Posted on December 2011.
People talk about tactics, but when you look at it, tactics are just players. You change things so that the team can get the most out of the skills they have to offer, but you don’t go any further than that. When it comes to tactics you have to think about what the opposition does and the players who can hurt you.
What I’ve done this season is a response to the game plans our rivals are now adopting against us. As time goes by, people get to know you better. They pose problems for you and you have to come up with solutions.
We had to try. In life you have to choose to be brave, or very brave.
on playing the system he chose this match at the Bernabeu
The first part of this review for the Clásico provided an overview of the match and its context. In this part the focus will be a detailed breakdown of the systems issues and tactical issues that influnced the match.
As previewed here there were three primary objectives that needed to be balanced in order for Barça to win this match:
1) Establish control of midfield despite RM focusing their defense on this region of play.
Midfield has become the most contested space in the tactical battles between Guardiola and Mourinho. Since the Manita, Mourinho has committed greater and greater defensive resources to this zone. Conversely, Guardiola has always made it a must to have control of midfield as that’s the foundation of Barça
Given that both managers prioritized control of this zone – who would win this region? How would Pep try to ensure this would happen?
2) Create width in order to space the pitch while still maintaining control of midfield.
Controlling midfield is a key aspect to controlling possession. However, it is not the only factor. Nearly as important is spacing the pitch. If controlling midfield requires so many players to be stationed there that spacing is lost it may be more difficult to create quality possession. This has been a problem for Barça this season for example when they’ve used the 3-4-3.
3) Build solidity in defense – specifically transition defense.
Puyol Isolated With Oezil in Transition
Real Madrid are the most dangerous team in the world in attacking at speed. Transition defense is fundamental to playing against them. A key to transition defense against a team with the kind of pace Madrid have is to make sure the pitch is spaced. If it’s not then there will be large spaces for the Madrid attackers to break into.
Once more, this relates to the central problem of control of midfield. If you devote too many players to that region and lose spacing you will potentially compromise your transition defense. This too has been a major problem for Barça at times this season, particularly when playing in the 3-4-3.
The Old Man Keeping Pace
Much of the entire debate about whether Barça could take the risk of playing three at the back at the Bernabeu specifically related to risk related to transition defense. Madrid often break with four players. Could you defend these breaks at speed with only three defenders? On the flanks, it was very possible that with three at the back the Barça defenders would get caught 2 vs. 1. This was especially a concern on the right flank where the Barça defense would be facing C.Ronaldo and Marcelo.
In short, what made executing these three objectives so difficult was that improving one could damage another. The key was developing a balance of these factors in a way that would maximize the whole. This was the fundamental challenge Guardiola faced.
Oezil Changes Direction Puyol Right With Him
And he did this brilliantly by introducing a new structure for the team to play through, an innovative set up that allowed them to enhance their own strengths while countering those of Madrid.
To start the match Guardiola selected: Valdes/ Alves / Puyol / Pique/ Abidal/ Busquets/ Xavi/ Fabregas/ Iniesta/ Sanchez/ Messi. The major news in the player selection was the inclusion of Fabregas and Sanchez rather than Villa and the Puyol and Pique rather than Mascherano at CB.
Holding the Line: New Defensive Techniques Required to Play Oezil in Space
This season, with that selection of players, Guardiola has arranged them in a 4-3-3 with Fabregas as a false 9 and Messi on the right. The concern with that line up has been transition defense along the right flank. When Messi pulls in centrally off the right, Alves is left completely alone on the right flank. Here he would be facing a potential 1 vs. 2 with Marcelo and C.Ronaldo.
Puyol Turned But Quickly Recovers
Guardiola however didn’t utilize that system. Instead he went with an entirely new formation – one he hasn’t used before at Barça. Why these selections were made will be discussed in more detail in subsequent sections.
Madrid countered with Casillas/ Coentrao/ Ramos/ Pepe/ Marcelo/ Diarra/ Alonso/ Oezil/ DiMaria/ Benzema/ C.Ronaldo. The major notes in the Madrid line up were that Oezil would be playing rather than a three man defensive trivote. The other major issues was Coentrao playing at RB despite usually being a LB.
Danger Over: The Captain Reads the Pass and Disposses Madrid of the Ball
Discussing Barcelona’s formations is often considered as a secondary issue. Barça is so fluid at baseline with their movement and position switching that no formation really describes what they do. Rather Barcelona plays an “amoeba” like arrangement.
And this is true in many ways. Ultimately, Barcelona has evolved a system in which dynamics rather than structure are the focus. However, all systems require structure otherwise they would become disorganized. And for Barça this is a key point because so many of their players tend to drift to the middle. Without an appropriate formation, Barça would wind up overly center focused Also, because the Barcelona formation is often considered such a secondary issue, Guardiola’s work as a manager is often overlooked.
Average Positions Barcelona (via Opta)
In this Clásico, Guardiola implemented a new system, one that had a major impact on the outcome of the match. Barcelona played a remarkably fluid game and the formations Barcelona based their play on contributed to this fluidity. The system is difficult to picture as it moved through phases and was dynamic so rather than try to show it through pictures I’ll describe it now and illustrate it in subsequent sections through still shots.
