are largely missing these points.  This was not a Barça team at full strength and they were playing at the Bernabéu .  Despite that Barça dictated the tempo and rhythm of the game.  That is an enormous tactical accomplishment, the kind that defensively oriented managers are routinely praised for as signs of their tactical sophistication.

In order for Madrid to regain possession Guardiola was forcing them to have to extend themselves.  To do so meant that they would either have to play as a block higher up the pitch or lose their compact shape.  Either way would have forced them into a shape that they did not want to play.  In turn their entire offensive approach on the counter attack crumbled.  Dictating play in this fashion is the essence of tactics.  And Guariola did this brilliantly in the first leg.

Mourinho Lack of Adjustments

I want to get onto detailing what Barça needs to do to win the second leg. But briefly a few words on Madrid’s tactics.  Mourinho managed a puzzling game.  In a Champion’s League tie every minute at home is critical as it represents your team’s best chance to score.  Mourinho made no significant adjustments the entire first half and simply let Barça dictate play at the Bernabéu .

Carles Puyol who has hardly played this season, was manning a position he has limited experience at  and was coming off another recent injury.  Madrid has one of the world’s top pace attackers in C. Ronaldo.  Rather than test Puyol Mourinho allowed time to simply dwindle away with Ronaldo playing out of position.

Similarly, Mascherano has limited experience playing at CB.  A pacy striker who can make intelligent runs to try to split Mascherano and Pique by dragging them out of position would have been a powerful weapon to use.  Higuain and Benzema are exactly those kinds of players.  For most of the game Madrid played without a true striker who could test the Barça CB pairing.  And when Mourinho put one in it was a target man who wound up playing isolated up top by himself.  When Adebayor did knock balls down there was no one around him to collect.

Finally, the most startling aspect of the last match tactically was Mourinho’s complete lack of adjustments after he went down to 10 men.  A 0-0 result would have been a very positive one for Madrid at that point.  But Mourinho did nothing to bolster his team’s capacity to defend.  Adebayor is a poor defender and at that point in the game was contributing little.  Alonso is not a particularly good defender either.  Nor is C. Ronaldo.

Mourinho still had Granero on the bench and he was a natural choice to bolster the space between the lines.   If Diarra and Alonso were as tired after that match as Mourinho was stating this week not bolstering midfield defense was an even worse move.  Additionally, he could have put on another center back but elected not to.

In the end while the sending off changed the game, Barça still scored both its goals when Madrid had significant numerical advantage.  On both goals the Madrid defenders far outnumbered the Barça attackers (this was not only the case with Messi’s second goal – it was also with the first).  Sending off or not, it is inexcusable to concede when you have numbers in defense.

Keys to the Second Leg at Camp Nou

At this point in time, both sides have shown their major cards.  Madrid find themselves in exactly the position they didn’t want to be in – needing to score multiple goals at Camp Nou.

While Madrid will need to attack far more effectively than they did the first match, they still have a major problem in that they cannot concede either.  Even one Barça goal likely finishes the tie.

For the second leg, Barça needs to blend the approaches they’ve used against Madrid all season.  They must maintain width.  In the two matches Barcelona has utilized width they’ve controlled play.  Madrid will likely press higher up the pitch.  Using width will make the field larger and harder to play.  If Madrid again tries to congest the middle, this may require the full backs to play deep but the tradeoff will be worth it.

Patience in possession will also be important.  In the Copa finals Barça rushed their possession rather than systematically probing weaknesses in the defense.   Barça need to utilize the ball to force Madrid to come out and lose their shape.

Given that Madrid need to attack more, it is likely that space will open up between their lines, especially with Pepe not playing.  This is the area of the pitch Messi exploited to brilliant effect in the first Clásico of the season.  By keeping attackers wide Barça opens up space for Messi to play through in the middle of the pitch between the lines.  If coupled with dynamic movement this will be Barça’s most promising rout to scoring.  But this is another key for Barcelona – off the ball movement is critical. And Barca’s off the ball movement even in the first leg was not as strong as it needed to be.

The challenge tomorrow will once again be along the backline.  In possession the Barça left back won’t likely offer much support on the left flank.  For this reason in particular, Iniesta (or Keita) must look to generate play wide on the left and support the left winger.

In defense, Barça needs to press very aggressively high up the pitch when they lose to ball to slow Madrid’s ability to counter.  This will be critical to protecting the back line against Madrid’s pace. Though Madrid need to score they cannot afford to concede.  Given this they very well may look to play on the counter for stretches of the game tomorrow.

It’s almost over.  Thank goodness.

Visca Barça!





  1. Fox Soccer Channel’s pregame show is lapping Mourinho’s rants up. Why won’t they talk about the actual tactics? 😛

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