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El Clásico Tactical Review: Barcelona 0 - 0 Real Madrid; 2019 La Liga

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FC Barcelona v Real Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Zidane’s unbeaten record at the Camp Nou improved to five matches as Real Madrid and Barcelona tussled for league supremacy. The La Liga giants settled for a draw that sees them continue to be tied on points.

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The Madrid manager rolled out a wildcard selection choosing to pack the midfield against Barcelona with a 4-4-2/4-5-1 hybrid. Surprisingly, none of Modric, Rodrygo, or Vinicius made the starting line-up as the Frenchman opted for Casemiro, Kroos, Valderde, and Isco in midfield led by Benzema and Bale.

Real Madrid’s aggressive press denies Barcelona space in midfield

Real Madrid’s game plan appeared to be to overwhelm the center of the park and cut off Barca’s access to that zone — and consequently disrupt the Blaugrana’s buildup play. The away side implemented a disciplined, albeit fluid, pressing structure that revolved around certain initiating triggers.

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Bale coordinated with Valverde and similarly, the other midfielders with Benzema, to ensure adequate coverage if the Urugyuan advanced to place pressure on a ball carrier. They successfully took Rakitic and de Jong out of the game as the two had limited touches in the first half.

The main constant of Real Madrid’s defensive shape was Casemiro’s positioning. The Brazilian was the deepest midfielder without the ball and acted as the final gate to zone 14. Kroos, Isco, and Valverde had general positional assignments (Kroos left, Valverde right, Isco floating/centre) but in reality the midfielders’ primary driver was reactive based on closing down any Barcelona players moving the ball into the center of the middle third.

The team pressed aggressively forcing Barcelona to retreat or funnel possession out wide. Although the midfielders were the coordinators of this tactic, it was a collective affair as the defenders’ synchronized movements was essential to its success.

Los Blancos’ compact shape and possession control

Another important complementary feature of Real Madrid’s seamless organization in their press was the control and composure they had in possession. In addition to the number (four plus Bale’s hybrid role) and type of midfielders selected, playing in the ultra-compact and tight swarming mode they adopted meant that finding passing lanes and options when they had the ball was much easier.

One of Casemiro, Valverde, and Kroos were always available for a clear lateral pass from either the wings or the attacking third to reset/steady possession when needed. This level of coverage was difficult for Barcelona to deal with, especially given the context of Messi and Suarez’s minimal participation in the recovery phase, and there were several moments during the match where the hosts couldn’t do much to unsettle Real’s spells of possession.

Furthermore, the extensive width supplied by Carvajal and Mendy was crucial to stretching the field and expanding the playable/actionable boundaries. The energy and commitment of the fullbacks in quickly getting into wide/advanced positions when Real had the ball was notable and helped establish their team’s comfort with the ball during the match.

Positional risk and tired legs

Real Madrid’s demanding recovery play and pressing scheme: 1) created a natural positional risk that could be exploited when their first line of press was beaten and 2) led to the players being physically strained.

The positional risk manifested itself in two key ways. The first was the vulnerability of an exposed back line when Los Blancos’ first line of press was beaten. This usually took out a player (each serving as necessary cogs in the overall defensive scheme) and distorted the entire team structure. This led to several scenes in the opening stages of the match where Messi and co would find themselves with numerical superiority in Real Madrid’s half.

The other positional risk was the lack of sustained lateral coverage of wide areas without the ball. Due to the overriding emphasis on shutting down the middle and pressing ball carriers, Real Madrid’s midfielders were typically vertically staggered along the same horizontal bands.

Lastly, the intense pressing and ball recovery play carried out by Zidane’s men led to them wearing out physically. This became more of an issue as the game wore on and specifically in the second half when players like Kroos and Isco in particular appeared less diligent in completing pressing actions. Noticeably, de Jong and Rakitic became far more involved in possession (in part aided by having a relief providing body such as Vidal added to the midfield).

Struggles offensively and lack of creativity

If defensive coverage and possession control were some of the key benefits of the tactical framework Zidane utilized then a lacklustre offense was a major drawback. Due to the setup (only two true forwards with Bale having to cover a lot of ground tracking back as well), the onus for attacking responsibility was shifted more to the individual from the overall group as the midfield-packed formation reduced the team’s presence upfront.

However due to the personnel on hand, individual instigation wasn’t optimal as Real Madrid’s best progressive dribblers/one-on-one players (Hazard, Rodrygo, and Vincius) and final ball experts (James, Modric – lesser so for the latter) were all unavailable or on the bench.

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As a result, Real Madrid’s play in the final third would often devolve to simple (even if beautifully executed) ball circulation where the ball was pinged around the pitch, based on obvious passing options and switches of play, with the most frequent outcome being a cross from a wide position.

The referee always tries to do as best he can. When you speak to Varane at half-time and see the bruise he’s got on his thigh and when you watch the incident back, it makes you a bit cross, but the referee tries to do his best and the VAR system is there to help. If that’s the decision he made, we’ve got to respect his opinion. - Casemiro on Lenglet’s challenge on Varane

Crossing certainly made sense from a strategic point of view as the visitors boasted a definite height advantage over Barcelona but the fact remains that it is still a low probability approach. This was evident as despite numerous opportunities to deliver the ball into the box, Real Madrid didn’t manage to consistently threaten Ter Stegen’s net (although it should be acknowledged there were two possible missed penalty calls .

In what could have been seen as an offensive change, Modric and Rodrygo came on for Valverde and Isco in the second half but by that point the game had loosened up significantly with each team having opportunities to punish the other on the counter but neither being able to capitalize on those chances.