After political unrest in Catalonia led the postponement of El Clásico, the day has finally arrived. The biggest game of the first half of the season is finally here.

Neutrals will enjoy the timing even more now that the teams are level on points at the top of the La Liga table. Tied at 35 points nearly halfway through the league slate can only enhance the intensity and passion in the game.

Camp Nou hosts the first Clásico of the season with Barcelona starting to find their form in La Liga. They’ve won five of their last nine games by three goals or more and cruised through their Champions League group.

While Real Madrid hasn’t been quite as prolific in front of goal, they’ve strung together a number of dominant performances in the league, creating a healthy number of opportunities and conceding few. Prior to their game against Valencia, they recorded a high xG than their opponent in every game since their match against Atlético on September 28th, a run of eight games.

This tactical analysis preview will look at each teams’ style of play and the tactics they will likely take into El Clásico. Analysis of each team’s strengths and weaknesses will show how each team will approach the game and address the biggest tactical concerns for each team.

Ernesto Valverde vs Zinedine Zidane

In seven games, Zidane has five wins and a draw against Valverde. Of those seven games, four are Clásicos, in which Zidane has the 2-1-1 edge over Valverde with the two more recent games ending in a Barcelona win and draw.

After Barcelona’s runaway title during the 2018/19 season, the table is much tighter this year. Real Madrid has closed the gap, tying Barcelona on points, trailing only on goal differential. Sevilla sits four-points back and the gap to 8th place is just eight points. In this highly competitive La Liga season, a deeper analysis of the stats is necessary to gauge this matchup.

La Liga 2019/20: Barcelona vs Real Madrid – tactical preview tactics
Real Madrid are ahead of Barcelona in xG, xA and xPTS this season, yet level on points

Analysing xG, xGA and xPTS, Real Madrid have superior statistics in all three categories. They’re actually underperforming in xG while overperforming in the other two. Zidane’s side could use more clinical finishing as Karim Benzema is the lone standout, scoring 12 goals with a 9.1 xG. After him, there’s a massive drop to 2nd place Sergio Ramos, who has three goals on a 3.1 xG. The defence will certainly be the priority for Zidane in this game, but the key attacking players need to produce at a more efficient rate. Zidane’s tactics are producing more than enough opportunities for this team to contest for the title and make a run in the UEFA Champions League

Meanwhile, Valverde’s side is wildly overachieving in goals scored and are six points ahead of their xPTS. That’s a credit to the clinical finishing of Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez. Messi has four set-piece goals and two converted penalty kicks. That leaves him with six goals in the flow of play for a total of 12 (all with his left foot) in 11 La Liga games. For the Barcelona purists, the lack of opportunities is troubling, but Messi and Suárez’s brilliance continues to mask cracks in the system.

Valverde’s side plays the through ball more than any other team in La Liga. According to Football Reference, Barcelona has racked up 53 through balls, whereas Madrid is second with 30. La Blaugrana plays very centrally with the midfield and forwards typically occupying the half-spaces and central channel. The outside-backs provide width, but Valverde does not have his team send many crosses. They’re dead last in La Liga with just 183 crosses, whereas Real Madrid is 7th with 334.

According to WhoScored, Barcelona will play about 51 long balls per game compared to Real Madrid’s 61. However, the way they use long balls is very different. Zidane knows that Valverde’s team will look to play long upon recovering the ball. With Suárez, Messi and Antoine Griezmann offering little defensive support, Barcelona usually has three high targets. They’ll look to play long, vertical balls soon after recovery.

For Zidane, the long balls tend to be diagonal, targeting the wide players in space. Toni Kroos, Casemiro and Ramos look to receive in a deep central position and play into the wide areas. The effectiveness of the long diagonal is especially important in this game. With Barcelona’s outside-backs pushing high up the field, the long diagonal will either keep the defenders honest or attack the open space they’ve vacated. With Jordi Alba still recovering from an injury, his wing is especially vulnerable. Look for Gareth Bale to play, I’m guessing as a sub, a big part in attacking that space with his pace.

Zidane’s attacking tactics could very well decide the game. He typically prefers his team progress through the wings while leaving the middle mostly unoccupied, save for a holding midfielder or a player checking in from high up the pitch. Valverde’s defending tactics call for extreme narrowness. Flighted balls to high, wide targets could unlock the aggressive defence, but Los Blancos will have to play safely until that moment. If Barcelona engages high up the field with lack of numerical discipline, look for players like Federico Valverde and Luka Modric to remain high up the field in support of the forwards.

For those of us who love the tactical side of the game, Zidane vs Valverde promises a real chess match.

Transitional play

With Barcelona playing so narrowly defensively while keeping at least Suárez and Messi high up the field, any recovery with their opponents in an expansive attacking shape leads to a goal-scoring opportunity. With so many players around the ball, Barcelona can break pressure quickly and play long to the forwards. Griezmann has typically remained high up the pitch as Barcelona defends, only dropping if there is a need.

