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El Clásico Tactical Review (La Liga): FC Barcelona 1 - 1 Real Madrid

Set-pieces decide the match.

FC Barcelona v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Before the 1st Goal

Analysis will be split into two broad categories: "before the first goal" and "after the first goal," as Suarez’s header drastically changed the tactical set-up of the match.

Zinedine took no risks and lined up with almost exactly the same eleven that trounced Atlético Madrid 3-0 at the Vicente Calderon; Navas; Marcelo, Varane, Ramos, Carvajal, Modric, Isco, Kovacic; Ronaldo, Benzema, Lucas Vázquez.

But while the personnel was the same, the formation was different.

Instead of going with the 4-2-3-1 that worked so well before, Zidane employed his men in a 4-3-3 (due to Benzema playing instead of Bale), with Ronaldo taking up the left-wing spot and Modric moving into a single-pivot defensive midfielder role.

Modric’s heatmap in the first half

Nevertheless, the philosophy that Real employed vs. Atléti remained the same: sit deep, remain compact, and hit Barca on the break.

However, Zidane took this strategy a step too far, deciding to employ an overly cautious "park the bus"-style approach that was clearly designed to exact a draw.

Real Madrid’s Defensive Tactics

This strategy certainly worked well defensively, as Real Madrid maintained an excellent organizational structure in the first half.

The Defensive Line

Real’s defensive line changed modestly according to the match situation, but for the most part, Zidane’s men sat in a medium block at the halfway line, allowing Barcelona to progress play from the defensive phase with no trouble at all.

Madrid did have some occasional counterpressing moments in the first half, but those were few and far between, as they were only started by the couple times Marcelo and Carvajal were still caught up the pitch when Madrid lost the ball (the objective was to buy time for Real Madrid to restructure defensively).

The Medium to Low Block

Real Madrid sat back in a fluid defensive 4-4-2, with Ronaldo and Benzema often heading the defense as Barca looked to play their way through the middle third of the pitch.

This structure continually changed, as Zidane regularly asked his midfielders to break from the midfield structure to pressure their were man-marking assignment. Since Andre Gomes (Isco's man) proved to be the most mobile of Barcelona’s central midfielders...

...Isco often did the most pressing work, which sometimes created compactness issues when no one covered for his abandoned spot on the pitch.

Isco goes to press Andre Gomes.
An easy one-two allows Mascherano to pick out Busquets, who has exploited the space left behind by Isco.
Busquets quickly finds Neymar, who is hounded by Carvajal. The Brazilian tries a cute pass into Suarez, but Varane cuts out the danger.

But Benzema and Ronaldo often covered for this by dropping into the hole Isco left behind and by spreading wide to the flank to create a bank of four respectively.

Ronaldo cutting off a passing lane to cover for Isco’s pressing actions.

Kovacic had to do little of this thanks to Rakitic’s wide positioning (Marcelo dealt with him)...

...which occurred thanks to Lionel Messi’s inability to keep width for Barcelona.

This was a problem for Messi in the last Clásico as well.

This made the Argentinian incredibly ineffective and tactically damaging for his side, as he took one Barcelona midfielder out of the game whilst making his own life difficult by playing in clogged spaces.

He perhaps wanted to do this because he saw a weakness in Madrid’s center without Casemiro, but Luka Modric did an outstanding job of stopping almost everything that came his way.

Modric’s defensive actions before the goal.

In this way, Madrid successfully shut out Barca and sealed off zone 14 for 53 minutes.

Barca’s attacks are spread wide with little penetration through the center.

Real Madrid’s Offensive Tactics

On the flip-side, Madrid didn’t do much in attack. Due to their immense commitment to defense, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema were often left utterly isolated when Madrid did manage to break. Most of the passing options came from the flanks, thanks to Lucas’ and Marcelo’s movement up and down the wing.

Thus, the vast majority of Real’s counter-attacks involved vast ball carrying movements from Marcelo, Carvajal, Lucas, and Ronaldo.

But due to the lack of support, Madrid often ignored the break and held onto possession in order to provide time for Isco and Kovacic to move into offensive positions. While this negatively impacted the ability to attack Barca in defensive transition, it also allowed Real to attack with greater numbers.

