El Clasico: An analysis of the three concepts Real Madrid used to exploit Barcelona’s shape

La Liga, Real Madrid (Photo by Visionhaus)
La Liga, Real Madrid (Photo by Visionhaus) /

Real Madrid jumped into second place in the La Liga table with a 2-1 victory at home over eternal rivals Barcelona in an ‘El Clasico’ played in torrential rain at the Alfredo Di Stefano Stadium.

Karim Benzema opened the scoring for the defending champions in the 14th minute with a brilliant near-post flick while a deflected Toni Kroos free kick doubled the advantage for Zinedine Zidane’s men in the 28th minute. Barcelona hit back as Oscar Mingueza pulled one back for the visitors just on the hour mark to set up a frantic final 30 minutes. Casemiro was sent off in stoppage time for picking up two yellow cards in the space of a minute while Barca substitute Ilaix Moriba’s shot came back off the crossbar in the fourth minute of stoppage time, in the last sequence of play.

From the minute the game kicked off, it was obvious as to what the game plan from Zidane was; soak up pressure and play direct football to take advantage of Barcelona’s shape. But how did Real achieve this?

— This article discusses the three basic concepts and tactical principles from Zinedine Zidane that helped Real Madrid exploit the 3-5-2 Barcelona shape.

1. Preventing Barcelona from building from the back i.e. in the build-up stage/phase I,

2. Congest/block central areas in the second and third phases to stop central progression and deny superiority in the middle.

3. Force turnovers and create transitions by direct play.

In spite of conceding a goal at the start of the second half, the concepts or principles of the game remained the same throughout. Despite the fact that the second half was more exciting, we are going to put more focus on the first half because it was tactically richer in comparison to the second where a lot of other factors (game state, injuries, fatigue, momentum) influenced the game, creating a chaotic environment.

Ronald Koeman set up Barcelona in their usual 3-5-2 formation while Zinedine decided to opt for a 4-4-2/4-3-3 with Fede Valverde getting the nod ahead of Marco Asensio.

Lucas Vazquez, Eder Militao, Nacho Fernandez, and Ferland Mendy completed the back four and as usual, Thibaut Courtois started between the posts. Zidane’s illustrious Kroos-Casemiro-Modric trio started in midfield, Fede Valverde started ahead of Marco Asensio from the Liverpool lineup while Vinicius Junior and Talisman Karim Benzema filled up the remaining two slots in the team sheet.

Ronald Koeman’s 3-5-2 shape and back 3 setup enables Barcelona to play more expansively on the ball using width and by creating superiority in midfield. In a possession-oriented approach, they attempt to pin the opposition back by long spells of possession on the ball and try to cut through the heart of the defense by quick interchanges (by movement and positioning between the lines), with Lionel Messi being the protagonist in all of this. The role of the three midfielders is to aid central progression while the fullbacks are positioned high and wide to provide width to the side. When the central lanes are closed, they move wide,  try to overload by creating a numerical superiority, and progress the ball from the channels with Jordi Alba being a key figure in this.

If you are unfamiliar with the three phases of a football pitch, the first phase is often referred to as the build-up phase, the second phase is the middle of the pitch where the transition to attack takes place, while the third phase is simply known as the attacking zone.

1. Preventing Barcelona from building from the back i.e. In the build-up stage/phase I.

The inclusion of Fede Valverde was a genius move from Zidane. With Valverde’s tenacity and work rate, Zidane could fill two roles in one; an extra man in midfield in possession and security in defense while also providing value in attack and in the press.

While the setup looked as though it was Fede in a four-man midfield diamond, it was actually Valverde working in his ‘wingfielder’ role.

Zidane’s gameplan in the opposition Phase I was similar to the Atalanta and Liverpool games: to stifle build-up and progression on the ball. It completely revolved around the Barcelona shape.

The priority in the first phase/build-up was to stop Barcelona from building from the back.

In Barcelona’s Phase I i.e. The buildup stage, Real pressed high and went man-to-man exerting a lot of pressure on the Barca defense when they received the ball. They created a 3×3 first line of press lead by Valverde, Benzema, and Vinicius.

