Real Madrid 0–3 Barcelona: El Clasico Tactical Analysis
Yet another El Clasico at the Santiago Bernabeu goes in favour of Barcelona as the league leaders thumped their arch rivals 0–3. A full capacity crowd had turned up with the hope of closing down the 11-point gap from the Catalans but the hopes of retaining the league championship is only becoming bleaker for Real Madrid after the loss yesterday.
The game was somewhat similar to a roller-coaster ride and fans of both teams had ‘heart-in-the-mouth’ moments. Lets quickly dive into the tactical part of it:
Zidane stuck to his traditional 4–4–2 diamond formation with 4 midfielders behind the front-two of Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo. The back-four was also an easy selection with all of his best defenders available. The only surprise inclusion to the side was Matteo Kovacic who made his first La Liga start in the 2017–18 season. The reason behind the decision seems justifiable as it was an attempt to blend defensive duties and attacking flair in the middle of the pitch.
Real Madrid’s dominance:
It was a tale of two halves and anyone who watched only one of the halves would clearly get it wrong trying to predict how the other half went by. The first half was dominated by Los Blancos and it looked like Zidane got every call right while Barcelona were struggling to cope with the pressure. There were a couple of tactical moves that allowed Madrid to bully Barcelona in the first half. Let us deep dive and find out what they were:
Madrid deployed man-to-man marking all over the pitch when Barcelona tried to play out from the back. Since both teams fielded a 4–4–2, man-marking wasn’t a complex task in terms of assigning and understanding who marks who. The front-two of Ronaldo and Benzema pressed the center-backs while the four midfielders of Madrid marked the four midfielders of Barcelona in the following manner:
Luka Modric on Andres Iniesta
Toni Kroos on Ivan Rakitic
Casemiro on Paulinho
Matteo Kovacic on Sergio Busquets
Full-backs Dani Carvajal and Marcelo also had to take care of the opposition full backs Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto.
As you may know, Barcelona are in their comfort zone when allowed to build-up from the back using possession play. Since Madrid deployed man-marking and high-pressure, it didn’t allow their goal-keeper Ter Stegen any passing options nearby. It forced the German International to go long and that is exactly what the Catalans are not adept at. Ter Stegen attempted 19 long passes against Madrid as opposed to his average of 6 long passes per game (in La Liga 2017–18), thus clearly indicating the change in build-up play. It helped the Madridistas to turnover possession more often as they either won the aerial duel or the second ball from where they started their attacks.
However, the man-marking pattern underwent a small tweak whenever Barcelona managed to overcome the pressure and enter the attacking half. It was none other than the surprise inclusion Kovacic whose role changed depending on where the ball was.
Once Barcelona overcame the pressure and entered the attacking half, Kovacic took over the tedious task of marking Lionel Messi. Madrid were aware of Messi’s free-flowing movement into midfield irrespective of whatever position he takes up and hence a player like Kovacic, who is a combination of hard-work and agility wasn’t a bad choice after all. The Croat followed the Argentine all over the attacking third trying to minimize the damage while Busquets who was originally marked by Kovacic during build-up, was pressed by Benzema. Without a shadow of a doubt, it was a bold move and it yielded Madrid the desired outcome as Barcelona created very few chances in the first half.
Finding pockets of space:
This is something that Los Blancos did superbly well while on the ball. Madrid enjoyed more possession than Barcelona in the first half owing to proper marking, pressure and winning the ball back at regular intervals. Once Zidane’s men won the ball, they were quick to transition into attack and they outpaced Barcelona on several occasions on the counter. There was one particular area where they constantly found space to run onto, it was the gap between the Barcelona center-backs and full-backs.
The reason why the space was created between the Barcelona center-backs and full-backs is due to the 4–4–2 fielded by Valverde. Since the four midfielders of Barca and Madrid were head-on against each other, the full backs had only each other to take on. Hence, whenever Marcelo or Carvajal were in possession of the ball, they naturally drew Alba & Roberto towards them to be closed down. Once the space was created, it was upto Ronaldo/Kroos and Modric/Benzema to run into it depending on the situation. Madrid created numerous chances from the wide areas as they used this route to stretch Barcelona.
Here is an example from the first half on the left wing:
n the image above (top), Marcelo (on the ball) waits until the right-back Roberto was drawn into closing him down and Kroos (circled red) already started his run. The image in the bottom was seconds later. As you can see, once Roberto tried to close him down, space was created between Pique and Sergi Roberto. Marcelo found Kroos (circled red) with a simple through ball and it was a good opportunity for Kroos to find Ronaldo/ Benzema but Pique’s excellent slide tackle halted the attack.
