Real Madrid v Tottenham: tactical preview

April 5, 2011

The potential starting line-ups

A clash between a man seen as the ultimate tactician, and a man seen as ‘not doing tactics’.

The main story here is the injury news. Each side’s most devastating attacking threat – Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale – is seen as a major doubt. There are also question marks over William Gallas, though he often seems to recover from niggling injuries and play through the pain. Here, to be safe (as usual) we’ll take any player that is ‘doubtful’ as likely to start, only those definitely out are omitted from thoughts.

Real high line?

The major tactical issue concerns how high Real Madrid’s defensive line will be. Pepe and Ricardo Carvalho are plays who naturally sit quite deep, but that won’t be the best strategy against Peter Crouch, who has a fantastic record in European competition, and enjoys winning headers at the back post. That’s generally only a problem if he can get into the penalty area, however, and if the opposition defence holds a high line, he’s much less effective.

Two former Premier League defenders have spoken to the Guardian’s Sid Lowe about the threat of Crouch, and playing a high line is clearly on the agenda.

Alvaro Arbeloa said:

“Maybe in England they’re more used to players like Crouch. Players who are tall, strong, good in the air. England is much tougher, physically. They know how to deal with players like Crouch. In Europe, it is harder to face him. Centre-backs don’t like it – that could be an explanation for the difference. We believe we’re ready for that because we have players who are strong in the air and Ricardo Carvalho has played in England but we can’t play to Crouch’s strengths. We have to push the defensive line as high as possible, to keep him away from the area. He’s tall but not that quick. We can risk giving him space in behind but we can’t risk him receiving in our penalty area: that’s where he causes problems, with knockdowns, second balls and headers.”

It’s quite rare to see a player speak so clearly about a specific area of his side’s tactics for an upcoming game, and Carvalho himself agreed with Arbeloa, when considering the differences in facing Crouch and Jermain Defoe:

“They’re both very good but very different and we’ll be forced to adapt accordingly. Against Crouch we can play higher because he is not so dangerous on the shoulder, while Defoe is quicker behind you.”

It’s very unlikely that Defoe will start over Crouch, however, and therefore we can expect a high line.

Pace in behind

That brings its own problems, though, and not just because Real were massacred by Barcelona when caught too high up the pitch. Tottenham have tremendous pace on the wings, with Aaron Lennon and (potentially) Bale, and whilst Marcelo and Ramos are much quicker than their centre-backs, they still might be vulnerable to Bale’s pace in behind.

At this point, we simply don’t know the match-up in pace – if Bale can outrun Ramos, Real could have problems. The key there would be how high up against the defensive line Bale can get – if his starting position is next to Ramos, possibly on his blind side, then the potential for him repeating his home display against Inter is entirely possible.


Bale might not be able to get into those positions, however, because Tottenham’s game is likely to be based around a counter-attacking strategy, as at the San Siro against Milan. Whilst they became associated with a relentless, all-out-attack style in the Premier League last season, they’re also more than capable of playing on the break, and the emergence of Brazilian holding player Sandro has given them extra protection ahead of the back four.

Real, too, are well used to playing on the break – and therefore we could be set for a slightly cagey opening few minutes – neither side wanting to make the first move and leave space in behind for the opposition’s quick players to exploit.

Lennon will be crucial in helping to stop Ronaldo

Creating space in midfield

An important factor in the game might be exploiting space between the lines. Sandro, for example, did a great job away at Milan by tracking Clarence Seedorf all across the pitch, but then he had Wilson Palacios alongside him to occupy that space, and Milan offered no forward movement from their midfield zone. Sandro can’t afford to be as tight to Ozil in this game – partly because Ozil is a fantastically intelligent player with his off-the-ball movement, and partly because Real have players who can exploit the space he creates – most notably, Sami Khedira. That would put Luka Modric’s defensive abilities to the test.

At the other end, that same Khedira-Modric battle might be crucial. Rafael van der Vaart wanders across the pitch into wide zones, and Real will be very wary of him creating 2 v 1 situations down the flank against their full-backs. That means Xabi Alonso will have to follow him, and again, this may create space for Modric to charge into. Therefore, whilst the pacey wide players are the most important players in terms of a counter-attacking game, the ’second function’ midfielders, Modric and Khedira, are probably the key to the central midfield battle.


This all leaves out what Tottenham should do about Ronaldo. In basic terms, Vedran Corluka has to (a) try and show him down the line, and (b) simply play well – get tackles in and not get beaten. In Gallas, they have a player comfortable of coming out to the flank if Corluka is beaten, and Assou-Ekotto has improved a lot in terms of covering the centre-back positions, once Michael Dawson has moved across.

The way to stop Ronaldo might be to negate the impact of Marcelo. Ronaldo loves to cut in from the left, but can often only do so when Marcelo goes on the overlap and stretches the play. Ronaldo was considerably less effective away at Lyon when Marcelo was omitted in favour of Arbeloa’s defensive ability. Therefore, if Lennon can deal with Marcelo – either by tracking him up and down the line, or by pinning him back permanently, Ronaldo might be less of a threat – especially if only half-fit.

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