Comparing Eibar’s defensive strategy against Barcelona and Real Madrid

Match Analysis
Carlo Alessandro Valladares

Carlo Alessandro Valladares

Like this article? buy me a beer


Eibar, to put it simply, are struggling to find their groove in terms of consistent play and results. At the time of this writing, they currently sit in 17th place in the LaLiga table after Real Madrid beat them 3-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu last Sunday. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth mentioning from a tactical perspective.

Prior to the match, Los Blancos remained unbeaten in all six matches against Eibar in LaLiga since the latter arrived at the top-flight a couple of seasons ago, but Jose Luis Mendilibar, Eibar’s manager, was likely optimistic coming into the match; Real Madrid had only won at home once in the current LaLiga campaign just before Sunday’s kickoff.

Mendilibar, for all his sides’ recent struggles, likely saw this as Eibar’s best chance at getting their first win over Real since they came up to the first division. He certainly had a plan, but it would be vastly different to the way they set up against the other LaLiga behemoth – Barcelona.

The headlines and match recaps focused on the average Real Madrid performance and the skill-filled build up to Marcelo’s match-winning goal. But we at ESDF analysis are going to focus on Mendilibar’s strategy against Real Madrid; how it differed from the way they approached Barcelona and the reasons behind the change in tactics.

How Eibar defended against Barcelona and why

Before we break down Eibar’s defensive strategy against the defending LaLiga title holders, we must first analyze the genius and historically proven way Eibar neutralized Barcelona’s build up for almost an entire first-half in September.

Last season, many LaLiga teams high-pressed Barca after the ‘MSN’ dominance dipped in and out form, allowing opposing sides to realize and take note of the lack of midfield dominance Barca had. The trio of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar, while having fine midfield support in the 14/15 & 15/16 campaigns, was largely becoming too top heavy last season.

Smaller LaLiga sides smelled blood and suddenly took a chance – why not try and disrupt the build-up to MSN?

The results aside, teams like Real Sociedad, Atletico Madrid, Sevilla, and a few others, had a great amount of success high-pressing Barcelona if you judge the pressing in itself and not if the pressing led to goals (sometimes they didn’t). Anyhow, if you take Neymar out of the picture and Suarez’s dip in form, then it was a no-brainer for Mendilibar, and his high-pressing team by identity, to defend higher up the pitch when the two sides met last month. There was no reason to steer away from their usual high-pressing strategy, in fact, now was the absolute best time, in theory.

To understand the classically proven way to disrupt the BarcAjax 4-3-3 buildup, we need to briefly analyze the BarcAjax philosophy, which revolves around achieving positional superiority throughout the pitch, and notice how the true and pure students of the philosophy never steer away from it – you build up from the defense to midfield, get in the opposition half, break down the block, and then you’re “free,” as Pep Guardiola once put it. You pass as a team and move as a team. No long-balls, as they require scrambled runs to win the second ball or individual physicality to hold up the ball.

Both styles achieve positional superiority, but the latter leaves a formation disconnected – a couple of players chase the long ball or support it while a couple stay back. We bring up the long-ball tactic because it is a strategy that is very effective at overcoming an organized high-press if you have the right players, but Barcelona, often faced with teams trying to high-press them, will never do this and against Eibar it was no different.

And that, to me, is one of the negatives about pass-orientated positional play; it is predictable. It is that predictability that inspired a younger Jose Mourinho, a former Barcelona assistant coach, to discover one of the most effective formations at beating a possession-based 4-3-3 – using a 4-5-1 or 4-2-3-1 to match it.

You see, if you’re the side that is defending against Barca’s 4-3-3, you don’t have to worry about a long-ball negating your press by passing over it, you can theoretically limit the number of ways to stop Barca’s build-up down to a couple of methods because you know short, quick passing is their only buildup method (mostly, it changed a bit under Luis Enrique). Mourinho, as a result, went with the 4-2-3-1 for a number of reasons to combat the 4-3-3:

  1.  You can attack and defend in the same formation.
  2. You can man-mark the whole three-man midfield and both full-backs and still have a 4v3 at the back in your favour.
  3. One striker is open, when defending, to screen passing lanes, cause overloads, trap the opposition full-back, and still apply pressure on the centre-backs.

It allows for sides to have a good man-marking/zonal balance while disrupting the most important positions in building up in a Barca 4-3-3, the midfield and full-backs. Mendilibar, on the other hand, took this formational template and applied it with an aggressive high-pressing strategy last month (click here for full analysis of Eibar’s strategy in that match). Mourinho rarely used the 4-5-1 in a high-pressing style.

Furthermore, according to many coaches at the top-level, formations are merely the skeleton, and the applied strategy combined with player execution is what decides matches. So, Mendilibar, as did Mourinho earlier in his career, saw the benefit of the 4-2-3-1 when defending against the BarcAjax 4-3-3, he just used the formation differently.

Eibar’s high-pressing disrupts Barca’s build up

Anyway, below, we see the 4-2-3-1 Mendilibar used with Eibar against Ernesto Valverde’s side.

Below, we see how the man-marking was set to work.

We can see, as mentioned earlier, that Eibar, although starting more zonally compact in the central area, are marking Barca’s three midfielders, both full-backs, and one centre-back, forcing the play to go to right-back Nelson Semedo which triggers the aggressive man-marking.

The graphic below also shows Eibar’s man-marking style higher up the pitch and how the 4-2-3-1 matches up well against the 4-3-3:

However, the graphic above won’t do the pressing system justice. Below, you’ll find an in-depth video breakdown of Eibar’s 4-2-3-1 press, in a number of phases, which they used successfully.

Eibar’s 4-2-3-1 man-marking press on Barcelona part 1

But what happened when Messi dropped deeper to help Barca with the build up? Essentially, when Messi dropped into midfield, Gonzalo Escalante shifted from his right-sided DM position and tracked Messi in a man-marking role. However, this left Andres Iniesta open, so right-back Anaitz Arbilla pushed up higher to mark the veteran midfielder.

The video below breaks the adjustment down.

Eibar’s man-marking press and how they adjusted when Messi dropped into midfield

Eibar used this tactic extremely well in this match. They matched up perfectly with Barca’s midfield, full-backs, and carefully dealt with Messi when he dropped deep. The timing of the runs are key to a successful press, and Eibar were excellent in terms of their execution and successfully stopped Barcelona from building up from the back on most occasions in the first half of that match.

Eibar went for the high-press because they wanted to force Barcelona to turnover the ball in their own-half in hopes they could get easier chances on net. It is always in their nature to high-press, no matter how good the opposition, and without having to worry about ‘MSN’ anymore, they knew they could get at Barcelona with a structured press.

Although they lost that match 6-1, Mendilibar got a lot right in terms of Eibar’s pressing strategy and Eibar mostly fell short in attacking phases and defending when they turned the ball over. But how did they set up against Real Madrid and why did they change their defensive strategy?

Eibar’s defensive strategy against Real Madrid

To understand why Eibar changed their strategy to take on Zinedine Zidane’s side, we need to analyze how Real Madrid builds up the play from the back.

Above, we can see both strategies Eibar took against Real Madrid (left) and Barcelona (right). On the left, you can see how Eibar, in a lot of defensive phases last Sunday, opted to play a bit deeper rather than the higher pressing approach against Barcelona.

Above, we can see how Real Madrid set up in a 2-2-6 formation by pushing both of their full-backs higher up into forward positions. They did this many times last weekend.

This is what makes Madrid tricky to set up against. On one hand, they can pass their way through pressure and build up from defence to midfield, based on their talent all over the pitch, and enter the opponents half. On the other hand, they’ll go straight from defence or Toni Kroos to the forwards or Dani Carvajal via long balls.

This makes things very complicated as they can build up in a number of ways and hurt you badly in all build up strategies. Below, is a screenshot of Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane receiving the ball and, interestingly, Eibar aren’t pressing.

Instead, Joan Jordan (blue circle) is signalling Eibar to drop off and retreat. Notice how Real Madrid right-back Nacho isn’t in sideways stance looking toward the ball, his back is turned against the buildup and isn’t very wide, he’s very much looking to get to his forward position.

Also, above, you can see Eibar’s 3-5-2 high-block, they’re marking higher up the pitch, but not pressing. Isco’s free-role and Real Madrid’s tendency to go long is the reason why they’re more precautious than against Barcelona.

Above, you can see what Eibar was focused on marking all of Madrid’s midfielders and full-backs in a 3-5-2 system with their midfield five killing off the width of the pitch. Both of Eibar’s wingbacks are positioned slightly outside the central axis and in the half-spaces to make any passes, short or long, to either Madrid full-back high-risk.

Additionally, you see both Eibar forwards not pressing either Sergio Ramos or Varane, they stay in a containment marking style, staying close to Casemiro, but not super close; they want Ramos to pass to the Brazilian so they can set up a double marker on him and either win the ball or force him toward a crowded midfield area to make a potential mistake.

Below, you’ll find a video breaking down this particular Eibar defensive phase.

Eibar 5-3-2 mid-block against Real Madrid

For comparison reasons, both screenshots below showcase the slightly different strategy Eibar took. Both screenshots also show Real Madrid and Barcelona center-backs passing to build up the play and Eibar’s different approach to disrupt each buildup.

Eibar’s 3-5-2 high-block against Real Madrid

Eibar’s 4-2-3-1 man-marking system against Barcelona

Each strategy by Mendilibar was calculated and made sense, in theory. Against Barca they matched up more man-to-man with aggressive pressing triggers for passes to full-backs or backward passes to Barca CBs.

However, against Madrid, they opted for a more zonal man-marking system with the emphasis on moving as a more compact block to prevent passes down the middle but with their wing-backs in the half-spaces to make passes to Madrid’s high full-backs more high risk. They also tried to force Casemiro into mistakes by not pressing Ramos and Varane, and being ready to jump on the Brazilian DM.

Aggressive defending styles for both, but altered to prepare for different types of opposition build ups. Eibar are far from great, but they’re showing that some LaLiga managers are keen to figure out ways to stop both Barcelona and Real Madrid from the very start of their attacks.

You may also like