Barcelona scored a 1-0 win against Real Madrid in pre-season. New signing Raphinha scored the only goal of the game in the first half. The Brazilian’s strike was enough to ensure that the Catalan giants secured their second straight win in two games.
As they did against Inter Miami, Barca made wholesale changes to their playing XI for the second half. However, an interesting tactical adaptation was evident in both sets of players.
Xavi set his side up in a 4-3-3 formation for both halves. While defending, this became a 4-1-3-2. The aim of the tactic was to facilitate a higher press against Madrid’s 4-3-3 shape.
How did Barcelona counter Real Madrid’s tactics?
The 4-1-3-2 shape provides a team with the following benefits:
1. The shape helps to maintain the defensive integrity of the team, as there is a back-four being shielded by a holding midfielder.
2. The front five helps to compress the central spaces and allows easier access to press the wings.
3. Flexibility. A 4-1-3-2 shape can be achieved from a base of 4-3-3,4-2-3-1,4-2-2-2 or 4-4-2.
Xavi achieved the 4-1-3-2 shape by pushing a midfielder higher up. In the first half, Pedri pressed alongside Lewandowski as the second forward. In the second half, Sergi Roberto and Aubameyang acted as the dual forwards.
For large parts of the game, Barcelona were able to pin Madrid deep into their own half and force mistakes. In fact, Raphinha’s game-winning strike originated from an Eder Miltao blunder deliberately orchestrated by Xavi’s tireless fireballs.
In the second half too, Barcelona were able to shut the doors from the back, while continuously trying to suffocate Ancelotti’s backline from the front.
Barcelona’s pressing structure was very well constructed for several reasons:
First, the structure allowed Barcelona to remain compact centrally. Real Madrid started the first half with a talented midfield of Fede Valverde, Eduardo Camavinga and Aurelien Tchouameni. Barca opted for a proactive approach, and looked to directly cut-off play to the midfield, rather than chase the ball in the second third of the field.
Another major advantage the 4-1-3-2 structure provides is the availability of two central players (the CDM and CAM so to speak). I will refer to them as “catalysts” because they help to influence the opposition decisions and create situations of numerical superiority.
This means, when Madrid played the ball out to their defenders, it allowed Barcelona to exercise an effective side-overload. Essentially, Real Madrid had no option other than opting for a long pass, or a risky pass across the face of their own goal.
While this system has some real potential for application once the season starts, it did require a few modifications and tweaks of its own.
One of the essential aspects of defending is to keep the opponent away from our goal. The farther away the opponent has the ball, the less the possibility they can immediately threaten us.
For this, Barcelona needed to ensure two things better:
1. To ensure that gaps are not permitted through the middle.
As mentioned earlier, compactness is a key factor to ensuring an effective 4-1-3-2. This is because Barca’s wide men were optimally positioned to access the flanks and press the opponents. The main risk was a direct pass from the center-forward to Real’s defensive midfielder. If Casemeiro or Camavinga could receive the ball on the turn and face the direction of the play, Madrid would be able to bypass 5 of Barcelona’s players and transition very quickly into attack.
How could Barcelona compress spaces and mark the opposition DM out of the game more effectively? This takes us to our second pointer,
2. How high is too high?
Whether it is La Liga or Champions League football, Barcelona may face opponents who are trying to play the ball out of the back. If our opponents seek the aerial route, it becomes the responsibility of the back-four and defensive midfielder to win duels and regain second balls.
However, the scenario is different against a ball-playing team. Most of the top teams in the world have goal-keepers and center-backs who are very comfortable with the ball at their feet. Furthermore, the new goal-kick rule allows teams to place their center-backs inside the box to build up.
This essentially means teams can have three players with quality distribution facing the direction of play immediately from a goal-kick. Xavi tried to counter this by pushing his forwards very high up the field.
However, this move is not ideal. Barcelona’s forwards were forced to cover an extra 20 yards to press Madrid’s defence. This meant Barca’s lone pivot had acres of space to cover between the lines. Unsurprisingly, Madrid were able to exploit the space and transition very quickly. In the second half, Barca pushed Madrid hard within their own half.
However, every time Ancelotti’s men cleared the first line of pressure, they were able to access Barca’s defensive third easily.
So, how could we prevent this from happening? The answer is compactness. Instead of trying to force the opposition center-back into a hasty decision, Xavi should instruct his players to take away all their dangerous passing options.
Madrid would have been able to do little with the ball in their own third and no viable passing options. Passes to the wings could act as pressing triggers, as the sideline acts as an additional man.
While the pre-season El Clasico did not provide us with the same fireworks as the Inter Miami game, Barcelona still put in a solid performance. Xavi’s men seem to be getting good practice ahead of the new season. Apart from enjoying the fabulous performances, it is important that the Blaugranes make crucial tweaks to their setup. If this is effectively achieved by the time the season starts, FC Barcelona could be looking at an exciting tenure under Xavi.