Tactical analysis Real Madrid - Barcelona 0-1 LaLiga

Real Madrid – Barcelona: Madrid Prevail In Disorganized Clásico (2-0)

Barcelona once again struggled with threatening from width and depth in possession, meanwhile Madrid’s possession game was very loosely structured. Both teams were also relatively disorganized in pressing. These aspects made for a relatively chaotic and tactically low-standard game, especially in the second half, where Madrid eventually came out on top through goals from Vinícius Júnior and substitute Mariano. 

Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.

The latest iteration of El Clásico arrived at a crucial point in the season for these clubs who went into the game with just two points separating them at the top of LaLiga. Barcelona had managed four consecutive LaLiga wins prior to this match, including victory away at Betis and at home against the combative Getafe. 

Madrid meanwhile failed to win their last two LaLiga games as they were held to a draw by Celta Viga before losing away at Levante. Zinedine Zidane’s side also faced defeat in the Champions League this week, as Manchester City came back from 1-0 down at the Bernabéu. 

Barcelona had Champions League business of their own to attend to in midweek, and were just about able to produce an away goal to draw in the first leg of their tie against Napoli. Manager Quique Setién made two changes in the lineup from that game bringing Jordi Alba and Arthur into the starting eleven ahead of Junior Firpo and Rakitić. Barcelona continued in the 4-3-3 system Setién now seems to have settled on after early experiments with a 3-5-2 shape. 

Zidane also made two changes from the Madrid side that lost to City in midweek. Marcelo replaced Ferland Mendy at left back and Toni Kroos returned to the side in place of Luka Modrić. Isco and Vinícius Júnior once again played in support of Karim Benzema in Madrid’s nominal 4-3-1-2 shape as Zidane continues to look for solutions in his squad to replace the firepower of the injured Eden Hazard. 

Loosely structured Madrid possession

As might be expected from a Madrid side under Zidane, the home side could take on many different shapes in possession of the ball as players seemingly had a large amount of freedom in terms of their positioning. On paper Madrid’s shape would perhaps appear as a 4-3-1-2 arrangement, however the amount of variation in their possession structure makes numerical descriptions such as this somewhat redundant. 

Casemiro and Kroos were generally the deepest midfielders when Madrid had the ball. Casemiro started from the number six position but could roam forward slightly at times. Kroos meanwhile had influence across the pitch but mostly from his favoured left halfspace If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. position where he was instrumental for Madrid. 

With no recognized right winger on the pitch, Federico Valverde had quite a wide-ranging role on the right side, responsible for providing attacking width here along with the overlapping runs from Dani Carvajal as one would expect. 

The width on the left was provided by Vinícius who often stuck quite close to the touchline. Isco and Benzema had typically large amounts of freedom in the central position to look for pockets of space and create overloads When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. where they saw fit. 

Barcelona usually defended in a 4-4-2 shape, as Arturo Vidal shifted across to right midfield, leaving Arthur and Busquets in the middle and Frenkie de Jong on the left. Arthur at times tried to act quite aggressively in pressing by stepping up onto Casemiro or another deep midfielder for Madrid. 

Generally though Barcelona’s pressing was not very successful. Madrid usually were able to find escapes through the wide areas or with direct passing into Benzema, who as ever provided very good pressure relief by showing for the ball with his back to goal with his incredible holdup skills. Isco’s roaming presence could also assist in finding the gaps in a relatively uncompact Barcelona press. 

Once Madrid had broken Barcelona’s pressure, Vinícius was often the outlet they looked to use on the left wing. This presented him with several situations in which he was able to run at Semedo one-versus-one or with the support of Marcelo overlapping. When a wide player, most of the times a wing-back, runs outside to fill in the space left by a winger going inside with or without the ball, this is called overlapping. There was mixed success here though as although Vinícius was a threat due to his speed and unpredictability, the end product could be underwhelming. 

