As Barcelona ready themselves to take on Real Sociedad in the Camp Nou, join us as we take a deep dive into La Real’s tactics.
As is typical of a majority of La Liga’s top sides, the backbone of this Real Sociedad side’s success is in its pressing, positioning as well as their occupation of spaces in the opposition’s half.
When playing out the back, the Txuri-Urdin prioritise a high defensive line, greatly thanks to the tactical ingenuity and flexibility of Mikel Merino and Andre Guevara. When in a double pivot, Guevara tends to drop deep, forming a temporary back three as the fullbacks begin occupying the forward spaces. Merino, acting as the more advanced and slightly less positional pivot, tends to rise and occupy the half-spaces, and on occasions, the flanks as a false winger.
Mikel Oyarzabal upfront is often a tactical headache for opposition managers. His dexterity in multiple roles, stemming from his vast experience despite his relatively young age, makes him an ever-present threat. One of the most prevalent tactics in Imanol Alguacil’s side is the use of spaces in between the lines. The occupation, manipulation and control of these areas is almost indispensable to their functioning, and Oyarzabal is at the heart of its success.
The young Spaniard often drops into these channels, and once this happens he is essentially free to wreak havoc. Taking advantage of the presence of his wingers, Oyarzabal is perfectly poised to thread passes through gaps left in behind by the opposition. To create these sorts of advantages, his partner in crime and namesake Merino often works in tandem with him to create positional and numerical superiorities.
On occasion, while Oyarzabal attacks through the flanks in the final third, Merino often drops slightly deeper, and space he moves into serves to create a state of pandemonium within one — or more — of the centre-backs. If one were to follow Merino, then he would leave a gap that Oyarzabal would inevitably exploit however if they were to stay put, then Oyarzabal would quickly profit off this, as he would have yet another attacking outlet in the final third.
The dynamism and versatility in Merino’s style of play is a treat to watch, however, it is anything but when one is up against him. While on the wings, he and Oyarzabal alternate roles, as he stretches the opposition defence granting his Spanish counterpart adequate time and space to cause damage to the opposition.
Also pivotal to the success of Imanol Alguacil’s side is their constant generation of central superiorities. Ranging anywhere from three to five, La Real is able to confuse within opposition defences through this facet in their gameplay. Their overloads in these central zones are often complemented by a wide array of attacking outlets from both the flanks as well as down the middle.
When on the offence, Oyarzabal and Januzaj, for instance, have a tendency to drop deep, congesting the centre whilst occupying the opposition fullbacks. As this happens their fullbacks, often Joshua Zaldúa and Nacho Monreal will move forward, forming a temporary 3-2-5 in the attack. Given the verticality provided by the likes of Oyarzabal when dropping deep, or David Silva in the half-spaces, La Erreala essentially have an infinite number of attacking outlets and potential combinations within and around in the final third.
Being proactive rather than reactive in their approach to defending, La Real often seek to win the ball back as quickly as possible, and they do this through a mixture of both an intense press and zonal marking right at the start of play. Sticking true to Johan Cruyff’s ideologies — despite not necessarily being a Cruyffist himself —, Imanol Alguacil uses his forwards as his first defenders and to great success.
His players’ main objective is to win the ball back as fast and as close to the goal as possible. Such is the efficiency in their pressing that on their day, the average number of passes per defensive action (PPDA being a metric used to determine how many passes a team allows their opposition before a defensive action or intervention) ranges between six and eight. To put it into context, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, one of the most famous sides when it came to pressing, allowed their opponents around or less than six passes per defensive actions on average per season.
Real Sociedad bank on their ability to keep the ball as a defensive tactic as, quite evidently, the opposition can not score as long as they do not have the ball. It is a basic footballing concept, however, they make the most out the most trivial situations. From open play, La Real barely concede chances in their half. They have conceded four goals at xGA of 6.8, a true testament of the efficacy of their tactical approach to games.
Given the nature of their starting line ups, Real Sociedad often defend with a host of evolving formations ranging from a 4-1-4-1, a 5-3-2, a 4-1-2-3 and lastly, a 4-4-2 (flat and diamond). The goal of these ever-shifting setups is to drive the opposition as far away from their box as possible, and as mentioned before, as near to the opposition’s as possible.
