The grand result of the most recent El Clasico is that nothing has changed. Barcelona's 3-1 victory over Real Madrid at the Bernabeu has many emphatically claiming that the Catalan side are still in control and that any perceived shift in the balance of power has been undermined. Order has been restored, they might tell you. There are football fans that feel the talk of tactics bogs down the drama of a game that they love to romanticize about. To each their own I suppose. But, the recent chapter of El Clasico, in which Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola have dueled as managers over the past thirteen months, has a tactical evolution that does well to tell an interesting tale behind the drama. The tactical tinkering, the bluffing and baiting, and the constant changing has dramatically led to little change at all. Or so it appears.
The tale began in late November of 2010. The setting was Camp Nou and the recently appointed Mourinho, who had knocked Barcelona off their European perch in the previous Spring with Inter Milan, had brought about the optimism that he could bring similar achievement at Real Madrid. What resulted was a legendary 5-0 Barcelona victory and the worst defeat in Mourinho's impressive career. The Special One's tactics were questioned in the aftermath of that disaster but essentially what occurred is that Barcelona harshly set the bar and served notice that the task was monumental.
The Real Madrid manager fielded his side, perhaps surprisingly, in a 4-2-3-1 shape and it was perceived that the inclusion of Mesut Özil, along with three forwards, showed attacking intent. However, his side defended deep in what was effectively a 4-3-3, and it was Xavi's opening goal in the 10th minute that forced his side to come out from their defensive shell and seek an equaliser. This proved disastrous.
Özil's relatively deep-positioning meant that his natural counterpart was Xavi but he failed to track him on the opening goal. In addition, this meant that Sergio Busquets was free to ignite good passing moves from the back. The intent to keep things compact and tight is a tactic that often frustrates Barcelona but perhaps the use of Lassana Diarra, someone who could be more combative and provide more industry in the center of the park, at the start of the match would have served Mourinho better. By the time Diarra came on at half-time, Real Madrid were down two goals and they began to play higher in an effort to get back in the game. Barcelona simply exposed their high line by having the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta, and Lionel Messi play defense-splitting passes through the channels for their attackers to run onto. The technical quality from the Catalans is impressive but their understanding makes them a force. Could Mourinho find a solution?
The tale next took us to this past Spring: Real Madrid and Barcelona were set to embark on an unprecedented four-game series over an eighteen day span that likely was to decide the three biggest trophies that each side plays for. First up was a La Liga tie at the Bernabeau and Barcelona entered the match eight points clear in the La Liga table with seven games remaining. Guardiola played his side in their usual 4-3-3 shape and with most of his usual first-choice players. Mourinho made adjustments.
The Real Madrid manager deployed his side in a 4-3-3 shape in what many call a 'trivote.' The combative Pepe played as the deepest-lying midfielder and he patrolled the space between the lines -- an area of the pitch that Messi enjoys drifting into so that he can receive the ball as a false nine. Xavi's natural foil was Xabi Alonso and Iniesta found a tough counterpart in the energetic Sami Khedira.
Real Madrid frustrated their rivals and despite controlling 76% of the possession in the match, Barcelona found it difficult to break down a hard-working and well-organized defense. Mourinho's focus apppeared to be to keep it tight early -- something he disastrously failed to do at Camp Nou -- and hope to nick it towards the end of the match when more attacking intent might be displayed. However, Raul Albiol was sent off in the 51st minute and Messi converted a penalty just two minutes later for the opening goal in the match. Barcelona only needed a draw to effectively end the title race so it was not shocking that they did not show more intent to kill off the match versus a ten-man Real Madrid side. Mourinho brought on Özil and moved Ronaldo over to the left flank and along with the energetic Pepe and Khedira in the center, this proved effective. Ronaldo equalised with a late penalty but because the league title was essentially out of reach now, perhaps the bigger gain was that Mourinho had discovered tactics that could disrupt Guardiola's side.
Next up was the Copa del Rey final, an actual one-off that would directly award a trophy to the winner. Once again, Guardiola fielded a familiar side and Mourinho played his side in a 4-4-3 trivote shape, but with a few wrinkles this time for the latter. Pepe was deployed a bit higher up in the central-midfield and he was essentially man-marking Xavi -- and did so quite effectively. In the attack, Ronaldo shifted central to play as the lead striker. Mourinho's side sat slightly deeper but Diarra and Pepe actively pressed their counterparts in the midfield. The match was a heated affair that Ronaldo eventually won in extra-time with a thundering header.
The trophy was proof of tangible success and it provided Mourinho and his players some relief from the strain of this unique series of El Clasicos. However, tactical success was also achieved. Real Madrid sitting deeper invited Barcelona's full-backs to surge forward and support the attack. This created space in behind for Real Madrid to break into and they dutifully worked the ball out wide quickly whenever they regained possession. Mourinho had found tactical ways to exploit Barcelona and it was now up to Guardiola to respond when the two sides would meet again days later for a two-legged UEFA Champions League semi-final tie. Guardiola had captured the league while Mourinho captured Spain's domestic cup competition. The fight for Europe was now on.