In previous Clásico, we’ve seen Messi sit in the space that Marcelo vacated, receive and draw out Ramos, then cut centrally to combine with his teammates. As Real Madrid attack in Barcelona’s defensive third, expect Messi, Suárez and Griezmann to continuously adjust their starting positions to offer the vertical outlet. If the pass is completed, expect them to attack the Madrid backline in a 3v3 or 3v4 situation. Barcelona frequently attacks transitional moments with a combination of numerical equality and qualitative superiority.

La Liga 2019/20: Barcelona vs Real Madrid – tactical preview tactics
de Jong picks out Messi, who cuts inside to combine with Suarez

In their win against Atlético, the game-winning goal came in one of these transitional moments. Sergi Roberto claimed a cross and headed the ball to Frankie de Jong, who drove down the field despite Messi’s clamouring.

La Liga 2019/20: Barcelona vs Real Madrid – tactical preview tactics
After a nice little give-and-go, Messi finishes with a left-footed game-winner

As de Jong passed to Messi, the Argentinian (stop me if you’ve heard this before) dribbled down the right half-space, pinning his defender and demanding the attention of a second. He cut inside of Partey, played a simple give-and-go with Suárez and produced a brilliant finish.

As clinical as Barcelona is on the counter, Zidane’s side is equally adept. Studying Real Madrid, they are most comfortable defending in a middle block. They prefer forcing opponents to play from the back. As the opponent gets it’s attacking shape, Real Madrid will man-mark on the ball side while pressuring the ball carrier.

As opponents build-up, Madrid is fantastic at funnelling play to the wings, then forcing the opponent to play backwards. The attackers aggressively pursue the negative pass, leaving the goalkeeper or centre-backs with little to no time to pick out a target and hit the pass with proper technique. Wayward passes often end up at the feet of Casemiro, Raphael Varane or Ramos. From that central recovery point, Madrid looks to play forward. With the attackers all playing ball-side, they typically have a better path to the goal than their opponents.

La Liga 2019/20: Barcelona vs Real Madrid – tactical preview tactics
Modric forces a bad pass as his teammates man-mark Sociedad players out of the play

In this instance, former Real Madrid academy star Diego Llorente is the victim. As he received the negative pass from Nacho Monreal, he hurriedly played forward. Looking at his options, the goalkeeper, Remiro, was his only real option as his fellow centre-back, Artiz Elustondo, has really poor body orientation and can really only play the keeper.

La Liga 2019/20: Barcelona vs Real Madrid – tactical preview tactics
Varane intercepted the pass, dribbled forward and played Hazard

Llorente’s pass is intercepted by Varane, who ignited the attack. As Varane drove forward, he managed to pin the defence, freeing up a pass to Eden Hazard.

La Liga 2019/20: Barcelona vs Real Madrid – tactical preview tactics
Hazard picked out the run of Benzema, whose cross led to the goal

With loads of space in front of him, Hazard dribbled forward until the centre-backs halted their momentum. As they stopped, he played Benzema into the half-space. Benzema would then cross the ball to Modric, who dropped to Valverde. The Uruguayan’s deflected shot hit the back of the net and ended up being the winning goal.

Madrid’s wing attacks will unlock the half-spaces

Though both teams are especially good in transition, they’re also among the best in the world in terms of constructing the attack. For Real Madrid, progression through the wings is a common tactic. Given the wide, creative playmakers on the team, this is certainly the best tactic for them. Plus, with the wide build-up, any loss of possession gives them more time to recover their defensive shape, getting numbers behind the ball.

Remember those 61 long balls Madrid average each game? As its building up, Madrid will typically have Kroos drop deep to receive and play long. If not him, Ramos and Casemiro can drive the ball with sufficient accuracy too. They will look for the wide forwards, especially on the right-side.

As the ball enters the wide channels, keep an eye on Benzema. He’s the key to Madrid’s attack. If he is far from the ball, his teammates will engage in 1v1 or 2v2 battles. If Benzema is in one of the wings or half-space and the ball is played to his side, Madrid usually looks to play in behind the opponent on that side. His movement determines which player makes the run in behind the defence.

If Vinícius Júnior plays on the left, they will then look to play high and wide teammates on either side. As the pass is en route, look for the outside-backs to get forward in support of the forwards. If Valverde is the right-centre midfielder, look for him to offer both support and penetrating runs in the right half-space.

If you read my match analysis of Deportivo Alavés vs Real Madrid, you know that Benzema loves to play in the half-spaces. When he starts centrally, it’s typically to pull a centre-back from the middle, opening a massive gap for his wide teammates to run into. Madrid design their tactics to aggressively attack the half-spaces in the lead up to the final pass. When Bale is on the field, look for him and Benzema to work off of each other to get behind the Barcelona defence.

