Shared Differences

In so many ways, the fixture at the Camp Nou last night went according to plan on many levels. Barcelona dominated possession but created very little. Real Madrid were content to defend before counter attacking quickly, utilising space on the flanks exploiting Barcelona weaknesses during transitions.

Did we learn anything new?

Yes, and no.

For the game raises more questions than it manages to answer for both sides.

In their last five visits to the Camp Nou , Madrid has an impressive record of one win, one defeat and three draws. Mourinho made a mistake in his first visit to the Camp Nou with Real Madrid, believing his team to be the equal of Barcelona in terms of the production of a stylish possession based performance. He suffered heavily for such a belief. The 5-0 defeat remains Mourinho’s biggest loss as a manager. Since then, the tactical plan has been more conservative, more pragmatic. With each passing clasico the perceived gap between the sides, never as significant as many claimed, has narrowed. Tactical plans were hatched and repeatedly tweaked as Mourinho sought the perfect gameplan. Sometimes Madrid would press high; sometimes they adopted a low block.

Last night’s result is not the outcome of a few ideas hastily cobbled together on the training ground this week. It is the result of considerable thought, hard work and ultimately, trial and error, sometimes costly error for Madrid on the pitch. But the recent results at the Camp Nou demonstrate that Madrid is now consistently achieving results against Barcelona .

The inability of Barcelona to break down disciplined, organised, defensive teams employing a low block in key games has been highlighted before but Milan and now Madrid have not parked the bus. Far from it. They have controlled space and prevented Barcelona having shooting opportunities. There was no luck involved in either victory.

Leaving aside the issues surrounding team selection etc for Barcelona , there is something more fundamental to address. Why does Barcelona inevitably seek to attack even when there is no compulsion to do so? The tactical alteration to include an additional midfielder was designed to give control first and foremost. Why does FCB eschew that control by pursuing victory? There was no requirement for Barcelona to push forward or attack with such vigour as they did in the early stages last night before being undone by a typically swift and lethal Madrid counter.

When exploring the present tactical issues, there are two which need consideration. Firstly, the current Blaugrana attack lacks vertical penetration. The inclusion of Cesc Fabregas at the expense of an attacker and the propensity for Messi to drop deeper has eroded the dynamics of the attack. A cutting edge has been traded for greater control through possession. This has incresingly become sterile domination. Secondly, the attacking thrust of Alba allied to Alves leaves Barcelona vulnerable on attack / defence transitions. The left side in particular is weak. Milan exploited this as did Madrid last night

And yet if the victory of Madrid at the Camp Nou last night highlighted the inadequacies of Barcelona sharply, what does it say of Madrid in the process? What if the roles were reversed? Could los blancos have broken down their rivals?

The victory at the Camp Nou must not be allowed to conveniently conceal the issues presently existing within the Real Madrid side.This is the same Madrid side which performed so abjectly as they crashed 1-0 away to Granada just under four weeks ago. A Madrid side that has also lost away to Getafe , Real Betis, Sevilla and Malaga. A Madrid side that finds it difficult to break down disciplined, organised, defensive teams employing a low block who allow Madrid to set the tempo of the game and take the initiative.
The question for Madrid is not how to face up to Barcelona anymore. The question is now how Madrid should tackle lesser sides such as Granada . Sides who adopt the very same approach that Madrid use against Barcelona albeit with less talented players but more of a collective focus. The game plan which Madrid uses to such effect against Barcelona is broadly the same plan which undermines them.

And whilst possession is so necessary for Barcelona , for Madrid the opposite is true, the side don’t require possession to win their games. Indeed there is an argument that Madrid are closer to Simeone’s Atleti team who maintain their shape above all else forgoing possession in the process. Madrid is at their most dangerous without the ball, awaiting an error by their opponent to exploit. Is there a better counter attacking side in world football? What other team can take an opposition corner, a potential weakness, and transform that into a strength?
For as diametrically opposed as their present footballing philosophies may be, the clash of proactive and reactive football, there is shared ground between both sides when it comes to their Achilles heel.

