Tactical Points: Real Madrid 2-1 FC Barcelona

Tactical Points: Real Madrid 2-1 FC Barcelona

Other than Jordi Alba making his Clásico debut by way of the late scratch of Dani Alves, the starting elevens were as expected, with either Gerard Piqué or Javier Mascherano replacing Carles Puyol for Barcelona and Marcelo replacing the suspended Fábio Coentrão for Real Madrid.

Barça’s 4-3-3 featured little in the way of tactical wrinkles, but Madrid’s ostensible 4-2-3-1 was much more a 4-2-1-3 or 4-2-4, with Mesut Özil linking up and rotating with the attackers in front and wide of him rather than encamping himself ahead of his holders, Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira.


With Özil’s advanced positioning — even getting in behind Sergio Busquets — Mourinho had his men defend in a six-man shell.  Out of possession, Madrid’s back four were just that, tracking and then passing off the diagonal runs of Barça wingers Pedro Rodríguez and Alexis Sánchez, with Alonso and Khedira in tandem floating across the pitch as Barça passed the ball around, creating the structure of the defence.  To complement the shell, Madrid’s forwards were in charge of harassing the deep-lying positions and protecting their fullbacks from overlapping runs.

Given the nature of Barcelona’s attack — the fluidity, the runs from origins unknown, an almost tangible contempt for shots from range — Mourinho’s six-man shell has situational viability.  While the subterfuge of Lionel Messi’s continued deployment as a false-nine is great and the location or position from where one of his teammates will make a run is anything but static, Barca’s commitment to its football ideology leaves only so many likely outcomes to their possessions.  Without David Villa, a curling effort from outside the box and well outside of centre won’t be seen.  Without Cesc Fàbregas providing direct runs from midfield, the opposition’s centre-backs won’t be overwhelmed by numbers.

By not having a bank of four in front of the defence with two rigid ends, Madrid has more numbers ready to lead a counter attack and need only to concede areas of little-to-no use for Barcelona to do so.  This isn’t to say Madrid’s shell is impenetrable but, rather, there’s a certain economy to it, strengthening their counter attack while keeping a certain defensive threshold.  It’s one of the stronger passive systems around, but by still ceding the tempo to Barça it is inherently flawed, regardless of the known methods of attack.


Beyond preventing Cristiano Ronaldo from killing the tie off with a third Madrid goal, Adriano’s red card begat two developments: Tito Vilanova’s move to a lopsided shape and a baptism by fire for the new first-teamer Martín Montoya.

To that point, Barcelona’s haggard, blundering defending made a potential move to a three-man defense an impossible proposition, and Montoya came on for Alexis Sánchez, restoring a fourth defender as well as potentially signifying Vilanova’s pecking order for his wingers.  Staying on was Pedro, shifting to something of a right-winger but favouring runs over the top and attacking the inside shoulder of Marcelo.  This, then, left Jordi Alba with the entire left flank to himself, and the Barça newcomer was more than up to task, buoyed by his experience of having already done so for Spain throughout the near entirety of Euro 2012 while also having the weakest link of that Spain’s starting eleven, Álvaro Arbeloa, ahead of him.

With Barcelona both without a true left-winger and Pedro not seeking the touchline, Madrid’s defensive shell also underwent change:

The narrowness of ten-men Barcelona meant Mourinho could tuck his fullbacks inside, leaving the little edge defensive work to the work-rate of his forward line, congesting Barça’s favoured avenue of attack even further and allowing one of Sergio Ramos and Pepe to push up the pitch to mark Messi.

Trouble for Madrid was, Mourinho prioritizing counter-attacking over proactively pressing and winning the ball high up the pitch meant a suddenly in-rhythm Barcelona could attack the shell directly by occupying Madrid’s two holders — freeing a run from deep or a midfielder for time on the ball — or bypass it entirely — playing long balls over the top or making use of the pace of Pedro, Alba and Montoya around the edges.  The asymmetry of Vilanova’s shape also meant Alonso and Khedira couldn’t play each half of the pitch as they would the other, creating hiccups in rotation ripe for exploitation.


Had Adriano not been red-carded — or if Montoya had taken his place in the starting eleven — Cesc Fàbregas had utility to offer.  With Barça effective without even a nominal left-winger, Fàbregas replacing Sánchez would’ve allowed Iniesta to reprise his role for Spain in Euro 2012 while freeing Fàbregas to run at goal from midfield, a role he’s much better suited to than, say, the Xavi role, as evidenced by Barça’s near defeat to Osasuna over the weekend.

Even if Vilanova doesn’t play Fàbregas as an advanced playmaker a la Guardiola circa September 2011, Jordi Alba — a more than reasonable facsimile of Dani Alves — makes it possible for Xavi, Iniesta and Fàbregas to thrive together ahead of a four-man back-line instead of rotating for each other.


Of Real Madrid’s four goals in the 2012 Supercopa, two were the direct result of unforced Barcelona errors.  This, however, may be misleading, as Victor Valdés supplied needed heroics not just to keep 2-2 a possibility in the second leg but also to keep the scoreline from getting out of hand.  This, however, may also be misleading, as Barça dominated that leg’s second half with ten men, with their best chances conceded having only come when tired and committed to pushing bodies forward.

Ultimately, drawing conclusions from two games for a trophy of no repercussion between two teams yet to fully integrate new additions or play at full strength is a fool’s errand, more a function of variance and sample size than talent level.

But, damn, that was one hell of a game.

Editor’s note: This post has been written by twelve point courier. Follow him on twitter @tpcourier.

Image: Claudio Chaves (MD)