What made the Barcelona system for this Clásico so interesting was that Guardiola implemented three different roles which have rarely if ever been part of how Barça play during his tenure: 1) lone central striker (played by Alexis Sanchez); 2) a true 10 playing in the hole (played Messi); 3) a “box to box” midfielder (played by Fabregas). (Please note-in identifying these three aspects of the formation I’m referring to the role – not the skill set needed to play that role. For example, Keita is well suited to play as a box to box midfielder – however that role has not been part of the Barça system under Guardiola so Keita hasn’t assumed that role).
What makes the utilization of these three roles together in this match particularly interesting is that each is a relatively orthodox role. They are well described positions used widely by other squads. However, Barça has not significantly relied on these roles in the recent past. In fact, much of the innovation that Guardiola has brought to the team has been by moving away from these three roles to push the team to play in a more fluid, possession-based game.
But by moving back towards these three orthodox roles and doing so in the same match, Guardiola created a system that together was surprising. In a sense, Guardiola innovated by becoming more traditional. Madrid had considerable difficulty determining how to mark and handle the three players in these roles. This was a great example of how tactical innovation in football can be created by adopting structures that have been used in other contexts.
The Barcelona system was intended to migrate through phases. Barça opened up playing with four at the back.
Four Man Backline to Open
In the image above, Barcelona are playing their usual four man backline. Notice how C.Ronaldo is clearly marking Dani Alves when Barça is playing four at the back. This will be an important issue later on when Barça change formation.
In the image, note also how Fabregas has dropped deep in his box to box role to support build up of play and how Di Maria is forced to pick him up and mark him. By having Fabregas play a box to box role he often acted as an “extra man” moving across different midfield zones. Because he moved so far vertically and there was no box to box midfielder fro Madrid, Fabregas was difficult to pick and mark. When he dropped to the Barça half, he often gave Barça numerical superiority. This is why Angle DiMaria – a winger – has to pinch in and function as an extra midfielder himself to mark him.
During the first half Iniesta played as a left winger, though often interchanging positions and coming central. Xavi played in central midfield – but played deeper than he usually does to facilitate build up of play in face of the Madrid pressure and due to the fact that Busquets was often playing deeper than usual.
In minute 17, however, Dani Alves moved up the pitch to a wingback position leaving three defenders on the backline. Sergio Busquets soon dropped deeper and played as a libero, dropping to the backline CB when Barça lost possession with Puyol moving out to RB. In a sense, Barça played most of the match with 3 ½ defenders.
Overall, for most of the match the Barça formation could be considered to have migrated from a 4-3-3 to 3-1-2-3-1.
For much of the first half the Barça formation was also asymmetric, with the right side predominating. What was interesting about the asymmetry of this formation was that it reversed the usual orientation of the Barcelona system. Usually, Barcelona plays as a center-left squad do to the positioning of the midfield. In their base 4-3-3, Iniesta plays on the left of center giving Barça an additional player on that side of the pitch – a player who a great deal of play is funneled through.
In this Clásico, however, Barça became a center-right team as Dani Alves became an extra midfielder on the right. As the prior image showed, Alves was routinely open in space on the right as Madrid had difficulty marking him in that wing back position wide. As such, more play ran through the right side of the pitch than Barcelona usually engages in.
This change in orientation to the right had important impacts on the match. The extra attacking thrust on the right pinned back Marcelo significantly and forced the Madrid LW (C.Ronaldo in the first half) deep as well to defend (as noted in the prior image). The left flanks is the primary focus of the Madrid attack. Given how much of the Madrid attack is run through that left flank, forcing those two attack oriented players back by stationing Alves higher up and running the ball through that side was critical to both Barça maintaining possession and “defending with the ball” by pushing Madrid back.
These issues are all summarized in the following still shot.
Change in System: Three Defender Backline with Busquets as the Libero
In the image above, Barcelona has converted to a three man back line with Puyol moving out to the right center back, Abidal left center back, and Pique sweeping behind them centrally. Busquets is slightly ahead of Pique in midfield in a libero role.
When in possession Busquets would step up into midfield to facilitate possession and ball circulation.
Dani Alves (red arrow in image) is now extremely high up the pitch. Notice how Alves is completely unmarked in space. This would happen again and again in the match after Barça moved to a three man backline. Alves intelligently positioned himself between Marcelo and C.Ronaldo.. As will be discussed later, Madrid’s defensive system is based on zonal coverage with man marking.
In the image above, Alves has moved into a zone where there isn’t a defender free to mark him. Sanchez has moved into the right channel occupying Ramos and Marcelo. Compare this to the prior image when C.Ronaldo was actively marking him. Alves has gotten behind C.Ronaldo who does not want to drop that deep as it would functionally position him as a LB. Notice however, that C.Ronaldo tries to keep an eye on Alves and has dropped even deeper than Xabi Alonso to do so. This is an example of how Barça changing attacking formations actually was a form of defense hindering the Madrid attack by driving players deep to defend.
Sanchez’s role as a striker is visible in the still shot above – he is occupying two defenders. Messi’s is positioned as a 10, playing behind Sanchez, but free to drop deeper than a traditional 10 might. Iniesta is playing so wide as a LW that he is not visible in the image.
