Copa del Rey: FC Barcelona vs Real Madrid: How to Defend the 4-2-3-1

Cagey...

Beware the wounded animal is the phrase Barcelona must take into Wednesday’s second leg encounter with Real Madrid, although in the back of their mind, they know that this could go down as the turning point in the season of both clubs. The talk of an irreparable fission in the Real Madrid dressing room may be a little premature, and sensationalist at best, but there are small chinks beginning to appear in the armoury of the league leaders.

There is never smoke without fire, although this reported blaze could be extinguished on Wednesday with a win for Real Madrid. At that point, Jose Mourinho would regain the undying support of most Madridistas, while convincing the dressing room that he is indeed the correct man to lead Los Merengues to the pinnacle of football ahead of Barcelona for the most time in what seems like an eternity.

However, on the flip side, Barcelona could deliver a real hammer blow (no pun intended) with any win at the Camp Nou, provided that they continue to not just beat Real Madrid, but dominate their great rivals. Such a result could prove terminal for both Madrid’s dressing room, and the support for Mourinho, which no doubt would prove to be a distraction in the coming months. Imagine a repeat of the famous Manita of November 2010...Real Madrid simply cannot afford to lose heavily, if at all if they hold any aspirations of glory.

Now, with that in mind, there is a possibility that Jose Mourinho will continue with the Trivote, despite clear evidence that it simply does not work at Madrid. It is the most likely formation to limit the damage if you will, although it is arguably the least likely to provide Madrid with a first victory over Pep Guardiola. That – in my opinion – would be the 4-2-3-1 employed in the Supercopa, so in lieu of this, I decided that Barcelona know how to attack either formation, but as of yet, they have not been able to shut-out Real Madrid’s attack. So, here are a few ideas about the 4-2-3-1 and Barcelona’s 3-4-3.

Real Madrid’s potential line-up in the 4-2-3-1

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via this11.com

Despite the claims to the contrary, Real Madrid’s squad is one of the thinnest not only in La Liga, but in the world. While there are potentially world-class players on the bench and around the fringes of the XI, there are few players that Mourinho trusts. Look at Nuri Sahin. Signed in the summer he was touted to have a massive impact on La Liga and world football in general, maybe as the man to stop the rot against Barcelona. He can pass the ball, track back, and score goals. The kid can (supposedly) do it all.

Mourinho must feel otherwise judging by his five appearances.

Kaka is the same, Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema used to be in a similar situation, with Emmanuel Adebayor preferred to either attacker at the latter stages of last season. The list goes on. There is Esteban Granero, Raul Albiol, previously Lassana Diarra, and even Hamit Altintop. Only 15 players have started more than 10 games for Real Madrid this season, that’s not even enough to fill a squad list. By comparison, the allegedly small squad assembled by Pep Guardiola have 18 players on at least 10 starts this season.

All this means that Real Madrid are actually predictable from a tactical standpoint, and the Trivote merely adds to the problem. In a 4-2-3-1 there are few question marks about who will start, with maybe Jose Callejon the only player who is not a guaranteed starter from my picture above. Sure, Barcelona are even more predictable, but their style of play ensures that you never know what they are going to do, while even I can deduce what Real Madrid are going to do.

How Real Madrid would play in a 4-2-3-1

In a 4-2-3-1, Real Madrid will press high up the field against Barcelona, looking to force mistakes from the backline, and ultimately attempting to stop Barcelona’s build-up play in its infancy. If they can stop the ball from reaching the midfield, they stand a better chance of winning the game, and if they force mistakes along the way, all the better.

To bypass this Barcelona can do one of two things: either shift back to the 4-3-3 with Dani Alves and Gerard Pique the two "fulcrums" responsible for the safe distribution of the ball to the midfield men, or operate in the 3-4-3, with Sergio Busquets dropping temporarily deeper to aid Gerard Pique, and draw Mesut Ozil away from the middle of the park, ready for the two "wide" centre-backs to push in, and allow Xavi and Iniesta the space on the wing to receive the ball from a long pass. Having bypassed that initial line of pressure, there will be acres of space in the middle of the field, ripe for exploitation.

Aside from this high-line of pressure, Real will defend in numbers, with the two holding midfielders dropping deeper still, and the two full-backs tucking in, allowing Barcelona space on the wings. However, this is mainly to congest the middle of the field, and discourage the likes of Iniesta and Xavi from playing those pesky diagonal through balls that cripple the Madrid backline (see most goals in the 5-0, 6-2 and the Abidal winner from last week).

By defending in numbers, they make up for their lack of defensive discipline, although it can lead to confusion in who is marking who, etc, etc. Ultimately, the discipline or lack thereof still leads to Barcelona goals, but it does stave it off compared to a standard attacking approach.

Having defended valiantly in numbers, Madrid look to counter with lightening pace, thus utilising their athleticism against the Barca back-line. This in itself is not arguably the best way to attack Barcelona, as Carles Puyol excels at last-ditch blocking (see his imperious displays from the Pellegrini Clasicos), while Gerard Pique and Eric Abidal are perhaps two of the most archetypal centre-backs in football today. Speed, pace, height, even world-class technical ability; they have it all, and most of the time, they can defend a counter-attack.

On the other hand, if Madrid have the numbers advantage it makes things a lot harder, and in the above picture, this is what I tried to account for. Xavi will not track back, nor should he as the deep-lying playmaker, it would be pointless for any counter-counter attacks if that makes sense, while Andres Iniesta does track back, because he has the speed and stamina to do so.

With Xavi sticking on the middle of the park he can cover Mesut Ozil, who will drop deeper for any cutbacks, or to switch the play. Alternatively, Madrid do look to overload one particular side on the counter, and given Alves’ attacking tendencies, it tends to be down their left-hand side, or down Barcelona’s right. Ozil can then help Real work the numbers game if he shifts to the left, or try and stretch the defense by drifting right (to Barcelona’s left). To defend this, I believe Puyol must move out to slow the progress of Ronaldo, ideally to give Alves enough time to track back.

That leaves a gap on the right side of Barcelona’s defense, so Gerard Pique should shift to Puyol’s original position, with Busquets dropping deep to cover for Pique. Looking back, I think that is why Busquets has played so many games at centre-back, to aid with this fluidity in the 3-4-3 without hurting the team. At this stage Xavi moves into Busquets position ready to launch an attack of his own if Barca wins possession. A similar thing would happen if the attack was directed through Callejon, or Di Maria depending on who starts. Iniesta would drop back to Busquets position, Sanchez would move into the Iniesta position, while Abidal would move across to tackle Callejon.

It seems long-winded in print, but in reality it would be executed seamlessly in the matter of seconds. If the 3-4-3 is to truly succeed like the 4-3-3 did in the years previous, the offensive fluidity must apply on the defensive side of the pitch too. If Guardiola does go for a 3-4-3 on Wednesday, and Mourinho does opt for the 4-2-3-1, expect to see similar results to previous. When all is said and done, Guardiola remains one step ahead of The Special One. Barcelona remain one step ahead of Real Madrid.

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