Om Arvind provides a comprehensive tactical analysis about the La Liga game that finished Real Madrid 2-3 FC Barcelona.
2016/17’s final Clásico was well set-up to be a vintage game. Real Madrid were 3 points ahead of their eternal rivals with a game in-hand, meaning that this match-up had the potential to be a title-decider. For Los Blancos, it could’ve meant the end of the league race with them on top and for Barcelona, it could’ve meant the rekindling of what had been a disappointing season so far.
Real Madrid started off the better side, as they came out of the tunnel all guns blazing and with a real sense of purpose. Modric and Kroos were content to go route one down the flanks and exploit the pace of Bale and Ronaldo. This incessant attacking pressure eventually resulted in a goal off a set-piece, when Casemiro turned home a tap-in after a slight bit of good fortune. But just as things were looking cozy, Messi struck. Leaving a bafflingly disorganized Real Madrid in his wake, Messi accelerated a good 25-30 yards before sticking the ball past Keylor Navas.
From then on, Real Madrid never really recovered. Even after Zidane’s half-time talk the home side looked in disarray and it wasn’t surprising to see Rakitic fire home a go-ahead goal in the 73rd minute. Things turned incredibly dark for Madridistas when Ramos got himself sent off after an inexplicably rash challenge, but Los Blancos managed to respond well. James Rodríguez came on with eight minutes remaining and turned home a Marcelo cross only 240 seconds later. As a result, Real seemed to instantly regain their mojo and they flooded forward in search of a winner.
But in the 91st minute, far too many Real players were caught high up the pitch as Sergi Roberto left everyone for dead and set in motion a counter that Messi finished off. It wasn’t that long before the final whistle blew and Barcelona stood triumphant and re-jubilated.
The title race is on.
Real Madrid (4-3-3): Navas // Carvajal – Nacho – Ramos – Marcelo // Modric – Casemiro (Kovacic, 70’) – Kroos // Bale (Asensio, 39’) – Benzema (James, 86’) – Ronaldo
FC Barcelona (4-4-2 Diamond): Ter Stegen // Roberto – Piqué – Umtiti – Alba // Rakitic (Rico, 80’) – Busquets – Iniesta – Messi // Suárez – Alcácer (Gomes, 70’)
Real Madrid’s Vibrant Start to the Game
Madridistas could not have known the heartbreak that was to come based on the first 30 minutes of the match, for Zidane’s men started like champions. Every single player seemed keen to raise their level to match the occasion and players like Modric, Kroos, Ronaldo, and Bale looked like they would take over the game.
Zidane’s strategy enhanced his men’s ability to play at the pace they wanted to, as the Frenchman chose to employ a route one style of penetration. Instead of engaging in short passes and patient build-up, Marcelo, Carvajal, Ramos, Modric, and Kroos looked to immediately arrow lofted passes towards the flanks to take advantage of Bale and Ronaldo’s pace.
Barcelona’s set-up was particularly susceptible to Real’s style of attacking since they were formed up in a 4-4-2 diamond that transitioned to a 4-4-2 on defense. With their central attacking midfielder, Messi, instructed to join the front two as Barca moved into their defensive structure, it was Paco Alcácer that had to track back and form the left side of Barca’s midfield four. With Jordi Alba given license to push high up the pitch on offense, Real often had the opportunity to create favorable 1v1 situations on the counter between Ronaldo/Bale and a Barca center back.
With Barcelona’s transitional defense being exploited and Real looking more determined as every minute passed, it was only a matter of time before the home side scored. It came thanks to a poorly defended set-piece, where La Blaugrana allowed Marcelo to pick up the clearance and launch the ball back into the box for Casemiro to eventually tap home.
More importantly in terms of the grand scheme of things (at least at the time), this goal scoring opportunity resulted from a counter down the right flank, which was sparsely defended thanks to Alba and Alcácer’s high positioning. In other words, Zidane’s plan was working and Enrique’s wasn’t.
However, strong collective plans can often be undone by one individual and unfortunately for Real Madrid, that happened to them today. With Barca looking like they would soon be overrun, Lionel Messi executed a moment of magic.
Los Merengues took the goal badly, as their energy and sense of purpose nearly evaporated. As their spirit disappeared so did their focus and that led to some serious lapses in defensive organization. This was most obvious in their pressing.
Real Madrid’s Disastrous Pressing
Even before Messi’s goal, there were signs that Los Blancos’ pressing was off. This was due to the 4-1-3-2 structure that Zidane chose to press with, which was inherently weak and bound to be badly exposed if his players lost even the slightest bit of concentration. The reason for this is the lack of horizontal coverage that such a structure provides. With Casemiro sitting deep to provide vertical compactness, there are only three players (Bale/Asensio-Modric-Kroos) available to protect the space in behind the forward pressers (Benzema and Ronaldo).
Usually, Zidane asks Ronaldo to move wide so that Madrid press in a 4-1-4-1, but for whatever reason, the manager decided not do that today. As a result, Ronaldo looked lost. He seemed torn between trying to guard the open fullback on his flank and pressing the central defender that Benzema was leaving for him to cover. But Ronaldo’s uncertainty wasn’t limited to just himself, as Kroos also looked confused. Just like CR7, he was torn between moving wide to cover the wing passing option or moving centrally to cover the central midfielder who was positioning himself to receive a vertical pass. This lack of cohesion made it incredibly easy for Barca to advance up the pitch and attack Real’s back-line in space, something that really became an issue once the home side totally lost their composure.