Compare Fabregas’s position here to the first still shot. Fabregas is now nearly as high up the pitch as Sanchez, the striker. His positioning is completely different than it was in the first image where Fabregas was back in the Barça half, deeper than Xavi, and playing close to Busquets, the holding midfielder. These two images demonstrate Fabregas’s box to box role.
Finally, in the image above, note Madrid’s defensive positioning. Specifically, notice the large gap in space between Madrid’s lines. Their five advance defenders are looking to pressure the ball higher up toward the half line. Their defensive line however has dropped deep.
The only player between the lines is Diarra, but even he is in an odd position because Barça have skewed their formation rightwards. As such there is a large gap in space between the lines where most of the Bara players are. This is an example of a critical issue in this match – Madrid was not playing as compact as they could have (more on this later in the section on the Madrid defensive system). By not staying compact, room was open in the interior of their defensive block.
Here is a comparable shot of the backline when Busquets dropped deeper into the backline as a CB and Puyol wide as the RB.
Four at the Back Busquets Dropped Deep to CB
In the image above, notice how Madrid has difficulty marking Busquets when he drops deep. Usually Busquets was Ozil’s responsibility with Benzema responsible for pressuring the CBs. Busquets has moved into a zone where there are no available Madrid defenders. Dropping back this way allowed Busquets to move away from the defensive pressure. In essence, he became something of a free man at the back.
The requirement to play RB and be lined up against C.Ronaldo were likely major factors in Guardiola selecting Puyol over Mascherano. This role was fundamental to the entire Barça system – the RB/CB spot was the focal point which allowed Barça to create numerical superiority in midfield while still maintaining width (more on this later].
Guardiola would further change the Barça formation in the second half – a change in tactics which would have a decisive effect on the match. This will also be discussed on a later section of this piece.
The New Traditional Roles: Sanchez and Fabregas
While Sanchez, Messi and Fabregas played more orthodox footballing roles, the way they interpreted those roles was critical.
First, while Sanchez was stationed as a lone striker, he played a highly mobile, highly tactical role. He didn’t simply stay in the center of the pitch up against the two CB as the lone striker traditionally does. His job was to occupy the defenders (more on this later) but to occupy them through movement and threaten the backline by using his pace and strength to get behind the Madrid backline. Interestingly, Sanchez played in a band moving from touchline to touchline to facilitate the attack and defense. Tactically, his function was to add horizontal force to the Barça system.
Sanchez as Lone Striker Tracks Marcelo Deep Right Flank to Defend
In the image above, Sanchez has moved all the way to the far right flank in order to mark Marcelo. This was the 10th minute of the match – before Alves moved to right wing. During this time, Marcelo was starting to get forward more effectively Alves was responsible for marking C.Ronaldo. Without a true right winger at this time, Alves could have been caught 1 vs. 2 aginst C. Ronaldo and Marcelo. Guardiola instructed Sanchez to move laterally and mark Marcelo to avoid this. For a stretch of time in the first half, Sanchez often was positioned as a RW.
The other key role Sanchez played as a lone striker in front of Messi was to occupy defenders. Sanchez was routinely marked by two of Madrid’s backline. This made it difficult for them to step out and mark Messi – even between the lines. As such, if Mourinho was planning on using a strategy such as the one he implemented in the Spanish Super Cup where the CB marked Messi, it would have been very difficult to do with Sanchez acting as a striker and Messi as a 10.
In the past, when Madrid has pressured Barça high up the pitch, it has forced Xavi and Messi to drop very deep to build play. In order to help Messi stay higher up the pitch and maintain his free role while still giving support to Xavi, Guardiola had Fabregas drop deep in midfield. However, Guardiola also wanted to utilize Fabregas’s goal scoring abilities and his direct runs from deep. As such, Fabregas played a true “box to box” midfield role. As was shown in the prior images, he routinely dropped deep when the all was in the Barça half but also regularly made runs forward, often moving to a very advanced position close or even further forward than Messi and Sanchez.
Unfortunately, this box to box role also created some confusion for Barça, particularly given that Fabregas is still integrating into a ball playing midfield role. Because Barça do not usually play this type of role, Barça players were often unsure of where Fabregas would be positioned at any one time and where his runs were headed. Additionally, Fabregas himself often seemed somewhat unsure. As such, his impact on the game went missing for long stretches of time. Nonetheless, the diverse deep and attacking qualities of box to box play were brilliantly on display during Fabregas’ run and header for the third goal. Rarely has a Barça midfielder scored that kind of goal over the past 4 seasons.
The Madrid Defensive System: Foundations
To fully understand Guardiola’s player selection and the system he implemented for the match, it’s important to consider the Madrid defensive system as that conditioned the context for Guardiola’s decision making.
The Madrid defensive system has evolved to focus on pressuring high up the pitch out of a system of zonal coverage with man marking.
While there was some thought that Madrid would sit back and defend deep, this was never likely. Madrid has been evolving a pressure defensive scheme since last season, a movement which amplified over the second half of last season and came to the fore at in the Spanish Supercup to start off this season. This is the defensive identity they have been moving towards for over the past year. And it’s a system that was at least in part targeted to stop Barcelona.
Many teams have now chosen to press Barcelona higher up the pitch. The purpose of doing so is to prevent Barça from systematically building up play out of the back and to clot midfield with numbers.
