In Ireland, we’re all used to the rigid 4-4-2 system adopted by most teams and the 4-5-1 which everyone else has used since 2004 after José Mourinho popularised it at Chelsea. While these two systems can be seen at certain clubs in Spain, it is a rarity, especially the 4-4-2. Tactics vary greatly from team to team and circumstances. Let’s start with the big boys.
Real Madrid will always play a 4-3-3, no matter where they are or who they are up against. Their strength is in their forward line, which usually consists of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gonzalo Higuaín and one of Raúl, Karim Benzema or Kaká. In Spain, Ronaldo and Kaká are given the space they crave and they will always try their best tricks, much to the adoration of the Real fans if they pull them off. Behind the forwards lies the midfield of Xabi Alonso, one of the two, if not both, Diarras (Lassana and Mahamadou) and one of Marcelo, Rafael Van der Vaart or Royston Drenthe. The team like to pass it around but they have a very direct approach. Their philosophy is get the ball into the box as quick as possible and get someone on the end of it to bang it in. Or Ronaldo will get the ball and try to dance his way to goal.
I'm sure everyone's familiar with Barcelona's approach. They also use the 4-3-3 system but with different styles of players and they have a more laid-back approach. While Real have Ronaldo, Barca have Messi. While Real don’t have someone easily identified as a centre-forward (Higuaín comes close but he moves around too), Barça have Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The third forward will be one of Bojan, Thierry Henry and Pedro, a winger. The midfield trio is most frequently Xavi, Seydou Keita and Andrés Iniesta, with Yaya Touré, Dani Alves and Sergio Busquets filling in occasionally.
Barça love to play patient football and would pass it around all day if they could. However, pay close attention when watching them because every once in a while, either Xavi or Iniesta will pick the perfect pass for Ibrahimovic or Messi which slices through the opposing defence like a hot knife through butter. Otherwise, Messi or Pedro will pick up the ball and slalom through the opposition at high-speed.
Nonetheless, one thing that’s become apparent in recent weeks is that Barça can be very susceptible to well-timed and fast-paced counter attacks. This was evident in the recent Champions League tie with VfB Stuttgart, against Málaga and when they lost 2-1 to Atlético Madrid a few weeks back.
It's hard to compare both of these sides to anything you see in the League of Ireland. Personally, I've never seen a 4-3-3. You get the odd 4-5-1 which uses wingers but, for Barça and Real, the two extra forwards are proper forwards, not wingers. Apart from Pedro at Barça and Ronaldo at Real, neither of these sides use players who could be called wingers. At a push, the Damien Richardson-era Cork City would be closest to this.
Of the other sides, Atlético Madrid currently employ a defensive 4-4-2 formation. With arguably one of the best finishers in football in Diego Forlán, and one of the most exciting players and prospects in Kun Agüero, you’d think they’d go for a more attacking approach, especially with midfielders of the quality of Simão and José Antonio Reyes. However, new boss Quique Sánchez Flores prefers his side to play a style of football which looks to consolidate and hold on to what they have.
Atlético's approach is very similar to how Bohemians won the league in 2008, though Atlético lack the disciplined work ethic that Bohs had then. It’s a very unusual style in Spain and did not win Flores many admirers when manager of Valencia and is not proving too popular with Atlético fans either.
On to Valencia, they play with a 4-3-3 or a 4-5-1, depending on how you want to look at it. In David Villa, they have one of the best strikers in the world but he's not all about goals. They also have one the highest-rated players outside of Real and Barça in David Silva. Valencia's style is more like Barça's but their forwards tend to drop a lot deeper. They are reminiscent of Derry City under Stephen Kenny or Martin Russell's UCD last year.
One side that I’ve seen a lot of in recent weeks are Málaga. They are a side struggling near the foot of the table and have no money to spend. In recent weeks, they’ve travelled to play Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid. Going up against these sides on their own patch is daunting for any side. For one at the bottom of the table, the goal is to go to these big teams, not to be intimidated and try and snatch something. In these games, Málaga played with an overtly defensive 4-5-1 formation and resorted to counter attacking when they could.
They did well at the Santiago Bernabeú where they created some good chances. However, Real barged through them that night and, thanks to Ronaldo, won 2-0. At Barça, they huffed and puffed and came close. Their counter attack strategy paid off when they made it 1-1 with ten minutes to go but then Messi and Dani Alves linked up to split them apart and it ended 2-1.
As luck would have it, Malaga’s approach paid off when they went to the Vicente Calderón. Despite not having the ball for most of the game, two quick and perfectly executed counter-attacks got them two goals and they won 2-0, proof that while the negative approach may not be pretty and far from adventurous, it can work out. This tactic has been used countless times in Ireland but I can't for the life of me single out one team who consistently approach away games this way with the same fervour and dedication that Málaga do.
There’s not that much to say about the defensive side of Spanish tactics. Apart from the weaker teams who occasionally go to the strong teams and park the bus, most sides, wherever they may be in the table, will try to play football - like Bray Wanderers have done under Eddie Gormley or Sligo Rovers under Paul Cook. Even the worst sides will try and accommodate a creative player. Spanish football is about attacking and scoring goals.
The defenders are there and are very capable. In fact, some of the best defenders in the world are here, like Carles Puyol and Raúl Albiol, but, ultimately, all the attention is lavished upon the exploits of the attacking players. Similarly, some of the more celebrated defenders are those who are better at attacking than defending, such as Sergio Ramos or Dani Alves. Generally, the defenders will try to move the ball out carefully, instead of just hoofing it up the field. Defenders are there to play, not just to defend. For instance, a few weeks ago, Carlos Marchena of Valencia scored against Xerez after dribbling the ball for thirty yards before firing home with a finish any striker would be proud of.