Tactical Preview of El Clásico: Will Real’s Improved Off-The-Ball Play Be Enough Against Barcelona’s Clinical Front Line?
Just a week before Christmas, LaLiga gives us the gift of a Clásico. What are the game plans of both teams? What wingers should Zidane use to best compensate for the absence of Eden Hazard? What will be the key individual duels in the game? In this preview, we’ll try to answer these questions and more.
Tactical analysis by José Perez.
Real Madrid’s Principles of Play: Dangerous Possessions and Counterpressing
Despite a shaky start to the season, Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane appears to have found a formula that gets his team to play some damned good football based on two key principles.
Ball progression and disordering defenses through the left flank.
Real progresses through midfield and reaches the final third The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. through three main ingredients. The progressive passing of Ramos and Kroos, Hazard’s progressive runs and dribbles, and Benzema’s movements in between lines to receive passes and combine with teammates.
Once in the final third, Kroos moves the ball from side to side with speed and precision, Hazard continues dancing past opponents, while Benzema moves through defenders like a ghost to shoot or assist teammates. Meanwhile, interior midfielders Kroos and Valverde move into zone 14, Zone 14 is a coaching term that refers to the part of the pitch just in front of the opponent’s box. Completing passes in this area of the pitch is a sign of territorial dominance and is usually associated with a good performance. ready to unleash devastating long-distance shots.
Real Madrid passmap vs Leganés (Oct-30-2019):
In this 4-3-3 structure, Kroos controls his team’s ball progression, while Hazard and Benzema stay close to each other for quick passing combinations.
Press and counterpressing through Kroos and Valverde.
This season, Zidane has introduced Fede Valverde to the starting lineup over the aging Luka Modrić. With that move, Zidane has gained a valuable defensive asset. Uruguayan blood flows through Valverde’s veins and it shows. Valverde presses opponents with intelligence and intensity, and he can quickly recover if he is overpassed or makes a mistake. When Real Madrid reach the opposition box, Valverde and Kroos await right outside the box to shoot, collect second balls and counterpress to prevent opposition counterattacks.
The Absence of Hazard and The Question of Wingers
Real Madrid loses a lot with Hazard’s injury. His runs and dribbles allow the team to cut deep into opposition defenses, but the Belgian also knows when to pause, which allows his team time to attack and counterpress as a unit. Replacing him proves difficult because no one else in the squad can provide that paradoxical mix of pause and explosiveness. Vinicius has the explosiveness but lacks the pause, while Isco has the pause but lacks the explosiveness.
Real Madrid passmap vs Espanyol (Dec-7-2019):
Vinicius, unlike Hazard, does not seem too interested in pausing and waiting for his teammates to catch up to him.
Zidane also has a conundrum on the right wing, where he must decide between Rodrygo and Bale. Despite his injuries and aging legs, the Welshman has a higher goal + assist rate (0.57 goals + assists per ninety minutes) than any forward in the squad other than Benzema, with his numbers backed by a solid expected goal and assists per ninety minutes of 0.47. However, Rodrygo has been a bit more consistent and effective at attacking the box and getting into goal scoring positions, and Benzema will need all the help he can get in the box against Piqué and Lenglet.
As usual, it is very hard to predict what goes on inside Zidane’s head. Zidane normally cares more about pause than explosiveness, and given his love for setups with four midfielders, we would normally guess that Isco will start. However, in the previous game against Valencia Zidane rested Vinicius rather than Isco, which gives us evidence to the contrary. On the opposite wing, Zidane seemed to trust Rodrygo more than Bale, but he rested the Welshman against Valencia. More head-scratching ensues.
Given by how Isco was used against Valencia – more as a left winger – we do believe that Zidane will stick to a 4-3-3 shape rather than the 4-4-2 diamond used in their second group stage game against Paris Saint-Germain.
Barcelona’s Principles of Play: More Goal-Scoring Efficiency Than Tactics
Surprisingly, Barcelona comes to this Clásico with a less recognizable tactical identity than their opponents. Due to injuries and tactical experiments, Valverde has not settled into a well-defined tactical structure. At the beginning of the season, Messi’s injury led Valverde to experiment with a very positional and high pressing 4-3-3 system that used wide wingers and aggressive interior midfielders.
