Thursday, November 25, 2010

Tactical Variations for the Clásico.

Will Mourinho try a tactical variation in the Clásico at the Camp Nou?

His stated favourite platforms of play are the 4-3-3 and the 4-diamond-2, though he does tend to tweak both formats to accomodate whatever players he finds at his disposal. There has been talk of Zé Mário jettisoning the improvising presence of a mediapunta in order to beef-up the central midfield.

And yet, it's hard to imagine José Mourinho dispensing of the creativity of Mesut Oezil, even if the benefit of a midfield trivot (Alonso-Lass-Kherdira) does appeal to him. It largely depends on how badly Mourinho will want his players to hold on to the ball - and last year against Inter, Pep Guardiola saw just what a Trojan gift was his rival's renunciation of possession. So whilst the potential gains in terms of adding Lass to the central midfield are obvious - aggression and anticipation in closing down Xavi and Iniesta - surely Mourinho would be loathe to forego the asset of that immutable front four (Oezil, Cristiano, DiMaria and Higuaín) who almost alone are expected to generate solutions in the final third whenever Madrid's collective play requires something more intricate beyond the 'Alonso + raking pass = counter-attack' staple.

Oezil as a false nine?

It would be uncharacteristic of the coach, sure, since he has always tried to play with one recogniseable centre-forward (with Gonzalo Higuaín currently being the closest thing to that) - preferably a bustling targetman, and thereby having an outlet to relieve pressure when Madrid are pinned deep or else to bypass midfield during the attacking build-up. Although the rapid, surgical counter-attack is still the mainstay of this Mourinho offering, it is a modification from his Internazionale and Chelsea formats; relying less on bludgeoning rival defences so much as dizzying them with rapid interchanges among four pacey attackers.

But alongside such technical matters, we may also have to admit an element of political agenda; namely, that Higuain alone is expendable amidst the intrigue that pervades the Bernabeu club hierarchy. No matter that Mourinho way well like the Argentine striker, for all that he may value Pipita and disregard the shabby consideration which is afforded him by elements within the club and a Pérez-compliant Madridista press, the Portuguese coach has never been the type to refuse to plunge the sword where no quarter is expected and could well be imagined turning Higuain's lack of political capital to his own advantage. So basically this would make Higuain benchable, whilst leaving the annointed ones (Ronaldo, Oezil and DiMaria) in the starting line-up.

Barcelona's high-line:

The varying interpretations of the false Nine role tend to complicate life for opposing centre-backs, particularly those who are perhaps not the quickest across the ground and instead relish treading on the toes of their goalkeeper and minimising aerial balls into the box. The more torpid they are, the greater their comfort at playing deeper but this has the effect of enabling the opposing false-nine to lure said centre-backs out of their comfort zone lest they cede the numbers advantage in midfield (generated by the false nine dropping deep to combine with his own midfielders).

Alternatively, and against a relatively high defensive line, the false nine's distracting movements have the effect of setting-up those dreaded diagonal runs from the 'outside-to-in' forwards; inside of the full-back and leaving the stranded centre-back in a one-on-one situation (if indeed he is lucky to still be in contention) with the attacker.

It is not hard to imagine such a scenario in the Camp Nou with Cristiano Ronaldo, Di Maria as executors of the outside-to-in run, whilst playing against what will surely be a very high Barcelona defensive line, all aided and abetted by Oezil's inverse movements.

But one might question to what extent would Oezil's forward-to-midfield movement be a fait accompli, necessitated by the more pressing concern for Madrid; that they must prevent Barcelona from converting midfield possession into a monologue, and all the more so in the context of a technically modest trio (Xabi Alonso notwithstanding) standing athwart this procession. Therefore, Oezil might well spend most of the game lurking closer to midfield anyway to relieve the pressure on his teammates in this sector. And given that Lionel Messi could himself be acting as the false nine who drops to triangulate with Xavi and Iniesta, the pulse of the game would likely gravitate towards this central midfield area. Concurrently, the Barcelona centre-backs would be as well to let Oezil drop off and not follow him, since his main function may become less one of drawing opponents onto him and more of trying to ease telling balls into the Barcelona defensive third. And with two centre-backs staying even and holding their line, the Barcelona full-backs would have much greater impetus to station themselves higher into the middle third, thereby drawing Ronaldo and Di Maria further away from making those defence-splitting runs.

