Regardless of the disagreement over the degree to which Real Madrid were better than FC Barcelona, there is a general consensus that Zinedine Zidane’s men were the superior side. Since much of that had to do with the Frenchman’s high press, I decided to look at every single Real Madrid high pressing sequence available on tape.
I identified 28 such events in total, with only 22 being worthy of analysis (replays prevented me from seeing the full pressing action develop while one was discounted for being 10v10).
Important note: I did not assess Real Madrid’s counterpressing sequences, which refers to situations where Madrid tried to win the ball immediately after losing it.
Zidane’s general idea was to go man-to-man, with the below image representing his preferred structure.
Casemiro was to vacate his defensive midfield position and take Frenkie de Jong, while Isco moved inwards to Ivan Rakitić and Toni Kroos shadowed Sergi Roberto.
Due to the extremely fluid nature of their offense, Real Madrid’s pressing assignments and structure constantly fluctuated. Casemiro’s role was another factor that influenced this inconsistency; he frequently chose not to press due to the distance he had to travel to gain access to de Jong from his deep on-ball position.
Madrid handled Casemiro’s positional variability with different levels of success, but eventually began to falter in addressing this challenge in the second half as fatigue took hold.
Real Madrid’s Successful High Pressing Sequences in the First Half
Aside from the two more fortunate events towards the end of the first half, Real Madrid enjoyed pressing success thanks to three things:
- The energy and work-rate of specific individuals to buy time for their side to get organized.
- Bale moving into midfield and Carvajal taking Alba whenever Casemiro declined to step up.
- Zidane’s preferred structure (with Casemiro on de Jong and Bale on Alba) being enacted.
In past seasons, Zidane’s free-form offense often made it difficult for Real Madrid to press effectively. By my memory, this is the first time that Real Madrid mostly overcame that challenge (previous pressing successes were paired with more structured attacks), which is a testament to Zidane’s work beforehand and the players’ focus, dedication, and tactical intelligence.
It is no easy thing to quickly assess your position in relation to your teammates and opponents before making a decision on who you need to press (and all while having just spent energy on a failed attacking move).
Real Madrid’s Unsuccessful High Pressing Sequences in the First Half
The sheer complexity of this endeavor meant that the press wasn’t perfect.
Though it’s more of a case of correlation over causation in some of these sequences, there was a suboptimal structure in all of them coming from an inadequate response to Casemiro staying deep (or from Casemiro struggling to move onto de Jong quickly enough).
A secondary issue was the deep runs made by Suárez, who would’ve always had the ability to play a wall pass even if he was tracked tightly. This was an underutilized solution by Ernesto Valverde; he could’ve had his central midfielders drag their markers wide (a classic Antonio Conte tactic), thereby clearing a path for Ter Stegen to play dagger balls through the center of the pitch. This would’ve forced Zidane to give up a pure man-to-man scheme in favor of permanently keeping Casemiro deeper.
In any case, Valverde didn’t do this and Real Madrid generally managed to adapt their pressing structures well. I counted eight successful pressing sequences (one not analyzed due to the replay issue mentioned before) to six unsuccessful ones (another not shown due to the replay issue), with the failed actions being concentrated in the early stages of the game and the end of the first half (the “lucky” successful sequences also came at the end of the second half). That signifies that Madrid’s press was impregnable once they acclimatized to the opposition’s build-up structure, before fatigue created holes, again.
Real Madrid’s Successful High Pressing Sequences in the Second Half
Although this was a showcase of Real Madrid’s successful pressing sequences (note: two successful actions were not shown due to replay interference), half of them were decided by Barcelona’s own poor decision-making in their build-up. Some of this is likely reflective of the fatigue issue mentioned before, with the Sunday game against Valencia having more of an influence as the match wore in.
Real Madrid’s Unsuccessful High Pressing Sequences in the Second Half
Ernesto Valverde also made a key change in the second period of play — he asked Rakitić to drop to form a back three after Arturo Vidal came on for Nélson Semedo in the 55th minute. The adjustment pushed Gerard Piqué and Clément Lenglet wider, creating more space and better passing angles for the center-backs.
Again, there is some correlation over causation, here, but several of Madrid’s high pressing attempts were disrupted by Rakitić becoming an auxiliary center-back.
In total, Real Madrid executed eight successful pressing actions (two not shown) to six unsuccessful pressing actions in the second half (one not shown). The figures are the same as those in the first, but Real Madrid banked on Barcelona’s own inefficiencies a lot more after half-time as legs tired and Valverde implemented his tactical counter.
That helps explain why the second half became a lot more chaotic and inundated with transitions instead of measured possession play.
All-in-all, Zidane’s pressing scheme was good, but was only truly dominant in the middle of the first half. In hindsight, that was where Madrid needed to win this game, but their inability to create high-quality chances capped the positive effects of their press.