Messi’s return – as usual – changed everything. With Suárez and Messi having a lackluster defensive work rate, Barcelona now press less aggressively, with Griezmann staying back as a left winger and Barcelona forming a low to medium 4-4-2 block without the ball. With Griezmann and Messi drifting away from their wings in the offensive phase, Barcelona often attacks without true wingers.
Valverde had settled into a midfield trio of Sergio Busquets, Arthur Melo and Frenkie de Jong, but things have changed with the untimely injury of the Brazilian midfielder, who will be absent from the Blaugrana lineup throughout December. This has forced Valverde to rely on his old midfield lieutenant, Ivan Rakitić, who will be starting in the right central midfield role for the Clásico. This allows De Jong to play at left central midfield and control games from his preferred left deep midfield position.
Valverde's tried de Jong high in the channels, at pivot, and covering for Messi. Now, with Rakitić on the right, Frenkie's starting plays from his favorite deep left pocket, where his dual pass-run threat creates space and helps Barça's buildup structure. pic.twitter.com/o1XveO17qH— John Muller (@thedummyrun) December 13, 2019
Given all the tactical changes, the only constant in Barcelona’s play is the wicked goal-scoring power of the Griezmann-Suárez-Messi trio. They punch harder than anyone in LaLiga, and that allows Barcelona to win or at least survive games where opponents outplay their rather fragile tactical structure. Their latest match against Real Sociedad provides us with an example of this: La Real outpressed and outshot Barcelona nineteen shots to nine, yet the game finished 2-2 due to the clinical finishing of the Blaugrana striker trio and a monster Piqué performance.
Barcelona passmap vs Real Sociedad (Dec-14-2019):
Barcelona’s buildup phase struggled against Real Sociedad’s pressing. De Jong could not control the game from his preferred deep left pocket and the team struggled to connect their midfield and forward lines.
The Key Matchups: Valverde vs De Jong, Messi – Griezmann vs Casemiro, and Benzema vs Piqué – Lenglet
One of the most prominent individual duels in this game will be the face-off between the two young central midfielders of each side. On Real Madrid’s right side, Valverde will be tasked with pressing and shutting De Jong—Barcelona’s left-sided midfielder—out of the game. If the Dutchman can consistently dribble his way past Valverde, Barcelona will find it much easier to progress through midfield zones and connect with Messi.
Barcelona’s 4-3-3 buildup structure against Real Madrid’s 4-3-3 pressing block.
Further ahead, Griezmann has the mission to draw the attention of Casemiro and Varane, giving more time and space for Messi to attack zone 14 and have an impact on the game. If the Frenchman stays too close to the left wing, Messi will have a much harder time eluding the marking of Real’s defenders. Additionally, Griezmann will also look to run into the channel between Carvajal and Varane whenever possible, either to create space for Messi or to score himself.
On the other end of the pitch, stay on the lookout for the battle between Benzema and center-backs Piqué and Lenglet. Barcelona looks less compact than in previous seasons, and Benzema will exploit this additional space in between the lines mercilessly. If Piqué and Lenglet fail to show their more aggressive versions and close down these gaps, Benzema’s movements will consistently allow Real to progress through midfield and create chances. Benzema also looks sharper than ever inside the box, so the center back pair will have to bring their A-game in this zone, too.
Who will dominate?
If Isco starts, Real might be better able to attack and counterpress as a unit, but they will lack bite in the final third to turn their attacks into shots. If Vinicius starts, Real might have an easier time producing shots, but his lack of pause will make the team less compact and able to counterpress, leading to a higher tempo game where both sides trade punches. And you do not want to trade punches with Barcelona’s forwards…
That being said, it seems easier for Real Madrid to break through the Barcelona press and progress through midfield than vice-versa, so our guess is that Los Blancos will have the tactical edge. However, their dominance over the game can be fragile: if Barcelona scores a goal, Real could easily collapse, become desperate and lose their collective structure. This pattern has repeated itself many times in the last five years of Clásicos.
Prediction: Real Madrid dominate the game on a tactical level, outpress and outshoot their opponents, but the clinical finishing of the Griezmann-Suárez-Messi trio may well prove too much for them to handle.