El Clásico: Real Madrid Tactical Preview
This Wednesday, Real Madrid will host Barcelona in the first Clásico of 2012. The two Spanish giants will meet at the Santiago Bernabéu in the first leg of the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey.
With Álvaro Arbeloa serving a one-match suspension and Sami Khedira missing the clash through injury, all eyes are on José Mourinho and his starting XI.
Will the Portuguese tactician stay with Madrid's standard 4-2-3-1 formation? Will Mourinho move Pepe back into midfield, where he was exceptional in last year's Copa del Rey Final?
Let's take a look at the different formations and starting XI's that Mourinho could use against Barcelona.
4-2-3-1 with Coentrão at Right-Back
Mourinho could choose the same starting XI that played in the last match against Barcelona.
Lass performed well alongside Xabi Alonso, and the high pressing of Madrid's attacking quartet caused problems early on. If Los Blancos are to earn a positive result on Wednesday, Ángel di María will have to play a significant role on both sides of the ball.
The main concern with this starting XI would be Fábio Coentrão at right-back. The Portuguese international was criticized for his performance in the last Clásico, but he can be effective in that position.
With his pace and defensive instincts, Coentrão should be able to stop Barcelona's attackers from making those signature diagonal runs through the backline. The former Benfica star should be comfortable covering towards his stronger left foot, cutting out through-balls and stopping Barca's slashing runs.
It is unlikely that Mourinho will use the same formation and starting lineup as the last match against Barca, but it is still a viable option for Los Blancos.
4-2-3-1 with Lass at Right-Back
Mourinho could opt for Real Madrid's standard 4-2-3-1 formation. Although Lass performed well in the last Clásico as a defensive midfielder, he could slot in at right-back due to Arbeloa's injury.
Coentrão played at right-back last time out against Barcelona, but Lass looks to be the more reliable option in that position. With Khedira unavailable through injury, the Portuguese international could move alongside Xabi Alonso in midfield.
The former Benfica star's quickness and tenacity would provide a good balance to the technical play of Alonso. Mesut Özil will track back defensively at times, but Coentrão would be responsible for breaking up Barcelona's tiki-taka football and making last-ditch tackles.
4-2-3-1 with Pepe in Midfield
Looking back at Real Madrid's success in last year's Copa del Rey Final, Mourinho could decide to play Pepe in midfield. The Portuguese enforcer gave a world-class display at La Mestalla, breaking up Barcelona's tiki-taka football and suppressing Lionel Messi.
With Pepe alongside Alonso in this 4-2-3-1 formation, Raphaël Varane could slot in at centre-back. The young Frenchman has been impressive in limited playing time this season. Raúl Albiol would be the other alternative, but Varane's athleticism and pace makes him the preferred option against Barca's quick attackers.
Mourinho could choose this starting XI for Wednesday because the team's primary playmaker, Mesut Özil, can play in his preferred position, and Pepe can move into midfield.
Although Pepe provides that shielding presence in front of the back-four, the inexperienced Varane could be a liability in the heart of defense.
4-3-3 with Pepe and Coentrão in Midfield
Although Mourinho used the standard 4-2-3-1 system over both legs of the Supercopa and in the first Clásico of the season, he could switch to a true 4-3-3 formation this Wednesday.
Real Madrid were successful with the 4-3-3 system in last year's Copa del Rey Final. The team will undoubtedly lose some attacking creativity with the loss of Özil.
However, with Alonso, Coentrão and Pepe in midfield, Madrid would be able to stop Barcelona from dominating the middle of the pitch.
Alonso would be the primary distributor from midfield, with Coentrão tracking back defensively and providing cover for Marcelo. Pepe could be given a free role to press high up the pitch, or man-mark Messi out of the match.
Although this lineup may seem overly defensive, it could be the best tactical system to defeat Barcelona. Di María has emerged as a dynamic playmaking threat out wide this season, which would compensate for the loss of Özil's creativity and ingenuity.
The inexperience of Varane and the lack of attacking creativity are the only major drawbacks of using this system.
It is a strong possibility that Mourinho will opt for this starting XI on Wednesday.
It is highly unlikely that Mourinho will use this starting XI on Wednesday. The Portuguese tactician may opt for the 4-3-3 formation, but the inclusion of midfielder Esteban Granero is doubtful.
This lineup could provide the perfect balance of defensive fortitude and attacking creativity that can defeat Barcelona. The 4-3-3 system should have more success against Barcelona than the standard 4-2-3-1 formation because the likes of Xavi and Iniesta cannot dominate the midfield.
With Coentrão, Alonso and Granero in midfield, Madrid will not get overrun in midfield by Barcelona's little maestros. When Madrid play with the 4-2-3-1 system, Barcelona's playmakers receive too much time and space on the ball.
Although Granero is not a natural defensive midfielder, he can close down opponents and track back defensively. The Spaniard may not be a world-class player, but he can be effective against Barcelona.
Granero has good touch, creativity and vision. The former Getafe player is a more accomplished passer than Khedira or Lass. Therefore, when Barcelona press high on Alonso, Granero can distribute from midfield and drive the team forward.
Granero's range of passing and skill could provide great balance for this three-man midfield. In addition to the balanced midfield, Madrid would be able to keep the world-class partnership of Pepe and Sergio Ramos at the back.
Although Mourinho will choose a different group of players this Wednesday, he should highly consider this starting XI against Barcelona.
4-3-3 with Higuaín Upfront
If Mourinho switches to a 4-3-3 formation against Barcelona, this could be the preferred starting XI.
Although the Portuguese tactician will be reluctant to drop Özil, Di María could provide that creativity from a more central position. With Higuaín leading the line, Karim Benzema would move out to the right opposite Cristiano Ronaldo.
Di María would replace Özil as Madrid's primary playmaker, which he did against Sevilla before the winter break.
The Argentine international provides pressure high up the pitch and tracks back defensively as well. Di María would most likely have a free role in midfield, helping Alonso and Coentrão close down the space and mark Barcelona's midfield maestros.
Although the Copa del Rey is the least important competition for Real Madrid, this Wednesday will be significant for Los Blancos as Mourinho searches for the starting XI that will beat Barcelona.