When Martino strolled into the Camp Nou for the seventh time this season, the Argentinian was welcomed to 98,000 fans planted into their seats eagerly awaiting one of the most anticipated games of the year in which many neutrals would happily see the two giants contesting each other in the Champions League Final.
An even more intriguing game rose when the line ups were revealed, with Sergio Ramos situated in Midfield, Lionel Messi on the right and even Javier Mascherano swapped to RCB, to contest Cristiano Ronaldo in transitions, which we will get more into detail later.
Real Madrid’s defensive organisation
Despite having fielded Gareth Bale furthest forward on the team sheet, the Welshman was largely tied to defensive duties on both flanks, contributing to Real’s low block, being the usual body on the right or left in 2nd and 3rd defensive phases. The 442 set up from Madrid in these phases largely depended on Bale or Angel Di Maria’s positioning, as in whoever was furthest pressed CB’s, resulting in furthest back winger on weak side contributing to the midfield block. When Bale pressed forward, this midfield block consisted of Luka Modric furthest left, Ramos LCM, Sami Khedira RCM and Di Maria furthest right.
When the Argentine Di Maria shuttled ahead to press, Bale was situated furthest left, Modric and Ramos maintained midfield positions and Khedira was widest right. This low block was a surprise to see, as Real’s deep positioning of wingers resulted in lack of prolific threat in transitions. Balance was the clear key for Carlo Aneclotti’s side, as the block retreated deeper, throwing bodies into the box particularly in the 3rd phase, whenever Barca circulated horizontally. This halted the majority of Barca’s attacks apart from Neymar’s pass that penetrated through two defenders legs, and was a solid game-plan that was echoed and repeated by Espanyol days later.
The game was predicated on the speed of organisation of these two blocks as Real occasionally left their shell. The transition from offensive to defensive phase was something Madrid has undoubtedly practiced in the lead up to the game. The process of defensive organisation however was utterly failed when Barca where playing amongst the back, particularly Mascherano who was allowed time and space on the ball before Bale glanced towards Carlo in response to his shouting, ordering the Welshman to press the Argentine.
The press was awkward and Mascherano switched play with a diagonal long ball, something which was unheard of from Barca in previous years. The total switch of play that Barca have used countlessly this season saw immediate transition from 1st offensive phase of organisation to 3rd, preventing the assembly of Madrid’s defensive organisation. Bale pressing resulted in him being the furthest forward winger, so Di Maria must immediately take up a defensive position in which he is out of. Real Madrid banks have no time to organise as Iniesta receives horizontally in dangerous zone, penetrating the box in which Madrid must now flood with bodies. But Barca’s direct approach in this new philosophy seen their transition from 1st to 3rd phase far too fast for Madrid to comprehend, leading to the first goal.
Dealing with Real Madrid’s counter attacks, defensive transitions
Immediately after the Camp Nou shook with Barcelona celebrations, Madrid responded in dangerous fashion. One of Barcelona’s main problems this year is the inept defensive abilities and awareness of Lionel Messi and their recent acquisition Neymar, in which the two would on rare occasion press the ball prematurely in which they would leave the space they were leaving dangerously vacated. This occurred in the 19th minute during Madrid’s 1st offensive phase, where Modric dropped to receive from his two CB’s. Messi pressed prematurely from the right channel blocking the passing lane to Marcelo, however his positioning was poor and Modric was allowed an easy turn into midfield, resulting in a 1 on 1 with Xavi, with Marcelo bombing down the wing supporting the Croatian.
These transitions are particularly the ones Barcelona tend to avoid as their CM’s aside from Busquets are poor in defensive isolation.
As you can see here, Messi presses Modric prematurely which allows Modric to turn into midfield with ease who then beats Xavi one vs one which leads to a dangerous 4v4 in transition.
MAJOR CHANCE OCCURS FOR REAL MADRID AS A RESULT OF PREMATURE PRESS FROM MESSI
Marcelo provides an option for Modric, in which the Brazilian will quickly follow with a cross. Bale tucks in vertically with Ronaldo, adding to aerial threat in the box.
The Catalans did well to nullify Madrid’s counter attacking possibilities whenever the need arrived, with a quick press from Mascherano or Pique out of their high line into midfield. This option worked well thanks to the fast acceleration from Mascherano which saw him at RCB to contest Ronaldo’s pace, and since the majority of Madrid’s counter attacks are orchestrated through their left channel.
Barca’s 2-1-5-2 in 1st and 2nd offensive phases saw a large overload in midfield which was contested with Madrid, forming the all important midfield triangle of the 4-3-3 that the formation is predicated on at times. The two midfield blocks that Madrid formed in defensive phases were situated quite deep in 3rd phase, but slowly pushed forward whenever Barcelona’s tempo was lethargic and slow. These pushes saw Barca circulate it awkwardly backwards, resulting in the occasional loss of possession that could prove detrimental to Barcelona’s style of play. When these misplaced passes occurred in central midfield, a break would immediately unfold by Madrid’s highest player, usually Ronaldo or Bale. Due to these players being situated on the left side the majority of the evening, Mascherano’s RCB positioning allowed an advantage in dealing with these left channel or inside left transitions, with an immediate aggressive press towards the ball carrier. These aggressive presses have been noted 14 times in 4 games from both Pique and Mascherano, and is an effective method in dealing with central counter attacks completely or slowing them down and allowing full-backs to retreat and get behind the ball. If the attack is orchestrated from the wing, the CB’s close down space in front of the winger while the full back retreats back into position.
