Om Arvind provides a tactical analysis of the La Liga game that finished Real Madrid 0-3 Barcelona
Barcelona were 11 points ahead of Real Madrid in the league table (provisionally) coming into the Clásico, giving this mid-season match-up the air of an elimination game. Zidane responded by making the surprising decision to field Mateo Kovacic in place of Isco Alarcón. This reason for this quickly became clear in the opening minutes of the game, as Kovacic shadowed Messi while the other three central midfielders looked to overload the center of the park on defense.
This strategy worked well in the first half, but things quickly fell apart after the break. In the 54th minute, Casemiro roved up the field and lost the ball. Barcelona quickly countered into the space the Brazilian left behind, allowing Suarez to score an easy goal while several Madrid players either watched on or tracked back lackadaisically. At that point, the game was over. Los Blancos lost their heads and Carvajal got sent off for a handball in the 63rd minute, allowing the Catalans to score two more goals to seal the league title.
Real Madrid (4-4-2 Diamond): Navas // Carvajal (Red card, 63’) – Varane – Ramos – Marcelo // Casemiro (Asensio, 72’) // Modric – Kroos // Kovacic (Bale, 72’) // Benzema (Nacho, 66’) – Ronaldo
FC Barcelona (4-4-2): Ter Stegen // Roberto (Vidal, 91’) – Piqué – Vermaelen – Alba // Paulinho (Gomes, 84’) – Rakitic – Busquets – Iniesta (Semedo, 77’) // Messi – Suarez
Real Madrid’s High Press vs. FC Barcelona’s Build-up in the 1st Half
Zidane decided to engage in a high man-oriented press, which was structured in a rough 3-4-3 shape (this was an extension of the natural shape of the 4-4-2 diamond).
This meant that Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema marked Barcelona’s center backs, while Mateo Kovacic sat tight to Sergio Busquets. Luka Modric and Toni Kroos sat behind the frontal pressers and marked Rakitic and Iniesta respectively, while Madrid’s fullbacks marked their counterparts in blue and red. In defense, Casemiro dropped to create a situational back three with Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane.
FC Barcelona approached this press with the conventional method of having Busquets drop deep, while Jordi Alba and Sergio Roberto pushed up the field. But due to Madrid matching their numbers 3v3 at the back and 4v4 in midfield, La Blaugrana found it difficult to execute short passes through the opposition press. Thus, Barcelona often looked to use Paulinho, who readily drifted into the space behind Marcelo, as an outlet to break into Madrid’s half. On goal kicks, this often simply involved Ter Stegen hitting long balls (of which he attempted 19) towards the Brazilian (and also Luis Suarez), while Piqué and Sergi Roberto tried to play through balls to Paulinho down the right in open play.This ploy forced Casemiro to constantly shift to the left-wing in order to shut down Paulinho, as the Merengues defensive midfielder was tasked with ensuring vertical compactness throughout the width of the pitch. It also resulted in Ramos and Varane being left 2v2 with Suarez and Messi, prompting the center backs to step up aggressively to close down vertical passes into the Barca strike-force.
While the Catalans rarely lost the ball in their own half and were not harried intensely by the opposition, they struggled to enter the final third and access the space behind Madrid’s back-line.Casemiro did a superb job of blocking off access to Paulinho and Varane and Ramos were sharp to any passes attempting to release Suarez and Messi into space. Thus, either the away side gave possession away with a long ball, or they had to be content with slowly working their way into Madrid’s half by rotating play horizontally and by winning throw-ins and free-kicks.
Real Madrid’s Medium Block & Their Counter-attacks in the 1st Half
While Los Blancos could’ve easily kept their original shape as they transitioned from a high press to a medium block, Zidane demanded that a key change be made. Fearing the influence of Messi and likely remembering how well Kovacic had shackled the Argentinian in previous encounters, the Madrid manager had Mateo man mark Lionel. It’s curious that Zizou didn’t ask Casemiro do such a job, since that would’ve required less structural changes, but it is probable that he didn’t trust the Brazilian to execute the task given how Messi destroyed Casemiro 1v1 in the 2nd league Clásico in 2016/17. Regardless, this caused Real to defend in a very fluid 4-4-2/4-3-1-2 shape, with Kovacic as an LCM (in a general sense), Modric as an RCM, Casemiro as the DM, and Kroos as a CM that often drifted in front of his midfield teammates.
This led to Modric marking Iniesta, who primarily sat in the left half space, and Kroos marking Ivan Rakitic. Casemiro primarily guarded the space in front of Ramos and Varane, while Kovacic, as mentioned before, shadowed Messi. But this wasn’t a hard and fast rule. On occasion, Real’s midfielders would rotate their man marking duties according to the given situation. Sometimes, Kovacic couldn’t get to Messi after transitioning from his position in a high press, forcing Casemiro to pick up the Argentinian. If Messi drifted left before Kovacic could reach him, Modric would have to stick to Lionel until Kovacic could arrive. This plan worked well to limit Messi in the first half, as he failed to register a single open play shot, completed only two dribbles, and was dispossessed twice.
