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Barcelona vs Real Madrid, 2016 El Clásico: Tactical Preview

A tactical preview of Barcelona's El Clasico showdown with Real Madrid at the Camp Nou

David Ramos/Getty Images

Indulge me for a moment, and imagine that you have been appointed the new head coach of a football team. You’re a relative novice with little-to-no experience of managing in the top flight, and you’ve been tasked with coming up with a tactical plan that will not only stop, but defeat FC Barcelona. Just how would you approach the task, and what do you believe the most feasible solution would be to your problem?

Indeed, it’s the question that’s at risk of becoming football’s most unanswerable query; how do you defeat the undefeated? How do you stop an irresistible force and move an immovable object?

Plenty have tried, few have succeeded and yet somehow, this is what is being demanded of Zinedine Zidane this weekend as he prepares to take charge of his first El Clasico as Real Madrid manager.

Having enjoyed a storied and illustrious career as a member of Los Blancos, Zidane is of course no stranger to the occasion, but as he is learning, the transition to becoming a world-class head coach is difficult and fraught with obstacles. Having inherited an inherently broken team, Zizou was placed at an immediate disadvantage; this, for all intents and purposes, is the same squad that Carlo Ancelotti and Rafael Benitez have been unable to inspire to victory after all.

As Florentino Perez continues to operate in a state of blissful ignorance, blaming each and every defeat on the incumbent head coach, onlookers will have surely noticed that the root cause of Real’s woes lies elsewhere and their biggest problem is rooted in their structural composition.

FC Barcelona have demonstrated quite ably that you can achieve unprecedented success with a star-studded triumvirate of attackers, but Perez’ attempts to emulate the MSN trident with his BBC combination of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo has fallen comparatively flat.

While their overall scoring record remains spectacular, their production on the grandest occasions has been underwhelming. Their collective reluctance to drop into deeper positions has created a disconnect with the midfield, who in turn are falling into old habits – James Rodriguez, Isco, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos have all been guilty of roaming too far forward at inopportune moments.

It’s perhaps this trait that has been most endemic over Florentino Perez’ multiple tenures as Real Madrid president; while the team looks dominant on paper, the abundance of offensive-minded players in the starting line-up has proven detrimental to their success.

Consider their line-up for El Clasico in November 2005, as Perez’ first stint as Real Madrid president began to crumble:

Casillas; Salgado, Sergio Ramos, Helguera, Roberto Carlos; Pablo García (Baptista), Beckham, Zidane; Raúl (Guti), Robinho, Ronaldo

While the line-up was littered with star names and offensive talents, they simply couldn’t function as a collective – and while Real essentially ended the match with five attacking players on the field, they were easily beaten 3-0 by the Blaugrana. It’s a match that must be etched into Zidane’s memory – and on the eve of his managerial Clasico bow, he must recognise the similarities between then and now.

In terms of playing style, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Dani Carvajal and Marcelo are like Michel Salgado and Roberto Carlos. Toni Kroos, like David Beckham before him, is a fantastic passer of the ball but he also lacks athleticism and he too has proven incapable of adjusting to a box-to-box midfield role. James Rodriguez and Isco are both like Zidane in the sense that they thrive in an attacking midfield position, operating more as a number 10 than as a number 6 or a number 8 to reference Barcelona’s most famous midfield partnership.

And yes, just as that 2005 attack looked dominant on paper, the 2016 attack is suffering similar problems in delivering the production that their reputation would demand.

For Perez too there is a sense of déjà vu. History is repeating itself as he is once again under pressure, with renewed calls from the Real faithful for him to relinquish his presidency. The damage he has caused at this stage seems irreparable – and yet he expects Zinedine Zidane to emerge victorious tomorrow, in what will be just his 15th match as a top flight manager?

I present to you Real Madrid under Florentino Perez: the textbook definition of insanity.

Author's Note: read the prologue to this analysis right here, as I delve deeper into Florentino Perez' role at Real Madrid, and how he has served to limit their success.


Pop quiz: name the last UEFA Champions League winning team that did not start a dedicated holding midfielder.

If you said the 1997 Borussia Dortmund side that defeated Juventus in Munich, then award yourself a gold star because that’s the correct answer. In some form or another, each of the last 18 winners of Europe’s elite club competition started the final with a defensive midfielder, while Dortmund could afford to buck the trend given how they employed a sweeper in a five-man backline. It’s quite a clear trend, and one that pretty much everyone in the footballing world is aware of.

If you want to win trophies, you better find room in your team for a holding midfielder.