Madrid’s pressure defense is a two part system. First, pressure high up the pitch with the front three players and two to three of the midfielders. In pressing very high up, Madrid seeks to: 1) force Barcelona’s lesser skilled players on the ball – the keeper and backline – into making a mistake high up the pitch and
2) to prevent the highly skilled midfielders from getting the ball and critically developing a rhythm that will control match tempo.
The defense is structured to allocate defenders directly against the Barça backline and to overplay the midfield directly behind. The objective is to clot the pitch and prevent Barça from playing through the middle if Barça get the ball through the initial defensive layer.
The Madrid defensive scheme is well illustrated by this image from the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup earlier this season:
Madrid Defensive Pressure System: Spanish Super Cup 2011
Notice how Madrid is pressing high – but doing so through zonal coverage and man marking. Each Madrid defenders is marking one Barcelona player. Benzema is applying pressure – but individually, not in a “pack.” Behind the front three, Madrid is also matched up 3 vs. 3 with the Barça midfield.
Pressure is applied as a defender runs 1 v. 1 on the ball. When a pass is made the next defender will start to close down the receiver of the ball (sometimes described as “through pressing.”) The objective is to either force an error in the pass or a miscontrol in rececptin of a pass.
Madrid will seek to cluster defenders together when possible – e.g. towards the touchlines. But the approach does not depend on this.
In this Clascio, Madrid implemented a similar defensive system, only playing their front five players even higher up the pitch.
Two Madrid Defenders Pressuring Valdes
Above, Madrid is vigorously pressing Valdes trying to force him into a second mistake. While on the first goal of the game Valdes wasn’t being directly pressed and simply made an errant pass, he was frequently directly pressured – here with two defenders. Benzema and Dimaria – two very athletic players are closing him down – this is an enormous challenge for any goal keeper.
Madrid not only pressed extremely high in this Clásico. They pressed very high in numbers – even more than the Copa Del Rey and Spanish Super Cup. As can be seen from the image above, Madrid played a four man defensive front of C.Ronaldo, Benzema, DiMaria and Ozil.
The goal was to force the Barça defenders or Valdes to turn the ball over. And this strategy helped contribute to the Madrid goal. However, by playing Ozil so high, Madrid functionally removed a defender from midfield. Ozil, who has limited stamina and fatigues relatively quickly, struggled to drop back when the Barça attack got past this initial line of four advanced defenders.
The Madrid Defensive System: Trade Offs – Interior Space
However, all systems require trade offs. To press to maximum efficiency a team has to stay as compact as possible. It can be difficult to man mark and stay compact because the defenders start to move in relationship to the attackers rather than in relationship to each other. In the images above, notice the amount of space between the Madrid defenders both laterally and vertically.
Even more importantly, to stay compact a team has to play a high line. This involves significant risk as so much space is left behind the backline. Mourinho has sought to limit how high his backline plays to decrease this risk. This is not to say that Madrid play a deep back line. It’s that compared to how high up the advanced defenders are and how aggressively they pres, the backline player deep in comparison. The backline does not prioritize squeezing space. For example, in the Spanish Super Cup Madrid played roughly 50m between its front line and backline. Barça in comparison had around 40m of space.
This issue is also noticeable when an attack breaks through the first two lines of defenders. The reaction of the Madrid backline is often to move deeper to cover rather than moving aggressively forward to dispossess the ball.
As such, a major limitation to this system open is interior space. Because Madrid try to limit how compact they need to be space can open up in the interior of their defense block. This is particular true behind the more advanced lines that press higher up the pitch.
These issues are illustrated in the sequence below:
Oezil Pressure Abidal High Up the Pitch
Above, Madrid are pressuring out of their based zonal cover, man marking system. All five defenders are directly marking a Barça player with Oezil running at Abidal to close him down.
Note however that there is one player with no marker – Messi. As will be discussed later, due to Messi playing as a true 10 rather than as a false 9, Madrid had no direct player available to mark him when he dropped deep because all of the Madrid advanced defenders were already marking Barça players 1 vs. 1. Over and over Messi was able to drop deep and find open space. In fact, this match was one in which Messi was able to find more space than most he’s played in this season. This would prove decisive in this match.
One of the most direct ways to beat this kind of defense is by using the ball. The Madrid pressure defense is set up to shut down Barça’s short passing game. If however a player can beat his marker with the dribble, this type of defensive system can collapse. This is exactly what Abidal does.
Abidal Beats Oezila with Dribble Now Free in Open Space
Rather than passing to an open Busquets, Abidal holds the ball, allows Oezil to overrun the play and beats the defender with the dribble. Once Abidal is past Oezil notice how much space he has to run into. This is a good example of Madrid not staying compact and interior space opening up within their block. Also notice how Iniesta has dropped deep off his LW position and is completely unmarked in this open space.
Abidal Free in Space; Madrid Not Compact
Abidal is still in open space and not closed down. Alonso is trying to recover and close him down – but Alonso has very limited pace and doesn’t hinder Abidal. In the image above you can just see part of Marcelo’s arm. Again, this demonstrates how much space there was between Madrid’s frontline and backline.
