FC Barcelona Femení’s 4-1 victory over Real Madrid Femenino was a rather intriguing encounter from a Madridista perspective. Las Blancas coach David Aznar did the unexpected and deployed wingers Sofia Jakobsson and Marta Cardona up top in a 4-4-2 diamond, leaving star striker Kosovare Asllani on the bench.
Let’s look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of David Aznar’s tactical decisions.
The High Press
Now, this is controversial. There was a fair bit of criticism of Aznar’s aggressive approach on the ol’ twitter TL, especially when looking at how high Madrid’s line was on the open play goals they conceded. However, I believe that Barcelona’s second and third goals arose from an entirely different problem, which I will get to later in the piece.
After reviewing the film, there are actually very few occasions where Real Madrid’s press broke down and enabled Barcelona to create a good box entry. In fact, I only counted two major occasions where this happened between the beginning of the game and Barcelona’s 4th goal: on Madrid’s first pressing sequence very early in the match — led to Asisat Oshoala contesting Misa for a header — and on Barca’s 4th goal (again, I’ll get to it).
For the most part, Real Madrid did a really good job of complicating their opponent’s build-up and creating high turnovers.
The 4-4-2 diamond played a heavy role in this, as it naturally allowed Las Blancas to go 3v3 against the triangle of Andrea Pereira, Patri Guijarro, and Mapi Léon. When Barcelona inevitably played wide, the idea was for the near side central midfielder (usually Maite Oroz because Barca like to play through right back Marta Torrejón) to press the fullback on the ball, while the rest of the midfield shifted over to keep the center compact.
The midfield adjustments not only kept the structure stable, but also prevented exploitation of the far side through shorter rotations of play — an effort that was aided by Sofia Jakobsson and Marta Cardona staying tight to the center backs.
The pressing shape didn’t always manifest like this due to the fluid nature of football, but the likes of Maite and Sofia Jakobsson were alert to adapt to positional changes, solve issues, and cover for teammates, thereby maintaining the integrity of the game plan.
Consequently, Barcelona eventually started to go long off of goal kicks and Real Madrid gradually began to have more of the ball, which is reflected in the 51-49% possession split between the two sides.
Vamos con los datos del Clásico para que no se diga que no comparto. Os pongo en la tabla los típicos que aparecen siempre y otros menos habituales.— Regate en Femenino (@RegatenFemenino) February 1, 2021
PD: No diréis que el diseño gráfico no es mi pasión pic.twitter.com/mZiTJEPEmP
Data collected from InStat
Perhaps criticism of the pressing approach becomes more valid later in the second half, when Madrid started to tire and Barcelona began to exploit the lack of width in the diamond through long switches, which is how the Catalan side ended up scoring their 4th.
But, while the result was still in balance, it’s difficult to dispute that Aznar’s decision worked.
The Diamond’s Midfield Overloads
The 4-4-2 diamond was as good for the pressing as it was for Real Madrid’s build-up play, which became an increasingly influential feature of the game as the possession stakes evened out.
If Barcelona were taken aback by their opponent’s tactics against the ball, they were even more surprised by having to contain the diamond.
Alexia Putellas: "It was different because they played in a diamond and inside the superiority was theirs and it was difficult for us to overcome them in the interior game, but when we have overcome it we have been effective and we have scored four".— Barça Femení (@BarcaFem) January 31, 2021
Barcelona like to press from a 4-4-2 shape with Jenni Hermoso stepping up alongside the striker. From there, the front two can use curved runs to cut off the lane to the defensive midfielder or far side center back, while the double pivot goes player-to-player against the remaining interiors — at least against a 4-3-3.
Instead, as Barca central midfielder Alexia puts it, Madrid played with four through the middle and had the superiority in the center of the pitch.
You can see Barcelona’s midfield and front two constantly trying to figure out how to mark everyone, but never getting a handle on the #10 Teresa Abelleira. She either opened up space for someone like Maite or ended up being the outlet herself, allowing for quality ball retention and vertical movements through Barca’s defense.
Sofia Jakobsson and Marta Cardona as Strikers
So, why did Real Madrid create so little? Some of it had to do with the personnel up front. One can understand where Aznar was coming from by playing two pacy wingers up top. In anticipation of having to live mainly in transitions and of Barca’s high line, there’s a certain sense to using two quick players who can run off-the-shoulder — in theory.
In practice, not so much.
Part of this was down to Aznar’s own scheme eliminating the opportunities Madrid had to counter-attack from deep, as the press gave Madrid more possession. But a bigger portion of the issue had to do with the forward duo’s poor positioning, particularly Marta Cardona’s.
The front two roamed across the pitch more as wingers than strikers, making it impossible for Jakobsson and Cardona to connect with each other while leaving the channels completely empty.
Part of the benefit of playing with two strikers is the ability to pin the entire defensive line by sitting between the fullbacks and center-backs. Any movement by a defender obviously creates space for the forward to run into, putting the attacking team in control of the situation and setting up the potential for manipulation of the back four.
Jakobsson did a decent-ish job of occupying the left channel from time to time, possibly down to her experience playing up top with Kosovare Asllani last season for Tacón, but Cardona rarely did the same on her side.
As a result, Madrid found it very difficult to capitalize on their great press resistance and build-up play by threatening the last line.
I have yet to understand why Aznar didn’t sub on Asllani for Cardona (prior to the red card) so that he had someone with the tendencies to occupy the right areas and receive to feet.
Real Madrid’s Strategy to Enter the Final Third
The other side of Madrid’s chance creation problem was the way they decided to enter the final third. After all the intricate build-up and intelligent overloads created through the middle, Madrid simply went wide and bombed passes over-the-top. This tactic did lead to Madrid’s 4th goal at the end of the game, but it largely resulted in nothing while the scoreline was still competitive.
Madrid weren’t really structured to take advantage of this approach because of the striker positioning issue mentioned above. Nevertheless, even if you played Asllani, going direct every single time is simply a low percentage strategy. You need to pick your moments to keep the opponent guessing and ensure that you can enter the final third with reasonable efficiency.
It was simply too easy for Barcelona to read Madrid’s telegraphed intentions, begetting numerous broken plays.
But what was truly problematic about this approach was the way it gifted the opposition counter-attacks.
This is where I come back to Barca’s second and third goals. Yes, Madrid had a high line in these plays but these were not high pressing sequences. This was a case of Las Blancas putting themselves under pressure by playing passes into nowhere, which Barca were able to recover and use to attack a team suddenly in defensive transition.
There were plenty of individual mistakes to analyze after Madrid lost the ball, too. But those are more likely to happen when players are forced into split-second decisions and have to solve structural issues since everyone was oriented towards having the ball only a few seconds before.
Thus, not only did Aznar’s strategy to enter the final third void the good work his team had done to win the ball and retain it, but it ended up directly creating the Barcelona goals that effectively ended the contest.