La Liga has been filled with classic matches throughout the years, and the first El Clásico of the 2011/12 season was surely one of them. Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid was in irresistible form, winning 37 out of 42 possible points, with Pep Guardiola’s mighty Barcelona just 3 points behind them. The match turned out to be an intriguing tactical battle, with Guardiola making ingenuous changes to win the game.15
Real Madrid (4-2-3-1): Iker Casillas; Marcelo, Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Fabio Coentrão; Lassana Diarra, Xabi Alonso; Cristiano Ronaldo; Mesut Özil, Ángel Di María; Karim Benzema.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Víctor Valdés; Eric Abidal, Gerard Piqué, Carles Puyol, Dani Alves; Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta; Alexis Sánchez, Lionel Messi, Cesc Fàbregas.
Barcelona in possession
Barcelona started the match in a 4-3-3, with Fabregas playing alongside Xavi in central midfield, and Messi and Iniesta the two wingers. Real defended in a 4-2-3-1.
Right from the start, the visitors’ back four were pressed fiercely by Real Madrid’s front four, notably Benzema and Di María, who worked hard to press Valdés as well. Real’s three central midfielders marked Barcelona’s counterparts. Benzema pressed the centre-back with the ball, the ball-near winger marked the ball-near full-back, while the ball-far winger stayed in the middle and waited for the ball to come to their side to press. A back-pass from Barca would trigger intense pressing from Real. Here, right after pressing Puyol, Benzema rushed at Valdés as Puyol passed the ball back to the keeper.
Real Madrid players like using their cover shadow to block central passing lanes – like Özil here. They tried to prevent access to Barcelona’s midfielders by forming a cage around them, as demonstrated in the picture below. The aim was to stay compact and force Barcelona to progress through the wings. Real had numbers in central midfield, which helped them press effectively there.
Real made sure Barcelona didn’t have much space out wide as well, with Özil helping the ball-near full-back and winger. When an opponent had the ball on the wing, the ball-near full-back would close him down intensely to prevent penetration. Here, Coentrão stepped out of position to close down Messi. Di María and Özil’s positioning also helped limit space for Messi to operate.
At the start of the match, Barcelona mostly built up through the left with Abidal and Iniesta. While Alves was left isolated on the right with Ronaldo- perhaps they wanted to exploit Ronaldo’s lack of defensive qualities – and Messi moved centrally a lot to combine with the midfielders.
After the first 15 minutes, Guardiola switched his side to a 4-4-1-1, with Messi a 10 behind Alexis, Iniesta and Alves the two wide midfielders, and Puyol moving to right-back, while Busquets moved back to central defence. Alexis and Alves tried to cause damage with deep runs to receive long balls on that side, where Real had Marcelo and Ronaldo, both of whom were not good defensively. Barcelona’s buildup through the left didn’t work out too well against Real’s compact shape. What’s more, Guardiola wanted the tireless Alves to exploit the right-wing that Messi left behind – and could also be a threat to Real on the break.
That was exactly what happened in Barcelona’s third goal. Alves’s high positioning on the break meant he could easily send a dangerous cross into the box. Here, Fabregas received the cross and headed home from close range.
After the change, Barcelona’s combinations on the left were more dangerous, as they could free Alves on the right.
Centre-back Busquets played higher than Piqué and acted as a defensive midfielder in possession and counter-pressing situations. This required great tactical intelligence from Busquets, whose positioning has mostly been world-class throughout his career. However, with Barcelona’s midfield four pushing high Busquets had to cover too much space, although Puyol and Abidal were more conservative in their positioning. Mourinho’s Real – a side famous for their devastating counters – really made Barcelona vulnerable on the break, but their end product was not good enough.
The below image was an example of a Real counter. Xavi and Cesc were too high up the pitch leaving acres of space in the middle for Real to exploit.
Barcelona’s aggressive formation now focused on overloading the centre and short combinations with the help of Iniesta’s central movements. While the likes of Messi and Cesc positioned between the lines. Busquets was, of course, someone capable of line-breaking passes, and his positioning guided his teammates’ movements. Here, the defender had an array of forward passing options, eventually finding Messi with a line-breaking pass.
The Catalan side tried to create a numerical superiority around the ball, with many of them in pockets of space (Messi, Xavi here) to combine through the Real defence.
Below is an example of the away side’s central combination. Four players occupied space between Real’s midfield and defence, which led to a dangerous combination right in front of the box.
Barcelona now had better control of the centre, while Messi and Iniesta’s dribbling (11 take-ons combined) provided another option to penetrate through Real’s crowded midfield.
Overloading a certain area in possession also helped Barcelona counter-press effectively, especially in the centre. To instantly close down space around the ball, the defenders pushed higher, while the wide players ran centrally. Busquets, in particular, was a key player in these situations. He reacted quickly and instantly to overload the midfield area when Barcelona lost the ball. Özil, Real’s key passer in transition, was the one Busquets often tried to press. In the below example, he recognised the transition phase and instantly rushed towards the German from a deep position, forcing him to pass backwards. Iniesta and Abidal here also worked hard to close down space around the ball, thus slowing down Real’s counter.
Real in possession
Against Guardiola’s Barcelona, Real had to enjoy a lesser share of possession. Upon winning the ball back, they generally looked to counter quickly with direct forward passes, but they failed many times due to Barcelona’s effective counter-pressing scheme.
Alonso, Özil and Di María were wonderful passers, while the front players were filled with technique and speed. Below is an example of a Real counter. Özil received a lightning-quick one-touch pass from Alonso and instantly flicked the ball back to Di María, who passed the ball first-time to Ronaldo.
During the buildup, the deep players often launched long balls towards the left, where Ronaldo and Benzema would be. The likes of Alonso could also progress through line-breaking passes towards Özil, who showed smart movements between the lines. From there, he could send passes towards the likes of Ronaldo and Benzema, who were flexible in their positioning.
Barcelona defended in a 4-4-2, with Messi and Alexis upfront. The front two tried to block central passing lanes, especially ones towards Alonso, Real’s key playmaker from deep. They stayed compact and forced passes towards the wings. When that happened, the whole shape shifted towards the ball, the ball-near players suffocating the player in possession forcing him to go long or pass back. Barcelona players actively used their cover shadow to limit passing options.
Here, we saw Barcelona’s ball-oriented defending shape, with Messi marking Alonso. Coentrão received the ball and was instantly pressed by Abidal, while Xavi moved to mark Özil, Coentrão’s best forward option.
While Barcelona midfield’s positioning was often exposed on the break, the team’s defensive unit was compact both horizontally and vertically if they had time to regroup. Real really struggled to break down their opponent’s solid 4-4-2 in longer possession sequences, as Barcelona moved and pressed actively as a group. The home side had to go wide and send crosses in but they were mostly unsuccessful in doing so. Even though Mourinho did try to emphasise crosses in the second half by bringing in Kaká for Özil and then switching Di María and Ronaldo’s position. The match ended 1-3.
This analysis showed that Barcelona deserved to win this match. They struggled against Real’s intense high press in the first 15 minutes, but Guardiola’s change to a 4-4-2 shape helped his side regain control of the midfield and eventually, the scoreline. Barcelona’s win meant they went level on points with their rival, but it was the defeated side who came back strong and won the league with a record 100 points.