Tellingly, Diarra is signaling Abidal’s run to the backline. Diarra doesn’t move to close down Abidal. Instead his tactical role is to defend deep – in front of the back four. Again, this leaves open interior space because it prevents compactness. And the focus of the backline is to start to drop deeper – not to close space and press – even though the Barça run is being made by a defender who is not even to the midfield line.
Finally, notice how out of shape the Madrid backline is. Sanchez has dropped deep and forced Coentrao, the right back, to track him into the middle of the pitch. Coentrao is unclear on whether he should track Sanchez or close down Abidal. Diarra is signaling for him to mark Sanchez but Coentrao is edging towards Abidal. Remarkably, Messi is still completely open in space – and intelligently making a vertical run directly into the space Coentrao has vacated.
Exploiting these internal open spaces through off the ball movement, rapid ball circulation and the dribbling were the central reasons why Barcelona was able to control midfield and control this match. This was fundamental to Barcelona winning. Again and again Barça was able to create and exploit space within the Madrid block by patiently playing the ball past the initial line of four defenders who were very high up the pitch.
Dribbling was critical to winning this match due to the reasons shown in the images above. I wanted to show the images from Abidal’s run because they demonstrated how effective this tactics could be. Abidal is a defender – he is very good on the ball for a backline player but hardly a force. Despite that, making the front line defense miss ripped open the Madrid defense.
When the Barceona attackers used the ball to find that kind of space the effects where devastating. Messi’s freedom to find space coupled with his ability to dribble and make defenders miss within that open space repeatedly forced the Madrid defense to break its shape. In the second half, Iniesta functionally took over the match through his ability on the ball carving open interior space by ghosting past defenders.
One of Guardiola’s fundamental tactical accomplishments in this Clásico was to develop a structure that facilitated Barcelona exploiting these open interior spaces.
The Madrid Defensive System: Trade Offs – Fatigue
The key to Madrid’s press is their athleticism and pace. This is why they can defend so effectively on the press without staying as compact as other pressing teams need to. Each defender pressing high is assigned to cover a zone and man mark a defender in that zone. Pressure doesn’t depend on “hunting in packs.” Instead it’s primarily created through the work rate and pace of the defenders. Advanced defender are responsible for marking opposition players 1 vs. 1 across much of the pitch. Space is suffocated through velocity, allowing the backline and defensive midfielders to play deeper than they otherwise would.
This brings up another major limitation of this system however – fatigue. Defenders are frequently required to chase the ball 1 vs. 1 over distance to close down space. In general, it is difficult for teams to press aggressively for 90 minutes – especially when they face a Barça team that will control 60-75% of possession. To press for 90 minues with the Madrid model is especially difficult.
And as the match wore on and Barça retained possession Madrid visibly fatigued. This decreased the effectiveness of their pressure significantly in the second half. This was another major structural advantage.
Battle for Midfield
Over the past series of Clásicos Guardiola and Mourinho have been locked in a battle over control of midfield. Mourinho understands that this is the life blood of the Barcelona attack. As such he’s focused defensive resources to this region by increasing defensive shape, including more defensively oriented players in the zone (e.g. trivote), and increasing the sheer number of players in the region (e.g. high pressure).
Guardiola has responded to these tactics by Mourinho by stationing more players in midfield in order to maintain numerical advantage.
For example, in the CL last season Guardiola had his full backs play in line with the holding midfielder to provide outlets in the middle third instead of sending them high up the pitch. This gave Barça six players in midfield.
One of the key open questions headed into this match was how many players Guardiola would commit to midfield in order to maintain numerical advantage. In turn, how many could he commit without having so many players in the center that Barça would lose spacing, become too narrow and become easier to defend. This was particularly important because if Barça lost spacing of the pitch they could be exposed on the counter in their transition defense.
The Battle Over Midfield: What to do with Messi?
Much of the crux of the midfield battle between Guardiola and Mourinho tactically has revolved around Messi. As a false 9, Messi theoretically gives Barça an extra man in midfield. He gives Barça direct numerical advantage if allowed to do so unencumbered.
In order to prevent this, Mourinho has used multiple strategies since the Manita. He’s had Pepe play as a DM and man mark Messi. This worked reasonably well –but requires Madrid to play deep and defend and also have surplus CB to utilize.
Mourinho had his center backs step out aggressively to mark Messi. This is partly why Mourinho can’t afford to play his whole backline too high – there’s too much risk doing that while CB are stepping out on Messi.
Madrid has gone so far as to use CB to step out and even man mark Messi across the pitch. For example, in the Super Copa Clásico’s Carvalho was assigned to man mark Messi across his defensive zone -even following him laterally to the touchlines when needed.
This specific strategy however met with mixed success at best as Messi’s dragged Carvalho out of shape engineering key Barça scores.
Perhaps the match where Madrid handled Messi best was in the Copa Del Rey. And in that match they defended him indirectly. That was the first match where they tried to pressure Barça. Madrid played in a block, pressured higher up, and overplayed the middle. In order to retain possession under pressure, Messi had to drop extremely deep to search for the ball and support the midfield three. He dropped so deep however that Barça essentially lost him as a goal threat. And in addition, no other player to filled in the space he vacated. So in essence, by pressuring high up, Madrid not only disrupted Barça’s possession – but also nullified Barça’s best threat on goal. They turned Messi as a false 9 striker into a full time midfielder with no striker in front of him.
