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Tactical Analysis: Barcelona highlight Real Madrid’s weaknesses in El Clásico

Yet another late winner from Jude Bellingham saw Real Madrid triumph over Barcelona in a dramatic Clásico that made the La Liga title handover all but official.

The defending champions went to the Santiago Bernabéu with an eight-point gap that already seemed insurmountable.

With just six games left after this, a double-digit differential will surely prompt preparations for a title celebration beginning in full swing in the capital.

Madrid will be thoroughly deserving champions at the end of the season, not only because of their quality but also due to the lack of a worthy challenger in the league.

Atlético Madrid have been far from consistent in a season of stylistic transition, the Girona fairytale failed to last as far as a serious title challenge is concerned, and Barcelona’s title defence was riddled with issues from the start.

Barcelona’s failure to get the better of the champions-elect is hardly a surprise, but they did give them a very good run for their money.

Perhaps the aspect of the match worth focusing on is the weaknesses in Madrid’s game that Barcelona highlighted – which Los Blancos should aim to solve in the summer.

Pressing Flaws

From a tactical point of view, Madrid are incredibly unique among Europe’s most elite sides. While most teams have set overarching systems that dictate their style of play and the way the players operate, Los Blancos flip the script.

Carlo Ancelotti’s tactical approach is to let the players do their thing in a much looser framework, obviously being helped by having brilliant minds such as Bellingham, Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos in the heart of the team.

The result of this approach, aided by the world-class quality of players in the squad, is not only some beautiful football but also a style of play that is extremely difficult to defend against.

While most of the aforementioned teams have patterns that opponents can prepare for, Madrid’s more off-the-cuff approach makes them more unpredictable.

In most games and situations, even they are not entirely certain about how they’ll play, so how could their opponents possibly know?

All of this, of course, is in reference to how they operate in possession. Out of possession, the rapid evolution of pressing in recent years has almost necessitated having a well-coordinated press to be successful. For instance, Arsenal have improved by leaps and bounds by developing an elite press.

However, Madrid have not developed much in this respect under Ancelotti. The Italian tactician does prepare his side to take up a certain shape without the ball and gives players responsibilities, but he does not seem to pre-plan pressing triggers.

The players are left to make those decisions, but the trouble is that one player alone making the decision is not enough – an uncoordinated press is sure to have gaps that will be exploited relatively easily.

Pressing has certainly been the weakest aspect of Madrid’s play all season, and the big issue in their structures has been the gaps left out wide between the winger and full-back.

That is precisely what we saw in El Clásico.

This gap becomes exaggerated when the winger steps up to press or support a press without the full-back following suit behind.

In these cases, Madrid must defend in an incredibly reactive manner against the opponents’ moves, causing them to lose a lot of control in the situation.

When the opposition plays the ball out to their free wide player, the entirety of the Madrid block ends up shuffling across. Due to the lack of coordination, multiple players may end up closing down the receiver, leading to space opening up elsewhere instead.

In this case, after Robert Lewandowski picked up the ball in a very free central space, he had time to turn and look around.

He was able to spot a free runner on the left, playing out a pass to him to exploit a gap on the other side of Madrid’s block that opened as a result of a chain reaction after a pass to the right.

Barcelona arguably did not exploit this to the fullest in the final third, but they certainly highlighted the weakness quite clearly.

Madrid seem to be aware of this already, as their more defence-focused performance in the Champions League quarter-final second leg against Manchester City involved next to no pressing and mostly saw them start a mid-block.

Centre-Back Deficiencies

Even in a mid-block, Madrid’s defending is not questionable.

Although their midweek performance against Man City garnered a lot of praise for their defensive work, the reality is that they rode their luck for quite a while.

Just one goal conceded may look good, but an xGA tally of 2.74 and 33 shots conceded – of which 24 were from inside the box – underscores the fact that they were not in control.

(Image credit: FotMob)

Evidently, their defending in the box left something to be desired. The key players in this respect are the centre-backs, and Madrid’s squad is deficient in this department.

Due to Éder Militão’s long-term injury, they have struggled to find a consistent partner for Antonio Rüdiger in the heart of their defence.

In El Clásico, it was midfielder Aurélien Tchouaméni who started at right centre-back, so it should be no big surprise to see goals like this one conceded.

David Alaba and Nacho Fernández are the only real alternatives Ancelotti currently has to choose from in his squad, but both of them are not at the peak of their powers and arguably not even out-and-out centre-backs, having often played as a full-back previously in their careers.

The centre-back department has been a big gap in Madrid’s squad building this season which they have rather got away with, though this might yet prove costly in the upcoming crunch Champions League fixtures.

What Should Real Madrid Do Next?

Madrid have work to do in the summer to shore up the defensive side of their game.

Irrespective of whether their domestic rivals improve or remain at a level where they aren’t seriously challenged in La Liga, they should aim to rectify these issues to be in the strongest possible position in the Champions League.

With the signing of Kylian Mbappé seemingly all but official at this point, Madrid will have the best front line in all of Europe next season.

On the flip side, they may have to accommodate for a couple of their forwards not being the most hard-working players out of possession, so it will be all the more important for Ancelotti to work on a more coordinated pressing system if they want to go toe-to-toe with big-hitters such as Man City on a tactical level.

The lack of squad depth at centre-back is sure to be addressed in the transfer window as Madrid are being linked with several of the world’s brightest young talents in this position, so that should not be an issue next season.

The fact we are nitpicking issues in Madrid’s performance in a Clásico that they won to establish a double-digit lead at the top of the table should highlight their dominant position in Spain right now.

All indications suggest that this will not change in the near future, but the battle for the Champions League will continue to rage on, so the competition’s most successful team should do everything they can to fortify their position.

Stats courtesy FotMob.

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