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El Clásico, Real Madrid vs FC Barcelona: Tactical Review

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Rafa Benitez’s side was thoroughly outclassed by Barcelona in an embarrassing 4-0 loss. At the heart of this debacle was his tactical decisions.

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Attacking set-up

On paper Madrid started in a 4-2-3-1, with Ronaldo left, Bale as a shadow striker, James right, and Benzema up front. Kroos and Modric were the two holding midfielders behind this front four. But in watching the game, it was nearly impossible to tell what shape Madrid were playing in. Los Blancos were so fluid that they became utterly disorganized. It seemed there was a lack of an attacking game plan, or at least that the plan went out the window the second Barcelona went 1-0 up. There were several times in the first half where two of Ronaldo, Benzema, and Bale were near the box in the ball and it took 3 seconds for support to arrive.

As Madrid fell further behind in the scoreline, I actually think the frontline did well to create the chances they did. However, not only was Bravo in inspired form, it must be noted that Barca’s defense had probably switched off after going 3-0 in front.

Overall, there was a real lack of connection between the midfield and front line. Players were not at all sure where to be and Benitez gave too much freedom to his front line to do as they please. This sort of fluidity is something that Madrid want to achieve in the future, (and is something that Barca benefit from greatly) but when you just get Benzema back from injury and Bale has only played one game since prior to this match (recently that is), it is probably better to go with a more structured approach. Benitez really got his offensive tactics wrong here.

Defensive tactics

But while the attacking may have got better across the course of the match, the defending unbelievably got worse as the match progressed. Part of that is down to the individual blunders of Varane (went color blind as he consistently passed the ball to a red and blue player) and Ramos (who couldn’t keep track of Suarez at all). It didn’t help that Danilo was also being skinned alive on Madrid’s right flank by an in-form Neymar. Marcelo was the best of the lot as he limited the chances from his flank, made an inspired goal line clearance, and pushed forward with real purpose.

But aside from this, there was something fundamentally wrong with the way we defended, and at the moment I am not quite sure what it is. For one, I know that Benitez seemed to have instructed his players to play a normal defensive game. It looked like he told his players to let Barcelona come onto the edge of Real’s half, and then contest for the ball whenever it entered the zones of Modric and Kroos. But Madrid (who have been pressing for most of the season) seemed torn between sitting back and pushing up as the scoreline went against them. This led to disjointed efforts in pressing (often with either Kroos or Modric running forward leaving the other confusedly behind), which simply allowed Barcelona to pick passes with ease. In addition to this, Ramos and Varane kept charging nonsensically up the pitch to put pressure on players receiving the ball. At first I thought they were just bad decisions by the players, but the frequency with which it happened makes me think that this was a Benitez decision.

Benitez’s substitutions

But frankly, the most bizarre moments of the night were the substitutions. James was clearly Madrid’s best player (he moved deep to receive the ball, distributed play the best he could, and took good shots on goal), but he was taken off for Isco. While I have nothing against the little Spaniard, that substitution was frankly absurd, especially when you consider that James was not lacking in match fitness whatsoever.

Soon after this, Benitez bettered himself by removing Marcelo, a natural left-back and Madrid’s second best player on the night, for a right-back in Carvajal! Danilo (who was wholly ineffective on the night) was shifted to the left-wing as Carvajal took up his normal position on the right. Am I the only one seeing how utterly incredulous these changes are?!!

Conclusion

Overall Benitez completely misjudged Barcelona. His tactics were way off and he just made all the wrong decisions. However, his players didn’t set the world alight at all (particularly the defenders) and credit must be given to Barcelona for being so supremely good. While the press will rage for ages about this one, the Madrid camp must put this defeat firmly behind them and focus on the midweek champions league match vs. Shakhtar Donetsk.