Now that you saw an example on the left wing, here is another from the right wing:
As you can see, Alba (circled red) was caught up-field while closing down his counterpart Carvajal. Thus space is created between Vermaelen and Alba into which Ronaldo was ready to run onto. Modric who is generally the most adept at these situations, neatly lofts the ball for Ronaldo. The Ballon D’or winner crossed the ball for Benzema to poke it in but it was again well defended by Vermaelen and Pique to see off the attack.
The club world champions constantly stretched Barcelona’s back four and created numerous chances from the wide areas. But the Catalans defended really well to keep all of these threats at bay only to send Zidane’s men into the dugout at half-time not wanting the half to end. Barcelona could also trouble Navas on two occasions thanks to their summer signing Paulinho but the Madrid goal-keeper pulled off stunning saves to keep the score 0–0.
Second-half switch off:
The players stepped out of the tunnel for the second-half and the story unfolded in an entirely different manner as compared to the first-half. The Catalans seemed comfortable on the ball, their passing improved and they were able to build-up play from the back. However, the tables didn’t turn because of Carvajal’s sending-off but the league leaders were already taking control when it was 11 vs 11. Let’s compare the numbers between the first-half and the second-half till Madrid weren’t a man down for the sake of a fair comparison.
Possession: Real Madrid 52% — 48% Barcelona
Pass completion: Real Madrid 87% — 84% Barcelona
Second half (45th min to 63rd min):
Possession: Real Madrid 41% — 59% Barcelona
Pass completion Real Madrid 80% — 91% Barcelona
As you can see from the numbers, the game had changed even before Madrid went a man down. In fact, Barcelona took the lead 8 minutes into the second-half after a sublime counter-attacking move by Rakitic, Roberto and Suarez. Madrid deployed man-to-man marking for a majority of the first half and there are no doubts if it worked in their favour or not. However, man-marking and high pressure is one of the most tiring methods of defending for any team. Ideally, it is a method of defending that needs to be used in short-stints and not for an extended period. The physical and mental toll it took on Zidane’s men was evident. It would have been all worth it if Madrid were able to take the lead in the first half as it would have allowed them to sit back and play on the counter. But unfortunately for Madrid, Barca were smart enough to see off the initial storm and waited before they pounced on their rivals in the second-half.
Another fact that suggests how good Barca have been in game management is their ability to kill off opponents in the second half after wearing them out in the first half on a regular basis. The Catalans have scored 45 goals in 17 games out of which only 14 have been scored in the first half as compared to 31 in the second half. It shows that what they did to Real Madrid is something they have been adept at this season.
The first goal scored by Barca itself is an example for Madrid’s fatigue. The problem started with Kroos’ casual pass attempt which was intercepted by Roberto. After a couple of passes, Busquets was in possession and he beat Kroos with a simple Cruyff turn to release Rakitic. As you can see in the image above (top), when Rakitic started the run he was on par with Modric (circled yellow) and Carvajal (circled red). In fact both of these Madrid players are in general quicker than Rakitic while surprisingly they didn’t have enough engine to catch up with Croat who accelerated into the heart of Madrid’s defense.
In the image in the bottom frame, it is clear that if there was anyone who could have caught up with Suarez, then it was Carvajal as Varane was closing down Rakitic while Kovacic (in the black square) didn’t want to leave Messi free. Carvajal on a usual day might have caught up with Suarez but the fatigue didn’t allow him to even match pace with Rakitic. Then a simple pass was made to Roberto and Roberto squared it off to Suarez on first touch and the Uruguayan didn’t need a second touch to find the back of the net either.
The second goal also came owing to Carvajal’s slow tracking back which left Suarez in space to the left of Varane. Once Suarez’s shot was saved by Navas, the next 10 seconds were just shambolic from Madrid and they were all over the place inside the box before Carvajal decided to become a goal-keeper himself. Once Madrid went a man down with a 0–2 deficit, there was no coming back despite minimal fight back from the substitutes Bale and Asensio. However, the Catalans were more than comfortable to finish the game off with another easy goal towards the end to make it 0–3.
The important lesson that needs to be learnt from the El Clasico is not only about Madrid’s plan back-firing but the new dimension that Valverde has added to Barcelona. They are not only about philosophy, possession, passing and movement but they are also about defending, absorbing pressure and pragmatism. The league leaders showed signs of being cautious, retreating back and being pragmatic already in the away games against Juventus, Valencia and so on. But in this game Valverde has made it absolutely clear that if situation demands, they wouldn’t think twice to sit back and hold on to their horses before unleashing them.