Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has to hasten to battle will arrive exhausted.
Therefore the clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy’s will to be imposed on him. – Sun Tzu’s The Art of War
Or, to put it another way: tempo.
In the the opening leg of the Clásico quarter-final in the Copa del Rey, Real Madrid manager José Mourinho fielded a starting eleven sans German playmaker Mesut Özil. It wasn’t an undeserved seat on the bench for Özil: he had, after all, been nullified in Madrid’s first La Liga meeting with Barcelona in December. But instead of playing Kaká in his place, Mourinho changed Madrid’s shape from a 4-2-3-1 to a defensive 4-3-3, opting to play Pepe, a centre-defender, in midfield over the Brazilian, the idea being to disrupt the rhythm and intricate passing that is Barça’s offense.
Problem was, electing to defend and hoping to counter is as nice of a present an opponent can give Barça. The decision to disconcert Barça’s attacks in midfield rather than prevent Barça’s attack altogether essentially gave the Catalan side a sandbox-environment to try different tactics and shapes with little defensive risk of their own. They were free to impose their will on Madrid, and their 2-1 victory was certainly just.
Perhaps realizing the need to gain some tempo or relenting to the wants of his players agitated by his negative tactics, Mourinho opened the return leg at the Camp Nou with a return to their favoured 4-2-3-1. With Ángel di María and his dazzling form still not fit to play, Özil was deputized as he’s been before to the right wing with Kaká’s more imposing presence heading Madrid’s midfield. Barça manager Pep Guardiola kept his same eleven from the previous two Clásicos of the campaign, playing the same three-and-a-half-men back-line as he did last week.
Madrid’s energy from the opening touch was excellent, closing down Barça any which way across the entirety of the pitch, looking to pin the Blaugranes in their own half and achieving their aim. This, in turn, meant Barça’s Copa del Rey goalkeeper, José Manuel Pinto, found himself with the ball at his feet far more often than his comfort zone would normally allow. Pinto did manage some decent distribution, but the majority of his play with the ball at his feet was unsteady, and while first-choice goalkeeper Victor Valdes isn’t immune to blunders against Madrid himself, Pinto gave the ball away deep in Barça’s half a not-so-insignificant amount of times, and Barça’s outfield players on the whole weren’t passing at their well-oiled best, hurried by Madrid’s pressing. Barça were lucky to escape the first thirty minutes with a clean sheet.
Özil played, beyond any shadow of any doubt, his best game against Barça. Being on a wing kept him from his influence’s black hole, Sergio Busquets, and in lieu of supporting the centre as Mourinho had him do before in that role against Barça — thereby entering Busquets’ usually inescapable pull — Özil played far more of a Di María role, only coming inside with the ball advanced — like when he cracked the living hell out of a shot off the crossbar and post from thirty yards out — starting from space out wide instead of searching for space deep and away.
The intensity of Madrid’s pressure combined with their own spreading around of the ball meant, surprisingly, Barça’s best attacking of the opening half-hour came from the counter. Lionel Messi’s role in midfield usually means he’s running towards the defense anyways, but with Andrés Iniesta’s unconventional role on the left-wing managed by the conventional right-back Álvaro Arbeloa and Dani Alves playing even more conservatively down the right due to the tie’s condition and Madrid’s assertiveness, Barça had little in the way of width to their standard attacks, necessitating strong play on the counter.
Xabi Alonso’s defending of Cesc Fàbregas was again a weakness for Los Blancos, but Fàbregas had perhaps his worst game for his boyhood club, stranding a through-Messi on a counter and providing little penetration forward. There was, again, some danger in balls over-the-top to Alexis Sánchez, he who stole the heart of Guardiola, but Barça’s lack of width left spare bodies at the back to deal with the threat.
By persistently hanging on the enemy’s flank, we shall succeed in the long run in killing the commander-in-chief.
This lack of width was fixed by Pedro Rodríguez coming on for the injured Iniesta at the half-hour mark. Pedro did the same for Barça as he’s done for Spain: providing width — even if it is, at times, only token — to open space in the middle, all while supplying a stallion’s work-rate on defense, at times even marking Özil. His calm finish of Messi’s layoff on a counter, beyond showing the importance of width even to the centre-oriented attack of Barça, must have been his personal high for the season: after his playing time and the actual position he thrives in was eliminated in Barça’s big-game starting eleven due to the summer transfers of Fàbregas and Sánchez, Pedro again showed he still brings to the squad what he brought starting in last campaign’s Champions League final against Manchester United.
In order to carry out an attack, we must have means available. The material for raising fire should always be kept in readiness.
Mourinho’s substitutions didn’t just heal the wound bleeding into the water, they augmented Madrid’s entire nervous system. Joining the already-gone, lucky-to-not-have-been-sent-
Appear at points which the enemy must hasten to defend; march swiftly to places where you are not expected.
Mourinho went to the shape and tactics suggested in the preview, and Madrid never looked back or played on their back foot from that point on. With two wingers and two strikers, Barca’s back-line was without a spare man: where Barça could earlier absorb a one-on-one defeat, any positive Madrid play or full-back on an overlapping run now meant a 4-on-3 or better for Mourinho’s men. Madrid’s pressing in the first half hour kept Barça in their own half, and their numerical advantage from their forward line achieved the same end in the last half hour, demanding Barça’s midfielders to drop back lest their defense become overrun. Alonso and Granero facilitated the forward line via immediate delivery, discarding any attempt at build-up play through the centre.
Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.
After five minutes it was patently clear not that Barça had lost the tempo of the match but that Mourinho’s tactical change had won it for Madrid. Up 4-1 on aggregate, it’d have made nothing less than absolute sense to either permanently drop Sergio Busquets into defense or sub off Sánchez for a third centre-back in Javier Mascherano to return Barça their spare man at the back and kill the tie off. After eight minutes and the 4-1 lead becoming 4-2, to not act would only be inviting more trouble. After twelve minutes and another Madrid goal, making just one more an eliminating blow to Barça, the tie had gone from over to perched on the edge of the finest-sharpened knife. Just as Iniesta’s injury brought about benefits to Barça’s attack, it took a Sánchez injury to bring about Mascherano from the bench.
Only instead of becoming a third-centre back, Carles Puyol was shifted to right-back, and Alves was pushed up beyond that of a wing-back, not marking Cristiano Ronaldo down Madrid’s left-flank but left-back Fabio Coentrão. It was a better four-man defense than before the substitution, but Madrid’s opportunites kept coming, and the ref’s final whistle didn’t elicit cheers from the home crowd so much as sighs of relief. So dominant was Madrid after the change that they ended with fifty-one percent of possession for the second half, an unthinkable feat only a week aft.
The general who thoroughly understands the advantages that accompany variation of tactics knows how to handle his troops.
For all the tactical evolution Pep Guardiola has determinated this campaign for Barcelona, it was José Mourinho who toppled the game’s table with his hypermodern approach, leaving Real Madrid looking every bit the part of five points clear atop La Liga. As it turns out, Guardiola isn’t just Barça’s Monolith: he’s Mourinho’s as well.
Editor’s note: This tactical review has been written by twelve point courier. Beyond being a football tactics enthusiast, he is a sports/politics blogger with a slight emphasis on snark and illustrating the asinine and illogical. Follow him on twitter @tpcourier.
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