Both sides struggle when faced with deep lying and organised defences for differing reasons. Whilst Barcelona seeks to weave passing patterns around their opponents, they are easily crowded out. Madrid , meanwhile, look to utilise their pace and power during fast transitions but struggle to construct meaningful possession. Both sides need space to break toward, to offer dynamism, offer opportunities and above all, to create.

Whilst Mourinho is happy to vary his tactics, to allow pragmatism to reign supreme and always focus on the result ahead of the performance, the reverse is true, to a degree, in Barcelona where the performance matters just as much as the result. Where, as Cryuff stated, “there is no greater prize than being acclaimed for your style”. This is not an idealistic dream however, for Barcelona believes that their style of football presents them with the greatest opportunity of winning. They style is still a means to an end.

If Barcelona perform yet succumb to defeat, they can cling to their belief in still adhering to their philosophy of delivering stylish, aesthetically pleasing football. If the present Real Madrid side fall there is a vacuum built around Mourinho’s mantra that he is a winner above all else. When he fails to win, there is no fallback position.
In football, it is always easier to destroy than it is to create. Barcelona has found that out often in the recent past. It may be Madrid ’s turn to discover it next week at Old Trafford.

Barcelona vs Real Madrid – Tactical Analysis

The third clasico of the season, but the first meeting in the league, ended all square at the Camp Nou, Messi 2 Ronaldo 2.

Or at least that is what many in the media would have you believe. And while these two players are the clear stand out performers for both teams, there is much more than their individual performances to discuss.

The game lacked the same level of aggression and intensity that has been so prevalent in recent encounters between the two. There were also a couple of developments which broke from the norm. Barcelona committed more fouls than their counterparts (17vs16) and Madrid scored two goals from superbly constructed moves in comparison to Barcelona’s goals arriving via a defensive error and a sublime free kick.

Line Ups

Both managers made changes to their starting line ups following their away victories midweek in the Champions League.

Vilanova, somewhat surprisingly, chose to replace the injured Puyol with Adriano. Further forward, Iniesta returned following injury with Sanchez dropping to the bench.

Barcelona Starting Line Up

Despite the inclusion of three full backs in Alba, Adriano and Alves with only one centre back in Mascherano, Barcelona lined up with a back four. Adriano operating as a left sided makeshift centre back.

Real Madrid Starting Line Up

Mourinho brought back Di Maria, Khedira and Ozil into the starting eleven with Essien, Callejon and Kaka all sitting on the bench.

Madrid began with their now familiar 4-2-3-1 formation.

Set Up

The inclusion of Iniesta at the expense of Sanchez provided Barcelona with increased depth and strength in the midfield area but removed their attacking threat on the wide left area. Iniesta tucked inside closer to central midfield.

Vilanova would have assumed that Iniesta could afford to do so rather than hold a left sided position as Arbeloa is not the most threatening of full backs. Arbeloa followed Iniesta inside opening up the left flank. This would then allow Alba to move freely on the left as Di Maria naturally drifts inward also. However, Khedira made a number of runs forward, pulling to the right and looking to expose the space behind Alba.

It’s been a common theme in clasico’s whereby Madrid seek to expose Barcelona on the counter and in behind the full backs.

For Madrid, the team operated more or less as anticipated when the line up was announced.

Ozil was able to drift laterally on either side behind Benzema whilst Ronaldo operated in the inside left channel looking to either cut inward or occasionally go on the outside of the full back. Marcelo sought to attack when possible, causing Dani Alves some problems early on with his attacking impetus.

The game, after the first 30 or so minutes settled down into the pattern which we have witnessed recently. Barcelona dominate possession whilst Real Madrid seek to counter attack. Barcelona made 637 successful passes from an attempted 724, a pass completion rate of 88%. With a more direct style, Madrid completed 237 passes from 322 attempted, a completion rate of 74%. The game threatened but never reached the heights of recent clashes in a collective sense but individually, Messi and Ronaldo demonstrated their standing as the best players in the world.

First Half

Real Madrid settled much quicker than their hosts creating a number of opportunities which are examined later, including the opening goal from Ronaldo.