To prove this later point, just try imagining the opposite scenario; if Barcelona were to play their customary high line, if Puyol were to constantly track Oezil towards the midfield, and if Dani Alves and, say, Maxwell/Abidal were to station themselves closer to the holding midfielder, Gerard Pique would find himself playing as a de facto sweeper and ergo could be playing onside two Madrid attackers (Cristiano Ronaldo and Di Maria making those diagonal runs) with acres of space behind even him. With Puyol accompanying him more closely, the offside trap could still be activated all while at least being able to count on the security of a 2-v-2 situation (a risk which Barcelona are often happy to incur anyway, most notably whenever Pique strides forward to initiate and follow-through on attacks, and either Sergio Busquets will drop back or Eric Abidal can tuck in from wide alongside Puyol). If you will, it is a proactive and provoking way of arresting the opponents' attempts to man-up in this particular sector; rather than accepting the static picture of marking distributed before them, the defenders are willing to assume the even numbers risk by threatening to overload another sector. In the win-win scenario, the opponents would withdraw one of their attackers thereby allaying the 2v2 scenario in the first place. This is the rejection of the need for permanent cover. Marcelo Bielsa, justifying his propensity to select full-backs or defensive midfielders in a three-man backline, explained it thus:

"The important thing is to spread over the pitch well, to have a tight block, that our defenders and forwards are separated by no more than 25 metres, and that we don’t have people in defense busy marking someone who doesn’t exist."

Arrigo Sacchi, the arch-proponent of the zone, was elaborating these ideas more than two decades ago. As he told Alessandro Zauli in 2000: “Our true formation was movement… we weren’t concerned with having situations of numerical superiority at the back”.

So a game of cat and mouse could await us at the Camp Nou, albeit one of an attacking, risk-taking nature.

Who will assume the greater risk to receive the reward?


  1. To me there are 3 players that are irreplaceable for Barca in this tie: Pique, Abidal, Iniesta.
    Pique because he is the only ball playing center back and biggest threat on set pieces Barca have, Abidal because he is the only defender quick enough to close down counterattacks and Iniesta because when they shut down Xavi and Messi's passing lanes, he is still an option. It will also depend on whether Pep will try to take out the jugular and put early pressure on Madrid with Pedro or whether he will play it as a game of patience, with Keita/Mascherano starting.

    The false 9 idea for Madrid would be very interesting but Mourinho while experimenting often with midfield and defense, hardly ever touches the basic routines of his attacks. For all that his teams defenses are hard to knock, his teams offense is most of the time following one pattern, that is pretty effective and hard to stop but as seen in his games against Liverpool with Chelsea most other pundits would call other managers lacking a "plan B".

  2. my other thought on tactics concerns Maxwell. I could see him play as a left wing, with Messi on the right and Villa in center, or even a front 4 if you like of Villa, Messi, Iniesta and Maxwell, with the latter holding down the left side of attack, while Messi and Iniesta drop deep whenever they get the chance and that way Villa tries to exploit the open space left to him on the right side. It might leave Marcelo confused on when to push forward and essentially with Alves on the right and Puyol, Pique and Abidal left in defense, it wouldn't compromise the numbers in the back.

    So as to say


    That way, Barca could also cope well with Ramos and Di Maria, Marcelo would be tucked in, Ronaldo and Higuain would have 3 defenders to face and Busquets would give extra cover for Özil. further, should Mou go for Diarra-Alonso-Khedira, Maxwell on the left would stretch the defense and open it up for Iniesta, Messi and Villa to exploit.

  3. Mahdi,

    though-provoking contributions as ever...

    Yeah, I don't really see Oezil starting as a false striker - this was purely a 'pajada mental' if you will, on my part.

    But, considering Mou's liking of the 4-3-1-2, he might well play Oezil as an trequartista, only with CR plus one from Higuain/DiMaria up front.

    Your theory of Maxwell on the left and Messi on the right would suggest a degree of assymetry (since Messi will always position himself higher up the pitch).. but ultimately (and this ties in with your theory on the tree-man defensive line) we could see Alves and Maxwell's average-positions throughout the game as those of bona fide wing-backs or wide-midfielders, with Messi drifting towards Iniesta and Xavi to form a sort of magic square in the centre (w Busquets slightly deeper)thereby monopolising possession in these areas but without losing thrust on the flanks.

    Also, going back to what you commented on the importance of Piqué and Abi, I agree, since Piqué obviously gives you the option of carrying the ball into central midfield or else performing surprise attacks à la Lucio when the game in midfield appears to be stagnating and everyone else is too tightly marked.

    Abidal, in his own way, can add a surprise attacking element by advancing very suddenly down his flank (despite being a nominal centre-back in this particular game) and thereby creating a 3-v 2 situation.

  4. it's Mesut Oezil, not Mehmet (you're confusing it with Scholl). cheers.

  5. Thanks for the anonymous correction: Mehmet Scholl of Bayern fame still lingers in the memory too much in this case it would appear!

    Correction now added.

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