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Tuesday, January 17

(Yet Another) El Clásico Tactical Preview

A look at the 42nd El Clásico since the start of November of 2010, featuring quantum mechanics and alternate shapes for Real Madrid.

Co-published by twelve point sports and totalbarca.com

The changing of Barcelona's shape since the end of last year's campaign has been, if nothing else, evolutionary: Cesc Fàbregas' summer return to the Camp Nou either allowed or inspired Pep Guardiola to shelve his 4-3-3 system which merely won the Champions League, making way for a 3-4-3 to begin the 2011-12 season.  The honeymoon was rather Kardashian, however, only lasting until the first El Clásico on the tenth of December, where Guardiola unveiled a system better categorized by letters than the traditional numeric nomenclature: F-L-U-I-D.

Barça's shape at Madrid after about twenty minutes
Featuring Lionel Messi's own evolution to that of a centre-midfielder from a false-9 and right-winger, Guardiola's shape against Real Madrid saw to Barça overcoming an early Victor Valdes blunder to win 1-3 in the most decided of fashions.  To counter José Mourinho's pushing-up the pitch of a centre-back to man-mark Messi, Guardiola stationed Messi at the head of his midfield, far too recessed for the attention of Madrid centre-backs Sergio Ramos and Pepe.

Given that a false-9 is a centre-forward who drops deep to receive or retrieve the ball, Alexis Sánchez, then, was a spectral-9, with free reign to run touchline to touchline as light does through all the colours, dragging defenders out of position and finding space to run onto.
Alexis did a perfect job. He kept their centre-backs busy so we had superiority in other zones. -- Pep Guardiola
It was an essential role the Chilean played, perhaps even more essential than his opening of the scoring for Barça: Sánchez running from side to side, always seeking dangerous space, demanded the attention of Madrid's defense, opening up the attack avenues for the Blaugrana.

There's this thought experiment that deals with the application of quantum mechanics on standard, run-of-the-mill objects: desks, televisions, staplers, the family pet.  Called Schrödinger's Cat, the scenario imagines:
A cat, along with a flask containing a poison and a radioactive source, is placed in a sealed box. If an internal Geiger counter detects radiation, the flask is shattered, releasing the poison that kills the cat. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. Yet, when we look in the box, we see the cat either alive or dead, not both alive and dead.
At the quantum level, a particle occupies all possible states of its being until it is measured, and it is only upon being measured that the particle's location can be known.  Until being measured, the particle is in a superposition, existing in all possible locations at once.

If Schrödinger's Cat is in a superposition of the discrete alive and dead, then surely Sergio Busquets was in a superposition of holding midfielder and centre-back.  Schrödinger's Outfielder.
Iz in ur owwfeel, pwayin too posheeshins
Busquets, as a midfielder, had the task of marking Mesut Özil.  He tracked him left.  He tracked him right.  He tracked Özil as he looked for space deep, smothering all but the air out of the German playmaker's lungs.  So dominant was Busquets' marking that Madrid's creative engine was a non-factor and the rightfully first-subbed-for by Mourinho.

Busquets, as a centre-half, ranged between providing cover and intercepting passes in addition to shoring up Barça's backline when Madrid looked to break.  More than just a warm body in defense, Busquets did not one thing to show Guardiola's trust in him is unjustified and was "perhaps the most vital piece to the viability of Barca's shape against an attack as threatening as Madrid's."

Barca against Betis
After playing Fàbregas as head of Barça's attack in the FIFA Club World Cup Final to make way for another midfielder, Thiago, Guardiola unveiled another wrinkle in the weekend's matchup with Real Betis: no centre-forward.  Sánchez moved to Andrés Iniesta's psuedo-winger role from the December Clásico, and with Fàbregas still playing in midfield, the most advanced of Barça's central players was Messi as a deep-lying playmaker.  Not having a centre-forward meant Barça would have a sort-of redundancy elsewhere on the pitch, and Guardiola essentially decided that the three of Sánchez, Iniesta and Fábregas would play two positions.  A supersaturation of sorts.