Barcelona failed to find any rhythm as Madrid pressed intelligently. When attacking, Barcelona moved centrally too often leading to the play being congested. Real kept the space between their lines to a minimum and defended narrowly. With Iniesta tucking in from the left and Arbeloa following, the central area was often packed.

Madrid were defending well, preventing any space from developing. The only real outlet for Barcelona was via Pedro who offered genuine width on the right. The equalising goal arrived from a Pedro cross. With Madrid holding two narrow banks, Pedro had time and space to receive a pass and cross the ball before Marcelo closed him down. Pepe badly misjudged the bounce of the ball and Messi was able to score.

Second Half

Real Madrid continued to sit deep and allow Barcelona to attack, operating with Ronaldo and Ozil normally left up front on their own.

Both sides still appeared tentative. Khedira broke forward on the right again and support was available but the move fell away. On two separate occasions, Alba and Pedro provided crosses but no Barcelona players were in the penalty area to take advantage.

Barcelona took the lead from a near perfect free kick from Messi. Again,Messi received the ball centrally but was subsequently fouled by Alonso. The execution of the free kick was superb.

Prior to the goal, Barcelona were about to make a substitute, withdrawing Cesc for Sanchez. An attacking move, the substitution still went ahead despite Barcelona now leading. With Madrid trailing, the game would become stretched providing space for Sanchez to break into and to create by holding a wide left position.

There was little opportunity for Sanchez to have any impact before Madrid equalised. Madrid pressed effectively in midfield and the ball broke to Ozil who hit a wonderful pass through the Barcelona defence for Ronaldo to collect and sweep home.

No real clear cut chances emerged after this.

Too Conservative?

Were both teams too conservative in the game?

Barcelona have had defensive difficulties thus far this season and have yet to field the same defensive line up in two successive games. This is compounded by the present injury situation which required Adriano to deputise as a makeshift centre back. Vilanova seemingly deciding that neither Song or Bartra were suitable replacements. The inclusion of both Iniesta and Cesc ahead of Sanchez meant there was no real width on the left handside unless Alba moved forward. A key aspect of Messi moving deeper to perform a No10 role has been the need for inward runs from the wingers to a No9 position providing an attacking threat and occupying the opposition defenders. Without this, the opposition can push high and squeeze Barcelona. If the wingers don’t provide diagonal runs, the midfielders, principally Cesc, must break forward. This was not adequately addressed as midfielders breaking forward seldom occurred and there were no options on the left and Pedro remained wide right.

The graphic below highlights Barcelona ’s heat map from the game. There was little activity within the Real Madrid penalty area. There was not enough mobility from Barcelona in forward areas

Barcelona Heat Map vs Real Madrid                         

Vilanova sacrificed attacking width for midfield security. Too often, there was nobody willing to run beyond the ball or Barcelona . Xavi, whilst excellent with his distribution, had few options for the killer pass and operated slightly deeper than normal. An indication of Barcelona’s desire to protect the defence.

Xavi Passes vs Real Madrid                                        

From the Madrid perspective, why did Mourinho not force the issue more? Real Madrid created a number of early chances and should have led by at least two goals by the time that Messi struck. The goal seemed to energise Barcelona whilst Madrid retreated into a more defensive frame of mind. Should Madrid not have pressed Barcelona more, taking advantage of the uncertainty within their defence?

Did the conservative line up from Barcelona have a knock effect on Real Madrid?

The normal space which Real Madrid can exploit against Barcelona was not available. Barcelona sought and gained midfield security for the remainder of the team, committing fewer players in attack.The extent to which Madrid dropped off Barcelona can be seen by the graphic below which shows all of Real Madrid’s tackles in the game. All were attempted within their own half of the pitch.

Real Madrid Tackles vs Barcelona                                   

The defence moved deep but held a solid line, close to the midfield preventing Barcelona from having the space in which passing movements could be constructed. Madrid were seldom forced into last ditch clearances or tackles around their penalty area.

Real Madrid Chances

Real created a number of clear cut chances in the early stages of the game. Whilst there were some elements of poor defensive play involved, Madrid crafted a number of openings through their intelligent play and movement of the players.

