Real Madrid tactics: Mourinho’s route No 1

March 17, 2013

Real Madrid’s most common attacking move is remarkably simplistic. However, like what is typical of José Mourinho, it is also highly effective. 

Tsutomu Takasu

For the many refined and innovative coaching methods of José Mourinho, his attacking gameplan can often appear surprisingly straight-forward. At Chelsea, Frank Lampard would haul early passes over the top to Didier Drogba; it was hardly a masterstroke, but it frequently caught defenders off-guard. At Real Madrid, Mourinho appears to have established a handful of basic patterns that his players can rely upon when starting moves from the back.

Some of these are more common than others. Watching Real Madrid beat Mallorca at home on Saturday, one particular move stood out. It was nothing new: they have used it ever since Mourinho took charge. And other teams have done it before. But on this evidence, opponents are yet to find a remedy for it. The key role in the move is the attacking midfielder – usually Mezut Özil, though on this occasion Kaká. Amid several changes from the strongest line-up, Luka Modrić replaced Xabi Alonso, giving the midfield a different dynamic.

Real Madrid 4-2-3-1

Real Madrid’s line-up against Mallorca, Saturday 16 March, 2013

 The move

The move is easy to explain. With the left-back (Coentrão) in possession, Cristiano Ronaldo drops deep while stretching the play. The opponent’s right-back will want to mark him tightly, and consequently follow him up the pitch. The attacking midfielder (Kaká), positioned just ahead of the centre-backs, will simultaneously sprint into the space behind Ronaldo. An incisive pass follows and, out of nothing, Real Madrid are in a promising position.

Real Madrid 4-2-3-1


Once Real Madrid get into this position, the opportunities are endless. Their opponents often react by sending a centre-back out on the attacking midfielder. However, when the player in possession is Kaká or Özil, you know you have a losing hand. Furthermore, the situation is a clean one-versus-one, seeing as the second centre-back is marking Gonzalo Higuaín. If the speed of the move is high enough, there should be a two-versus-two situation inside the box.

Real Madrid 4-2-3-1

Receiving the ball, the attacking midfielder has three options: he can cross for Higuaín, who will often attack the near post; cut it back to Ronaldo, who will be storming into the box; or he can take on the centre-back himself. (Which is a rare occurrence when Özil plays.) Outside the box, Modrić is lurking for second-balls. Whatever the attacking midfielder decides to do, the move has brought Real Madrid from having the ball in their backline, to threatening Mallorca from a dangerous position – with minimum effort and remarkable simplicity.

How do you stop it?

Why do teams not stop it? Analysing the move, it may not be that simple. The right-back must mark Ronaldo – anything else is suicidal. Someone must mark Higuaín; and seeing as the Argentine always drifts towards the right, the task must befall the left-sided centre-back. That leaves the job of marking the attacking midfielder to either the second centre-back, or the right-sided holding midfielder.

Who should track the run? Let’s say that the attacking midfielder is Özil, as it usually is. If the centre-back follows him, he leaves a large space for Higuaín to attack the cross. If the holding midfielder tracks him, he opens up the space that Ronaldo loves to attack. There is more: Modrić or Sami Khedira will be bombing forward from deep. To counter this, leaving one holding midfielder to cover the entire midfield zone is hardly ideal. As such, no matter who follows Özil, the team is dragged out of shape.

There is another element to it: speed. Centre-backs and holding midfielders are, bar a few exceptions, notoriously slow. Few will be able to track Özil, whose acceleration is excellent. When they eventually do come close to him, the one-versus-one situation hardly favours them. Özil, of course, is also among the most intelligent players in Europe, and the timing and selection of his runs make him even harder to mark. And so the move is in fact rather difficult to deal with.


There are alternative ways to stop this combination: you can defend extremely deep and eliminate space behind the right-back, or press so intensely that the pass can never arrive. However, defending deep will hand the initiative to the opponent, and invite long-shots from Ronaldo. Pressing high is dangerous unless you are Barça. And if you do happen to stop the move once, rest assured that Kaká or Özil will keep running, keep trying, until the space opens up. To track each single run requires discipline, stamina and unbroken concentration. It is not easy.

Mourinho’s tactical strength is primarily balance and organisation. We all know how he handled the defensive drills as an assistant coach at Barcelona, while Bobby Robson focused on the final third. As a result, his attacking gameplan is probably among the weaker aspects of his coaching profile. Supporting this is the fact that a high proportion of his side’s goals come from transitions, a strategy that demands a lot less in terms of attacking patterns than moves built from the back. Not that Mourinho will care.

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Photo: Tsutomu Takasu


You should definitely post more of Mourinho’s tactics :). I’ve also noticed in the game against Mallorca that Kaka makes those runs too often. Isn’t that a bad thing since teams/managers will probably catch on to that?

by Loop on March 29, 2013 at 7:33 am. #

Oh, I’ve forgotten to reply to this! I think managers are very aware of it – it would be impossible for any club video analyst to miss. But to stop it is another matter. Even if the pass isn’t played, the run opens up a lot of space centrally for others to come into, such as Ronaldo.

As for more Mourinho tactics, there will be a special project for that in a couple of months’ time ;)

by Thore Haugstad on April 13, 2013 at 10:18 am. #

Hi Thore,

Very good article!
To my opinion, a formation of 4-1-4-1 could stop it.
This is exactly how last week Israel managed to deal with this kind of situations by
The Portugal team (CR7 was very week).
The role of the extra CDM is to play as a free defensive player,
Which should help the back line in the situation you mentioned.

by Lior on March 28, 2013 at 1:25 pm. #

Yes, very true! I guess teams in Spain are too much in love with the 4-2-3-1 to use it.

by Thore Haugstad on March 28, 2013 at 1:27 pm. #

Is there any difference in this tactic depending on whether Higuain or Benzema plays?

by Ryan on March 20, 2013 at 11:08 am. #

Not that I’ve noticed. They’re quite similar really.

by Thore Haugstad on March 20, 2013 at 11:13 am. #

Hi Thore,

Really enjoy reading the blog.
Maybe a team that play with wing backs (juventus?) could stop it?
But I’m sure Jose would have another plan against that sort of team.
Be great to watch regardless.

Keep up the good work.

by Arthur Roberts on March 19, 2013 at 8:42 pm. #

Very good point – a different formation could stop it. Although, as you say, it would probably open up another weakness for Mourinho to exploit.

by Thore Haugstad on March 19, 2013 at 9:17 pm. #