The first leg was to arrive at the vociferous Bernabeu with Real Madrid perhaps having increased confidence. The lineups and formations of the teams did not change much from the Copa del Rey final and the affair became a nasty one. Mourinho had his side play even deeper and once again, Pepe was tight on Xavi. With Real Madrid's performances improving against Barcelona, Guardiola made a tactical shift: he instructed his full-backs to stay back so that the opposition could not hit them on the flanks during counterattacks. What resulted was a stalemate.
Barcelona had difficulties breaking down a compact and energetic Real Madrid side while Real Madrid ran out of ideas on the counterattack due to Guardiola's astute move to keep his full-backs deep. Ronaldo became visibly frustrated because he was isolated in attack. The stalemate was to be broken soon.
Pepe was shown straight-red in the 61st minute for a challenge on Dani Alves and this cagey tactical chess-match was all for naught now. Without Pepe closing down Xavi, and with one less man in the center of the pitch to close down the gaps for Barcelona's passing game, the gates opened and Messi found a path to goal. The Argentine effectively sent his side to the Champions League final when he scored two late goals against a ten-man Real Madrid.
During the return fixture, the match essentially became a laboratory experiment. Very few expected Madrid to recover from this deficit at Camp Nou. Ronaldo finally started a match on the left flank and went up against Alves. In addition, Mourinho deployed his side in a 4-2-3-1 shape and his side pressed high up the pitch from the start. Once again, Guardiola -- fully conscious of his side's vulnerability to being hit on the break near the flanks -- instructed his full-backs to play deep. What resulted was Ronaldo getting the better of Alves and Barcelona lacking width in attack without marauding full-backs.This set the tactical tone for the following season.
The two sides resumed their battles in the Spanish Supercopa in August. The matches were glorified preseason matches but once again, Real Madrid effectively pressed Barcelona high up the pitch and used Ronaldo to get the better of Alves. Barcelona, not fully fit after their preseason tour in North America, did not press so it was difficult to gauge how much Real Madrid had actually closed the gap between the two sides. There were hints though, that Mourinho found the right adjustments to Guardiola's tactical changes. It was now Guardiola's move.
Coming into this past Saturday's edition of El Clasico, tactics were a hot topic of discussion. Barcelona, with mixed results, had experimented with a back three this season in numerous matches while it was speculated that Real Madrid would once again use a trivote, despite having used 4-2-3-1 for most of their matches this season.
Ahead of this match, Guardiola openly discussed his concerns about using a back-three and felt the necessity to control a game with this particular tactic could be difficult against a side like Real Madrid. Mourinho said he would use a front three and that Ronaldo, Di Maria, and either Karim Benzema or Gonzalo Higuain would start. Many assumed this meant the trivote again but many also wondered why both managers discussed their tactics so openly. Were they baiting each other?
When the team news came out, the world knew that Özil was selected and that he was likely in a number ten role behind the three other attackers on the team sheet. Barcelona's lineup appeared to be a 4-3-3. No trivote for Real Madrid. No back three for Barcelona.
It was a dream start for Mourinho's side at the Bernabeu as Real Madrid's intense early pressing caused an error from Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes and it resulted in Benzema scoring the quickest goal in El Clasico history. The intense pressing was making it difficult for Barcelona to safely work the ball out of the back while the wide attackers for Real Madrid were a constant threat against their counterparts. Guardiola then made his move.
At about 20-25 minutes into the match, Alves surged forward into attack, Carlos Puyol shifted over as a narrow right-sided defender, Gerard Pique slid over in the same direction, Eric Abidial tucked in slightly from his left-back position, and Busquets shuttled between a holding-role position and that of a center-back. The shackles were removed and Alves was liberated to attack without the responsibility of Ronaldo. Busquets was wary of the threat between the lines but because Ozil either would move wide to receive, or because he simply would be too slow on the ball when he received through the middle, he was handled.
Busquets' hybrid role allowed his side to fluidly transition from a back three or a back four. Guardiola's experimentation this season with a back three allowed his side more comfort with this hybrid tactic versus Real Madrid. In addition, because Puyol and Abidal were hybrid outside center-backs/full-backs in this match, they stayed deep and occupied the space where Real Madrid liked to break into while on the counter. Abidal's defending improved as the game wore on and Puyol did quite the job on Ronaldo -- and this did not come at the sacrifice of width because Alves now had the freedom to get forward. Madrid, and especially Ronaldo, certainly missed golden chances in this match, but Guardiola's astute tactical adjustments were essential. Mourinho couldn't conjure a proper response.
Imagine your hand is grasping a dial: Guardiola's counterclockwise turn of his side's shape shifted the entire complexion of this match and perhaps that of the league title race as well. At least for now. Guardiola responded effectively to the many tactical problems that his counterpart had caused him.
Going forward, Mourinho will certainly have ideas for a response. Tactics can tell a fascinating tale and a peek into Mourinho's battle with Guardiola has provided evidence of that. Nothing has changed but yet so much has changed during these past 13 months. Perhaps the story simply hasn't ended yet and if that is the case, tactics provide great insight as to how it might.
Where will the tale take us next come April 22?