Benzema covered Araujo while Vinicius and Valverde prioritized marking/pressing Mingueza and Lenglet respectively. When the ball was played to the centre-backs, they moved inside and pressed with intensity while also cover shadowing the full-back and cutting off all passing lanes (to the full-back). Marking in somewhat of a man-oriented approach, Kroos, Casemiro and Modric clogged the central lanes by their body positioning/by cover shadowing.

This often forced Barcelona to play long from the back because Real had prioritized stealing the ball in the central lanes by covering all possible receptions. The only way to reach the fullback directly from a goal kick or through the centre-backs was to play a long ball because all the passing lanes were wiped out by the front 3, and if they attempted to play the long ball directly, the Real fullbacks were always in close range to create a turnover or steal the ball.

2. Congest/block central areas in phases II and III to stop central progression and deny superiority in the middle.

When Barcelona did manage to play through Madrid’s first line of the press as a result of their technical quality and quick interchanges, Real took a different pressing approach in the second phase of the pitch.

The priority in Phase II was to stop central ball progression.

Once Barcelona entered into their second build-up phase, Real changed into a 5-3-2/5-4-1 shape with Fede Valverde dropping deep as the fifth defender while Lucas Vazquez moved inside acting as the third centre-back. Valverde and Mendy stayed inside acting in a 5-man defensive line and were tasked with meeting the Barcelona fullbacks when they received the ball. Vinicius dropped deep to form a flat four midfield cover with Modric, Casemiro, and Kroos while Benzema acted as the anchor to the press. The priority in Phase II was to close down central lanes and prevent further progression.

As Barcelona grew deeper into the pitch as a result of their long spells of possession and technical quality, Real again changed their pressing approach — three different pressing approaches for the three phases of play.

When Barcelona pushed Real deeper into the pitch, the focus was on closing the spaces between the lines to deny superiority in the middle.

Ferland Mendy tucked inside when the Barca players started to position themselves between the lines while Vinicius and Valverde moved further deep to mark Dest and Alba respectively, to prevent them from receiving the ball. Kroos, Modric, and Casemiro positioned themselves centrally to close passing lanes through the middle and to prevent shots from around the area.

With the central engine focused on blocking spaces while Barcelona tried to penetrate through, a lot of Real Madrid’s defensive actions revolved around that area. Real Madrid had 23 tackles, 11 interceptions, and 19 clearances (Casemiro won the most duels in the game (12)) in comparison to Barcelona’s 9 tackles, 9 interceptions, and 11 clearances.

3. Force turnovers and create transitions by direct play.

The 3-5-2 setup enables Barcelona to play more expansively on the ball because the fullbacks are always positioned high to provide width to the side.

Real targeted the space left behind on the flanks by the fullbacks Dest and Alba (positioned high to provide width to the side), which left the back three to defend in a 3v3 situation in transition.

The key factors in this tie were the roles of Fede Valverde and Vinicius:  Fede’s role — always covering Alba, denying ball reception and runs into the box, which is integral to Barcelona’s attacking play, and Vinicius’s role — always in intermediate zones (being positioned between two points of defense and midfielder), and always prepared to punish ball losses by Barcelona.

When the ball was won in the blue zone (tactical board), Real went direct, with Vinicius and Valverde running the channels to create a 3×3 situation while Karim Benzema played on the shoulder of Araujo, often unsettling him and pulling him wide to create space for Vinicius to run into, to create a 1vs1 situation.

Real Madrid scored 2 goals (Fede Valverde run for the first goal and Vinicius’ run to win the foul for the second goal) and created numerous counterattacking situations which all revolved around these very concepts chosen by Zidane as part of their tactical plan. Probably the most exciting Clasico in recent years, the game came to an end as the hosts held on to their lead to secure the 3 points which took them into second place in the league table.

Next. Real Madrid's 5 best moments in El Clasico. dark

The change in shape and structure based on the opposition and the way he created different patterns and roles to exploit Barcelona’s shape is just a testament to his abilities as a manager. Zinedine Zidane, proved his mettle once again as Los Blancos beat the Blaugranes to record three consecutive Clásico wins for the first time in 43 years.