Saturday, April 16, 2011

Tactical Talks ahead of El Clasico

Following the whacky preview in this article, Another Prick In The Wall now takes a look at the tactical battles that will pan out in the upcoming El Clasico miniseries. When one talks about tactics, it’s only natural to think of Jose Mourinho. It’s also easy for most level headed people to dismiss Barcelona as having just one tactic: Attack, Attack & Attack. Even Pep Guardiola is a proponent of this “apparent” belief. What most people do not realize that this is a tactic in itself. Most teams know that Barca will always seek to maintain possession of the ball, gain it when they lose it by extensive possession and will attack for all the 90 minutes. However, what is unseen are the little tactical modifications that Pep goes about with every 2-3 matches depending on the opposition.

The battle between Real Madrid on Barcelona on three different fronts necessitates a need for tactical innovation, an ability to manage and motivate resources and an urge to remain focused despite a stumble or two. This is exactly where Jose Mourinho & Pep Guardiola excel. This article attempts to take a look into the different formations that can be utilized in course of the four matches.

Real Madrid

In his time at Real Madrid, Jose Mourinho has been known to primarily prefer a 4-2-3-1 formation for most matches. The attacking quartet of Di Maria, Ozil, Ronaldo & Benzema / Higuain / Adebayor has proved to be more than a match for most teams as Real Madrid have steam rolled their way in the league and cup competitions alike, barring some unnecessary (but costly) mistakes which see them 8 points adrift of Barca in the league. The 4-2-3-1 formation revolves around Xabi Alonso who is the engine of this Real Madrid team. The midfield general sits the deepest amongst other midfielders and forwards, just ahead of the center backs; that no opposition zone where he can find time on the ball to pick up player runs or unmarked players. Blessed with a knack for long lobbed passes which find their target more often than not, Xabi Alonso’s skills are essential to Real Madrid. After an explosive world cup and being lapped up by Real Madrid for a pittance, Ozil had to immediately step into the injured Kaka’s shoes. He soon found out that they were not too big to fill given the poor performance Kaka had been associated with Real Madrid till then due to his persistent injury problems. Ozil not only fit in, but he has started to receive rave reviews about his performance, often being compared to the great Zinedine Zidane (which is taking things way too far obviously). That being said, Ozil is the league’s highest assister after Messi and his all seeing fish eyes endow him with an ability to consistently create scoring chances. He averages creating 6-7 scoring chances per game and even if half of those were converted per game, he would’ve easily been the league’s best creator. The other player who’s impressed at the Bernabeu is Di Maria. Di Maria is known for his work rate, his stamina, his willingness to drop back deep, way deep into the defensive zones to win balls and his ability to drift inwards from the right flank while spotting team mate runs and feeding them the diagonal balls makes him a real asset to Real Madrid. He has been a tad immature at times, sometimes downright outrageous with all that diving he gets up to, but the Bernabeu loves him nevertheless. After being lambasted initially, Benzema has finally begun to put his cleats on the right feet. Injury has kept him out of action but he’s fit for all the crunch matches. There’s nothing to say about Ronaldo; the quality is undeniable.

Given the quality of all these players, the upcoming fixtures list poses a problem for Mourinho and in recent games, due to lack of choice or simply to rest and rotate, or as it has been reported – to prepare for the upcoming clasicos, Mourinho has been experimenting with the squad. Mourinho’s first clasico didn’t end too well for him; in fact it was humiliation with the 0-5 scoreline, Mourinho’s biggest ever defeat. Mourinho had started his usual 4-2-3-1 formation in that match and the Madrid midfield was grossly outnumbered with waves of Barcelona attacks. Hence it is reasonable to assume that Mourinho won’t be making the same mistake once more. The lack of a trivote was cruelly exposed in the last clasico, as Mourinho seeked to put on Lass in the second half of that match, which served as a public admittance that he had got his starting eleven wrong. So in all aspects, the blog feels that Mourinho will start with a trivote, or even a quarter in the midfield to keep a man advantage in that area of the field.

Click on the image to enlarge it
 The match against Athletic Bilbao saw Mourinho employing a strange line-up with a strange 4-1-4-1 formation. However the logic in using this formation against Barca is undeniable. A defensive midfielder like Khedira or Pepe deployed just ahead of the flat back four can and will look to cut the through balls that Barca seems to put in with relative ease. The four midfielders ahead of the defensive line will look to continuously gain a man advantage over the Barca midfield while the lone forward up ahead will be deployed to primarily play with his back to goal and engineer swift counter attacks. Barca are known to be susceptible to pacey counter attacks which is where the pace of Ronaldo, Di Maria or Ozil can be put to good effect.