Which brings us nicely onto Real Madrid and one of the greatest lies in modern football: that Luka Modric or Toni Kroos can play holding midfield. Terrific players as they may be, both Modric and Kroos are incapable of playing that particular role as there is quite a clear and distinct difference between acting as a playmaker and playing in holding midfield.

One is Xavi, the other is Busquets. One is Pirlo, the other is Ambrosini. There really is quite a clear distinction between the two, and still Real Madrid appeared either confused, or oblivious to this fact. After all, there can be no other reason behind this ongoing tactical aberration, can there?

Neither player has demonstrated themselves capable of understanding the intricacies of the role of a holding midfielder and time and time again, this has proved ruinous when Real have been faced with competent opposition.

Let’s look at Exhibit A: their latest derby defeat to Atletico.

Allow me to set the scene – Real Madrid are at home, they’ve opted to start a midfield of Luka Modric, Isco and Toni Kroos. They’re early into the second-half and are trying to mount a period of extended pressure on the Atletico defense, but they’re having trouble escaping Diego Simeone’s high press. An outlet pass finds its way to Isco, who in this first crudely annotated screengrab is immediately met by a Rojiblanco shirt.

At this stage, I’d like to point out that Atletico Madrid routinely start with two holding midfielders, both of whom have been circled in this picture. Gabi is perfectly positioned to pressure Isco, while Tiago is blocking one of Isco’s only clear passing lanes. The understanding between the two is phenomenal, and as a consequence, Isco was pretty much doomed from the start. Also note how in this picture there’s a nice pocket of space between the Real Madrid midfield and their defense.

Toni Kroos and Luka Modric both appear ignorant of the Atleti players in their immediate vicinity, while the defense is both slow to push forward and somehow unaware of the other half of the width of the field that they can use to their advantage. This overly compact shape is nothing new, but it is a problem that has been accentuated since Zidane took charge.

Without a holding midfielder capable of dropping into the backline, the two central defenders must remain relatively narrow, while the reluctance of Bale, Ronaldo and James to track back has almost forced Real to concede the flanks and retreat into a more compact, narrow shape.

In this second freeze frame, the red annotations illustrate what happens next, while the white annotations suggest what really should have happened next from a defensive standpoint for Zidane’s side. Luka Modric gambles in a bid to intercept the pass, and while he fails, it’s an understandable attempt – and the kind of thing we would see countless times during a match from Javier Mascherano or Sergio Busquets.

However, in a Barcelona context that works because the rest of the team react to that decision and adjust accordingly. Toni Kroos would drop deep to either challenge Griezmann or perhaps track the run of Saul Niguez. This in turn might allow Danilo to challenge Griezmann off the turn and help plug that huge pocket of space, but of course, none of this happens. Griezmann turns and in doing so, he is free to exploit the space that Real leave in between their lines.

While all this is going on, Filipe Luis has got his head up and noticed how Real have left their entire left flank completely open. Dani Carvajal and Raphael Varane could again push forward or shift to their right, but they fail to do so and things continue to go downhill.

Griezmann advances and isolates himself up against Carvajal in a one-on-one situation. At this point, all the cards are stacked in Atleti’s favour – Filipe Luis is available on the overlap, offering Griezmann an easy option if he doesn’t fancy taking Carvajal on with a dribble. Isco is slow to get back and cover. Toni Kroos is slow to get back and cover. Luka Modric is on the left-hand side of the frame and has seemingly given up after his failed attempt to intercept the pass.

There’s no heart, there’s no desire, there’s no discipline in that midfield and somehow after losing the ball inside their own half, Real Madrid are effectively defending a counter-attack. That very sentence is completely absurd in every way imaginable.

Naturally, Griezmann takes the smart option and plays a pass into space for Filipe Luis to attack and exploit. At no point did James Rodriguez ever consider tracking the run and with Carvajal so narrow, Atletico are left with time and space to pick out a cross.

It’s just staggering how when Real Madrid first lost possession, they had seven players behind the ball as compared to Atletico’s four. Now, just nine seconds later they are outnumbered four to three and that spare man is Atletico’s top-scorer, Antoine Griezmann who of course finishes the play with a composed finish because he’s ghosted into space on the edge of the area without a single Real midfielder moving to challenge him.

It was all too easy, and with Jordi Alba and Lionel Messi both expected to start on Saturday, it’s a tactic that we can easily replicate, and even employed at times in the win at the Bernabeu.

Let’s look at Exhibit B: Barcelona’s fourth goal in the November Clasico.

