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Five Tactical Observations from El Clásico

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Tactical lessons learned from the best Clásico in many years.

Real Madrid v FC Barcelona - La Liga Santander Photo by Helios de la Rubia/Real Madrid via Getty Images

Ever since that 2017 Clásico with the late Messi goal, I have found Clásicos over the last 4 years to be increasingly dull affairs. The decline of the golden generations of Real Madrid and Barcelona led to games that were less fun and less interesting tactically. Apart from the fact that Real won, I feel great about this latest Clásico because it delivered on all fronts: Benzema backheel goal, tons of tactical details and changes, a clash of different playing styles, several shots that hit the posts, torrential rain, a Casemiro send-off, and a seat-gripping ending.

Let’s dive into a few fun tactical details.

Fede Valverde as the anti-Alba plan

Even before the ball started rolling in this edition of El Clásico, it was clear that this game would fit Fede Valverde really well. Koeman’s back three Barça struggles defending counters, and the pace and power of the Charrúa midfielder could exploit this weakness. Real’s first goal proved this point.

However, I’d like to focus more on Fede’s defensive duties. Zidane was understandably concerned about Jordi Alba and his low crosses into the box, which are the most dangerous passes in Barcelona’s attacking repertoire. Fede had the key role in preventing this. When pressing high in a 4-3-3, Fede would rush forward to press Lenglet. However, when Real had to defend deeper, Fede would go back and track Alba, basically forming a back five in which Lucas was the right center back. The diagram below from my friend Emmanuel Adeyemi shows the tactical layout.

Emmanuel Adeyemi (@EA13014802) https://twitter.com/EA13014802/status/1381231964481552384/photo/2

The first 15 minutes were a bit tough for Fede and Real Madrid’s defense as a whole, because they weren’t too clear on when to press and when to defend deeper, and that indecision led to mistakes. Barça’s biggest open play chance of the first half happened in the 9th minute, when Fede moved forward to press but the rest of the team didn’t join him. Barça progressed easily via Pedri and Messi and got the ball to Alba, who finally got a low cross chance that required a big Courtois intervention

Pedri is a genius

Real Madrid v FC Barcelona - La Liga Santander Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images

In my opinion, Pedri destabilized Real Madrid’s defensive structure more than any other Barcelona player during the first half. Los Blancos tried to adjust their defensive block but this kid can find and cut into opposition weaknesses with the precision of a surgical knife. He has a vision of the entire opposition defensive structure, finds the place where it leaves the most space, then occupies that space. And then with perfect body orientation, he makes a first touch lay off pass to a teammate that accelerates the speed at which Barça’s attack moves.

During the start of the game, Real Madrid midfielders and forwards had a clear idea of whom to mark: Vinicius on Mingueza, Benzema on Araujo, Fede alternating between Lenglet and Alba, Kroos on Frenkie, Modrić on Busquets, Casemiro on Messi. But...who was marking Pedri?

Pedri took advantage of this situation, floating around the left halfspace and forcing Casemiro, Lucas, and Modrić into constant decisional crises which often ended up opening spaces for Messi on the other side. Being the smart cookie he is, Pedri noticed that Messi was getting more and more space between lines, so he started dropping deeper, asking for the ball, and completing line-breaking passes to Messi.

Unsurprisingly, out of all Barcelona midfielders and forwards, Pedri completed the most passes into the final third (9), even more than Messi, Frenkie, or Busquets. It’s absolute madness that an 18-year-old can read the game, understand what is happening around him, and provide solutions for his teammates—especially for Messi—the way Pedri does.

Mingueza vs Vinicius

Real Madrid v FC Barcelona - La Liga Santander Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images

Real Madrid’s most dangerous chances came from how Vinicius dominated Mingueza during counterattack situations. What I find interesting about this duel is that when both of them were running at full speed, Mingueza was not slower than Vinicius. There were situations in which Mingueza even managed to catch up to Vini running at full speed. The key to why Mingueza lost these duels has to do with defensive technique and body orientation.

The most complicated aspect of being a defender is having to keep track, simultaneously, of both the ball and the man you’re marking. If you’re looking at the ball for too long, you lose track of your man, and vice versa.

Body orientation is vital to allow you to do both. Mingueza’s mistake was that he had to track Vinicius’ runs but he was often facing the ball. So whenever the ball got lobbed over his head, he had to turn around, and in that half-second of turning Vinicius was already running at full speed and putting a couple meters of separation between them.

Mingueza is also a really aggressive defender—perhaps too aggressive. Per FBREF, he’s in the top 5% of big 5 league center backs in tackles + interceptions and top 1% in pressures. That’s often good when you play in a high pressing team, but there are times in which it’s better to wait and not go for the tackle, especially against great dribblers like Vinicius. Mingueza suffered this several times as Vinicius dodged his tackles and rushed past him. There were also a few situations where Mingueza’s aggressive behavior made him push forward too much, leaving more spaces behind him for Vinicius to run into.

The impact of the substitutions

Real Madrid v FC Barcelona - La Liga Santander Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images

After half a season of game management struggles, it did surprise me a bit that Koeman’s substitutions had a more positive impact on the game than Zidane’s.

Dembelé struggled a lot during the first half of the game: he can do well as a striker running behind a high defensive line, but he struggles more against compact deeper blocks like the one Real Madrid presented. So Koeman decided to move Dembelé to the right wing and sub out Sergiño Dest, who had been isolated on the right and nullified by Ferland Mendy. This change gave Dembelé more space on the right to run and dribble.

Meanwhile, Antoine Griezmann came in to play closer to the center, since he can handle the tight spaces of a deep block better than Dembelé. Barcelona switched to more of a 4-3-3, with Mingueza behaving more like a right back and Dembelé being more of a right winger. Mingueza now had more freedom to support the offense, which led to him attacking Real Madrid’s box and scoring Barça’s goal.

On the other hand, Zidane’s substitutes did not have such a positive impact. Given the rain and the coming Liverpool game, it made sense that Zidane would want to rest key players like Kroos, Benzema, and Vinicius. However, these changes made Real lose most of their counterattacking game. I thought that keeping Rodrygo on the bench was a particularly weird decision, as he seemed like the best bet to continue the counterattacking strategy.

Perhaps Zidane aimed to have more defensive possession with Isco and Marcelo to try to close out the game, but it didn’t work.

Zidane’s underrated versatility

Real Madrid v FC Barcelona - La Liga Santander Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

In this era of tactical philosophers, many fans and analysts expect teams to have increasingly complex and multi-dimensional game plans that are mostly repeated from week to week, with only slight tweaks depending on the opponent. There is surprisingly little appreciation for more pragmatic managers like Zidane, who have simpler game plans but can completely change the plan and principles of play based on the opponent. One week Zidane will aim to control his opponent via possession, the next week he can be setting up a counterattack strategy against Barcelona.

Coaches like Klopp and Guardiola have shown that implementing complex, nuanced game plans can help build great teams, but Zidane also reminds us that a simple idea internalized by an entire team will be more powerful than a complex idea with several gaps in execution. Zidane’s Real Madrid will often be a simpler team tactically because their true complexity is that they can be many simple but wildly different teams throughout the season.

Going too extreme with this approach has its drawbacks, too. Since Zidane’s Real Madrid has never defined its playing style too well, it arguably lacks the consistency that a Klopp or Guardiola team uses to compete for league titles. This adaptability, however, might also be why Zidane’s Real Madrid has usually handled Champions League knockout ties better than Guardiola teams.