Click on the image to enlarge
The other formation that Mourinho has experimented with over the course of the season, especially in away fixtures is the Christmas tree formation, i.e. the 4-3-2-1 formation. There is not much difference between the 4-1-4-1 and the 4-3-2-1 except that the 4-3-2-1 is more of an attacking formation which can be deployed to drive Madrid’s counter attack down the center of Barca. Barca are especially good at utilizing the width of the pitch and with their players spread to the wide areas, Madrid can look to drive through their center, get a goal or two and sit tight.

The blog’s gut feeling is that Mourinho will use the 4-3-2-1 formation for the 1st clasico at the Bernabeu, use a 4-1-4-1 at the Mestalla for the Cup Final, use either the favored 4-3-2-1 or the occasional 4-3-2-1 at the Bernabeu for the Champions League tie and round it off with the 4-1-4-1 at the Camp Nou if Madrid have a lead in the first leg.


Enough has been said about Barcelona’s attacks, the way they play and the way they line up. They have the best players in the world for almost every position. Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets form the world cup winning trivote, a midfield that any team would love to have. They have the world’s best player in Messi who has mastered the role of a withdrawn center forward this season; they have the world’s most complete center forward in Villa. Alves, the world’s best right back in the world at the moment, adds the team composition a surprise element and is especially effective going down the right flank.

Click on the image to enlarge
 As far as formations go, Barca play a fairly standard 4-3-3 formation with little or no variation in how they line up for the games. With Puyol’s match fitness being a concern and Bojan and Abidal out for an extended period of time, Barca’s thin squad may be stretched thin for the upcoming matches and Pep will have to use his options judiciously. Of course, he’s no slouch at that, and given the fact that Barcelona’s players have played with each other for so long, Pep has the comfort of rotating the squad much more easily that Mourinho can. The first leg can see Busquets deputizing at center back as Puyol might not be rushed from injury and Mascherano is suspended. This is the weak link that Madrid will seek to exploit. Pique isn’t on his best form at the moment and Busquets has shown that he’s susceptible to pace in recent matches. So that is where Mourinho might look to make the kill. At the opposite end however, Madrid have a big reason to worry. Madrid’s best center back, Carvalho, will miss the first leg of the Champions League due to accumulated yellow card; given the fact that most teams’ best defences cannot stop Xavi, Messi, Villa and company, it is difficult to imagine Madrid stopping Barca from getting a crucial away goal. As far as the league goes, it still doesn’t change a thing though the blog feels that Guardiola would have a surprise in store with the other formation depicted below.

Occassionally, against sides which play four players in the midfield, Guardiola has been known to utilize a 3-4-3 formation in attack which becomes a 4-3-3 in defence. The two wingbacks, Alves and Adriano / Maxwell bomb forward in tandem with Xavi and Iniesta; Messi drops deep making it a 5 vs 4 situation in the midfield when Barca attack. Meanwhile, Busquets drops in between the center backs so that the team keeps its shape in defence. When Barca does lose the ball, their intensive pressing technique is employed where their first line of attack becomes their first line of defence. The incessant pressing right from the first defensive line allows the wingbacks to track back and restore parity in defence, though the formation is susceptible to counter attacks played aerially (which is where Xabi Alonso can play a major role in dictating the game). Guardiola has been known to study opposition teams very well and make just 1-2 changes to his starting 11 which have the desired impact. As such one can safely rely on the fact that he’s studied almost all of Madrid’s movements with the ball this season and one cannot rule out the possibility that he’ll yet do something special against Madrid. Like in the last match where Madrid had prepared for Khedira to cut off Xavi out of the game and for Ozil to drop deep, Pep had Xavi play higher up the pitch with Messi even more withdrawn than normal. Xavi dictated attack from advanced positions where he had relatively no one picking on him, while Khedira and the rest of the midfield channeled their attentions to cutting off Messi’s runs. You can expect something similar and innovative in the upcoming matches from Pep.

Team News

For the upcoming league encounter, Madrid has Granero unavailable through suspension. Gago & Lass are unavailable through injury, whereas Pedro Leon and Canales have been left out due to coaching decisions. That apart, Madrid has called up 19 players from their squad of 25.

On the other hand, Barcelona have Puyol, Bojan and Abidal missing through injury. Puyol trained with the squad today and may make the squad list, but might not start the game. Mascherano misses the league encounter through accumulated yellow cards. That apart Barcelona have the rest of their squad to count on.


Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails