Barcelona vs. Real Madrid

Match Analysis
Carlo Alessandro Valladares

Carlo Alessandro Valladares

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The following tactical report is of the Spanish Super Cup first-leg. 

Nearly four months ago Barcelona blew the LaLiga title race wide open after defeating Real Madrid 3-2 at the Santiago Bernabeu, and Lionel Messi holding up his shirt to his rival’s crowd was one of the many defining images of that thrilling Clasico.

This past weekend it was Cristiano Ronaldo who was holding up his kit, earning a yellow for it, to the Camp Nou crowd after he had just put his side ahead 2-1. To make matters more interesting, Ronaldo had undressed Gerard Pique in the process and sent the face of Catalonia packing just before his shot blazed its way into the back of the net.

The defining image was this:

Ronaldo had successfully mocked Messi’s celebration.

But the party wouldn’t last for Los Blancos. Cristiano Ronaldo, despite making an impact off the bench late in the match, was sent off for diving in an attempt to win a penalty, moments after his schooling of Pique.

Controversially, Ronaldo’s dive came after Luis Suarez pursued some acting of his own and earned a penalty when the referee saw enough theatrics to come to the conclusion that Keylor Navas had made contact in the box. As it happened, Messi finished the penalty, and despite Marco Asensio scoring the winner soon after and Madrid supporters being happy with their rivals losing the first-leg, they were furious that the ref booked Ronaldo and not Suarez for similar if not worse theatrics.

The outrage increased when it was revealed that the star forward was being given a five-game ban for receiving two yellow cards and violating LaLiga’s disciplinary code. Of course, Real Madrid will appeal and it’ll be interesting how Madrid performs at the start of LaLiga without his crucial goal scoring abilities, but this match was most interesting because of the thrilling football on display and the fact that you could see the new tactical model Ernesto Valverde has put in place.

The Catalan giants play with shorter, quicker passing and aren’t afraid to play a narrower possession-game in the opponent’s half under new manager Valverde. The attacking play has put more emphasis on central axis build-up and is less direct than former manager Luis Enrique’s possession-direct style.

But before we get to that, I’d like to analyze how Barcelona defends in mid-block phases as that has changed as well.


Defending: Barcelona’s 4-4-2 mid-block with high line, zonal horizontal play, and man-marking

Under Lucho, Barcelona played a possession-direct style. At times it seemed as though they played keep away and waited for the right moments to feed Messi, Suarez, and Neymar directly. The emphasis on the midfield was to recycle the ball, not impose creation on the opponent.

In defense, Enrique didn’t necessarily believe in meticulous pressing. With that said, if they lost the ball in their opponent’s half, they did counter-press to get it back, but it wasn’t at the same level of Pep Guardiola’s famous win-the-ball-back in five to six seconds pressing.

Instead, Enrique saw the value in retreating a bit more into a high line mid-block 4-4-2 and soaking up a bit more pressure to unleash ‘MSN’ on a counter-attack. In theory, it makes sense given the level of quality the three South Americans possess. Furthermore, I wouldn’t consider Enrique’s 4-4-2 block as minimizing total risk in front of goal, instead, I’d say it was slightly more defensive than what Barca fans are used to, but I’d hardly call Enrique’s Barca ‘defensive.’

Obviously, that is in the past and now Valverde is here and he loves high-pressing and counter-pressing systems.

The video below explains how the Catalan side defends under the former Athletic Club de Bilbao manager.

Defending: Real Madrid’s man-marking low-block

Real Madrid are complete in every way. They can produce goals from nearly any player in their starting XI, have depth, and they can defend.

With that said, they’re not at the level of Atletico Madrid or Juventus in terms of low-block organization, but Los Blancos certainly have players who are adept at 1v1 situations.

Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane, and Dani Carvajal are all solid 1v1 defenders in their respective positions and responsibilities. And that is why Zinedine Zidane deployed them in a man-marking low-block against Valverde’s side. Also, Real Madrid love playing counter-attacking football if the opponent does manage to push them back.

As a result, their midfielders often will drop into the backline when the opportunity seems like the logical thing to do and at least one midfielder will play zonal to cover the central axis and offer a clear outlet pass when they win the ball back.

The video below explains Real Madrid’s low-block:

Attacking and defending: Barca builds up into attacking overload and Real Madrid use overload defensive block

In addition to Valverde’s narrower defending style, Barca also implemented a lot of attacking overloads against Real Madrid, especially down Madrid’s right side.

It should also be noted that under Enrique, overloads down opposition’s right side were rare given the fact that an overload would actually hurt Neymar’s style of play and wasn’t needed as Neymar could get into desired spaces on his own.

Lastly, Barcelona’s attacks down their own left side weren’t the same without Neymar. Anyway, I broke down Barca’s overload style of play and how Real Madrid set up to stop it:

Attacking: Barca’s wide possession shape that relies on off-the-ball runs and rotation to exploit Real Madrid’s middle

However, Valverde doesn’t just implement narrow attacking formations for Barcelona to set up immediately. The attacking play below shows how Valverde’s side start an attack in a wide shape, put no Barca players in the central axis, and use rotations and well timed off-the-ball runs to free up Messi in the desired middle space.

Messi very much plays a free role now and Sergio Busquets is a genius. Watch.

I have to point out that Madrid’s strict man-marking gives way to weaknesses for the play above. Had Madrid implemented a bit more of a zonal block in the central axis, then it’d be harder for Barcelona to find space to use those runs and rotations.


While the first-half was considered to be won by Barca, the score entered the second stretch with a 0-0 score line. Gerard Pique, however, would give up an own goal and his rivals took the lead.

After that, Real Madrid began to impose themselves by playing patient possession football and taking advantage of Barca’s poor defending when their mid-block pressing fails.

Attacking: Real Madrid’s horizontal build-up play

Zidane knew that Barcelona’s counter-pressing and mid-block pressing can be weak when one of three things happen:

  1.  Messi doesn’t put in the off-the-ball work rate and movement (more likely when he’s frustrated. Messi tends to walk a lot).
  2. Suarez doesn’t aggressively offer CB cover shadow or doesn’t press correctly.
  3. Every other Barca player presses their ball-side man-markers while Suarez and Messi become disconnected from the press and as a result spaces open up where Messi and Suarez should be.

The video below breaks down Real Madrid’s strategy for overcoming Barca’s weak mid-block press:

As mentioned above, the game closed out in Real Madrid’s favor due to incredible individual goals by Ronaldo and Asensio, and while at the completion of this writing the second-leg had already been played, Valverde’s Barca weren’t as bad in this first-leg, but the issues were there in patches and became gaping holes in the second-leg.

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