Om Arvind writes a detailed tactical analysis about the Spanish Super Cup second leg that finished Real Madrid 2-0 Barcelona
El Clásico is the most awaited game in world football for several reasons. One of them, is the expectation that the match will be close and highly competitive. Unfortunately for the neutrals watching the 2nd leg of the Spanish Super Cup, that was not the case. Real suffocated Barca with a well-oiled high press and ended the game before the fans had time to blink. In the 4th minute, Asensio scored a sizzler from 30 odd yards, putting Madrid ahead 4-1 on aggregate. What followed was approximately six minutes of relentless pressure before Barcelona were even able to make a meaningful entry into Real’s half.
Once they did, Barcelona experienced their own 10-minute spell – but it was far less effective. Looking out of place in their experimental 5-3-2/3-5-2, Barca circulated the ball aimlessly before trying to force the issue with difficult passes or tough one-twos when Messi drifted deep. Eventually, Real began breaking out of the Catalan’s press to attack in transition, putting Los Blancos back on the front foot. As Real began to access the final third again, they grew back into the game and re-established their pressing and counterpressing tactics. That eventually allowed Real to win the ball near their opponent’s box, where they capitalized on the situation and finished through Benzema in the 39th minute.
When the players came out of the tunnel for the second half, it might as well have been an exhibition game. With the trophy already secured, Real went through the motions, while Barcelona tried and failed to pick up a couple consolation goals.
At the end of the day, it was shocking to see how superior Real were when they wanted to be. As long as they intended to score, Barcelona were battered, dismantled, and given no chance of respite. The visitor’s tally of only 1 shot in the first half pretty much tells the whole story. However, lest Madrid fans get too confident and Barca fans too despondent, it is worth remembering that it is only the beginning of the season. Valverde has yet to truly make his tactical mark on his squad and there is still a chance that Barcelona’s board acquires a couple of key players that puts them back on par with Real.
Real Madrid (4-3-3): Navas // Carvajal – Varane – Ramos – Marcelo // Modric – Kovacic (Casemiro, 62) – Kroos (Ceballos, 80) // Lucas – Benzema – Asensio (Theo, 75)
FC Barcelona (5-3-2): Ter Stegen // Roberto – Mascherano – Pique (Semedo, 50) – Umtiti – Alba (Digne, 78) // Rakitic – Busquets – Gomes (Deulofeu, 72) // Messi – Suarez
Real Madrid’s Dominant Press & Counterpress
As has already been noted, Los Merengues’ press was the crucial ingredient to their success over Barcelona in the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup. However, this wasn’t just down to the commitment and work-rate of the players (which was exemplary), as Zinedine Zidane’s tactical structure was excellent.
He set his side up to press high in their natural 4-3-3 shape, with seven of his players assigned man-marking duties. The front three, Lucas, Benzema, and Asensio, each marked their respective center backs. However, instead of forming up in a straight pressing line, they assumed an “L” shape as the ball moved wide to one flank. This happened because the far-side winger would sit narrower and deeper in order to protect against a switch of play or to prevent a vertical dagger into the half space from Pique.
Kroos would mark Rakitic, before rushing to press Busquets when the Spaniard received the ball; all the while covershadowing the Croatian. The German’s partner in crime, Modric, man marked Gomes, while Real’s two fullbacks closely guarded their counterparts.
In contrast to his aforementioned teammates, Kovacic would always stay deep to provide vertical compactness and guard against the threat of Messi. In similar fashion, Madrid’s center backs more or less held position, moving mainly laterally to adjust to the movements of their fullbacks while keeping an eye on Suarez.
Barcelona needed rapid passing and dynamic movement if they were to play their way through the opposition press, but instead they were sloppy, lethargic, and stagnant. In particular, they needed to make use of their extra man in midfield – Rakitic or Busquets – by manipulating Kroos’ movement. This could’ve been done by fake passes towards Busquets, instigating a pressing action from Kroos, before passing the ball to Rakitic.
More simply, Rakitic could’ve moved to the other side of the pitch, forcing Kroos to either go with him, or stay with Busquets. In the likely event that Kroos moves to shut down Busquets, Modric would then have to deal with his countryman and Andre Gomes, creating a complicated switch of duties between the two Madrid CM’s.
Instead, Barca were largely rigid with their central midfield positioning when building from the back, making it easy for Kroos to keep track of two men at once. The result wasn’t pretty for Barcelona. It took 10 minutes for them to even get out of their half, as they were forced into cheap long balls up the pitch or difficult passing combinations that never came off. This unrelenting pressure led to a throw-in in the 4th minute, which Asensio received and dispatched from range.
Eventually, Real’s energy died down and Kroos had to take his foot of the gas, allowing Barcelona to find Busquets with greater regularity and make it into the final third.
Barcelona’s Possession Play vs. Real Madrid’s Deep Block
Unfortunately for Culés, Barca made little use of their possessional dominance in the next 10 minutes of the game. Facing a hyper-compact 4-5-1 defensive block, Barcelona found it difficult to effectively penetrate their opponents, leading to low percentage crosses, balls over-the-top, and forced one-twos.
While credit must go to Madrid’s impressive defending, Barcelona failed to help themselves with a wonky midfield structure and poor passing connections in midfield. When Barca tried to penetrate through the center, Andre Gomes was often too wide and Busquets and Rakitic were often positioned too flat and high up the pitch to make an impact.