The Intense Press
As a group, Real Sociedad has barely any frailties, however certain automatisms within their own tactics seem to work against them. The Txuri-Urdin prioritise an intense, choking press, and while for the most part, they are highly efficient at applying it, they sometimes get ahead of themselves and press unnecessarily.
The major flaw in this is that they leave gaps in critical areas, especially in the central defensive midfield, an area that often proves very taxing to teams when not adequately occupied. Their occasional lack of preparedness and collective disorganization leaves them blatantly open at the back.
Barcelona is getting better at handling the intense pressure often imposed on them by opposition players. Taking advantage of Merino’s offensive approach to games, Barcelona can profit off him and the system as a whole by placing press resistant players in these weak spots.
Some candidates for this role would be Riqui Puig, arguably Barcelona’s best midfielder this season, and have him partnered with Miralem Pjanić who can punish their visitors in more ways than one. In this particular case, his aptitude at holding the ball through intense pressure could be of great use here.
In central defence, given the fact that the Basque side will surely press the Blaugranas‘ backline, having Oscar Mingueza playing out the back, partnered with Clément Lenglet in central defence to make pressure breaking passes. Frenkie de Jong’s presence will be key to them playing out the back, as his ball-carrying ability will serve to create momentary positional superiorities, however, their effectiveness will largely depend on how quickly he takes and lets go of the ball once it gets too him.
The high defensive line
While Real Sociedad utilise a high defensive line to reduce the playable area and create offside traps against the opposition, at times they shoot themselves in the foot by going a tad bit too high, at times so carelessly that they even find themselves within the opposition’s half.
The tactical weakness here, and one they often get attacked through, is that all it takes is one quick attack to open them up brutally. Barcelona can achieve this by deploying natural wingers, and here the likes of Francisco Trincão and Konrad de la Fuente will certainly be of great use over Philippe Coutinho, who has not enjoyed good form over the past few games.
Delivering the cut-throat passes in behind their defence will be none other than Miralem Pjanić. His ability on the long ball is not one very popular among Barcelona supporters, however, in this case, it would be key to unlocking Real Sociedad. This could be juxtaposed by using the likes of Jordi Alba and Sergiño Dest supporting the wingers. Their pace could prove to be the killer blow to stalling La Real’s incredible run of form, even if it would be by just a match.
As can be seen, Real Sociedad have an adverse number of strengths, stemming from their versatile and dynamic players both in attack and defence. The style of play that has been in the works for the past few years is finally bearing fruit, and as it stands, they are currently the best team in Spain.
Despite all that is going for them now, it by no means signifies that they have no weak points. Even though they are free in number, La Real, like any other team, has its strengths and its weaknesses. With the right tactical setup from Ronald Koeman, Barcelona might just run away with this match.
How Zidane’s Real Madrid beat Koeman’s Barcelona
The highly anticipated day of El Clasico, the clash of eternal rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid finally arrived. The Blaugrana were just two points ahead of Los Blancos with the same number of games played. Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid are at their most vulnerable right now; recent losses to Sevilla and Chelsea had already demoralized the team. Additionally, Luis Suarez – their top scorer -, is injured.
El Clasico has incredible importance on its own. Add to that the fact that it will be pivotal in the title race, and it becomes apparent how much it means to both sides. In this tactical analysis, we take a look at how Real Madrid managed to conquer Barcelona in a 2-1 victory.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona lined up in a 3-5-2 as expected. This formation is one that has contributed to Barcelona’s recent positive results significantly. Though this could be viewed as a 5-3-2 or even a 3-5-2-1 at times, the basic principles remained the same. Barcelona would look to build up from the back. The backline of Ronald Araujo with Clement Lenglet and Oscar Mingueza on either side of him was the platform upon which the team would build-up.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets would be the deepest player, with Frenkie De Jong and Pedri Gonzalez as the two interiors. These two youngsters would operate in the half-spaces as their roles entail, but they would drop back and join the attack as well. Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest, the two wing-backs, would look to stretch the opposition and would be positioned high up the field.
In attack, Lionel Messi was joined by Ousmane Dembele. The Frenchman would operate through the centre as Messi would usually drop back and have the freedom to move across the pitch.
Zinedine Zidane has often been labelled as someone who manages big egos well but doesn’t have tactical expertise. Purely a misconception, this match was an example of how well the retired midfielder sets up his team. What was most admirable was how Zidane finds the perfect role for his players’ profiles.