Making sure this didn’t happen again – Messi dropping so deep to support possession that Barça completely loses its focal point in attack – was a priority for Guardiola and a key driver for the formation he implemented.
Leo Messi Comes Full Circle at the Bernabeu
The first time Guardiola fielded Messi at the false 9 position was during the historic 2-6 Barcelona victory at the Bernabeu. In that match, playing Messi centrally and having him drop deep created anarchy in the Madrid defense. While the false 9 has since garnered significant attention – at the time it was largely a forgotten tactic and Madrid didn’t know how to respond (which happened again to Manchester United in the CL finals).
Since then, of course the competition has responded. And as touched on prior, Mourinho has developed several defensive approaches geared towards dealing with Messi in the false 9 position.
So on this trip to the Bernabeu, Guardiola shuffled the deck once again – and once more the move had a major impact on the match.
Messi didn’t play as a false 9 in this match. He played in the hole behind the striker – close to how one would expect a 10 to play (though dropping much deeper into midfield than the traditional 10). This is the position in the hole is the one that is most revered in Argentina. There the position is described as the “enganche” – which literally mean hook. The notion is that the enganche should be the creative player who connects midfield to the striker. This match was one in which Messi again came very close to occupying the same position Maradona made his own.
One of the great tactical ironies of this match is that Messi played one of the more orthodox roles he’s ever played at Barcelona – and by playing him in a more orthodox position, Guardiola again created confusion and difficulty for Madrid at the Bernabeu by utilizing a strategy from the “past.”
The image below demonstrates several of these factors:
Messi Finds Open Space Between the Lines
Messi has the ball in the space between the Madrid lines. He has an frontline attacker in front of him – Sanchez – as a point of reference. Because of Sanchez’s pace and ability to get behind the defense, it is not simple for the CB to aggressively step out on Messi as they have in the past when he was a false 9.
Xabi Alonso is forced to mark Alves – who is now playing as a winger. Madrid never made a suitable adjustment to Alves playing higher up the pitch. C.Ronaldo continues to mark Puyol as Puyol was the player in his zone he was assigned to mark and press. Once the ball got past that line, C.Ronaldo did not want to track back that deeply as it would have limited his ability to attack on the counter.
This image above also shows how strong an effect Barça’s asymmetric formation had in the match tactically. The entire defense has shifted to the Barça right flank. Messi is 1 vs. 1 with Diarra. Remarkably, both Iniesta and Fabregas are completely unmarked and making runs from deep into space.
The key here is the way Barcelona have spaced the pitch. Unlike other matches where they’ve used extra midfielders – in this match Barça maintained width which spaced the pitch.
Iniesta in the first half did a wonderful job of staying disciplined and maintaining width. The drawback to this was that he was often isolated and uninvolved. But he stretched the pitch wide left. Because Abidal doesn’t get forward, the Barça LW is often going to be isolated (a problem that Villa runs into over and over). Nonetheless, stretching the pitch made it very large and hard for Madrid to defend.
On the right side, Alves did a wonderful job of staying wide and tirelessly ran up and down the flank to both attack and support Puyol in defense.
This width and spacing of the pitch, was fundamental to opening up the weaknesses in the Madrid defensive system. They cracked open that internal space – especially for Messi and also forced the Madrid defense to have to run more and become fatigued.
Spacing the Pitch Pays Off
The plays I’ve focused on until now didn’t turn into scores or even necessarily into real opportunities. I wanted to show them however to demonstrate the pattern that emerged once Barça stabilized themselves in the game and switched to a three man backline.
There is only so long you can continue to give Barça this much open space – especially to Messi. And ultimately, this is what led to two of the three goals.
Messi Open in Midfield Receives Pass; Xavi Open in Space Also
In the image above Messi receives a pass in midfield. Notice how neither Messi nor Xavi are being marked. The reason for this is that Oezila and Benzema were marking the two CBs Pique and Busquets as they were supposed to be. C.Ronaldo’s responsibility is the lateral zone so he does not want to collapse into the middle – doing so will break Madrid’s shape. Diarra is again playing deep rather than compact and also needs to keep an track of Iniesta how has ghosted in behind him (not shown in this image). Alonso has marked Fabregas who has run into the area in his box to box role.
In a sense – all of the Madrid defenders are doing exactly what they are supposed to do in their defensive system. But it leads to catastrophe for them.
Messi Accelerates; Oezil Attempts to Tactical Foul
Ozil makes great effort not only to close down Messi – but to tactically foul him. As Oezil pressures notice the response of the Madrid defense – Diarra, Alonso, and Marcelo’s reaction to Messi’s run is to start to drop deep. Ramos decides to step up into space.
Messi Breaks Tackle
Messi’s balance and strength allow him to easily ride Oezil’s tackle. Once he’s broken free of that front line defender with the dribble the Madrid defense collapses shape. Alonso looks to close down Messi and Lass tries to retreat. The problem is because Messi had space initially – he’s already accelerated.
Messi Splits Defenders
Messi splits the defenders and blows by Alonso. Notice Marcelo’s positioning here. Because Alves is staying so wide Marcelo marks him rather than collapsing into the middle to defend. This would prove decisive in the goal.