The result was a mass of players packed into 10-20 yards of horizontal space, making it extremely difficult for Barca’s centre-backs to pick out a passing option. While the intent to position themselves in-between the lines was noble, it was executed incorrectly. Against a hyper-compact block, the team in possession needs to find a way to draw the lines of defense out, so that space is created between the lines. One way to do this would’ve been to position a player behind Benzema and in front of the midfield block, forcing one CM to sprint out of his line to close the attacker down. Busquets would’ve been perfect for this role, as he possesses the first touch, ball control, and passing ability to receive the ball, turn, and find the player who moves into the vacated space.
For some weird reason, Busquets was asked to move in-between the midfield and defensive line, leaving no one to occupy the spaces necessary to draw Real’s CMs out of position. Sergio was sometimes positioned so high, Rakitic looked like the deep controller from the right.
The only joy Barca got was from runs into the channel behind Ramos, which were mainly executed by Suarez. But the difficulty of the pass needed to find the Uruguayan made this line of attack too unreliable to depend on entirely.
Frustrated at the lack of service he was receiving and the lack of chances being created, Messi resorted to his classic move of dropping deep to instigate things himself. This usually unfolds in three different ways: Messi slinging aerial through balls into the left channel, Messi playing one-twos with teammates, or Messi trying to dribble his way to goal. Lionel tried all three strategies, but he mainly resorted to playing one-twos as the match dragged on. This was because his main target for aerial balls was Andre Gomes, a stark downgrade from Neymar, and because he was being marked too well by Kovacic to get the space to turn and dribble. As good as Messi is, leaving him with only one weapon makes him manageable. While the Argentinian did manage to connect with his teammates on a couple of occasions and even break into the box after a quick combo, he was largely shut out of the game.
The aforementioned type of deep movements that stretch Messi thin are often self-inflicted, but that was his only choice against Real in the Super Cup. Busquets was crowding his space and Real’s defensive block was too dense for Messi to be any good in zone 14. So he moved out of the way and tried to start something in space. The ideal situation would’ve been for Busquets to move deeper, as outlined above. This would allow Messi to dance into the spaces left behind by the defender moving to close down Busquets. The result would’ve been one of the greatest goal creators of all time dribbling, playing one-twos, and threading passes in an area of actual danger.
Instead, Messi was moving deep and Busquets high, creating an unstable preparation for the counterpress.
How Real Madrid Ripped Barcelona’s Press & Counterpress to Shreds
Once Barca lost the ball, they were in a poor position to retrieve it.
Due to Messi’s lower positioning, it became difficult for pressure to be adequately applied on Real’s back-line. One of Barca’s central midfielders could have stepped up to join Suarez in the press, but they chose to backpedal and form a horizontally compact line instead. Isolated, Suarez quickly gave up, allowing Real’s centre-backs easy access to their midfield line. After that, it was only a matter of maneuvering the ball laterally so that Real could exploit the lack of horizontal compactness that resulted from Busquets staying so high in possession.
To do this, Real looked to dazzle and overwhelm Barca with rapid and seemingly random off-the-ball movements. Lucas Vázquez and Asensio would move inward to drag central midfielders with them and away from play, while Modric and Kroos would push wide to create space in the center. Kovacic would then investigate the pockets of space and use his dribbling ability, close control, and explosive acceleration to turn away from his markers and rush into space.
In order to stop this, Umtiti or Mascherano would step up to provide vertical compactness. This only proved to be a stopgap option however, as Real simply looked to create an angle that allowed them to play long balls into the space that the center back had left behind. Asensio and Lucas thrived on these type of deliveries, as they used their significant pace to blaze into the final third and go 1v1 with La Blaugrana’s defenders.
Things weren’t much better for Barca in regular pressing situations, as they lacked the understanding of the back three/five system to adequately cover spaces and shut off passing options. Too often Messi or Suarez would position themselves poorly in conjunction with an interior, allowing Kovacic, Kroos, or Modric, to make sweeping passes up the pitch to Carvajal or Marcelo.
This destruction of the press was what allowed Real to reassert their dominance around the 20-minute mark. From then on, they didn’t look back. Organized pressing coupled with the individual brilliance of Real’s midfield allowed them to lay siege on Ter Stegen’s castle. The result was another goal, this time coming directly from a counterpress.
In the 39th minute, Lucas won the ball back directly in front of the enemy’s box. He passed to Marcelo, who eased past his marker and fired in a low cross/cut-back (a strategy Madrid tried over and over again in the game). Karim Benzema reacted quickest and flicked the ball into the air before slamming it home emphatically.
The following half was hardly noteworthy. While Barcelona racked up numerous chances after they reverted to a back four (with Semedo coming on for Pique), it’s difficult to tell if they actually improved. Real hardly tried in the second period of play, since they already held an unassailable 5-1 lead on aggregate.
It’s been a long time coming, but Real are officially reaching Guardiola-levels of superiority over their Clásico rivals. Real were not only superior in their tactics, but also in their individuals and depth. Barca’s subs of Digne and Deulofeu pale in comparison to the three men that came off Zizou’s bench: Casemiro, Theo, and Ceballos. In fact, Real’s bench is so good, that Marcos Llorente couldn’t even make the squad list!
It is certainly early times for Valverde, but he needs to sort things out quick if he wants to dethrone Real in Spain and Europe. His 5-3-2 experiment made him look lost and unsure of the philosophy he wants his side to play. His side’s pressing was confused and lackluster, the penetration was hopeless, and the cohesion necessary to defend in a back five was completely non-existent. Tick-tock.
Now back to Real, who have every reason to be delighted. Not only have they started the season with two trophies, but Marco Asensio is on fire. Two consecutive Clásico goals are always special, but when they both come as absolute golazos… well… you know this kid is special. He’s the reason Madrid aren’t going to miss their greatest every player while Ronaldo’s out serving his 4-5 match ban.
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