Within this structure, Ronaldo should’ve aggressively pressed the center back while cover shadowing the passing option to the central midfielder. This would’ve allowed Kroos to move to the left-wing and mark the fullback.
However, it probably would’ve been best if Zidane had stuck with what his team was most comfortable with – the 4-1-4-1 that had served him so well in the past.
Barcelona’s 4-4-2 Diamond and Messi’s Deep Positioning
One of the great sub-plots of Barcelona’s 2017 has been Luis Enrique’s earnest search for a new formation to accommodate the changing Messi. In what has been curiously glossed over by nearly the entire analytical sphere, it’s clear that Messi is no longer comfortable or willing to play on the right-wing. Thus, as long as Barcelona were deployed in a 4-3-3, their entire shape was thrown out of whack due to Messi’s insistence on hovering centrally and acting as an attacking midfielder. With Sergi Roberto an average offensive force (at best) from fullback, Rakitic was often forced to act as an auxiliary wide midfielder, creating a poor midfield structure and an ineffective right-wing.
This hurt Barcelona in the last two Clásicos, as Messi’s desire to drift into congested space saw the Argentinian shut down by both Casemiro and Modric. This in turn left Marcelo free to create wanton destruction down Barca’s right flank, as he only had to defend against the threat of one fullback.
This very obvious issue has seen Enrique try out various back three formations, with the objective of letting Messi sit in a CAM position without hurting the entire dynamic of the team. For El Clásico, he rolled out a 4-4-2 diamond, with Paco Alcácer and Luis Suarez above the centrally positioned Messi.
This negated the classic wing-play that has been a fixture of this Enrique team (or at least for his first two seasons) and asked Barcelona to penetrate via central channels. This put the massive responsibility of accessing Barcelona’s attackers on Sergio Busquets’s shoulders, who predictably shined. Helped partly by Real’s criminal defensive disorganization, Busquets routinely picked through the opposition’s defensive block and press with smart vertical passes into Iniesta, Rakitic, and Messi.
Once Busquets had done his job in getting the ball into the final third, he would act as a deep outlet to recycle possession if the attack failed. Meanwhile, his teammates would look to pass the ball to Messi so that he could release through balls and creative passes into the channels for Suarez and Alcácer to chase. Iniesta was particularly successful in this regard, as he found Messi 14 times and proved to be Barcelona’s most useful midfield outlet.
If this style of build-up failed, Messi would drop deep to receive the ball. This ploy proved to be more devastating than Enrique probably anticipated, as Messi’s deep runs drew Casemiro out of position and created vertical compactness issues that could be exploited.
Clearly understanding that Casemiro was man marking him, Messi began dropping deep to receive the ball with greater frequency starting early in the 1st half. This allowed Messi to isolate Casemiro 1v1 and dribble past him into space, before he either fired off a shot or played a through ball. Casemiro never wised up to this in the first half and he was beaten so thoroughly on so many occasions, that he was forced to foul Messi incessantly and risk getting sent off. The Brazilian eventually had to be subbed off for risk of getting a second yellow card.
The End-to-End Dynamics of the 2nd Half
With the strengths and weaknesses of both sides laid bare for all to see in the 1st half, it was little surprise to see the type of game that emerged in the 2nd half. With Real’s press getting worse by the minute and Barcelona weak at defending their flanks, an end-to-end dynamic occurred that dominated the entire second period of play.
Real Madrid saw most of their chances arrive on the counter, as they continued their strategy of directing passes to the flanks.
It was a similar story for Barcelona, as they broke through Real’s weak defensive lines to create excellent chances in transition. Perhaps more importantly, Barcelona’s easy access to Madrid’s back-line eventually tantalized Sergio Ramos into a terrible tackle that reduced Los Merengues to ten men.
But despite the game being defined by fast-moving football, both teams saw their second goals ironically arrive via more patient possession play. For Barcelona, it arrived through another piece of individual brilliance, when Rakitic dusted Kroos aside before slamming home a screamer from the edge of the box. For Real, it arrived unsurprisingly through a cross from the boot of Marcelo, which found the cleverly angled run of James Rodríguez.
That is how the game should have ended – a 2-2 draw that evenly reflected the number of chances created and the balance of play. But Zidane had one last mistake to make. As revealed later in his press conference, he asked his side to press in the final minutes of the game, even though Sergio Ramos had been sent off and Madrid only had three defenders on the pitch.
Thus, with 30 seconds left on the clock, Real pressed wildly on a throw-in with inferior numbers and exposed their back-three to a 6v3 situation. The resulting consequence was a cut-back into space and a winning Messi goal that might just decide the destination of the league title.
All things considered, this was arguably Zidane’s worst big game performance. Despite his adequate offensive tactics, he made miscalculated gambles that cost his side the game. Firstly, his decision to field Bale despite the Welshman being of questionable fitness was a mistake, as the winger had to come off in the 39th minute, therefore wasting a substitution. This alone was not enough to cost Madrid the three points, but his mangled pressing structure and his late-game decision to press with only 10 men was. This has to be seen has a huge missed opportunity for Real as a win or even a draw would’ve put them firmly in the driver’s seat in the context of the league race.
However, credit must be given to Barcelona. Luis Enrique managed to create an adequate formation that allowed Messi to shine in a central attacking role, something that saw Leo make a decisive impact. In terms of the future, this tactical evolution must continue. The 4-4-2 diamond wasn’t perfect and on another day Real could’ve scored 3 or 4 goals solely from rapid transition attacks down the flanks. Nevertheless, Barcelona are moving in the right direction and this is encouraging for the future.
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