Benzema had an early chance in the 12th minute when a Ronaldo cross from the right arrived at the far post where the French internationalist arrived unmarked, but hit his shot wide. Dani Alves had been attracted towards the run of Marcelo.

Sergio Ramos should have scored in the 20th minute when he was allowed a free header at a corner kick. Interestingly, Barcelona were using a combination of man marking and zonal marking perhaps to compensate for their lack of height and the threat which Madrid carry at such set pieces.

Ronaldo’s first goal arrived following a well worked move from Madrid. The move was instigated by a diagonal from Xabi Alonso to Khedira high on the right wing. The ball was eventually recycled to Ronaldo who broke inward on the left. Alves, similar to his positioning against Sevilla when Trochowski scored, failed to close Ronaldo down and provide an attempted block.

The graphic above illustrates the gap which Ronaldo exploited with Barcelona attracted to the ball. Ronaldo’s drilled shot beating Valdes at his near post.

Immediately following their goal, Madrid pressed Barcelona very aggressively sensing that the Blaugrana were struggling for composure and solidity at the back. Benzema hit the post in the 24th minute. Di Maria ran forward into the penalty area before passing to Benzema. No Barcelona player matched the run of Di Maria.

That Madrid failed to add to their opening goal would have been the only real issue for Mournho during those opening 30minutes. Madrid were organised and efficient with an incisive edge going forward.


Who will be the happier manager following the game?

This was surely the time for Mourinho and Madrid to press Barcelona and take advantage of their poor defensive set up and patched up defence yet it never quite materialised following the initial good start to the game.

Madrid remain 8 points behind Barcelona but perhaps crucially, they now, in theory, have the edge in the head to head record based upon the assumption that they win at the Santiago Bernabeu.

They used to be here,” Mourinho said, gesturing with his hands. “And we were down here. Now, they’re still up here but so are we.”

For Vilanova, the record breaking seven opening game winning streak was missed but he must be pleased with how the team performed given the line up. Defensive anxieties returned once more and whilst Barcelona have been fortunate in games this season, the defensive situation needs addressed at the earliest opportunity.

At this early stage of the season, perhaps both managers were content with a point. Titles are not won or lost in October.

All graphics and statistics taken from

el clasico: Tactical Preview

The sixth, and hopefully penultimate, clasico of the season takes place on Saturday night. According to conventional wisdom, this is the game which will see Madrid’s 4 point lead over Barcelona fall to a solitary point. After this, Barcelona’s remaining games are mere formalities whilst Madrid still have to entertain an inconsistent Sevilla side before going to Bilbao where Bielsa, one of the biggest influences over Guardiola’s career, lies in wait, ready to sabotage Madrid’s title bid.

If that sounds overly dramatic, it’s because it probably is. The popular belief is that Real Madrid will roll into the Camp Nou on Saturday night before rolling over. I simply don’t see it that way.

Proponents of this view will point to Mourinho enjoying just 1 win in 10 as Madrid manager against Barcelona (and that was a win in extra time too they shout). True, but the raw statistics hide much of the story particularly in recent encounters.

From the five games played so far this season, a great deal can be gleaned particularly how the gap between the two sides is narrowing all the time. This is most definitely not the same Real Madrid side who turned up at the Camp Nou on a cold November night in 2010, attempted to go toe to toe with Barcelona and were duly thumped 5-0. Not only have a few of the personnel changed but the mentality of the side has changed also with a further 18 months under the tutelage of Mourinho.

The Story So Far

Despite the 1 win in 10 games stat which crops up time and time again, it overlooks the fine lines which now exist between the sides. There have been 3 Barcelona wins and 2 draws in the meeings so far this season. Madrid arguably produced their best performance against Barcelona under Mourinho in the 2-2 Copa del Rey game when they came from 2-0 down and in all probability, should have won the game had it not been for some profligate finishing.

Real Madrid have adopted a much more attacking mentality in the games this season especially in the aforementioned 2-2 draw at Camp Nou when a number of the Madrid players were keen to play as they normally do. This change in mentality stretches back to a clasico in 2011 when Ronaldo disobeyed Mourinho’s instructions and attempted to press and attack Barcelona before complaining bitterly about the team strategy afterwards. Ronaldo was subsequently “rested” for the following game but the issue of whether to defend or attack Barcelona resurfaced again this season. Following internal “discussion” Madrid have been much more pro-active against their rivals.