Real Madrid were deployed in a 4-1-4-1. Casemiro would play between the lines, with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos just ahead oh him. This formation could also be viewed as a 4-5-1, which would be a 4-3-3 when attacking. In defence, Eder Militao and Nacho were the centre-halves with Lucas Vasquez and Ferland Mendy as the full-backs. To support the midfield as well as the attack, Vinicius Junior and Fede Valverde would act as wide midfielders.
Karim Benzema, the number nine, would drift into the channels or drop a bit deeper as required. He was the key to Madrid’s fluid attack. There would be a constant staggering between Benzema, Vinicius, and Valverde. When Benzema dropped deep to fight for the second ball, Vinicius and Fede would move forward and provide passing options. At times, Vasquez would overlap, which was Valverde’s cue to drop back. The players would also switch roles.
Madrid’s defensive organization
After getting a lead, Real Madrid were still proactive but to a lesser extent than earlier. They would even have five players defending at times, transitioning into a 5-4-1. Their timing and organization was impressive nonetheless. As we see in the image above, Ousmane Dembele is about to receive the pass. Immediately, Casemiro presses him, while other players start moving forward to close the distance to possible passing options. This meant Barcelona had little time on the ball deep in Madrid’s half.
The pressing shown by Los Blancos was very fine-tuned. The players were unsurprisingly not hesitant to play a physical game as well. As the earlier image shows us, Ousmane Dembele would receive the ball ahead of the defense and attempt to involve other players. Pedri and de Jong were the most obvious passing options. However, for them, the passing would more often than not be out wide. This was forced due to Madrid’s structure which prevented them from playing through the middle.
Arguably one of Barcelona’s strongest moves is when Messi plays Jordi Alba through between the full-back and centre-halves. Though it was effective at some points in the match, this was clearly something Zidane expected. When either full-back would have crossing options, the full-backs would look to block the cross.
Simultaneously, the centre-halves would track Barcelona’s attackers Messi and Dembele. These two being the only two forwards, Mingueza’s goal was one of the few times the team actually had more players looking to attack. Casemiro would be in the box looking to clear the ball or cover for any defensive holes.
What went wrong for Barcelona?
Ronald Koeman’s team selection was well-thought-out. Shifting de Jong to midfield was a smart choice. However, as the scoreline clearly shows, some issues persisted.
One of the main ones being the lack of attackers in the final third. This was a formation with two attackers on paper, but one of them was Messi. Expecting the argentine to make runs off the ball and act as a target man is highly unrealistic. He does best when he’s on the ball. This would leave Dembele alone upfront. The Frenchman isn’t a classic number 9 who takes shots on the swivel and can establish himself in the box. Against a defence that was sitting very deep, he was unable to run onto the ball between the full-backs and centre-halves the way he likes to.
The image above shows a common scenario observed in the first half. Receiving the ball in the final third, Dembele turns to face the defenders. As they don’t lunge in, rather trying to contain him. he is unable to beat them in a 1v1. There is plenty of space with no Barcelona players highlighted in the image. This lack of attackers was one of the reasons Koeman switched to the 4-3-3. Shown below, the 4-3-3- allowed Pedri and Dembele to be more involved.
Below, we have a visualization showing the PPDA stats for both teams. A lower PPDA means a higher pressing intensity. As we can see, Barcelona were clearly pressing much more than Real Madrid throughout the match. Despite this, they failed to create enough chances. To demonstrate this, we can observe the xG graph.
As the xG graph shows, there were some situations when the Catalans had a chance to change the score-line in their favour. Among other reasons, Dembele’s inability to play as a striker and inefficiency in finishing was clearly affecting the team. The visualization below the xG graph shows the shot map. It further reaffirms the observation that Barcelona need to improve in front of the goal and in terms of the quality of chances created.
With a higher number of shots, Barcelona still had a lower xG than their rivals. Another indication of low-quality chances is the size of the circles in the box for both teams. The smaller the circle, the less likely it is to end up in the back of the net. The stark contrast is one of the many indicators that there are major issues to be resolved in attack for Koeman’s side.
This loss will hurt Barcelona, even more so as it strengthens the notion that his team doesn’t show up in big matches. If Koeman’s side wants to be Champions, now is the time to give their all. One cannot ignore the fact that the Blaugrana have a lot of work to do to be deserving of the La Liga title. Whether or not they will be able to do this remains to be seen.