When the ball is won, the CB that did not press, usually Pique, jogs forward leaving the other man in an offside position. These aggressive presses from the CB’s into central half space areas are very effective in dealing with 2v2′s as long as the Full Backs retreat in time to protect the width surrounding the isolated CB’s. Real Madrid’s low block allowed for this dangerous method to be utilized, seeing as their low block retained numbers at the back preventing the wingers from transitioning forward fast enough.
Barcelona in offensive organisation
The 4-3-3 that Martino has based his entire managerial career on has been home to a number of philosophy’s going forward, all based on fluidity and rotation going forward combined with possession. Suited to Barca perfectly, of course.
The formation that Barca adopted against Madrid and many other teams throughout the season is a flexible one, consumed by rotation and fluidity going forward. The 2-1-5-2 in 1st and 2nd offensive phases is nothing new over the past few years, with one of the key differences being the much deeper position of the CF, which is usually Fabregas as of late. The Spaniard takes up more of an advanced midfielder role being the furthest man forward in a 4 man midfield, who is also largely restricted to defensive work, which can have an effect shackling him going forward as he lacks the legs to carry out counter attacks that Barca has implemented into their system thus far. Messi is a different story whenever positioned there however, as the 4 time Ballon D’Or winner stays in the final third entire games, rotating with the two wide-men on a number of occasions, even appearing to have a a ‘licence’ to move where he pleases, knowing the dirty defensive work is covered for him. However in the Clasicó the Argentine was fluid and moving the entire night despite not having that much of an actual impact on the game.
During 1st and 2nd phases, the two CB’s split with a 25 yard approximate distance between them, covering both CB and full back positions allowing full backs to push forward, in which one usually pushes the entire width of the pitch evolving his role to more of a winger, hugging the touchline stretching play. The style of play was quite low tempo, saving energy for defensive transitions in which players would have to sprint from one side of the pitch to another, but we will get more into detail on that later. During times of low tempo and when possession showed no signs of progress, the CB’s would usually look for attacking run of the wingers, in which they would meet with a long diagonal ball.
If no run is made and the play is still low tempo, a long ball to chest would be attempted, switching play and if effective Barcelona would progress further up the pitch. Sergio Busquets carried out his refined and world-renowned role of dropping between the two CB’s giving the immense stability to defence he constantly provides. Adriano and Alves were given winger-like roles the entire night and pushed further up the pitch as the game ventured on, stretching Madrid’s low block. The width that the full backs provided allowed wingers to drift inside into half spaces causing small overloads in these spaces with the CF or midfielders that drifted forward in between lines. Fabregas’ role offensively was clear as he played between Madrid’s midfield block between CB’s, also drifting to each side whenever the option was called for, doubling up with the winger in between CB’s and full backs. The Spaniard dropped in the 1st and 2nd phase constantly filling in for Xavi and Busquets’ temporary absent positions whenever they withdrew into the CB’s to receive, and pushing back forward when possession evolved into further phases. These drops that Fabregas carried out allowed the two wingers to take up much more vertical positions, knowing width was not a problem due to the FB’s. His rotation with Messi was also a key factor, filling in for Lionel’s absent position when he ventured centrally or into his coveted position, CF. Fabregas’ wide right positioning whenever off the ball allowed for increased defensive contribution to that channel, however in offensive phases Cesc was unable to carry out the wide man job.
As possession continued to flourish further forward and Madrid’s block sank deeper, Barca slowly began to adapt more advanced positions in midfield, with Iniesta combining with Neymar between lines doubling up on full backs, and Messi drifting inwards as he pleased. Iniesta and Xavi blossomed under the roles they were allocated, always attributing to evolving phases in possession whether being on the ball or off it, diverting movements such as shifting to wide positions temporarily, decoying Madrid’s players from important zones forcefully, creating space for Fabregas, Adriano, Alves, Messi and Neymar to move into. These widely experienced Barca CM’s swapped positions regularly, both to confuse the opposition and to prevent exploitation of their defensive weaknesses, as their rotational movements with each other prevented them being targeted in defensive phases.
One of Tata’s philosophy’s in both offensive and defensive organisation is maintaining numerical equality or advantage both off the ball and on it. Rotation provided this, such as whenever Xavi dropped to receive, Messi often drifted inwards to cover for his position creating overloads or equality in midfield. Messi’s absent positioning was covered by the RB who pushed forward, and continued advancing with the entire Barca team when the play excelled into 3rd phase. This rotational formation resembled a 2-1-4-3 the further play progressed up the pitch.