Ramos Steps Up to Stop Run But Messi Releases Pass
In the image above, Ramos has stepped up strongly with Lass closing down from behind and trying to muscle Messi off the ball.
Prior when Messi was playing the false 9 – this type of defending may have been effective. Messi received the ball so deep and has so many walls of deeper defenders to beat. But in this game because he’s playing as a 10 rather than as a false 9 Messi has a point of reference in front of him in Sanchez. And Sanchez is a point of reference striker who has explosive pace and can get behind CBs with relative ease. As such above Messi only has to ride so many tackles – he releases the ball for the pass as he’s cut down by Diarra.
Pass Released to Sanchez as Messi Tackled to the Ground
Messi Threads Pass; Sanchez Runs Behind Defense with Pace
Sanchez is able to accelerate past Pepe and Coentrao and get behind them. Then as Pepe tries to tackle him Sanchez still has the strength and balance needed to stay on his feet.
Sanchez With Ball Separates As Pepe Attempts Tackle
Sanchez Gets off Shot While Riding Challenge
The Second Half: Iniesta Leaves His Mark
While the first half ended level and Barça had turned the match – it was still not the usual composed Barcelona. They had more possession but had to struggle for it and that possession wasn’t as coherent as it ideally should be.
The major reason for this of course as the Madrid pressure defense.
But another reason was the absence of Iniesta in midfield. Pulling Iniesta out to the wing provided Barcelona with needed tactical width. But it removed one of the world’s great players with the ball at his feet from the region where he’s most dangerous.
While Fabregas’s role was sound in terms of formations and structure – the way he executed it wasn’t. Fabregas is still learning how to integrate himself into the Barça possession game. Right now he still plays “too slowly” often trying to play direct balls that just aren’t available because that’s not the style of the surrounding players. And in this match he struggled to enter the flow of midfield play. This was complicated by his new box to box role – one he hadn’t played before this season and one his teammates weren’ t certain how to link up with.
Iniesta playing on the wing was directly related to being able to play Fabregas in the match. Pep essentially decided that Iniesta is better wide than Fabregas would be. This made Fabregas’s performance in terms of build up and possession particularly costly as it removed Iniesta’s presence and replaced it with lower level midfield play. At the same time – Iniesta was isolated on LW and struggled to fully join the dynamics of the match as well.
Guardiola saw this and changed it at half time. Iniesta pinched in to midfield and Barça played without a designated LW. Instead, Fabregas would often swith out wide when play needed to be stretched.
Moving Iniesta back to midfield transformed the match as it redefined how Barça was able to control possession. Iniesta in the second half was the best player on the pitch. He generated opportunity after opportunity. And against a tiring Madrid defense was able to ghost through those open internal spaces within the Madrid defense over and over.
Iniesta Playing Centrally in Second Half Beats Coentrao
Iniesta receives the ball in the Barça half above from Fabregas. Iniesta turns quickly at the onrushing Coentrao. For most of the game Coentrao played very deeply. But once Iniesta moved centreally Madrid had no one to directly mark him. Ironically, the one thing Mourinho had tried to avoid since the Manita had happened – Barça had completely overrun the Madrid defensive midfield. Barça now had a numerical advantage in midfield of up to 5-6 to 3. At the same time because Alves stayed, Sanchez would pull horizontally between flanks, and Fabregas would move left when Iniesta came very central, Barça still had width.
In this regard, it was very curious that Mourinho didn’t substitute in more central midfielders or pull DiMaria permanently off the flank into midfield. Instead he continued to have Madrid play their zonal cover man marking pressure system. The problem was Barça had too much movement and interplay from multi-skilled players for this system of 1 vs. 1 marking to work-especially as the defenders tired.
This is well demonstrated in the image above. Notice how Messi is once again completely open and unmarked in space. Messi had as much space in this match as he’s had for quite some time. It seems like the Madrid plan may have been similar to the Copa Del Rey. Allow Messi to collect the ball deep to draw him away from goal and then defend him deep with the CBs if he breaks containment. However, Messi was no longer playing as a false 9. He was playing as a 10 with Sanchez in front of him and Alves always wide of him in the right. Even if intentional the Copa Del Rey defensive strategy wasn’t going to work.
Iniesta Beats Second Defender; Coentrao Frustrated; Messi Open in Space
Iniesta beats Coentrao and then Alonso off the dribble in transition and once he does the whole pitch opens up. Coentrao is so angry at getting beat, he stops and flails his arm in the middle of the pitch.
Again, note how remarkably wide open Messi is in space. This is again one of those images that when you just see it – you know it is going to end badly for the opposition. Iniesta with the ball. Messi open with large space to run into.
Iniesta Plays Ball Wide to Messi
Khedira falls back to close down Messi. Despite Khedira being so much larger than him, Messi rides out the tackle.
Messi Rides Khedira's Tackle from Behind; Marcelo Collapses Centrally
Messi Breaks Challenge
In the images above Messi has broke Khedira’s tackle. This causes the entire defense to collapse on him. Notice how open Alves is because he has maintained disciplined tactical width. These are the kinds of transition breaks at speed that Madrid themselves have become so known for. Also notice that Fabregas has come into the image on the run along with Coentrao.
