Tactical Review: Real Varane 1-1 FC Barcelona

Tactical Review: Real Varane 1-1 FC Barcelona

Three clear storylines have emerged in the aftermath of the most recent Clásico:

  • Wasteful Barça
  • A surprisingly end-to-end affair replete with heroic defending

There is a fourth, perhaps limited by its tactical scope, but it deserves mentioning: Real Madrid employing a 4-2-4.

Mesut Özil began his days at Real Madrid as something of a classic Number Ten, entrenched ahead of two pivot midfielders and behind a central striker, distributing the ball in attack in the middle of the ‘3’ line in José Mourinho’s then-favored 4-2-3-1.  While always more of a forward than of a ball-winning centre-mid, Özil’s role was, in an attacking sense, clearly and patently discrete from that of Madrid’s most forward players.  Özil looked not to rotate with Cristiano Ronaldo and Ángel di María in joining the attack but to release his wingers down the touchlines or serve them dangerous through balls, rarely pulling level on the pitch with the striker ahead of him.

In time, Özil’s role evolved, seeing the German international working from side to side — chiefly right — in addition to the vertical channels found in the center.  This, as Darwin would have gladly noted, was a survival adaptation: Özil’s first meetings with Barcelona, and consequently midfield-extraordinaire Sergio Busquets, were calamities.  His contributions were nullified to the point of it being an understandable mistake to think he hadn’t entered the game.  Not gifted with pace or viable, repeatable flashes of skills, Özil was consistently unable to find enough time on the ball to make any use of his sharp vision and thoughtful passing.

There is no shame, of course, in being outdone by Busquets.  Özil wasn’t the first and wasn’t hardly the last.  But, to deserve any minutes during clashes with Barça, Özil needed change.  And given Barça’s position atop the footballing food chain, freeing Özil from the shackles of Busquets also would have great utility for Los Blancos across all competitions.  So, in the second leg of last campaign’s Copa del Rey, Mourinho moved Özil out right.  This placement of Özil on a wing wasn’t a novelty, but the role he played was, because gone was Madrid’s 4-2-3-1, and in was a 4-2-4.

As detailed and predicted beforehand, Real Madrid moving to a “hypermodern” 4-2-4 against Barcelona made nothing but sense: since it isn’t possible to out-Barça Barça in the center of midfield, why even try?  Why not look to counter not through the middle but in behind advanced fullbacks, with a fluid frontline ensuring bodies are always running at goal?

From the match review of that quarter-final second leg, “The Art of War”:

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.

The second half of the last campaign saw more and more of Özil on the wing, no longer looking to create for his fellow forwards but to rotate with them.  To join them.  As detailed a seemingly innumerable amount of times before, removing any given defense’s spare man — having one more defender than the opposition has attackers — unleashes mayhem any time the attacking team wins a 1 vs 1 battle.  This end, this fait accompli, saw to Özil’s role moving more towards that of a secondary striker or winger than that of a traditional number ten.
So, for yesterday’s Clásico, it should come as no surprise that Özil was not a midfielder but, in earnest, a forward, rotating in attack with Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and José María Callejón, with responsibilities not dissimilar.

The Starting XIs

For Barça, it was business as usual, their new shape of choice for the campaign: rather than drop a defender, as Pep Guardiola did, to play all three of Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta and Cesc Fàbregas together, “Rouranova” elected to only field one true winger in Pedro Rodríguez, “moving” Iniesta out left.  Iniesta, of course, was a winger in name only, dropping inside and behind rather than over the top of the head of Barça’s shape.

Madrid applied torrential pressure for the entirety of the first half, again defending in something of a six-man-shell, with the forwards harrying the deep-lying positions and protecting their fullbacks from overlapping runs and feathering Messi’s slaloming runs into a help defender.  The pressure fell off as the second half went on, as can only be expected, but Madrid again showed the too-often-ignored viability of rugged, unflinching pressing of Barcelona.  But, as noted by The Dirty Tackle’s Brooks Peck, the real star of Madrid’s defense was Raphaël Varane.

This was a rather simple tactical battle. Busquets, not needed to mark a number ten, floated back into defense, restoring Barcelona’s extra man in defense.  Fàbregas and Xavi, and even Iniesta, tracked the forward runs of Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso.  On the other end, it was business as usual: fullbacks supplying width, with Dani Alves the more conservative by both need —  having Ronaldo to mark — and by design — having a true winger ahead of him.  The rest was the now-classic Barcelona: through balls out of nowhere, lobs over a compressed defense and the strictest of adherence to ball movement and possession.

Neither goal came from any tactical masterstroke: Barça opened the scoring after Lionel Messi simultaneously intercepted a wayward Madrid clearance (by Callejón, covering a run at goal by Jordi Alba) and assisted Fàbregas, where Varane finished an Özil cross after a “secondary corner” given too much space by Alba.  Both sides saw certain goals saved by last ditch tackles — those by Varane, Gerard Piqué and, unfortunately for Pinto’s… groin region, Dani Alves — and, while Barcelona finished with the better of attempts, Madrid’s style of breaking through outlet passes down the sideline and racing towards goal kept the balance in doubt.
Both sides were unlucky to finish with a goal apiece, with Barcelona owning more missed chances, and both sides have reason for optimism heading into the return leg at the end of February.
But even if they didn’t, it wouldn’t matter.  It’s a damned Clásico.

For tactical notes during matches and other 140-character chicanery, .

Image Credit: Miguel Ruiz/fcbarcelona.cat