Once again, the first and most obvious observation to make from this screengrab is that Real Madrid are overly compact when they don’t have possession of the ball. They’ve already conceded the flanks to Barcelona in this frame, with Carvajal again guilty of leaving far too much space on his side of the field, an offense that is all the worse given that Neymar of all people is already there, standing in those acres of space.

Also noteworthy: there’s a pocket of space that Andrés Iniesta could exploit, the Real Madrid defense are embarrassingly out of sync with one another, and quite literally everyone is transfixed with Lionel Messi to the extent that it seems as though he is the only man on the field in a Blaugrana shirt.

Fast forward a few moments and Messi has a couple of options available to him. As the Real midfield clusters together in a bid to stop him from progressing, they’ve left space in behind and in the centre of the field for Iniesta to run into. Sergio Ramos’ hesitance to get back into position has only compounded their defensive problems as Carvajal, quite rightly, has noticed at this moment that Messi could easily be shaping up for one of his trademark cross-field diagonal passes to find Neymar.

And so, as Carvajal begins to shift to his right, Varane follows suit and also starts to move across to his right – only for Messi to throw a curve ball with a delightfully disguised through ball to find Jordi Alba in an unusual central position.

By now, it’s too late. The slight movement has left Carvajal unable to challenge Alba or place the Catalan under any kind of pressure. Varane hasn’t moved across far enough to do the same, while the space he vacated is now being exploited by the run of Luis Suarez. Of course, if Sergio Ramos had returned to the centre of defense, this play might not have been able to develop, but he’s out of position and with Danilo standing around doing nothing, the Real Madrid backline has been bent to breaking point.

Alba plays an exquisite first-time pass and Suarez makes no mistake when presented with the one-on-one – the threat of playing it wide was enough and Barça have another goal as a result.


One of the most valuable traits that a holding midfielder can possess is knowing when to apply pressure on an opposing midfielder. If you get it wrong, you’re likely to either end up on the receiving end of a card from the referee, or simply left looking foolish. Sergio Busquets rarely gets booked, and he’s seldom made to look like a fool, which only reaffirms my belief that he might just be the greatest holding midfielder in the history of the game.

When you factor in what he can do once he has possession, Busquets’ innate ability to place opposing players under pressure and win the ball back is just so important for this Barcelona team. Countless chances have been created in this manner, and I would hope that we take full advantage of his talents this weekend.

Barcelona like to play with a high line; why not utilise Busquets’ gifts in tandem with this philosophy by placing Busquets one-on-one against Luka Modric?

The Croatian is a fantastic player, but as you’ll have no doubt noticed, there’s a recurring theme to this article: he isn’t a holding midfielder, he’s a playmaker. And what do playmakers do that holding midfielders generally shy away from? They take risks while in possession of the ball; where a holding midfielder would opt for the safest option, playmakers like to gamble every now and again; they have more faith in themselves and their ability to quite literally make a play.

Here’s where the problems begin for Real Madrid with Luka Modric – he can be slow to react under pressure. His teammates are even slower to provide cover, and their movement is often insufficient to offer him with a suitable option when he is in possession of the ball. Combined, this means that Modric often has to retain the ball for longer than he would like, and if he loses possession as a consequence of that, the opposition are generally one-on-one with the Real defense.

Let’s look at Exhibit C: Villarreal strike early at El Madrigal.

In the opening stages of this top-four clash, the home side have just lost possession and Real Madrid are looking to build from the back with Sergio Ramos playing an outlet pass to Luka Modric in the centre of their own half. Everything looks fine, doesn’t it?

Well, the situation quickly develops as Villarreal switch their focus to pressing high up the field through Bruno Soriano. The Villarreal midfielder has drawn a few comparisons to Busquets for the role he performs for his club, and in this instance it’s clear to see why. In the next frame he is moving forward to place Modric under pressure and as the Croatian has his back turned to Villarreal half, he is unaware of the approaching threat.

At the moment, Modric has a few options: he can either play a backwards pass to one of his midfield colleagues, he can try to switch the play and get the ball out wide or he can take a touch, try and turn and build the play himself. Based on the movement of his teammates, he’s left with little choice: he has to turn and make a play himself.

With Bruno breathing down his neck, Modric makes a mess of his first touch and allows the Villarreal midfielder a chance to make a play of his own. Sliding in, Bruno wins the ball cleanly and fairly, with the loose ball falling to Cedric Bakambu as the three Madrid players circled in white in the previous screengrab have advanced too far to intervene, leaving a pocket of space in their wake.