Barcelona struggle with central focus

In his short time as Barcelona manager, Setién has tried to build an attacking game focused in large part on ball retention and combinations through the center of the pitch. However, as has been seen previously, there are issues with Barcelona’s ability to create breakthroughs in width and in particular with runs in behind. 

Barcelona’s occupation of the center and the spaces between the lines was actually relatively decent. Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann and Vidal all provided presence here, as well as Arthur and De Jong who had the freedom to rotate with the aforementioned trio to fill these zones when appropriate. 

Barcelona in possession.

Barcelona in possession.

A problem for Barcelona was that Madrid’s center-backs defended the space between the lines quite aggressively. Messi for example found it difficult to get free in the right halfspace as Ramos was willing to step out of the defensive line to ensure Messi was pressured when he received the ball here.

Like Barcelona, Madrid’s pressing shape was relatively uncompact at times. They defended in what most closely resembled a 4-1-4-1, with Isco and Kroos as the two ahead of Casemiro in the center. Isco and Kroos often stepped up quite aggressively on Barcelona’s deep midfielders in buildup, which could lead to spaces opening up behind them. 

Valverde and Vinícius meanwhile defended as right and left midfielders respectively. The role of Valverde was somewhat interesting as he had seemingly been tasked with tracking Alba’s forward runs from left back for Barça. This led to scenes in which Madrid could fall into an asymmetric back five due to Valverde being pushed deeper by Alba.

As alluded to, although there were gaps in the Madrid defensive structure, Barcelona struggled to fully capitalize on any dangerous situations they brought themselves into in organized possession phases due to a lack of threat in behind the defense of Madrid. 

Especially with Madrid’s center-backs stepping out to deal with danger in midfield areas, there was the opportunity for runs in behind the defense to be made. However, other than in rare instances, these movements were not forthcoming for the majority of the game. 

On the couple of occasions where Barcelona were able to get behind the Madrid defense, they created their best chances of the first half. The first was in a transition moment, as Arthur raced through but was unable to lift the ball over Thibaut Courtois. The second fell to Messi after he made a good run in behind and was found by Busquets’ lofted pass. Messi’s shot on the half-volley was straight at Courtois though. 

Game devolves further, Madrid prevail

The issues faced by both sides resulted in an increasingly uncontrolled spectacle as the second half wore on. As fatigue set in, the issues with compactness and intensity on both sides of the ball got worse. 

It took until twenty minutes from time for either manager to make a change. Setién was the first to act, bringing on Martin Braithwaite to replace Vidal. The intention for Braithwaite to offer the threat in behind that Barcelona had been lacking was evident immediately as he got in behind Ramos but was unable to beat Courtois.

Just two minutes later, Madrid made the breakthrough. It was orchestrated by Kroos, who cleverly played Vinícius in on Madrid’s left side. From a tight angle, Vinícius’ shot took a deflection from Gerard Piqué which was enough to see the ball beat Marc-André ter Stegen at his near post. 

The game continued to be a disorganized and chaotic affair even after the goal as Barcelona were more and more stretched in search of an equalizer. Setién’s choice to try and change the game with ten minutes left was to introduce Ivan Rakitić and Ansu Fati for Arthur and Griezmann. Meanwhile Zidane brought on Modrić for Isco and Lucas Vázquez for Valverde.

It was Zidane’s final substitute that would end up finishing the game though. Mariano replaced Benzema in added time and in the same minute was able to exploit the space behind Barcelona’s stretched defense make it 2-0 to Madrid.


Perhaps the main takeaway from this game is that El Clásico is not the tight, organized tactical battle that it once was. This has been observed already for a few years now, but perhaps this match is the most extreme example yet. It is still certainly a spectacle, but in a different way. There is plenty of talent on show, for example in today’s case there was a very good performance from Kroos. However, those viewers looking for well structured team tactics at the highest level will find many things in this match which disappoint them. 

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Josh Manley (21) is a student and aspiring coach. Heavily interested in tactics and strategy in football. Watching teams from all top European leagues, but especially Manchester United and Barcelona. [ View all posts ]


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