Key to this was Ronaldo and Benzema’s dynamic movement, as they provided the only passing outlets through the center once Madrid managed to break.

The passes Benzema received.
The passes Ronaldo received.

Their effective movement provided Isco and Kovacic with the time to recover offensively, but often left Benzema and Ronaldo far from attack, meaning that Real Madrid needed to progress play down the wings.

The result was a predictable number of runs and crosses from Marcelo, Carvajal, and Lucas, which mostly created corners and rarely troubled Barcelona’s sharp pairing of Pique and Mascherano.

Real Madrid created absolutely nothing through the center.
Real Madrid’s 14 crosses.

Real Madrid’s best chance came from some Cristiano Ronaldo magic, who had absolutely no right to create a shot out of utterly nothing.

Barcelona’s Offensive Plan

Barcelona came into this game cautiously, looking to see what Real Madrid would do before enacting their game plan. Once they understood that Los Blancos intended to park the bus, Barcelona took possession of the ball and flooded men forward.

The build-up strategy from defense to midfield was usually simple since Madrid rarely pressed. Play in the middle third is where things got difficult and the responsibility of distribution fell firmly on the shoulders of Busquets.

Busquets completed 37 out of 40 passes in the first half, and was responsible for Barca’s progression into the final third.
Busquets also provided penetration with his off-the-ball movement, which specifically looked to exploit any lack of compactness.

Once in the final third, it was up to Messi, Suarez, and Neymar to combine and "magic" their way onto goal, but Luka Modric and co. did a brilliant job of stopping any offensive thrusts.

Barcelona probably could’ve done better had Busquets been able to combine with more than one midfielder in Andre Gomes, but as mentioned before, Messi’s desire to drift inwards forced Rakitic to spread wide in order to give Barca some semblance of a balanced possessional structure.

This destroyed any chance Barcelona had of providing overloads with movements into the half spaces, making Madrid’s defending a battle of one-on-ones.

Barcelona’s Defensive Plan

Unlike in the games we saw vs. Manchester City, Barcelona’s counterpressing was pretty passive, as Messi, Suarez, and Neymar mostly jogged to cover passing lanes. Any smart passing combination was easily able to bypass this pressure before progressing play to the middle third. Once Madrid did that, Barcelona chose to regroup and sit in a medium block similar to what their opponent’s were employing. This gave Real plenty of time on the ball, something that they were not able to make the most of.

This changed after the half, with Luis Enrique asking for more intensity and energy from his side. MSN began to counterpress Madrid intensely, making it much harder for Madrid to pass the ball whilst allowing La Blaugrana to impose their will on the game.

This led to a greater frequency of attacks, which resulted in more fouls; the crucial one of which came in the 53rd minute. Varane slid in on hard on Neymar in dangerous territory, allowing the Brazilian to swing in an accurate missile that was dispatched by Suarez.

After the 1st Goal

Real Madrid’s Offensive Tactics

Stunned, Zinedine Zidane quickly encouraged his men to abandon their cautious approach in favor of flinging men forward, which mostly involved Marcelo and Carvajal bombing up the flanks at every opportunity.

But despite the change in mentality, Madrid’s tactics remained very much the same.

Real Madrid's 14 crosses after the 1st goal

Real Madrid still looked to attack almost solely through the wings, which made Barcelona's life extremely easy. To make matters worse, Madrid reacted terribly to going down. The heads of nearly everyone drooped, eliminating the strong and passionate mentality needed for invention and individual brilliance (with Madrid's poor attacking tactics, that was the only thing that would win the game).

Zidane reacted with the horrific substitution of Casemiro for Isco in the 66th minute, with the possible intention of freeing up Modric so he could influence this game. In theory this shouldn't have been an inherently bad change, but it was obvious since the second Casemiro touched the pitch that he was not even close to match fitness (in fact, it was obvious since seeing Casemiro's sloppy performance vs. Cultural Leonesa). Not only did the Brazilian give away the ball in dangerous positions, but he was also clumsy on the ball and slow in the challenge. In other words, he was just completely off the pace of the game.