Bakambu has time and space to think, and that proves crucial as he makes the simple choice to square the ball to his strike partner, Roberto Soldado. While the former Valencia man didn’t enjoy the most prolific of spells in the English Premier League, he coolly dispatches the chance to score the only goal of the game and condemn Real to defeat.

One poor touch from Real leads to one tackle, a simple pass and an easy finish for Villarreal. Despite the urgency of the situation, there’s barely a single Madrid player who is striving to get back and cover the space. Marcelo for instance has barely moved from the first screenshot, and it’s not the first time he’s reacted like that either. The Brazilian full-back may be one of the club’s better investments in the past decade, but defensively, his attitude can leave a lot to be desired.

It’s exactly the reason why Fabio Coentrao was signed, and why the Portuguese full-back was often favoured in the big matches by both Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti. That’s not to say that this goal was Marcelo’s fault, more that he is just another problem that Zidane needs to address, and when this issue at full-back is combined with their lack of presence in defensive midfield, Real’s centre-halves are routinely left up a proverbial creek without a paddle.

Let’s look at our final Exhibit, the opening goal from this season’s first Clasico. We’ve touched on how an effective high press on Luka Modric can create opportunities, but consider also what Busquets can do with the ball. His contribution in this goal wasn’t jaw-dropping, but it serves as further illustration of his nonpareil understanding of the game.

In this freezeframe, Busquets is under pressure from both Toni Kroos and Luka Modric. Unlike Gabi and Tiago in one of our other sequences of play, the chemistry between the duo is virtually non-existent. If they are both deployed as central or holding midfielders, then quite clearly only one of the two should be applying pressure to the man in possession; the other should adjust to cover the space that his colleague has now vacated – or if they choose to press, they shouldn’t pressure the man in possession, but squeeze the passing lane.

For example, in this scenario it makes sense for Toni Kroos to try and apply some pressure on Busquets, but as he does this, Modric needs to show greater awareness and discipline to account for the space that has been left in behind – and that Sergi Roberto is actively displaying his intention to occupy. Talk about giving away the game, Roberto is literally giving Modric a visual cue.

But Modric is a playmaker; he doesn’t pick up on Sergi’s movement and with that mistake, he enables the play to not only progress but thrive.

Credit of course has to go to Sergio Busquets for reading the game well enough to make the pass under pressure; it was a simple play, but executed to perfection and with both Modric and Kroos caught out, Sergi Roberto now has an open field in front of him. At this point, Real Madrid are visibly on the backfoot. Sergio Ramos is defending from a standing start and as he accelerates forward to challenge Roberto as the Catalan bursts into a pocket of space, he is gambling that he can get there before Sergi can do any more damage.

With no holding midfielder to do this job for him, Ramos is acting as countless other defenders would act; the issue is that his defensive teammates aren’t on the same page as him. Rather than have Ramos breaking from the line of defense, I would suggest that James Rodriguez should make a greater effort to retreat and meet Sergi later in his run.

Or, perhaps both Danilo and Raphael Varane should follow Ramos forward – Sergi is dribbling forward, but the ball is far from under control at this moment. The passing lane to Luis Suarez is virtually non-existent, and a well-timed step forward could have caught the Uruguayan offside. Also circled we have Marcelo, who probably at this point should be making more of an effort to get back and at least look like he might challenge or track Suarez’ run.

That’s a few viable options that could have helped Real Madrid end the attack, or at least give Barcelona a greater obstacle to contend with. What happened in reality?

Absolutely none of it. Varane and Danilo both retreat on their backfoot, neither challenging Sergi Roberto nor catching Luis Suarez offside. Marcelo continues his slow amble back, he’s in no real rush to prevent this chance – and the same can be said of James Rodriguez. He could have closed the gap to Roberto, but that’s too defensive for him to comprehend – that has to be someone else’s role, doesn’t it?

And therein lies the crux of the problem – while the Real Madrid team is littered with stars, they are devoid of leadership. They are devoid of discipline, and seemingly devoid of a sense of responsibility as well. If something goes wrong, they take their cue from Florentino Perez – it’s the manager’s problem, it’s the referee’s problem, it’s the President’s problem… not once have they reflected on their own mistakes and on their own shortcomings.

Under Rafael Benitez, they all failed to adapt and improve. Under Zinedine Zidane, that trend has continued and these fundamental problems remain as prevalent as ever.

How will FC Barcelona beat Real Madrid this weekend?

On the evidence of the above, how will they not.

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