Given the various tweaks and changes which have happened in their meetings thus far, not to mention the huge number of possible permutations in line ups etc, it is both difficult and a little foolish to try and predict the line ups and overall strategy ahead of Saturday.

That is something which I will try to do however.

The Champions League

It was never meant to be like this.

Both Real Madrid and Barcelona losing the opening leg of their respective semi finals? Both delivering sluggish performances when it looked obvious that they were playing within themselves, holding back, not going flat out. Distracted by the impending clasico? Probably.

How will both sides handle the demands of the clasico sandwiched in between the two legs of a Champions League semi final?

Some players will clearly be able to play all three games in a row e.g. Ronaldo, Messi, Pepe, Busquets etc. But what about key players who are more susceptible to injury or are just returning from injury? Can Di Maria play this Saturday and manage his third game in a week? Can Puyol handle three successive games at the age of 34?

Similarly, Alonso continues to look tired. Stats have shown the number of passes he is attempting is dropping and his pass completion rate is also dropping. However, Madrid have been playing a much more direct style lately. Hitting longer and riskier passes adversely affects statistics but can reap rewards by creating more goalscoring chances.

Has the change in Madrid’s style been partly due to Alonso’s fatigue?

It is inconceivable that the exact same eleven from both sides will play these three games therefore some changes from the first leg of the Champions League tie is likely on both sides.

Neither side is assured of qualification for the final of the Champions League. No matter how much they deny it, Guardiola and Mourinho will now be glancing ahead to their respective second legs and how to maximise their team for both games.

Real Madrid

The key issue facing Mourinho on Saturday is whether he sticks or twists.

Does he go for his normal 4-2-3-1 formation or does change to a more defensive minded 4-3-3 line up?

The 4-2-3-1 lets Madrid press high and allows Busquets to be marked, preventing him from having time and space. The problem though is that it allows Messi space further up the pitch and requires Khedira and Alonso to work very hard.

The defence more or less takes care of itself. The only decision will be whether Mourinho selects the attack minded Marcelo or the more conservative and defensively solid Coentrao. Given the better attacking relationship with Ronaldo and the need to push Dani Alves back, Marcelo seems more likely to start albeit he has been at fault for goals in recent clasico’s as Guardiola pinpoint ‘s him as a weakness. Coentrao was poor against Bayern but he received no defensive cover from Ronaldo.

How can Mourinho maximise Ronaldo’s attacking ability and release him from defensive duties?

In attack Ronaldo will start. The rest appears up for grabs depending upon how they react from the game on Tuesday night.

Due to his defensive cover and workrate, Di Maria would most likely start but could he manage three games in a week after returning from injury?

Similarly, Benzema played the majority of the game on Tuesday night and links well with Ronaldo however Mourinho favours swift breaks particularly against Barcleona therefore the pace of Higuain, only making a brief substitute appearance against Bayern, is much more useful.

The central decision is then whether Mourinho chooses Ozil, who has contributed little in previous clasico’s, and permits him to drift from side to side, looking to exploit gaps in the Barcelona backline or should an additional defensive minded midfielder be selected to strengthen the central area and sit alongside Alonso and Khedira?

Nuri Sahin has made several appearances lately. He could feature in the central area. Does he have the fitness levels to operate fully at such a high level however? Similar concerns exist over Diarra, who has seldom featured recently. In clichéd football parlance, it’s a big ask expecting either to step straight into the team for such a massive game

This leaves Granero. Would Mourinho consider borrowing from the Unai Emery school of tactics and play Granero deeper than normal to help ball retention? Emery successfully played Parejo deep against Madrid in the recent 0-0 draw.

Barcelona need to win the game whilst Madrid can accept a draw thereby maintaining their 4 point lead. A draw grants Madrid the safety net of one further slip up in the league campaign. Mourinho is first and foremost, a conservative coach. For these reasons and as detailed above, I believe that Madrid will go with a 4-3-3.

