Real Madrid and Barcelona have played each other so often in recent years that attempting to offer a new insight into the tactical battle is all but impossible. The match will be the usual contest between Madrid’s physicality and Barcelona’s technical quality, quick counter attacks versus patient possession football. No ‘Clasico’ is ever played without purpose but with Barcelona having all but secured the league title and important Champions League fixtures coming up for both teams, this game certainly lacks the fixture’s usual edge.
Therefore rather than previewing the game I have decided to consider a tactical ‘Plan B’ for either team, or how the inclusion of specific players could add extra dimensions to their approach. Should Jose Mourinho wish to add extra depth to his midfield he could select Luka Modric in the advanced midfield position who would offer more tactical flexibility than Mesut Ozil. Modric was signed in the summer to supposedly offer such an option, but as yet he has struggled to hold down a first team spot, yet against Barcelona his ability to play in deeper areas would surely be an asset. For Barcelona Tito Vilanova, or in his absence Jordi Roura, can look to add more verticality by selecting Alexis Sanchez or David Villa on the left wing to mirror the direct running of Pedro on the right. As the 2-0 defeat to AC Milan demonstrated, at times the Catalan’s can lack penetration when they pack their midfield and forward line with playmakers.
Neither of these options are radical nor are they even untried by either manager, but they are a divergence from both Mourinho and Vilanova’s first choice XIs.
The Modric option: Madrid to move to 4-2-1-3
This option really stems from Madrid’s Champions League semi-final with Bayern Munich last April. Both teams use 4-2-3-1 variations, and yet the added depth offered by Toni Kroos gave Bayern more versatility and helped them dominate possession in both legs.
In effect Bayern play a 4-2-1-3 shape, with Kroos able to drift between an advanced playmaking role and a deeper midfield position depending on the team’s requirements during a game. In contrast Ozil, Madrid’s equivalent playmaker, is only able to play an advanced role, and while his movement and creativity are excellent, he lacks the positional versatility of his compatriot. As a result when Mourinho wishes to give his midfield extra security, Ozil is either replaced or moved wide to accommodate a more defensive minded player.
Modric offers Mourinho the ‘Kroos-option’; a player equally comfortable playing behind the forwards or deep in midfield, able to create opportunities whilst also performing defensive duties. Modric has had a stuttering career in Madrid thus far, but his versatility is something that may become useful, especially against stronger opposition.
Against Barcelona Modric would offer Madrid defensive assistance and attacking flexibility. Without the ball, Modric could help Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira contest the midfield battle against Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas as well as pressing Sergio Busquets. In possession the Croatian playmaker can line up alongside Alonso to offer a second distributer from deep, or look to find space between the lines.
The obvious negative with the inclusion of Modric is the displacement of Ozil. The German has been one of Madrid’s best players for the past two seasons, and is now recognised as one of the world’s finest playmakers. While Ozil may lack Modric’s vertical movement, he excels at moving laterally to find space between the lines. Ozil has operated from wide positions before but the loss of positional freedom can restrict his impact.
Modric would also be a step away from the style of play Madrid have become known for. Mourinho’s team are reknowned for the speed of their attacks, orchestrated from deep by Alonso and carried forward by the pace and directness of Cristiano Ronaldo, Di Maria and Ozil. Modric prefers to play at a slower tempo, and could become a passenger during Madrid’s counter attacks.
Double Wingers: Sanchez/Villa to offer extra verticality
A return to three genuine forwards would be a return to Pep Guardiola’s first season as manager, when Ronaldinho and Leo Messi flanked Samuel Eto’o. Messi’s meteoric rise and the perfection of the ‘false-9’ role warranted a move into the central position, but Guardiola, and Vilanova today, have generally been reluctant to field two genuine wide forward. Instead Andres Iniesta has often played as an advanced playmaker from the left flank, adding another central midfielder to an already populated area of the Barcelona side.
Iniesta helps Barcelona’s domination of possession by combining with Messi, Xavi, Cesc Fabregas and Sergio Busquets in the midfield zone. Yet his constant movement infield removes a wide threat and leaves only Pedro on the right wing looking to run beyond the opposition’s defence. Occasionally this has made Barcelona extremely lateral – both Jordi Alba and Dani Alves get forward from full back but lack a physical target for crosses, so attacking chances are largely created by an abundance of playmakers looking to play defence-splitting passes to a solitary target.
Barcelona are hardly lacking in wide options – both Alexis Sanchez and David Villa have had regular first team action at times during their time at the club, while Cristian Tello is considered a good prospect. Either Sanchez or Villa would give Vilanova greater attacking balance and their attacking runs would help create space for Barcelona’s midfield to operate in. They would also offer an added goal threat – Iniesta only has 2 league goals in 15 starts this season, compared to 8 goals in 18 starts between Villa and Sanchez combined.
Including a second winger would not remove Iniesta from the side as the playmaker would return to a midfield role in place of Fabregas. This move would not necessarily affect Barcelona’s midfield balance – Fabregas plays in similar areas to Iniesta – but the exclusion of the ex-Arsenal player would undoubtedly be harsh. Nevertheless team balance is essential. If Vilanova decides that the Milan defeat is one that needs a reaction, including Sanchez or Villa may be the necessary change.
These adaptations would offer both managers a slightly different approach and, ironically, take inspiration from their ‘Clasico’ opponents. Modric would give Madrid the sort of midfield distribution more typical of Barcelona, whereas Sanchez or Villa would provide a directness better associated with Madrid.
Mourinho has included Modric in recent weeks, but as a replacement for Alonso in a deep role rather than to offer a different option to Ozil further up the pitch. The form of Kaka has also made the move less likely – the Brazilian would operate in a similar way to Ozil should his recent performances warrant an extended run in the side.
Contrastingly Barcelona already appear willing to consider the option of duel wingers on a more permanent basis. Against weaker sides in the league Villa and Sanchez have competed for a left wing position for much of the season, but the need for goals in their Champions League second leg may force their inclusion in Vilanova’s first XI. Villa’s recent goalscoring performances will certainly make him a difficult player to exclude.
Saturday’s ‘Clasico’ will not be particularly meaningful but it will certainly be competitive. For both managers it surely offers the chance to experiment with a different tactical approach against top class opposition.