What Zidane really needed to do was have a formula to penetrate Barcelona through the center, instead of relying on just one midfielder to do the magic for him. But considering that this wasn't possible to develop mid-game, Zidane should've looked for a bench player more suited to making the difference - James Rodríguez.

I understand Zidane's preference not to use him 90% of the time, but in this game he had no excuse. Lucas was good and did everything asked of him, but he wasn't going to provide Madrid with anything other than width and crosses. Madrid needed inspiration, creativity, and an excellent final ball, three things that are the hallmark of James' style of play.

Instead, he took off Benzema for Asensio (who played LW, which means more width and more crosses) and Kovacic off for Mariano (this sub is understandable, Mariano provides pace and is often a game-changer when coming off from the bench).

Real Madrid's Defensive Tactics

In correspondence with Madrid's more gung-ho strategy, Real immediately began to employ a rather poorly put together counterpress. Madrid haphazardly applied pressure all the way up to the keeper, with little consideration for the positional play and compactness necessary to make such a strategy successful.

This allowed Barcelona and the press-resistant Busquets the space to zoom up the pitch and attack zone 14 with greater consistency than before.

Barcelona's final third passes after the 1st goal.

Barcelona's final third passes after the 1st goal.

Such attacking success was seen best in a sweeping counter-attack that started from Ter Stegen's feet and ended with Neymar skying a good chance over the bar in the 68th minute.

Benzema has just lost an aerial duel and chases the ball all the way to Ter Stegen. He is provided inadequate structural and numerical support by his teammates, allowing Barcelona to easily create overloads.

Benzema has just lost an aerial duel and chases the ball all the way to Ter Stegen. He is provided inadequate structural and numerical support by his teammates, allowing Barcelona to easily create overloads.

Kovacic arrives too late, allowing Busquets to play a brilliant pass to the teammate to the side of him.

Kovacic arrives too late, allowing Busquets to play a brilliant pass to the teammate to the side of him.

This leaves acres of space down Madrid's left flank.

This leaves acres of space down Madrid's left flank.

Casemiro abandons the right flank to stop the immediate danger occurring on their left...

Casemiro abandons the right flank to stop the immediate danger occurring on their left...

...but Messi sees the opportunity created by the Brazilian's movement towards him. Iniesta exploits the space and feeds Neymar into a dangerous one-on-one.

...but Messi sees the opportunity created by the Brazilian's movement towards him. Iniesta exploits the space and feeds Neymar into a dangerous one-on-one.

The winger skies the shot.

The winger skies the shot.

This sort of indiscipline infectiously spread throughout the team, as Madrid got desperate and lost their composure. Ramos and Varane began to abandon their positions to aggressively engage in challenges they could rarely win, and the back-line lost it's communal organization. This allowed Iniesta to feed Messi with a brilliant through ball, a chance the Argentine wasted horribly.

Barcelona's Tactics

Once Barcelona snagged their goal, they immediately became more conservative and reverted back to their passive counterpress. Knowing that Madrid needed to push forward, Barcelona simply waited to hit their opponents on the break, a strategy that worked to solid affect.

Sergio Busquets was once again key for Barcelona, as he used his brilliant press resistance to evade challenges and overload presses en route to Madrid's defensive third. If it wasn't for some abhorrent finishing, Barcelona could've won the game.

Select Player Performances

Luka Modric

Rating: 8.5/10

Luka Modric was Real Madrid's undoubtedly Real Madrid's best player. He was defensively imperious and was nearly single-handedly responsible for shutting down Lionel Messi. In the absence of a true defensive midfielder, Modric went above and beyond what anyone could have expected him to do whilst playing as a single-pivot DM. The only negative of this was that Modric was unable to consistently impact the final third due to his defensive shackles.

Key Statistics: 85 touches, 3 key passes, 1 dribble, 59/62 passes completed, 5/5 long balls completed, 2/7 crosses completed, 3 tackles, 3 interceptions, 2 clearances, and 4 fouls committed.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Rating: 7.5/10

Ronaldo did pretty much everything he could considering the circumstances. Having little to no service and facing an extremely well-organized back-line, Ronaldo still managed to put 3 shots on target, one of which resulted from a brilliant dribble through Barcelona's defense. You just can't fault the Portuguese for Madrid's lack of chances in this one.