Hence, just like with the high press, Barcelona’s free man was Paulinho. While Casemiro again did well to contain the Brazilian in the middle third of the pitch, the former Guangzhou Evergrande player made a nuisance of himself in the box. Two of Barcelona’s best chances came from Messi playing an attacking pass into Paulinho’s frame in the area. The first arrived from a lofted through ball, which Paulinho volleyed off of Navas’ hands, and the second arrived from a Messi cross from the left-wing, which Paulinho headed on target after making a blind-side run to the near post.
But other than that, Barcelona struggled to create. Iniesta’s inclination to sit narrow and Messi’s unwillingness to regularly drift to the right-wing allowed Real to defend in a compact area. This also nullified the impact of Busquets without needing Benzema and Ronaldo to man mark him, as his freedom was useless due to the lack of good passing options available to him.
However, this level of defensive solidity came at a cost. Putting Kovacic on the field as an extra CM to be a full-time man marker made it harder to counter-attack. Not only did it not allow another attacker to be fielded, but it also meant that Kovacic was quite deep once Madrid won possession and looked to break. This was especially problematic, since Kovacic is inarguably Madrid’s fastest player with the ball at his feet, meaning a devastating counter-attacking player could not be involved in Madrid’s transition plays. This trade-off was exacerbated by the fact that Kroos, one of the slower players in world football, was the main player acting as an outlet on the counter. While he did his best and helped spring attacks on the break, there’s no doubt Kovacic or an extra swift attacker (like Bale) would’ve been more capable in those situations.
Barcelona’s High Press vs. Real Madrid’s Build-up in the 1st Half
Ernesto Valverde implemented a high press in a situational 4-3-3 formation. This entailed initially sitting in a 4-4-2 shape with the intent of blocking off passing lanes to the center of the pitch. When Madrid eventually shifted play wide, the ball-side winger would trigger a press, creating a momentary three-man front-line.
The objective was to trap play on the wing, with the winger pressing the man on the ball while Messi and Suarez marked the closest center back and moved to challenge the player in possession. In order to prevent a pass down the line to a fullback, Sergio Roberto and Jordi Alba marked Marcelo and Carvajal respectively. Meanwhile, the far-side winger would check inside to cover a Real Madrid interior, creating a situational three-man midfield. This left the ball-side CM guarding the right half space while the far-side CM kept vertical compactness and also marked whoever the attacking midfielder was in the situation (usually Kovacic).
Since Los Blancos mainly directed their first passes to the left-wing, Paulinho was most often tasked with being the pressing trigger. His work-rate was excellent and, given that the hard working and defensively competent Rakitic was the central midfielder closest to him, Madrid rarely managed to break through the left-wing in the 1st phase of possession. This initially led to a couple of turnovers, but Madrid soon adjusted and began to neatly shift play from side to side. Kroos, one of the premier press-resistant players in world football and the man who generally received possession when play moved wide to the left, always remained calm on the ball and looked to play horizontal passes into the path of Kovacic and Modric. He did this with quick shifts to create space for a pass, disguised passes, and deceptive body positioning. For their part, Modric and Kovacic did superbly to receive the ball under pressure and evade the attention of Iniesta and Rakitic, before shifting the ball out to the right-wing.
Barcelona would react by having Suarez and Messi shift to the left, with Iniesta abandoning his position in central midfield to press in another situational front three. Once that happened, the ball would be passed back to Varane, who would either quickly shift the ball back to the left-wing, or engage in clever one-twos with Carvajal to break past the Suarez-Iniesta trap on the wing. Once either of those two options were executed with sufficient speed and competency, Madrid could flood forward into the final third via ball carrying movements from Ronaldo and Benzema. Barcelona would try to cope by shifting into a 4-4-2 defensive block in transition, but often times they were unable to react quickly enough.
But while Real had greater joy with their build-up in comparison to Barca, the number of chances Los Blancos actually created remained similar to that of their opponents. Some of that was down to offensive errors committed by Ronaldo and Benzema, but it was mostly due to Piqué and Vermaelen’s excellent defending. Piqué, in particular, did a good job of staying with Ronaldo one-on-one and was always well placed to clear crosses.
Barcelona’s Opening Goal in the 2nd Half Ends the Game
After a tight and tactically intriguing affair in the first half, Madrid made the crucial mistake of trying to counterpress without setting up in an adequate structure in possession. This led to a Barcelona counter that resulted in a goal.
The result was still salvageable, given the time still remaining, but Madrid collapsed mentally. Carvajal got sent off for a foolish handball following a remarkable defensive collapse, pretty much ending the contest in little over an hour. From then on, Barcelona enjoyed themselves as they stopped Madrid’s weak attacks and countered into acres of space.
Despite Zidane having approached this game in competent fashion, he was forced to walk away with a devastating 3-0 loss. One could argue that he should’ve been braver and started Bale (or at least brought him on in the 2nd half), but the Welshman had fitness concerns coming into the match and the reasons for Madrid’s loss were more down to individual errors.
Thus, without Valverde tactically outclassing Zidane or coming up with any special tactical tricks, Barcelona managed to beat Real Madrid. This is not to take anything away from the manager. His tactics were pragmatic and appropriate for the occasion, but there is no question that this was more of a case of Madrid shooting themselves in the foot rather than Barcelona playing magnificently. Perhaps that is what will pain Madridistas the most.
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