La Liga 2019/20: Barcelona vs Real Madrid – tactical preview tactics
Madrid nearly vacated the middle of the field, preferring to build on the wings

Here you see Real Madrid playing from the back. With Real Sociedad aggressively pursuing the Madrid defenders, Varane opts to ball long to Bale.

La Liga 2019/20: Barcelona vs Real Madrid – tactical preview tactics
Bale claimed the pass and played Valverde as Benzema streaked down the middle of the field

Bale won the ball and slotted Valverde into the wing. Since Bale beat Monreal and midfield help focus on Bale, Valverde was able to pick up the ball on the wing and run at the centre-back, Llorente. There’s a lot happening in this frame. You can see the outstretched arm of Benzema at the bottom-left. Elustondo saw him, deviating from covering Llorente to now scrambling to deny Benzema. As the gap between the two central defenders widened, Bale made his surging run right through the gap.

La Liga 2019/20: Barcelona vs Real Madrid – tactical preview tactics
Bale continued his run, received the pass and crossed to Benzema, who headed the ball to Modric for the goal

Valverde’s wide position created the passing lane into the half-space for Bale. The Welshman received the ball on the end line and crossed to Benzema at the far post. Benzema headed the ball back to the middle where Modric was there to half-volley it home.

Barcelona will overload the half-spaces and middle

If you remember the Neymar days, he operated as a winger who looked to use his dribbling ability to wreak havoc on defences before setting up Messi and Suárez. Barcelona tried the same thing with Ousmane Dembélé last season, but that ultimately led to tactical dissatisfaction and the purchase of Antoine Griezmann.

The Frenchman always looked best when operating centrally for Atlético. When Barcelona purchased Griezmann, the natural question was “how will Barcelona fit three central players into their forward line?”

When Barcelona doesn’t have the ball, the answer is simple…tactical pragmatism. A very narrow defensive shape keeps the three forwards connected, allowing them to work off of each other and attack with numerical equivalence and qualitative superiority. The Messi, Suárez and Griezmann triangulation is really enjoyable to watch. Watch for them to play at varying heights within a tight space. That will set up combo play and the third runner in behind the defence.

If Barcelona is playing at a slower tempo or from the back, they’ll hold up play at the back to allow the outside-backs to get high up the field. If Griezmann has and wants his 1v1, Alba will back off so as not to attract another defender. If the 1v1 isn’t on, Griezmann pinches inside and Alba provides width.

Given the threat of Bale and Rodrygo on the wings, expect Alba to be a little more conservative going forward. That could open up greater wing responsibilities for Griezmann or push Barcelona to rely more heavily on transitional attacks. The later surely won’t sit well with the home crowd. It’ll be interesting to see if Alba takes risks higher up the field or if Griezmann is asked to provide width in his starting position while looking to get into the half-space off the ball.

La Liga 2019/20: Barcelona vs Real Madrid – tactical preview tactics
Messi moved to a central position, allowing him to connect more easily with Suarez and Griezmann

Here Clément Lenglet dribbled into the midfield and passed to Messi. Sloppy defence from the Atlético midfield allowed Messi to turn out of pressure and find Arthur. The Brazilian passed the ball to Griezmann, who drove into the half-space to play with Messi and Suárez.

La Liga 2019/20: Barcelona vs Real Madrid – tactical preview tactics
Messi pulls Felipe out and Griezmann spots the run of Suarez

As Messi checked to the ball, he pulled Felipe into the midfield, creating a running lane for Suárez. Griezmann slotted a nice pass to Suárez, who earned a corner kick.

La Liga 2019/20: Barcelona vs Real Madrid – tactical preview tactics
El Clásico ended 1-0 with Suarez picking up the goal with this assist from Rakitic

Going back to the March 2nd Clásico, Ivan Rakitic created the game-winning goal when he received in the half-space, beat Vinícius Júnior. on the dribble and pinned the Madrid defence. His action and Messi’s starting point between the two centre-backs freed Suárez to receive, turn and deliver the game-winner. Barcelona will surely look for quick combinations like this today.

In Madrid’s defensive third

When the two teams met in Barcelona last March, they split possession. While it wouldn’t shock the world if this rendition had the same outcome, let’s assume Barcelona will have a slight edge in possession and that Madrid will only start one creative player in the midfield, which would be Kroos. Casemiro and Valverde will likely start alongside Kroos, covering for his defensive vulnerabilities. In addition to their defensive work in the midfield, they will have the additional tasks of denying Barcelona’s opportunities for combination play near the box and cutting out negative passes in the box.