It was from these three players that Barça found the head of their attack. Messi, upon receiving a pass near midfield, would initiate one of his patented right-of-centre to left-of-centre runs.  Two of Sánchez, Iniesta and Fàbregas would then run diagonally over the top of Messi at Betis' centre-backs, the idea being to get on the end of through balls or drag defenders out of shape, leaving space for Messi to exploit.  The one of the three who didn't run over the top would either trail the play providing support or provide a narrow width near the edge of the penalty box, a width that, if Betis' left-back followed Barça's over-the-top players, Messi would look to make use of, dropping the ball off.  It's a novel approach to the conundrum Barça faces when playing opponents who favour sitting back.  By recessing or entirely removing Barça's forward line, Guardiola presents the opposition's defense a simple binary: sit back and never see the ball or come out and play.

It is worth mentioning, however, that Barça's last two opponents have accepted the gambit that is the latter and found success: a 1-1 tie for Espanyol, and a 4-2 loss for Betis that saw the brilliant game level at 2-2 before Betis went down to ten men.  Espanyol and Betis pressed Barça high up the pitch, relentlessly hounding them, and played smartly with the possession they had, favouring the highly-probable passes to key counter-attacks over spray-and-pray long balls.
We will go to the Bernabeu and try to be the main protagonists in the match. We will try to dominate possession -- keeping the ball is the best defense which exists. -- Xavi Hernández
Given Barcelona's positive result from December's El Clásico and how they pride themselves on brave football, it seems all but certain Pep Guardiola will again deploy a three-man backline for Wednesday's opening leg of the forever-rivals' Copa del Rey quarter-final clash.  It is unclear the variant Guardiola will select from the family of shapes Santos coach Muricy Ramalhohas branded a 3-7-0, but it just wouldn't be the Barça way to play the relatively more defensive 4-3-3 shape, even in a home-and-home contest.


* * *
Last season's Copa del Rey final: the Starting XIs

For Wednesday, José Mourinho might consider the one victory his Real Madrid has over the Barcelona: the 1-0 result from the final of last year's Copa del Rey.

After seeing his side and 4-2-3-1 shape drubbed 5-0 in the previous November, Mourinho made use of a 4-3-3 without Mesut Özil in the centre of midfield, favouring Pepe as a disruptor over the German's playmaking acumen.  And instead of dropping Özil from the side, Mourinho moved him out wide, deciding to top his shape with Christiano Ronaldo rather than a striker.

The approach was effective: Barça's midfield found themselves harassed throughout, and there was a real inability to link up with Messi.  Compounding the problems for Barça were the heroics of Iker Casillas in goal, denying any chance the Blaugrana could grind out.

What wasn't much different was the play of Özil, however, who again was the first Madrid player subbed off.  For all of Özil's abilities, the pressure Barça exerts and the defensive responsibilities they create are enough to diminish his impact, making the handling of him not a chore but a matter of absorption.  Ronaldo rotated to his vacancy in midfield, now-Tottenham striker Emmanuel Adebayor came on, and not another tactical change came from either side until Ronaldo's scoring header in extra-time.

The approach was exceedingly negative, however.  Gone was the grace of Madrid's flowing movement and the end-line to end-line with three passes in seven seconds maestro-level work, in was a focus not to score but to disconcert Barça by any means necessary, employing rough and loose challenges with little thought towards keeping possession, content to merely sit behind the ball.  Madrid's offensive plan was something of a brute force approach, asking of its players to bomb the ball and run forward, favouring speed above all else.  Above probability, possession and playmaking.  Mourinho's Madrid's only victory against Barça came from perhaps the most negative of tactics one truly top European side has played against another.  So negative were their tactics that Guardiola spoke of Barça going into Madrid not just to win but to defend their style of play ahead of their Champions League semi-final tie.

Too much is made in sport of unquantifiable aspects like momentum, morale and the will to win.  These concerns, however, aren't insignificant for Madrid ahead of Wednesday.  What would it say if La Liga's table leader, at home, with the away leg still to come, went negative again?  What message would Mourinho be sending his players?  Would they interpret it only as an admission that Barça is merely a poor match-up for them?  Could they compartmentalize it, leaving only a net-neutral impact?  Possibly.  Perhaps.  It's not inconceivable.  But of little doubt is the thrill of beating a team at their best by playing one's own style, something Madrid hasn't been able to achieve of late against Barça.

The December Clásico Starting XIs
The problem from doing that, though, is Madrid going tit-for-tat with Barça hasn't even produced one victory under Mourinho.  Losses of 5-0 and 1-3.  A 5-4 aggregate loss in the Supercopa against a less-fit, unable-to-regularly-press Barça.  Another in-kind result takes the nail out of the coffin of the "who is better, Barça or Madrid" debate, pulls out the corpse and incinerates it to a fine dust.