Alves fires in an amazing cross. It’s a beautiful piece of skill especially given how complicated it is to time that cross when Fabregas is making such a long run. But the key to Alves being able to make a cross of that quality is Messi. Because Messi has forced the defense to collapse with his run Alves is completely unmarked and has no defenders even running towards him. As shown below, Marcelo the LB actually has his back turned to Alves – that’s how open he is.
Alves Open in Space Wide
Alves Receives Pass; Fabregas Makes Run from Deep to Goal
Alves Perfectly Times and Places Cross for Fabregas's Run
Solidity in Transition Defense: Carles Puyol – The Key to Guardiola’s Tactics
While I’ve discussed the Bardca formation and attack in detail – none of it would be possible without Carles Puyol. He along with Busquets were the tactical foundations for Guardiola’s thinking. And it was Puyol who had to absorb the greatest responsibility on the team.
Barça was simultaneously able to gain numerical advantage in midfield while also spacing the pitch through width primarily because they played three at the back with Busquets in support. This is what Pep meant when he said that the team had the choice to be brave or very brave in the match at the Bernabeu.
The trade off one makes is that with three at the back the lateral center halves are extremely exposed down the flanks. They are at risk for getting caught 1 vs. 2 against the oppositions winger and FB. This is what happened to Mascherano again and again in the opening of the Valencia match.
To play three at the back meant trusting that the lateral CB could at minimum handle the Madrid wingers 1 vs. 1 in space. While Busquets could join as a fourth defender – the problem would really occur in transition defense. In those situations there would likely not be enough time for Busquets to drop and for the backline to spread wide. Given that Madrid runs its offense down the flanks and is the best squad in the world at breaking at speed – this tactical approach was enormously risky. To implement it meant that Guardiola had to have complete faith in his backline – but especially in the lateral center halves.
And the key player in making all of this work was the right center half who would have to double as a right FB. Madrid’s offense is structure down its left flank. The combination of Marcelo in support of C.Ronalso along with Ozil and Xabi spraying balls wide into space is the foundation of their offense. In addition, with Benzema’s resurgence – he too often plays out on the left flank looking to link up with C.Ronaldo and create moves from wider positions.
And in a game where Coentrao, a left footed player, was acting as a make shift RB – the left flank was even more critical for Madrid.
Everything I’ve discussed – none of it would be possible or could work if Guardiola didn’t believe his right center back could carry this immense responsibility. If he couldn’t – then no Fabregas in a box to box role. No Alves on the wing. No Sanchez as a lone striker playing in a horizontal band. None of it worked unless Guardiola believed that a single player could neutralize C.Ronaldo 1 vs. 1 and stop breaks involving Marcelo and C.Ronaldo linking together.
Guardiola fortunately did have that player. The Captain was just immense. He had the most responsibility on the team this match. He gave Pep the flexibility to balance the three objectives – control of midfield / width along with transition defense. Abidal also had a terrific match playing well against DiMaria.
But as expected the Madrid attack was significantly weighted to their left flank during the crucial part of the match. And Puyol completely shut down the Madrid attack time and time again. Alves was critical because he occupied Marcelo and prevented him from getting forward. But seeing that Benzema came left frequently to support C.Ronaldo.
So effective was Puyol in neutralizing C.Ronaldo pace based attacks on the left flank, that Mourinho moved C.Ronaldo to the right flank. Not only is this C.Ronaldo’s weaker side but Coentrao wasn’t getting forward at all so C.Ronaldo as functionally on his own in wide positions.
It’s for these reasons that Puyol was man of the match.
For much of this season Guardiola has been criticized for experimenting too much. Too many line ups. Too many formations. To few defenders and far too many midfielders.
What made this Clásico so special – was that it was the culmination of all that experimentation, risk taking, hard work and complete belief in his players.
Without that prior experimentation – Barcelona could not have won this match the way they did. In fact, without Guardiola continuing to push tactical boundaries with the Barça system and forcing it to evolve – it’s possible that Barça wouldn’t have won.
Mourinho set his team up to face a Barça team that played a fluid 4-3-3 with Messi dropping deep as the primary source of numerical advantage in midfield. But that wasn’t’ the system Guardiola played at all. And that just amplified how many shadows the Madrid team had to chase once Barcelona settled down from that disastrous start.
Ultimately, it was the team’s talent, mental strength, calm and championship experience that saw them through after that disastrous start where they conceded within thirty seconds of the match starting. But it was the way the system was constructed that allowed the players to translate the inner resources they possessed into execution on the pitch and do so as a brilliant, collective whole. That’s what tactics are always about.
This was a historic match in so many ways. Tactically it was one of the most noteworthy in Barcelona’s history given how innovative Guardiola was and the circumstances. He continues to develop approaches to the game that are breathtaking to watch and analyze.
In my preview to the match I wrote that given how talented these two sides are and how multi-dimensional the players are, the tactical battle would be won by the manager who put into place the structure that maximized the players flexibility and their ability to respond dynamically to the events that transpired within match play.
In this match and in the Rayo Vallecano match Guardiola is exporing the dimensions for how that kind of flexibility can be created.
At the start of this season many thought that incorporating the 3-4-3 into the base system was Guardiola’s next project for the team. And many wondered if it was too radical a shift to work.
It turned out everyone was wrong. Guardiola is trying to move in a far more visionary direction.