I think Mourinho will play Coentrao centrally allowing him to double up with Marcelo when required and letting Ronaldo focus entirely upon the attacking aspects of his game, staying high up the pitch. This will require Coentrao to shuttle from the centre to the left frequently but he has the fitness to do this. It prevents Alves from pushing forward.

Madrid to line up as shown below:-


Real Madrid Predicted Starting Line Up


Guardiola has utilised so many variations in his formations this season from the basic 4-3-3 to the highly attack orientated 3-3-4 against Getafe recently that a number of subtle system changes during the match are inevitable.

The performances of Ronaldo in the clasico’s has not been at the same level as in other key games for Madrid although he has scored 3 goals in the last 4 games. One possible reason for this has been the performance of Puyol when played directly against him.

With Abidal missing, will Puyol start at full back to match up to Ronaldo?

Will Barcelona go with a 3 man defence of Puyol, Mascherano and Pique and allow Alves to push further upfield? Part of the success of Alves is his ability to drive forward from deep positions. Starting him higher up the pitch removes this element but it hinders the Madrid left from supporting Ronaldo.

The midfield selects itself. Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta should all start in their normal positions. The ability of Busquets constructing moves is essential if Barcelona are to function properly. If Madrid adopt a 4-3-3, Busquets is likely to get time and space on the ball.

Which brings us to the attack. It seems safe to assume that Messi will begin as a false 9 but with license to roam possibly dropping deep or to the right.

Sanchez has demonstrated his worth to Barcelona already this season and has performed well against Madrid. His starting berth seems assured on the right and cutting inward to a central position playing off the shoulder of Ramos.

This leaves the vacant position on the left of the attack. Pedro has returned to full fitness and is showing glimpses of rediscovering last season’s form. He is fast, direct and prepared to undertake defensive duties also. The alternative wildcard, as such, could be the inclusion of Cuenca. He would stretch the Madrid defence and offers genuine width.

I think Barcelona will begin with a 4-3-3 which is capable of changing to a 3-4-3 with Dani Alves pushing further upfield. Puyol to start as a notional left back but to mark Ronaldo and the defence to switch to a back three as and when required. If Puyol follows Ronaldo across the pitch, Alves can stay high. Pedro starts on the left and with Alves pushing further on, Sanchez starts wide right and cut inward.

Defensively, the Barcelona left will be less concerned if Di Maria starts on the right due to his tendency to drift inward and Arbeloa is not the most attack minded full back. We could up end with a lop sided game, all of the attacking potential on the one side of the pitch.

Barcelona line up:-

Barcelona Predicted Starting Line Up


The Key Issues

There are countless issues surrounding this game. I have listed below a few issues which I believe are central to the outcome of the game.

Will fatigue be a factor?

Both sides face three massive games in a 7/8 day period. Rotation will be necessary and key players may not play the whole game. How will this affect the teams? Will both field their strongest line up or will changes be enforced?

Will Madrid press?

In the last few clasico’s, Madrid have pressed very aggressively early on but have been unable, understandably given the demands of it, to maintain this for the full duration of the game. They have looked tired lately. Do they want to press, can they press and for how long?

Will Madrid continue to be so direct?

Madrid have become increasingly direct recently, bypassing any build up play and adopting a “get the ball to Ronaldo” strategy. With a front 3, Madrid are likely to be just as direct. The role of Alonso and his passing range becomes particularly important here.

Ronaldo’s role

Does Ronaldo track back to offer support for his full back? Or does he remain further forward, occupying Dani Alves and conserving energy for sprints onto through passes? Or should Madrid play Coentrao and Marcelo to free Ronaldo?

Barcelona will dominate possession.

It’s what Barcelona want to do and it’s not something that will unduly concern Madrid as they counter attack so effectively. Will Madrid concede possession freely and retain shape at all costs a la Inter? Will Madrid adopt a 7-3 split in their team?

How can Barcelona retain width?

Barcelona have struggled against opponents when they have lacked width. The temptation to use Fabregas, Messi and Sanchez to gain further control of the game comes at a price – a narrow approach. With Pedro struggling for form, could there be a place for Cuenca in the starting eleven?