Pepe has been seemingly clamoring for an opportunity to again play in midfield on Wednesday, telling the media of his enthusiasm for the challenge.   He's not altogether wrong to want a change from the December Clásico's lineup or shape, but the problem is, even disregarding the exceedingly negative nature and message of the move, Ricardo Carvalho's injury means the next-best, traditional options are anything but appetizing.

One possible solution for Mourinho is dangerously close to the sincerest form of flattery: removing the striker to play an additional midfielder.

How this would work:

In December's Clásico, Xabi Alonso, Lass Diarra and Özil were Mourinho's three midfielders, and fullback-cum-midfielder-cum-winger extraordinaire Fabio Coentrão was deputized at right-back.  While Diarra and Alonso played well, Coentrão was rubbish, venturing forward ever-so-sparingly and failing to track well inside.  There was also no clear way of dealing with Messi's play as a midfielder.
 
Potential Starting XIs
This solution removes the striker for a designated Messi marker, and keeps the rest of the shape unchanged.  Of Diarra and Coentrão, Coentrão is best equipped to man-mark a player across the pitch, and his passing ability and fluency on the break will be needed without the most forward of players in Madrid's normal shape.  And with Álvaro Arbeloa out, Diarra, as he's done before, still gets to play at right-back.  While Coentrão is able to hound an individual player, his skills aren't yet prepared for the dizzying array of looks a right-back will see against Barça's evolved tactics, and Diarra's strong play in December against Barça's fluidity suggests he'll be more up to the task of keeping Madrid's defense sure.

With Coentrão switching spots with Diarra, the rest of the midfield would then be rounded out by the again-starting Alonso and Özil, with the fourth midfielder to be, like Coentrão, another summer addition: Nuri Şahin.  His integration into Madrid's squad has been slowed by early injuries, but last year's Bundesliga Player of the Year has the versatility to defend and the ability to create to warrant his inclusion.  Like Coentrão's offensive prowess being needed after dropping the striker, so too will Şahin's.

Özil's also stands to benefit from having an extra midfielder behind him: instead of laying deep, he'll be free to play something of a false-10, looking to deliver the final pass or score himself rather than key the attack.  At worst, he should find himself some space away from Busquets, and as he showed in the Supercopa, he's more than able to finish on the break.  For Madrid's wingers, look for José Callejón to play opposite Ronaldo if Ángel di María isn't deemed fit to play.

Potential Madrid 4-2-4/4-2-2-2
As Barça's throttling of Manchester United in the Champions League showed, playing a lone striker with a poor defensive work-rate -- what Javier Hernandez was with Wayne Rooney forced into helping out in midfield --  is a losing proposition against Guardiola's side.  A striker staying up the pitch does nothing to help the battle in midfield, and how Madrid pushes bodies forward on the counter makes the loss of a striker a not-so-difficult pill to swallow, especially considering how unchanged the rest of their tactics would remain.

If Madrid looked to actually take the game to Barça, however, there is a solution for that as well: replacing di María not with a midfielder but a second striker.

Wingers in a 4-2-3-1 have more responsibility in defense than those in a 4-3-3 by virtue of there being fewer defenders behind them, but they have the same responsibility as those in a 4-2-2-2 or a 4-2-4.  With Ronaldo on the right and Callejón or the defensively-challened Özil on the offensively-challenged Puyol's side, it is not inconceivable Madrid could find success playing a loose 4-2-4/4-2-2-2 shape if they desired to make a legitimate attempt at taking it to the Catalans.  Two strikers with two wingers means that, even if Busquets is in his centre-back superposition, a pushed-up Ronaldo and Özil/Callejón ensures Barça is without their spare man at the back, a situation made all the more untenable by Alonso's elite distribution.  Playing Şahin or Diarra would add even more pressure on Barça defending.

It has to be clear to José Mourinho by now that his favoured 4-2-3-1 is not a winning tactic for his Los Blancos against a fit Blaugrana.  What remains to be seen is whether the self-annointed Special One will follow Pep Guardiola's lead and adapt by either adding a midfielder or an additional striker, or if he'll devolve his La Liga-leading side yet again by employing Pepe in midfield.

for live-tactical notes during Wednesday's El Clásico, and come back after for (yet another) tactical review.



 

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