Key Statistics: 41 touches, 3/6 shots on target, 2 dribbles, 1 foul drawn, 2 aerials won, dispossessed 4 times.

Sergio Ramos

Rating: 8/10

Sergio Ramos had a topsy-turvy game, as he initially performed extremely well in the first half, effectively shackling Luis Suarez and stopping Messi whenever the Argentinian forayed into the box. But in the second half, he lost his cool and butchered Madrid's defensive organization on a number of occasions when he chose to aggressively abandon his defensive position to charge in for a 50-50 tackle. But in characteristic Sergio Ramos style, he made up for it in the 90th minute with a game-saving header from a set-piece.


Rating: 4/10 (EDIT: 6/10 for goal-line clearance)

Casemiro was not ready to play this game and it shows in his numbers.

Key Statistics: 21 touches, 1 dribble, 1 aerial won, 13/16 passes completed, 1 unsuccessful touch, 1 tackle, 0 interceptions, 0 clearances, 2 fouls.

Sergio Busquets

Rating: 9.5/10

Sergio Busquets was unquestionably the man of the match. As I've already discussed in length above, Busquets carried Barcelona's midfield and provided Barca with passing links through the center that hadn't existed all season (all this with Ivan Rakitic miles away from him). He was also defensively excellent and was part of the reason Madrid found it so hard to penetrate Barca's center.

Key Statistics: 86 touches, 2 dribbles, 3 fouls drawn, 63/70 passes completed, 2/2 long balls completed, 4 tackles, 2 interceptions, 1 clearance, 6 fouls committed.

Lionel Messi

Rating: 6/10

Messi has been practically non-existent for more than just the two Clásicos now...

...but only recently he's had a problem that existed for him today - his offensive positioning. Just like in last year's encounter in the Camp Nou, Messi abandoned the right wing and gravitated towards the center, ruining Barca's positional structure and making life difficult for himself.

Additionally, for some strange reason, he thought he was helping Barcelona progress play by dropping 5-6 yards from Busquets and engaging in build-up. For sure, one can argue that Messi did that because Rakitic was acting like a wide midfielder, but if Messi held his position out wide, Rakitic would've been able to combine with Busquets.

It was even worse for Barca to see Messi try to dribble from deep, as he needlessly lost possession in the attempt to play hero-ball.

As can be seen above, Messi did manage an impressive 3 take-ons, but they were all far from goal and mostly ineffective.

Aside from his dribbles, Messi's two best moments came with a through ball to Suarez that had too much pace on it and an off-the-ball run through Madrid's defense that preceded a terrible one-on-one shot against Navas.

Not a great day for Lionel.

Key Statistics: 64 touches, 1/2 shots on target, 2 key passes, 3 dribbles, 2 fouls drawn, 1/1 long ball, dispossessed 3 times, 2 tackles, 1 interception.

Bits & Pieces

Benzema was always the closest player to Busquets and should've done a better job in closing the Spaniard down.

Mateo Kovacic had a quietly solid game in defense and was decent on offense, but he wasn't a game-breaker in the way we know he can be.

MSN were just bad in general today. Suarez's headed goal was his only notable moment and Neymar was beyond horrid when on the ball: 1/5 successful take-ons, dispossessed 5 times, 5 unsuccessful touches.

Barcelona deserved a penalty for Carvajal's handball, but Madrid deserved two of the same for the foul on Vázquez and the shirt pull by Mascherano on Ronaldo.

Real Madrid could've used Bale's dynamic ability in offense today. Ronaldo was expected to do too much.

The set-piece we conceded is on Varane. (EDIT: Upon multiple side viewings its clear that Lucas' man was Suarez, which is incredibly strange and has to go down as massive mistake that helped decide the game. Benzema was zonally marking the near post and could've switched duties with Lucas.)

Sergio Ramos is a god and I think I love him.

(BTW guess who's a legend?)

With all things said and done, the result was fair based on the quality of chances created. Considering the way Zidane approached the game, this was probably the result he was looking for.

(All stats & charts taken from & fourfourtwo statszone)

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