When defending in their own half, expect Madrid to play with a very compact back-line and midfield. When Barcelona has prolonged possessions, the outside-backs provide the width. Alba, in particular, is used to progress play up the left-wing, combining with his left-sided midfielder and forward. If he’s able to get deep into the attacking third, his penetrating runs from the wings into the half-space open up the possibility of a driven near-post cross to Suárez or a negative pass near the penalty spot for Messi. Casemiro and Valverde will have to track runners and cut out those negative crosses. If they are successful, Madrid can attack a very vulnerable Barcelona defence with little to no support from the outside-backs and midfielders.

Knowing that Barcelona will likely try to get the outside-backs high up the field, don’t be surprised if Madrid forces Barcelona to play out of the back often. That will allow Madrid to defend in the middle third while also keeping the back-line narrow. This fits into the tactic to play long, diagonal balls to the wide forwards. Madrid can take chances to play their wide playmakers. If Barcelona cut out the passes and play Marc-André ter Stegen, they will restart from the back and have to weave their way through the Madrid middle block.

Ultimately, as Real Madrid attack, it has to prepare to defend. The upside of Barcelona playing so narrowly as they press is that there are opportunities to play over them into open spaces on the wings. The downside is any turnover means Barcelona has three to six players around the ball, attacking in numbers as they quickly move in on goal. As we saw in the game against Atlético, they only need one opportunity to secure a result.

La Liga 2019/20: Barcelona vs Real Madrid – tactical preview tactics
Griezmann intercepts the pass and combines with Suarez before sending him to goal

In that game against Atlético, Barcelona pressed with their entire team in a 30×25 metre area. Atlético attempted to play through the pressure but turned the ball over to Griezmann. A quick combination saw Griezmann played forward with Messi and Suárez at varying heights in front of him. With numerical equivalence in that area, Griezmann played the forward run of Suárez, who sent a shot just wide of the post. If Real Madrid tries to play out of this type of pressure, they can expect the same fate as their cross-town rivals.

La Liga 2019/20: Barcelona vs Real Madrid – tactical preview tactics
Real Madrid fail to cut out the negative cross but are bailed out by Courtois

In this last scenario, Real Madrid is defending deep in their end against Real Sociedad. Dani Carvajal gets beat and stumbles, moving Varane into first defender duties. His attempt to block the cross is poor, as is Casemiro’s attempt to cut out the negative cross. Modric is also slow to cover the middle, which is why Valverde is my favourite to get the start. If Barcelona establishes possession and looks for the negative cross, watch Suárez pull defenders to the near post, opening up the penalty spot for Messi. He’s clinical from that spot, so the Madrid midfield will have to account for those dangerous areas of the box.

Projected Lineups

La Liga 2019/20: Barcelona vs Real Madrid – tactical preview tactics
Expect a 1-4-3-3 from each team

Barcelona’s projected lineup: ter Stegen; Roberto, Gerard Piqué, Lenglet, Alba; Sergio Busquets, Rakitic, de Jong; Messi, Suárez, Griezmann

Madrid’s projected lineup: Thibaut Courtois; Carvajal, Varane, Ramos, Ferland Mendy; Casemiro, Kroos, Valverde; Rodrygo, Benzema, Isco

Ruben Semedo could start in place of Roberto, but the Portuguese is returning from injury and may not have the fitness or rhythm to start. He played the last 20 minutes against Real Sociedad but had little impact. Given Alba’s fitness levels, expect Semedo to start on the bench and replace Alba at left-back at some point. Arturo Vidal will likely feature as well. Rakitic and Griezmann are the two players he typically replaces.

Despite their long list of injuries, including Hazard and Marcelo, Los Blancos have a lot of options, even if they aren’t ideal. Bale is returning from a hamstring injury and played 25 minutes against Valencia. If he’s fit, he could start and provide a big boost to the Madrid attack. Nacho is an option at left-back, but Mendy offers more going forward. Modric could start in place of Casemiro or Valverde, but a safer start is the likely alternative. Vinícius Júnior could start instead of Isco, but the Spaniard gives Madrid a boost in the midfield and creative departments.

Look for Bale to replace Rodrygo around the 65th minute and Vinícius Júnior subbing on for Isco shortly after that. The third substitution will likely introduce Modric to the game. If Real Madrid needs a goal, expect Casemiro or Valverde to come off. If Los Blancos are protecting a lead or playing for the draw, Kroos is the likely sub as his defensive work is a vulnerability.

Conclusion

If you believe the numbers, and I do, this will be a tight affair with little between the teams. It could be a mistake that leads to the game-winning goal as both teams will likely play not to lose.

I hope I’m wrong on that last bit, but Madrid will play for even a single point and Barcelona can’t afford to lose the home leg against their fellow title contender. Madrid is missing some big names, so this is a golden opportunity for Barcelona to get three points.

At the very least, I expect a passionate match with confrontations. Emotions will run high as both teams will understand the significance of this result on the final standings. I expect a 1-1 draw in a very tense game.


Total Football Analysis Magazine #16: December 2019

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